The Bay Area documentary community built its national reputation on probing social-issue films such as Peter Adair’s Word is Out, Connie Field’s Rosie the Riveter and Mark Kitchell’s Berkeley in the Sixties. Even today, when festival and TV programmers see a local filmmaker’s name on a doc, they expect an exposé of veiled injustice or a leading-edge multi-cultural story. Of course, a “big issue” isn’t necessary to examine the fascinating vagaries of human nature, as evidenced by Terry Zwigoff’s intimate, haunting Crumb. Following that lead, two of my favorite docs from the last decade, Jamie Meltzer’s Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story and Amanda Micheli’s Double Dare, found depths of poignancy in profiles that, on the surface, seemed to have comparatively little at stake.
(Editor’s note: This is the latest in a continuing series of articles compiling the key documentaries and narrative features by Bay Area independent filmmakers. Like any pantheon, Hall of Fame, or “Best of” list, it is a subjective selection, and invites comment and debate.)
Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story (2003)
The song-poem, for those who aren’t cult fans, was a distinctly American hybrid of art and commerce. Prompted by “Songwriters Wanted” ads in the back of comic books and magazines, aspiring Dylans and other delusional dreamers from around the country would send their verse and a check to a post office box in Southern California or Nashville. Several weeks later, the mailman would hand them a cassette of a fully produced song featuring their words.
The great majority of this stuff consisted of uninteresting, third-rate lyrics by people who fancied themselves talented enough to be the next Neil Diamond. (The heyday of the song-poem was the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.) Collectors like Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller, however, were attracted to the substantial body of song-poems with bizarro lyrics reflecting, shall we say, a singular worldview. The writer’s driving inspiration might be religious fervor, or a beloved pet, or bi-polarity. Whatever the source, the combination of logic-defying lyrics with studio-grade production was irresistible.
I was as dubious as you until Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story turned me on to mind-boggling tunes such as “Do You Know the Difference Between Big Wood and Brush,” “Jimmy Carter Says ‘Yes’” and “Blind Man’s Penis (Peace and Love).”
Jamie Meltzer tracked down offbeat characters all over the U.S. who’d submitted their poems (and a check) with varying levels of expectations, and they are a diverse and strange bunch indeed. They provide plenty of chuckles in the first few minutes of Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story, and we are set up for a condescending look at an invisible subculture aching to be exposed and mocked.
There’s a great reveal, maybe 15 minutes in, that provides an exemplary example of how to structure a documentary for maximum surprise and impact. More importantly, this sequence personalizes the song-poem phenomenon and taps into an emotional well that silences our easy laughs.
The genius of Meltzer’s film, which also packs touching and unforgettable profiles of a few professional song-poem composers into its 54 minutes, is that it goes beyond cheap-shot rim shots to explore the definition of an artist, as well as what constitutes success. For example, Meltzer follows composer Gary Forney and his son to their first-ever (and under-rehearsed) gig at a small rural fair. It’s painful, it’s hilarious, it’s pure Americana. The one thing it isn’t is exploitative, for we see our own brave and often foolhardy impulse to create, to perform, to impress, to be applauded.
Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story was broadcast on PBS’ “Independent Lens” series where, appropriately, it reached forgotten corners of the country where the odder song-poets live. Meltzer went on to make Welcome to Nollywood (2007), about the shoot-from-the-hip Nigerian film industry and now teaches in Stanford’s graduate documentary program, where he presumably emphasizes the importance of subverting viewer expectations.
Double Dare (2004)
Rugby player and cinematographer Amanda Micheli, unsurprisingly, gravitates to women who challenge stereotypes. Just For the Ride (1996), her Student Academy Award-winning debut, followed rodeo champion Jan Youren and other unbowed cowgirls. La Corona (directed with Isabel Vega, 2008) documented a beauty pageant among inmates in a Colombian prison. (Micheli just finished an 8-minute short for ESPN about a female probation officer coaching gang-affiliated young men in soccer.) Made between her two celebrated works, Double Dare, Micheli’s witty and empathetic study of two stuntwomen, is arguably her most ambitious yet least-known film.
Stuntwomen (and men) are routinely overlooked—especially in a CGI world—so perhaps that contributes to a perception that the doc is a quirky but minor portrait of peripheral figures. In fact, a group of frustrated stunt coordinators has been lobbying the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for many years, without success, to create a new Oscar category. Taking the fall for somebody else may be an old Hollywood tradition, but self-sacrifice has its limits.
Micheli carefully chose two women at opposite points in their careers to drive Double Dare. The veteran Jeannie Epper started out in ‘60s Westerns and has worked steadily ever since in television (Wonder Woman, notably) and movies. In her 60s, she yearns to finally crack the glass ceiling and break into the boys’ club of stunt coordinators. As with any field, it’s preferable to design, choreograph and direct the job than to perform the injurious work yourself.
Epper is world-wise and slightly defeated; she’s fighting the hierarchal battle less for herself than for the next generation of women. That would include Zoe Bell, a tall New Zealand gymnast with energy and enthusiasm to burn. Best known for doubling the star of the TV series Xena: Warrior Princess, Bell received her entrée to big-budget moviemaking doing Uma Thurman’s stunts in the Kill Bill flicks.
Just as Off the Charts presents itself as a slice of nut-job whimsy before venturing into thornier thickets, Double Dare initially suggests a behind-the-scenes look at the glamour and glory of studio picture-making. Certainly Quentin Tarantino’s appearance in a typically jumpy sit-down interview lent the doc some pop-culture allure with a subset of QT fanboys. But Micheli isn’t remotely interested in romanticizing her subjects, even as she takes every opportunity to highlight their agility, guts, tolerance for pain and persistence.
Her real subject, as in all her films, is the remarkable breed of woman who won’t—or can’t—accept that it’s a man’s, man’s, man’s, man’s world. Micheli seeks out women who set out on the path of most resistance, eyes wide open and a smile on their face, determined to challenge not just themselves but the world. Double Dare also aired nationally on “Independent Lens,” and it’s reassuring to imagine how many teenage girls took its lesson to heart.
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