Dead men tell no tales, the proverb goes. This year's AFI Docs disproved the old-timey, noirish axiom, though, with documentaries by the late Les Blank and Albert Maysles highlighting a diverse and strong slate of films.
It breaks no ground to praise Blank and Maysles, two masters of the medium. But their two movies at the June 17-21 festival in Washington, D.C., and Silver Spring, Md., stood out, measured even against their own renowned past work, as well as offerings from contemporary colossi such as Barbara Kopple, Alex Gibney and Stanley Nelson and up-and-comers such as Matthew Heineman. Blank died in 2013, leaving unreleased "A Poem Is a Naked Person," an up-close-and-many-times-intoxicated look at the musician Leon Russell. More than a portrayal of a rambunctious honky-tonker, Blank's film is a time capsule of Oklahoma and the early 1970s.
Principal photography took place from 1972 to 1974 and the story encompasses Russell's neighbors; the construction of his studio/home in northeast Oklahoma; competitive parachuters, one of whom drinks a beer, then eats the glass it was in; and people who gather in Tulsa for the demolition of an old hotel.
They go along with very stoned musings about Picasso and fame, a wedding where Russell plays the bridal march and a python eating a baby chick. For good measure, there are performances by George Jones and a beardless Willie Nelson.
More than a snapshot of Old Weird America, "A Poem is a Naked Person," is a poem itself, a well-crafted mix of grotesques, off-beat observations and high-wire creative energy.
"Les considered this his masterpiece," Kim Hendrickson of the Criterion Collection said after the June 20 screening at the Silver Theater. Russell apparently didn't agree, and the feud between the two men over the flick lasted 40 years. "It just got lost, and they stopped talking," Hendrickson said. Blank kept tinkering on the movie, showing it hither and yon, and the legend surrounding it grew.
Blank's son Harrod took up the effort after the filmmaker died, and the Russell and Blank camps came together to make sure the film was released, with Russell changing his tune and seeing the unique nature of the movie with the passage of years. "He realizes it's as much about Les as it is about Leon," Hendrickson added.
The movie gets a New York City release on July 1 at Film Forum. A Criterion release will follow. Russell, a constantly touring presence, has area appearances scheduled on July 11 in Arrington, Va., at the Locknwood Festival and on July 12-14 in Annapolis, Md., at Rams Head on Stage.
After the raucousness of "A Poem is a Naked Person," the last film of Maysles' long career, "In Transit," offered a calming coda. A collaboration with co-directors Lynn True, Nelson Walker, Ben Wu and David Usui, the film traces the route of the Empire Builder, Amtrak's Chicago-Seattle line, and the people who climb all aboard.
It's a three-day trip each leg that takes passengers through much of the Lewis and Clark Trail, showcasing the majesty of big chunks of Big Sky Country, as well as the low-lying expanse of Williston, N.D., the epicenter of America's oil boom.
"It saved the state," says a conductor who hails from Rugby, N.D., about the boom. "But along with that comes the price of growth," noting the explosive population increase, clogged railways and other less savory elements that boom towns attract — drinking, pollution and strip clubs.
The movie doesn't dwell on the Bakken Oilfield, spending its time with many passengers making their way: A retired Marine who doesn't want to die before "getting a good look at the world;" a woman "in transition" in her marriage; an overdue pregnant lady whom the crew prays doesn't give birth before arriving at her destination in Minnesota.
Like "A Poem is a Naked Person," the movie is filled with details we may take for granted but will be an invaluable guide for the ages as to how we lived today. "Here I am. It's cool," says one young woman, summing up the general vibe of the movie.
The last line of the movie comes from a young man leaving the oil fields to reunite with his long-separated girlfriend in Indiana. "You're only alive for so long," he says.
Maysles died in March, but he did get to see the final product, said his co-directors after Sunday's screening at Landmark's E Street Cinema. "We were all following Albert's vision, which was to go meet people ... connect," said True.
Melancholy runs through many of the other AFI Docs films. "Best of Enemies," the opening night salvo from Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon about the 1968 debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, showed how their televised brawls haunted both men for decades.
"Requiem for the Dead: American Spring 2014," by Shari Cookson and Nick Doob, tells the story of several people killed by guns last year, solely through the use of social media, 911 calls and local news reports. No talking heads. Just loss.
"All Things Must Pass" by Colin Hanks is about the rise and fall of Tower Records, told from the vantage of the company's employees, including Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, and patrons such as Elton John.
Erika Frankel's "King Georges" traces the arc of Georges Papillon's Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia, one of the most storied traditional French restaurants in the United States, including its ignominious end in 2012.
Loss, to be sure, was present in the festival's lineup. But that's a part of life. As Russell says in "A Poem is a Naked Person," the creative impulse doesn't happen absent the knowledge of one's impending end. "Otherwise, you'd just sit there and don't say shit," the troubadour says.
All things must pass, indeed. Including AFI Docs 2015.
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