Despite what you may have heard about the state of New Mexico — raw sewage running through the streets, cock fights at dawn, and mercury levels in the water supply rivaling El Salvador — it has a great reputation for the arts, especially Santa Fe, the underrated state capital. While I’d move there only under threat of castration and am generally opposed to any town that features an adobe McDonald’s, it is nonetheless a wonderful destination for a weekend getaway. Their film festival, now in its sixth year, is a healthy mix of classic cinema, obscure documentaries, shorts, and must-sees, and is much more than a small town’s attempt at relevance. It’s no Telluride, of course, but well worth the attention of any respectable cinephile. Screenings were held across the town in nine different locations, although we only managed to hit two, as we had but 48 hours to spare. Besides, the lure of nearby casinos always beckoned, threatening to turn a festival run into a marathon session at the tables.
Fortunately, the festival itself was preceded by a stop in one of the most liberal towns in America; cozy Taos. The small casino on the town’s edge was blissfully smokeless, and within twenty minutes, my wife won $100 on a poker machine, ensuring that we wouldn’t have to dip further into our bank account. The stop was brief, but it gave us enough time to plan for Taos resident Julia Roberts’ much-deserved town square extermination. Unfortunately, the vilest cunt in all of Hollywood would not be appearing at said casino until New Year’s Eve, postponing our murder plans for yet another year… The 90-minute drive from Taos to Santa Fe was largely uneventful, although we noticed a curious billboard speaking to the thousands of DUI arrests on that particular stretch of highway. Unsure as to whether this number meant since the beginning of the year or that day’s total, our fears were soon heightened by the sheer volume of roadside crosses memorializing the dead. I suppose all states have such impromptu landmarks, but New Mexico may be the first state to approximate Arlington on its interstate system.
Santa Fe’s downtown features no buildings higher than a few stories and as expected, a uniform adobe drabness dominates the landscape. The narrow streets and architecture speak to the Mexican influence, and yes, its charm cannot be denied. Still, despite my loathing of humanity and the bloated mess it has shat forth on the world entire, I am a steadfast believer in the steel and brawn of the city. I love the smell and noise of taxis, buses, crowds, and filth; the swill of mankind that reminds me of my conscious self. I’m always enthusiastic about new places, but I can’t stand the feeling that the town itself will close for business after sundown (though no city tops Buffalo, the champion ghost town east of the Mississippi). Most people seem to seek solitude and serenity as they age, but I’d much rather be shoved around, kicked into traffic, and threatened by the hordes of indistinguishable madness. Santa Fe feels safe and secure, but as such, lacks romance. Beyond the city’s quaint center, the outlying areas are much as you would find in any suburban sprawl. Chains block out any unique flavor, and while adobe still rears its ugly head, the streets could pass for any number of towns across America.
Stupidly, we failed to take advantage of any of the finer establishments in town (yes, there are a few), and on the final evening, consciously chose Red Lobster as a masochistic alternative to fine dining. It seems to be our fallback restaurant of choice whenever we are on the road, as it makes us appreciate how well we eat all other times of the year. Perhaps it is obvious as hell to rip Red Lobster limb from trashy limb, but one never tires of blasting what amounts to Long John Silver’s with fish tanks. Most chains are abhorrent in the extreme, but there’s something about a Red Lobster that makes it far worse than the other great offenders like Chili’s or Applebee’s. After all, those places are merely “grills,” while Red Lobster makes its millions under the pretense that it is offering great seafood and a reasonable price. One look at the clientele reveals that the ruse is working, as everyone turned away by the bingo halls and laundromats appears to have joined the dining rush. One can tell immediately that these deluded souls are under the impression that the crab legs, shrimp, and hearty salads just flown in from your grocer’s freezer are the equivalent of a night on the town, and no amount of chewing through my rubbery lobster will convince me otherwise. It’s really quite depressing, especially when your wife’s scallops still retain the odor of the frozen Van de Kamp’s bag from whence they came. And yes, the big-haired lady in the denim overalls just out of reach is remarking that the tartar sauce on her chin is strikingly similar to the packets she done uses at home.
