Miami 2011: “How to Start Your Own Country”

Did you know the inventor of the Segway now leads his own country? And it’s in the Long Island Sound? This is one of the things to be learned from Jody Shapiro’s “How to Start Your Own Country,” an amusing and enlightening documentary about micronations, with particular focus on the future of frontier-breaking. Dean Kamen, the Segway guy, owns North Dumpling Island, which he calls the Kingdom of North Dumpling, and though technically, legally still part of New York State, it has officially seceded from the United States (with a non-aggression pact signed by President George H. Bush), has its own constitution (supposedly hundreds of years old) and is self-sufficient and completely carbon-neutral. It helps that Kamen is a billionaire. He also doesn’t rule over anyone else.

Shapiro jumps from one micronation to the next in the film, some more eccentrically run than others, while generally addressing the whole issue of the “country club” mentalities of the United Nations, the European Union, etc. Places like North Dumpling and the Principality of Sealand (a former British fort in the North Sea that was originally taken over by pirate radio broadcasters) are basically aligned with more familiar states like Palestine and Liechtenstein. Then there are the more eclectic, utopian concepts, such as the territory-less, location-variable New Free State of Caroline, which seems to blur the line between cult and state. It also best exemplifies the doc’s attention to the connection of state and state of mind.

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Miami 2011: “Magic Trip”

I mentioned in my Miami International Film Festival doc preview that Alison Ellwood and Alex Gibney’s “Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place” was not one of my most anticipated. I hadn’t heard good buzz at Sundance on the film, and I’m not a huge fan of Gibney lately anyway. Also, his doc on Hunter S. Thompson, “Gonzo,” was a huge disappointment for me, so I was expecting something similar here. Well, I found myself at a screening of the film last night, and I didn’t hate it. It’s far more satisfying than the Thompson film. But I also came away wondering what it’s really about, if anything. If it’s just a way of finally presenting the footage that Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters shot during their iconic 1964 psychedelic bus trip, I wish it was much simpler.

It’s a shame the old films, which don’t look nearly as bad as I’d heard, don’t feature synched audio. That would have made for something great, left alone save for some expert editing to give it a narrative flow. Enough people have read Tom Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” to fill in the specifics of what’s going on, and if not then it could at least be a mere verite record of the time and events. But Gibney and company love voice-over, so I’d never imagine them letting material like this go without lots of narrated commentary. At least the voice-over stuff here is more directly from people involved and relatively contemporary of the footage itself. Of course, I wouldn’t have known it wasn’t recently recorded interviews if Ellwood hadn’t mentioned it after the screening.

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Miami 2011: “Mooney vs. Fowle”

I don’t know that I’ve ever attended a screening where the crowd is so into the documentary on screen (well, maybe the Bieber doc). James Lipscomb’s 1962 “Living Camera” episode “Mooney vs. Fowle” played to a crowd mostly made up of people who are in the Drew Associates’ vérité classic, and they understandably treated the film as if it were a slideshow projected at their high school reunion. People all around me talked amongst themselves, pointing out themselves or friends. At first it irritated me that I couldn’t always hear the dialogue from the actual film, but after a while I had an appreciation for what this experience was for everyone there. Most had apparently never seen it.

The doc brings us back to a 1961 football game played in front of 40,000 people at the Orange Bowl. A high school football game, pitting Miami High against their rivals from Edison High. The title refers to the coaches of each, and the film follows them separately, with their real families and their clan of players, in the days leading up to the big event. And then at last it astonishingly chronicles the game from all kinds of angles you wouldn’t expect from even the newly mobile tools of the Drew crew. Today’s television coverage doesn’t come nearly as close to capturing the spirit of the sport and its fans the way Lipscomb does here.

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Miami Film Festival is Underway With Excellent Documentary Program

The 2011 Miami International Film Festival began last Friday, but I won’t be arriving to the event for another two days. I want to highlight the fest in advance, though, because I’m very excited about the new documentary program, Doc-You-Up, which has been curated by Thom Powers (Toronto Film Festival, DOC NYC, Stranger Than Fiction), surely one of the best doc programmers in the business right now.

