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PBS's P.O.V.

     What a blast for those who make the MFA's single screening of Leah Mahan's joyous "Sweet Old Song." It's a documentary hymn to 91-year-old folk-and-blues musician, Howard "Louie Blue" Armstrong, and to his soul-stirring December romance with Boston's Barbara Ward, his percussionist, girlfriend, and, recently, wife. The film delights in their courtship, how Ward was won over by a man thirty years older, as much by his drawings and Cyrano letters as by his tremendous music.

     It's a no-brainer to predict that, when lovebirds Howard and Barbara march out to play after the sweet film, there will be a momentous standing ovation. Be there, when Armstrong, with a repertoire as wide as a Mississippi John Hurt, chooses among 22 instruments! Will it be mandolin, fiddle, or guitar, featured at the MFA, to go with Ward's tambourine and pristine harmonies? Or else be patient, for Sweet Old Song arrives August 5 on PBS's P.O.V. Call me a Hub patriot: the P.O.V. telescreenings which move me the deepest were made locally, Sweet Old Song (cut with panache by Boston all-star editor, Bill Anderson) and, August 12, Mai's America, the compelling look at a Vietnamese teenager's year in the USA, made by Framingham's Marlo Poras.

     There was a time when P.O.V. offered a powerhouse summer anthology of non-fiction films. This summer is P.O.V.'s 15th TV season, and the series has become safe and a wee lazy, chosen with little feel for film form or understanding of what makes a documentary "personal." The directors could be interchangeable for half the movies, their work (usually cheapo DV) is so faceless. The Smith Family-Who can get annoyed at a movie about AIDs victims, especially when they're as decent as the Salt Lake City-based Smiths? I can, for a film made this indifferently and generically, and where there's a flood of cloying, sentimental piano over the umpteen hugs and kisses of this goody-goody Mormon clan. It feels like a basement church supper! For the record: straightlaced hubby Steve Smith was cruising on the side and brought HIV into his all-American home, infecting his wife, Kim. The documentary shows Smith's declining days, and Kim's undeniable grit nursing her failing husband. I could imagine a touching feature article in a newspaper, but where's the cinema?

     Boomtown. Ditto this stretch of a documentary about how Washington State's Suquamish Nation build shacks on their reservation to stock fireworks and make a heap of money selling to white people for July 4. This is a sketch rather than a movie. The do-gooder filmmakers decide against showing how these entrepeneurs, who have almost exactly the same wares, duke it out for profits on Independence Day. That might show some Native Americans as greedy, venal capitalists. Instead, this PC whitewash stereotypes Indians as kindly storytellers obsessed with treaty rights.

     Hybrid. Monteith McCollum's homage to his stentorian-voiced grandpa, the man who obsessed to make Iowa corn sweeter via genetic engineering, is the only P.O.V. documentary this year which is vaguely experimental, in which the filmmaker thinks formally about his footage, manipulating it for thematic/aesthetic reasons. An excellent film, enlightening and entertaining despite its esoteric subject.

     Refrigerator Mothers. Again, ordinary, functional filmmaking, though the topic here demands some history and allows for some bite. This is the tale of autism in the 1950s and 1960s, before it was known to be caused by a neurological disorder. Back then, autism was regarded as a psychological problem, in which a child made a desperate retreat away from a withholding "refrigerator mom." The leading Freudian theorist about autism was the sanctified Bruto Bettelheim, who equated the treatment of the child by his mom to that of a Jew faced by a Nazi Kapo. Bettelheim is the villain of this documentary. He's shown delivering his specious theories while grandstanding on The Dick Cavett Show, and we meet many nice, caring mothers, heroically patient with their autistic children.

     Fenceline: A Company Town Divided - What starts as a familiar documentary about a chemical plant ruining the health around it becomes, slowly, a gripping, metaphoric story about how blacks and whites view life in America so radically differently. The whites of Norco, Louisiana, adore the local Shell Refinery, where they all have worked. The blacks see Shell as a cause of asthma, cancer, and death, and a place which has denied them employment.

(June, 2002)


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