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Taos Talking Picture Festival, 1999

     Talk about activism: I've recently come from my second right-on year at the Taos Talking Picture Festival in New Mexico, which is about as ideologically alternative (and, occasionally, 1960s purple-pants time warp) as a Fest can get. To begin, there was Boston's radical historian-in-residence, Howard Zinn, giving a soaring keynote speech to a turnaway crowd of 600 about "Untouched Dramas," key events in American history (the Ludlow Massacre, the Indian occupation of Alcatraz, the Mother Jones-led march on Washington of child laborers) which Bill Clinton's Hollywood won't dare touch. Then there was WBCN's ex-News Dissector Danny Schechter, one of many impressive individuals brought in to promote media literacy to the teachers and students specifically invited to the Fest.

     And there were the movies chosen, many of them American independents with passion and bite, dedicated in the Zinn way to promoting a "people's history" of the United States. Schechter paved the way with his own Beyond Life With Timothy Leary, a screen bio of the druggy psychologist whom Richard Nixon described as "the most dangerous man in America." David Riker's La Cuidad is a sometimes effective stab at American neorealism, a black-and-white four-vignette story of impoverished Latin American laborers toiling about New York City. Cambridge filmmaker Nick Curzon's Super Chief, a feature documentary about an Indian election on a Minnesota reservation, proved a Taos favorite, precipitating cheering from the crowd for the noble Ojibwa populist candidates and jeering for Super Chief's turncoat Native villain.

     Taos was my first chance to see the 1999 Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary, Regret to Inform, a disturbing, unforgettable, deeply bitter elegy to the widows left behind, both here and in South East Asia, after the war in Viet Nam. Filmmaker Barbara Sonneborn (whose husband was an American soldier killed there) takes no prisoners in presenting a world in which American boys sent over there turned into no-longer-innocent rapists and murderers. Sonneborn's own psychic journey ends with her standing in a lush field in North Viet Nam where her GI Joe was shot dead, guided by the Vietnamese woman who had fought there with the Viet Cong.

     My other favorite was On the Ropes, a Hoop Dreams-like, extremely poignant tale of three hard-knocks residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, trying to find some dignity, grab some chunk of the American Dream, by an amateur boxing career. On the Ropes will be distributed by Fox Lorber, but everyone connected to the film, including co-director Brett Morgan, with whom I shared beers at a party, is anxious that few will come out to see a boxing documentary. I understand the worry, but people who bypass On the Ropes will be making a dire mistake. I saw it with an audience of baggy-pants teens, who normally would never pay to see a documentary, and they were totally enraptured. Even the most pacifist, ban-boxing person will be mesmerized by the humanity of On the Ropes. Women, too, definitely will relate to the trials and travails of Tyrene, welfare mother and fisticuffs champ.

     And the failures of Taos?

     The Red Violin, an overblown costume drama in which the eponymous instrument passes hand through hand over the centuries: a patina of high art, but disappointedly thin drama by filmmaker Francois Girard and (my friend) screenwriter Don McKellar, who had made real art in their previous collaboration, 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould.

     Girl, in which Lolita's Dominique Swain is the only legitimate element in a fake LA-standing-in-for-Portland, Oregon, look at the alternative music scene. Two moony songs from Summer Phoenix are too many songs.

     The Last Movie, Dennis Hopper's 1971 acid-trip follow-up to Easy Rider is still incoherent crapola after all these years. Hopper, who infamously trashed his beautiful home and made infinite enemies during his bad-vibes time dwelling in Taos in the late 1960s, did it again in 1999, not turning up as promised to receive the Fest's Maverick Award. Dennis, Dennis: bad karma!

(Boston Phoenix, April, 1999)


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