Many of his picks for Miami are lifted out of Sundance, and so I’m happy to (1) recommend some of the films I saw there and (2) catch up with some of those I missed. Of the latter, I’m looking forward to seeing great-buzz titles like “Bobby Fischer Against the World,” “Black Power Mix Tape,” “We Were Here” and “The Redemption of General Butt Naked” (and perhaps “Magic Trip,” the buzz on which was less than great in Park City).

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Review: “Worst in Show”

If a bar was set for competition-based documentaries last decade with the edge of your seat drama and opposition in “Spellbound” and “The King of Kong” (which I named as the best of their kind for the 2000s), two recent films have proven that suspenseful editing and formulaic narrative is not necessary for engaging non-fiction stories. Last week I reviewed “Kings of Pastry,” which isn’t really about a contest but rather an examination, and it’s comparatively slight and insignificant but it works. Now I’ve just seen the festival-touring “Worst in Show,” a doc about the World’s Ugliest Dog Contest that ignores intensity for basic human-interest magic.

Obviously it’s also a dog-interest story. The hour-long film takes us to Petaluma, California, for the 2010 competition of hideous canines (you’ve no doubt heard of Sam, the undefeated pooch who put the contest on the map). But it’s not Animal Planet fluff. And the real freak show is with the owners. I’m not necessarily saying some of them are ugly — though what they say about pets and their owners looking alike is validated here — so much as they’re just amazingly odd (but not mocked or exploited as such). Christopher Guest could not make up characters better than what you find here.

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Review: “Kings of Pastry”

As Oscar weekend begins, it’s worth noting, as many bloggers like to do, how many great filmmakers have never won Academy Awards. Documentary legends Frederick Wiseman and DA Pennebaker are among them, and each released new films last year. But they were both considered “light” works for their talents. I nevertheless consider Wiseman’s “Boxing Gym” to be one of the best docs of 2010, while Pennabaker’s latest, “Kings of Pastry,” is definitely on the insubstantial side of his career. At 85 years old (you wouldn’t know it, if you’ve seen him in person recently), he’s at least still working. But I don’t think I’d recommend it to people who aren’t total foodies or Pennebaker fanatics, and even then it’s likely too unrecognizable in style to his direct-cinema classics that even devotees may be a little disappointed.

Penny seems mainly a co-director of the film (as IMDb credits him), somewhat secondary to wife Chris Hegedus, who can be heard a few times from behind the camera. The two were Oscar-nominated as a team back in 1994 for “The War Room” (screening on the Documentary Channel this weekend) and haven’t done a whole lot of major work together since — though Hegedus has done great, timely collaborations with other filmmakers, like “Startup.com” (co-directed by Jehane Noujaim) and “Al Franken: God Spoke” (co-directed by regular cinematographer Nick Doob), which I listed as one of the best of the 2000s. I guess it’s a shame she still hasn’t won an Oscar, as well.

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Review: “Norman Mailer: The American”

Last night I attended a special screening of Joseph Mantegna’s Norman Mailer: The American, part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s bi-monthly Independents Night series, which presents NYC premieres of new American documentaries. And my main take-away with the experience was: what an antithesis of the audience for a Justin Bieber documentary!

Yes, leave it to me to compare Justin Bieber: Never Say Never with Norman Mailer: The American, but the latter is the first doc I’ve seen theatrically since the former and I just couldn’t help thinking about them together. For instance, Never Say Never is about a kid who hasn’t really lived much yet and his biographical concert film is more broadly about the zeitgeist of the last couple years. Meanwhile, the Mailer film is about a man who lived a very long and very full life, and his bio ends up more broadly being about the zeitgeist of a great many years. In a way, at least for now, Bieber represents the 21st century as much as Mailer represents the 20th.

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