Enough, friends. There were, after all, the films, though only four. All will escape the attention of the rest of humanity, but fortunately, we managed to catch some damn fine examples of the documentary form. In order of their greatness:
Shakespeare Behind Bars
Americans can be divided into two distinct, opposing camps when it comes to the ever-increasing population of our nation’s prisons. One, almost always on the right side of the aisle, believes jail is strictly about punishment, if not outright abuse, and once a person has violated the law, he or she has forsaken all hope, justice, or need for compassion. It helps that these people think of the “criminal element” as black or Hispanic, thereby creating an entire subset of creatures that can be dehumanized and forgotten. These “law and order” types are, embarrassingly, also the source of such deplorable pieces of legislation as Three Strikes, mandatory minimums, and the undermining of judicial discretion, which have done little but add to the problem of prison overcrowding. On the left, many — though not all — hold out hope for rehabilitation and treatment, and at the very least, believe the old maxim, “A society is to be judged by how it treats its prisoners.” Once the desired goal of removal from the streets has been achieved, it becomes a matter of simple humanity, rather than barbarism. And when we continue to hear red-faced fanatics bemoan the existence of TV sets in cells and other forms of “coddling,” we realize how far we are from a reasonable debate. Hank Rogerson’s superb documentary is an opening salvo in that hoped-for discussion, and the revelations seem so obvious as to be unnecessary, though they’re hardly that. In fact, this is one of the most important films on the subject ever released, and surely one of the most absorbing of the year.
The film considers the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in La Grange, Kentucky, and the yearly program whereby a group of convicts study, learn, rehearse, and perform a Shakespearean drama. In brief snippets from the warden, we are almost stunned into silence — here is a man concerned not with vengeance or the exercise of power, but rather providing education, hope, and much-needed distraction to a group of hardened convicts, most of whom will never again experience freedom. Thankfully, the film refuses to shy away from the crimes: one man strangled his girlfriend, another murdered his wife (by dropping a hair dryer into the bathtub), and yet another killed a cop in a botched drug raid. The others are a mix of burglars, armed robbers, and child molesters, which makes it all but impossible to give two shits about them. But that’s the beauty of the film. How easy it would be to shed tears or open our hearts for mere lightweights; non-violent offenders who simply “messed up” in moments of weakness. Instead, we are given the worst of the worst, and are nevertheless asked to suspend our contempt and see beyond the crime. Again, no one — least of all the director — would argue that punishment is not warranted, but once the man in question is locked away, what should be done with him? Isolation? Mindless labor? Covert beatings that keep him compliant? Why not an in-depth exercise that just might force the prisoner to take responsibility for his actions as never before?
Fortunately, these men have Curt Tofteland, a man so passionate about Shakespeare that he’s willing to volunteer his time year after year to make sure the project is brought to completion. In this particular season, Tofteland has chosen The Tempest, largely because its themes deal with isolation, forgiveness, and redemption; all critical to the prisoner’s daily experience. As we watch the prisoners work through the nuance of the language, we witness the learning process itself — and confrontation with the pain of the past — which would otherwise be impossible in this setting. This is no mere “exercise” where some thugs learn a few lines and waste time; this is treated with a degree of seriousness that would be found in any respectable theater company. Each line spoken aloud is not merely recited, but probed for its significance and, as the case may be, relevance to the prisoner in question. Moreover, the prisoners themselves are allowed to direct their own passion and strength into something of value, as the production will not only be performed for relatives and fellow prisoners, but taken “on the road” to other jails, hopefully as a model for what prisons can do right with the men and women in their care. We are moved not because we want to release these men onto unsuspecting communities, but rather because we are brought face to face with the reality that as long as we treat criminals like pigs unworthy of our compassion, crime itself will continue to trap and destroy those most susceptible to its allure. More than that, though, is the pragmatic realization that if a man is given a future, no matter how limited in scope, he will be far less likely to jeopardize that opportunity. It’s not a bleeding heart, then, so much as common sense.
