First, North Carolina filmmaking has yet to coalesce into anything resembling a signature style. This current collection ranges widely in subject matter, sensibility--and, yes, quality. While a healthy sampling take stylistic risks, a dismaying number of the nonfiction efforts are told in a drab, workmanlike fashion that evokes, well, undistinguished public television programming.
Thankfully, the second development is much more positive. It's the emergence of the Piedmont Triad area--particularly the N.C. School of the Arts--as a filmmaking hotbed. With few exceptions, the series' strongest films are from North Carolina's other three-pronged community, which gained some international exposure with the release of David Gordon Green's George Washington. The lineup in this year's North Carolina Visions proves that was no fluke.
Visions' producers elected to lead with some of their strongest material in the first episode, including Creation: Episode 1: Lift Up the Earth, a remarkably audacious, assured and original effort from Korean-born Changhee Chun. With that over-the-top, doubly double-coloned title and an opening scene featuring a globe, a lava lamp and shaky camerawork, at first Chun, a UNC-Greensboro graduate student, seems destined to become an avant-garde Ed Wood. Quickly, though, Chun demonstrates he knows exactly what he's doing. Creation becomes a sly, unpredictable and casually poetic examination of everyday existence, and Chun's foreign eye turns ordinary Greensboro sights into things rich and strange.
The opening episode also featured Newton, an excellent film which was actually recent NCSA graduate Peter Sattler's senior thesis. A somewhat unpromising mock educational film about Newton's laws of motion suddenly lurches into cinematic epiphany, as Sattler uses film technology to produce a stunning visual poem about causality and motion that could only exist in the movies. Rounding out this powerhouse season premiere was Canine, from Chapel Hill artist Amie Robinson. This striking, animated short was developed from a series of details in a single drawing.
Episode two, which ran Sept. 21, was also strong. First and foremost was The Elements, a ravishing dance interpretation of earth, air, fire and water from the filmmaker/dancer team of Christoph Baaden and Jane Fields. Elsewhere in this installment was Jamestown filmmaker Mary Dalton's Sam McMillan: The Dot Man, which spotlighted a charming, self-trained Winston-Salem artist. Also on view was Greensboro filmmaker Tom Lipscomb's Atlantic City Scrabble Championship, a portrait of a competitive Scrabbler and his trip to the big time.
This Saturday's group features two earnest, moving, and flawed documentaries about the human struggle to overcome adversity. Boone filmmaker David Keller presents Mike's Story, which documents the plight of Mike Masters, once a happily married California school principal before a terrible personal tragedy sent him spiraling into homelessness. After his wife and daughter were killed in a traffic accident, Masters, unable to function, drifted across the country to Boone, where he lived for a time in improvised shelters in town and in the woods. Masters' tale is undeniably moving, but Keller clearly overreaches when he attempts to extract broader truths about homelessness from this striking but very exceptional case.
Following that, Linda DiLorenzo's A Self-Determined Life provides a portrait of Lara Parker, a woman with cerebral palsy. Though her illness is so severe she can't walk, talk or use her hands, Parker has nonetheless managed to fashion some independence for herself, and she recently graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill.
While she is undeniably a powerful and inspiring presence, one wishes the filmmaker had spent more time with her than with assorted friends, teachers and family members who testify to her courage and perseverance, a tactic that tends to undermine the central, upbeat message of the film's title. At times such testimony seems faintly patronizing; elsewhere it takes on an air of self-congratulation. The footage of chipper talking heads remains a poor match for a sequence where Parker's cat crawls over her shoulder, as she follows the feline with her eyes. The rarity of such shots suggests that, despite good intentions, DiLorenzo still shies away from the intractable reality of a bright, inquisitive woman trapped inside her own body.
The highlight of the following week is Durham filmmakers Jim Haverkamp and Brett Ingram's Armor of God. Though this study of Scotty Irving, a local punk/Christian noise artist, has been widely seen in local screenings, newbies are in for an ear-shredding experience when Ingram and Haverkamp explore Irving's ecstatically creative world.
The rest of episode four's offerings are weaker. Landis Stokes' Broken Doll, a futuristic tale of a young girl who runs away from her wicked mega-bucks father, has the assured production values of other NCSA films, but is hampered by a simultaneously far-fetched and tritely sentimental story. Also showing is Harmonic Distortion, in which Chapel Hill filmmaker David Capps Creech reimagines the myth of Robert Johnson, the seminal bluesman who supposedly sold his soul at the crossroads. Here, a woman makes a similar deal and travels through time, knocking audiences dead with her performances, until something happens ...
Oct. 12's episode leads with The Murder of John Stephens, a re-enactment of an ugly episode in North Carolina history. Directed by Piedmont Community College film instructor Michael Corbett, Murder opens with the image of a farmhouse being torched, before proceeding to an effective, if bare-boned, recounting of the 1868 Klan murder of a Caswell County progressive.
After that, Remembering 1898 ... Moving Forward Together is a lengthy documentary recounting a Wilmington racial atrocity. After establishing a growing middle-class and political influence there in the 1800s, an overnight massacre and actual coup d'etat dealt a crippling blow to the port city's black community. But since most of Remembering 1898 merely records Wilmington's centennial observance of the date, the film remains largely as virtuous--and as dull--as its title. Wilmington's racial pogrom of 1898 could make for a gripping film. Remembering 1898 isn't it.
On Oct. 19, Visions wraps with a lively hour of student films, the strongest of which come from NCSA. Get Outta Here boasts a surprisingly elaborate game-show set and a production designer--clearly under the influence of That '70s Show--who somehow found an orange Gremlin for the characters to drive.
Making Friends follows: a cute, three-minute computer-animated film about a lonely snowman. And while the fish story in This Big reflects a strictly undergraduate sense of humor, it still has a punch line worth waiting 11 minutes for.
The show and season closes with Noble Chrome Pirates, Jeff Nichols' story about a group of grease monkeys who build their dream car out of salvaged parts. Pirates is perhaps the best actor showcase in the entire fall series, but the real fun lies in the faithful 1950s production design. The rude mechanics have matching outfits and pompadours, and one of the fellows has a stripper girlfriend who "does Marilyn Monroe on Monday nights." Sure enough, when she appears, she's wearing that white dress from The Seven Year Itch.
Noble Chrome Pirates is a sweetly innocent ode to Americana, familiar without being stale, fresh without succumbing to Tarantinoesque irony and violence. Though not the best film of the series, it exudes youth, energy and possibility: a fitting conclusion to this year's programs.