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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Full Frame Day 4: taking refuge from the storm—in reality

Posted by on Sun, Apr 17, 2011 at 10:54 AM

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The big news of the area Saturday was the destructive system of tornadoes that whipped through at about 3 p.m. But for 1,200 people inside Fletcher Hall, our biggest concern was whether David Carr, one of the paper's higher-profile writers, would get his big story about the Tribune media group and its clownish, destructive leaders.

Outside, destruction reigned. And near the Carolina Theatre, businesses lost power, according to Twitter. But nothing stops The New York Times, evidently, for there was nary a flicker in Fletcher Hall.

Page One, Andrew Rossi's valentine to The New York Times was a suitable selection for the mid-afternoon, keynote film. Bruce Headlam and Brian Stelter of the Times, both of whom featured prominently in the film, joined the filmmakers and Pittsboro writer Duncan Murrell on the stage and projected an image of wit, affability and even a hint of coolness. Headlam admitted that there had been considerable resistance to allowing cameras in the Times' inner sanctum, but on the evidence of the film, the media-savviest heads in the company prevailed. As Murrell noted, Rossi's film makes the Times seems like a scrappy underdog—and Carr is indeed one—and the audience ends up rooting for the most important media outlet in the country against upstarts like Gawker Media's Nick Denton. Murrell also noted that when editor Bill Keller announces the Pulitzers at the end of the film, it seems—for a split second—like an underdog triumph.

While people outside in Harnett and Lee and Wake counties were dealing with all the reality they could handle, my personal reality-testing was Graça Castanheira's Angst. The Portuguese filmmaker, in a series of aching, beautiful images and a thoughtful voiceover, contemplates the end of civilization as we know it. Using lines from Thoreau's Walden and a string quartet by Schubert as examples of what humans are capable of creating and contemplating, her film is a devastating portrait of a planet that has become overrun by super-predators: humans. She takes the discovery of oil in the mid-19th century as the beginning of the end (and the mid-19th century is when Thoreau and Schubert were working, too). Our growth as a species, our extraordinary mastery of our environment, is due to oil, she points out, with one devastating shot after another.

At one point, Castanheira wonders if the Earth's climatological upheavals could be a means of eliminating the parasite that threatens it.

It was intense stuff, and afterward, she was asked—twice—if there was any hope. A tough place for a filmmaker who'd just said what she thought in her chosen medium, a film called Angst. But now, standing on stage with a lanyard around her neck, she was just another filmmaker being subjected to ordinary, mundane questions about the film.

Afterward, I asked Castanheira about her scientific reading. She cited the work of Richard Heinberg.

So, is there any hope? On the evidence of Angst, no.

I saw another film Saturday: The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 was an extraordinary survey of the rise and fall of a certain period of African-American consciousness. Although it featured the footage of a group of Swedish filmmakers, director Göran Olsson seemed to be uncomfortable telling the story with that footage alone. An opening title disclaimed that the film "did not presume" to represent the entire history of the movement, but the subsequent film did take something resembling a narrative shape, beginning with the tensions between late-period Martin Luther King and the young firebrand Stokely Carmichael, and ending with the infestation of drugs into urban black neighborhoods. Olsson further removed himself from the narrative by enlisting African American poets, musicians, activists and scholars to contribute voiceover commentary. The younger commentators, like Talib Kweli and Erykah Badu, weren't as interesting as those who were first-hand witnesses, including Angela Davis and Harry Belafonte.

It's the 1972 Angela Davis, however, who scorches a hole through the screen in a lengthy, powerful riposte to her Swedish interlocutor's stock question about black militancy. Davis, an imperious, beautiful woman, nonetheless revealed pain and vulnerability as she described the terror and violence her family faced in Birmingham, Ala. (In this peroration, Davis noted that she was friendly with some of the girls who were killed in the notorious 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church; this is something Davis has in common with Condoleezza Rice. Who knew? One wonders if they knew each other back then. Now they're both academics in California.)

Errol Morris' Tabloid begins in 10 minutes. I'm off.

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