The Outdoorsmen: Blood, Sweat, & Beers
What might have been director Scott Allen Perry’s narcissistic home movies about a friendly gathering in the woods of Everett, Washington, instead becomes a revealing document about modern masculinity, and how whenever large groups of men get together, it becomes impossible not to resort to homoerotic fanaticism. Again, I’m not sure of the film’s intent (is it simply a humorous take on the off-duty indulgences of the male beast, or a penetrating study of machismo?), but my take cannot help but involve the sheer gay-ness of it all, and how men, despite their near-religious devotion to the female form, would rather be fucking each other. Men accept that if they want to be in the company of females, they must at least pretend to give a shit about babies, shopping, and domestic duties, but without women present, they revert to their truest, deepest selves — that they aren’t really all that deep, and the only desired truth is the unrestricted opportunity to stink, scream, and achieve the bloat resulting from cheap beer and bad food. Or maybe it’s just these males, after all. I suspect that most men are similar to the “guy’s guys” we see on display here, but that might be expanding the film’s scope beyond its original intent. After all, these are successful, dedicated men in their non-backcountry realities, and I’m largely unfamiliar with anyone who is forced to live primitively because their real lives are so hectic, stressful, and burdened. If at all possible, I avoid achievement, if only to keep self-examination at bay.
We learn a little about each one of these men — how they met, where they’re from, and above all, why they’re out here performing these absurd stunts. From what I gather–– and because one of the teams chooses the name “The Libertarians” — these are money-minded, upper-middle class types who hate the government, loathe the poor, and consider diversity the sort of thing one achieves by speaking to the janitor. They’re not wealthy oil barons playing dress-up in the woods, but there is that smugness that comes from having distanced one’s self from those who don’t possess investment portfolios. I even heard a snide comment about France, which leads me to believe that if polled, the group would likely support Bush and be gung-ho about Iraq. None of these men have volunteered for duty, of course, so perhaps they consider their rough-and-tumble games the next best thing to combat. To a man I hated these jerks, if only because I’m not one to swing my cock around to validate my existence. I know I’m worthless and leave it at that. The deluded self-importance of these pricks is what disturbs me, and it would be an unparalleled impossibility to spend any time in their presence that doesn’t involve eye-rolling and muttered insults. And yes, I simply cannot abide uninterrupted flexing and chest-thumping in any context, even if soaked in Budweiser. I like to visit bookstores and museums, so what the fuck do I know about physical exertion?
The men compete in a series of events to be crowned the Ultimate Outdoorsman, a title taken quite seriously in these quarters. Having held the competition for 14 years, it becomes a way to catch up, meet new people, and show off the results of the previous years’ weightlifting. Most of the events are self-explanatory — Hatchet Toss, Log Toss, Rock Toss, Log Carry, Tire Toss, and Tug of War — but a few are truly inspired, if only because they maximize degradation. The Beer to River Run, for example, involves navigating a slippery stream while drinking along the way. Keep in mind, the participants have been drinking largely non-stop the entire day, and are encouraged to have “bonus beers” after each event to secure precious points. The beer is Bud, Bud Light, and Coors, so no one is mistaking this for a classy event, but the swill-like nature of the beer itself seems fitting, given that most of the events require that the men be shirtless and dirty. Another event, Blind Man’s Beer, requires that two men, equipped with special glasses that render them sightless, roll around on the forest floor searching for beers that have been randomly placed in a circle. As each man finds a beer, he must call out and quickly chug the contents. There’s also the Dead Man’s Carry, whereby men are asked to carry their partners on their backs as they sprint along a rocky path. Needless to say, most crash to the ground in sweaty, bruised heaps. And hell, when in doubt, embrace the guy next to you. Failing that, push him to the ground and wrestle.
And yet, this remains a supremely entertaining film, and you find yourself getting involved in the events against your better judgment. I should have no business caring about whom wins such a competition, but I’ll be damned if genuine drama wasn’t generated. This is a testament to great editing and a director who took us so deeply into each event that we understood even the most insignificant of details. More than that, there is a sense of fun and lightheartedness that keeps the film grounded, even though I suspect the participants are having most of their fun without us. In that sense, it’s a closed, in-joke of a movie; but it takes very little effort to make it much more. Even though the two-day affair is exhausting, nauseating (when not competing, the men are vomiting), and often infuriating, you can sense that without it, these men would have a void that could not be filled in quite the same way. So perhaps it’s as simple as that: for so many men feeling the grind of a hyper-competitive world, the only way to feel “authentic” is to strip down to the bare essentials, rely on your wits and hopefully, a strong stomach, and release all the pent-up aggression that is no longer sanctioned by a feminized culture. Sure, I can accept that. Just don’t ask me to come along. I have no “inner man” to begin with.
