Even Closer Up

Documentary fest favors the subjective, the immediate, and the personal.

MICHAEL MOORE isn't the only documentary director to foreground his opinions and personality over the facts; he's just the most famous and successful. The truth is that many other, lesser filmmakers are pouring their souls through the lens, more or less unfiltered, and their work receives a nice showcase at the Northwest Film Forum's annual First-Person Cinema series (which runs Thursday, Sept. 16–Thursday, Sept. 23, at its new location; visit www.nwfilmforum.org for full schedule and details).

The biggest draw this year is Ross McElwee, who'll deliver a lecture illustrated with film clips (7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 17), followed by his latest doc, Bright Leaves, a meditation on his family history as it's intertwined with the tobacco culture of North Carolina. The movie begins its commercial run here in November. In New York, our Village Voice colleague Michael Atkinson calls it "an utterly mundane miracle, a sampling of gentle insight and poetic retrospection quietly at odds with the exploitative culture around it." On following nights are screenings of older McElwee titles including Sherman's March and Time Indefinite.

Among other films during the fest's first week is Slasher (9:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 19, and Tuesday, Sept. 21–Wednesday, Sept. 22), from Hollywood veteran director John Landis (Animal House), making his documentary debut. With an R&B soundtrack, brisk editing, and an opportunistic sense of what unscripted dialogue to use, he makes this portrait of car-selling demon Michael "Slasher" Bennett more than just a Willy Loman–esque profile, but a study of salesmanship itself. The camera captures the sellers' sadness and desperation—only partially masked by beer, bravado, and chain- smoking—and the buyers' willing self- delusion at the carnivallike atmosphere of a lot-clearing sale in depressed Memphis. (Bennett and his crew, which includes one guy from Seattle known as Mud, travel like gypsies to reduce inventories at dealers nationwide.) What we see is John Edwards' "two Americas" America, where a $1,499 junker is a luxury and where fear, not hope, drives the economy.

Farther afield is Screaming Men (7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 16; 6 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 19, and Tuesday, Sept. 21–Wednesday, Sept. 22), about a Finnish men's chorus that doesn't exactly sing. Instead, its members shout, bellow, and holler traditional songs in a manner stripped of melody and tonality. The effect is cathartic, rhythmic, and percussive—musical conceptual art. In deadpan Nordic fashion, the film follows the chorus through auditions, rehearsals, and performances worldwide. It's intermittently interesting, but essentially a one-note joke that won't trigger a wave of downloading to anyone's iPod.


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