Cowboy Del Amor
Ivan Thompson is a sexist prick. He sees women as objects for his own amusement, and quickly tires of them if they display too much independence, which for him might mean that the female in question had the audacity to scrub the toilet before cleaning the barn. Ivan is also the Cowboy Cupid, a grizzled, fun-loving old coot who runs a match-making service that sets up disillusioned American men with women currently residing in Mexico. For the princely sum of $3000, Ivan takes his male customers to Mexico, places an ad in the local newspaper, then screens potential mates via the telephone and face-to-face interviews. Because Ivan’s Spanish is rudimentary at best, he also retains the services of a translator. It all seems harmless enough, until one realizes that without exception, all the men are misogynist bastards who feel that “American women want too many things” and are “too demanding.” Tired of the singles’ scene in the United States, they call on Ivan to find them a sweet-natured, compliant doormat to fuck, impregnate, and do the chores. This is proven further when many of the men admit that they don’t care if the woman ever learns to speak English. Ivan himself prefers not to converse with his indentured servants, as his last marriage seemed little more than a great silence, despite the common language.
Still, one need not like the subject of a documentary to be enthralled, and despite the idiocy and inflated ego of Ivan, I couldn’t help but follow his tale with great joy. After all, what can be said of a man who says he prefers Mexico to the United States because “they don’t have any taxes” and that houses can be had for a shade above $6000? Perhaps he’s not overly enamored with good roads, social services, and a reasonable infrastructure, but I’ll admit to being a bit old-fashioned on that front. After moving to Mexico late in the film, Ivan even manages to bitch about his water bill, which amounts to a whopping $3 per month. In protest, he offers the man $1.50. Ivan failed to comment on the lethality of the agua in question, but perhaps he’s willing to endure weeks of illness so that he can put a bit more change under the mattress. But that’s the sort of man he is: a nasty old goat no longer attractive by any standard, yet convinced of his own appeal to such an extent that he refuses to tangle with women who aren’t young, thin, and fit for a fashion magazine. And when a client so disgusts a woman that she clings to Ivan for safety, he confuses the fear for sexual attraction, and all but asks her secure a hotel room for a quickie.
As an exploration of a fledgling business and how it changes in the face of the internet boom, Cowboy Del Amor never fails to entertain. It moves quickly and with great humor, and the fates of the few men we meet in-depth are handled with great drama. Take the geriatric, for example, who is so battered that he can barely walk, and yet still insists on a woman many years his junior to scrub his shorts in his final years. She still retains a bit of dignity despite her advancing age, but he’s all but in the grave and frankly, one ugly motherfucker. He knows not a lick of Spanish, and also admits that he doesn’t need to talk to his woman in order to have a great marriage. Why does she agree to such an arrangement? Uh, perhaps because the worst of the U.S. is still more appealing (at least financially) than the best of Mexico, and she’d like to live a house with four walls and indoor plumbing for a change. And that, in Juarez, coming home from work alive is truly a 50/50 proposition.
In addition, the film, like The Outdoorsmen, examines masculinity in a culture that seems to prize its renunciation. I couldn’t give a shit whether or not insecure men are allowed to harness their “bear power,” but for many, the mixed messages have cause unending confusion and frustration. Having set up and even married hundreds of American men, it is clear that this is no mere isolated event, but a culture-wide phenomenon. What does it mean to be a man? Or a husband? Or a caretaker? And why not treat marriage as a business arrangement? After all, why seek the endorsement of the state unless it has contractual implications? Is romance so dead and buried that we are reduced to seeking the best lay or simply the best cook? Ivan would argue that both parties in his arrangement benefit, so what’s the fuss? To an extent, he has a point, but I’m still depressed by the notion that human relationships are more alliance than genuine love and attachment. I’m a realist, so I know most people play the game without knowing what in the fuck they’re doing, but I’d also like to believe that relationships, if they are to be labeled as such, should be more than something you could secure through the mail. Oh, I still defend prostitution, mindless sex, and objectification, only I’d prefer we keep our definitions straight — and above all, honest. You’re a pimp, Ivan, and I’d love you more if you would just admit it.
Waiting to Inhale
At this point in time, anyone who opposes the legalization of marijuana for medical use is so cold-hearted, callous, and mean-spirited that it would not trouble me in the slightest to be present for their hanging. I’d even kick away the fucking chair. The obviousness of the case is so overwhelming, in fact, that the only possible explanation for continued defiance is being in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry or, as they are more commonly known, Those Who Rule Over Us. Marijuana not only alleviates pain, nausea, and has proven beneficial for the treatment of glaucoma and multiple-sclerosis (a most heinous disease), it makes people fucking feel good, and I am by instinct and study a man who defends hedonists against all comers. As such, we are always at war against the primitive minds that hate sex, drugs, alcohol, good food, art, and hell, anything that requires more than a passing thought. These people hate even life itself, for they’d rather preserve it in amber and as an abstraction than cultivate its juices and put it into action. So whenever I watch people suffer the tortures of the damned because they are prevented from smoking a relatively harmless substance, my murderous rage kicks into full gear. Needless to say, I’m for legalizing any and all drugs and immediately releasing everyone who’s currently serving time for drug-related offenses up to and including trafficking in school zones, but the issue of treating the dying would seem to be something we can all agree on, even if my overall solution seems a bit radical. Instead, Jesus-loving creeps look to “noble suffering” and throw up their hands in befuddlement.
Jed Riffe’s thoughtful, if ordinary, documentary inspires such rage because it forces us to confront the people who live daily with cancer, AIDS, MS, and other crippling ailments. Of course, marijuana is not the best course of treatment for everyone and of course, some people will not respond to its use. Nevertheless, it does in fact help some people, and that should be the only item under consideration. I don’t care if a group of burn-outs and modern day hippies have taken advantage of the situation to push their own selfish agenda. What of it? Are we really pointing fingers when we have a political system that endorses open bribery and exalts war profiteers above the lives of the men and women in whose honor we claim to be fighting? I wouldn’t care if 99% of those who back the “legalize it” movement simply wanted to avoid harassment for their goofy habit. If we’re at the point where we are required to ask non-experts and bureaucrats for permission to die or relieve pain, then haven’t we already surrendered the only freedom that ever really matters?
Yes, this film has an agenda and seeks to persuade, but like the “debate” over evolution, there really is only one side of the issue. And given the corruption, lies, and ignored dangers in the pharmaceutical world (think how many have died from such legal drugs), why not point out — again — that not a single person has ever died from marijuana’s effects. It’s a long-dead horse that keeps getting beaten, but how else to deal with those too blinded by God or mammon to face reality? And if you’re still not convinced after this film, let me be the first to wish you a simultaneous strike of brain, lung, pancreatic, and skin cancer so that I can mock you for your heinous, excruciating suffering. It’s all you deserve.
Imagine eight full minutes of a fixed camera on a beehive. Symbolic? Metaphorical? Illuminating? You did read the first sentence, right?
No Gray Twilight
Come now, you did mean No Gay Twilight, I assume? This stark, black & white ode to the preparation of the rodeo cowboy shows but one second of an actual ride, yet includes no fewer than fifteen crotch shots. Saddle up, boys!
Understory Shadows: Studies at the Abandoned New Mexico Penitentiary
With a title like that, do you really need to be told that the pretentious shit responsible for this botched abortion is a performance artist? I’ve seen shorts of all kinds and from all corners of the world, and yet, this is by the far the most appalling to date. It got so bad (12 minutes of this shit!) that I had to stare at an exit sign to keep from laughing my fucking ass off. And did I mention that I was sitting right behind the “dancer” herself? So what is it? A woman moves, contorts, and flings her body around the site of 1980 prison riot that claimed over 30 lives. The graphics are so muddy, however, that we don’t actually see any of the abandoned prison. The accompanying music is also so bad that I expected blood to flow from my ears at any moment. Oh yeah, and the woman was topless. Aren’t they always?