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Stranded in Music City

The Memphis International Film Festival and Robert Gordon look at legendary figures from Memphis and Nashville.


The Memphis Film Forum's sixth annual International Film Festival, which gets underway on Thursday, April 21st, will showcase a pair of documentaries assembled by Memphis writer and filmmaker Robert Gordon. Gordon, the author of It Came from Memphis and Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters presents Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan: Cowboy Jack Clement's Home Movies. Also making its Mid-South debut: Stranded in Canton, a challenging nonnarrative collection of black-and-white video portraits shot in 1973 by William Eggleston, the Memphis artist universally acknowledged as the father of modern color photography. The former is a lighthearted feature that Gordon describes as a mix between traditional documentary and an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Stranded in Canton, by comparison, is a brooding, sometimes violent, drug-addled exercise in excess and tedium. It's gorgeous, dangerous, soulful, and genuinely shocking.

"I've been actively working on Stranded in Canton for two and a half years," Gordon says. "I've been knowing the material for 20 years. I made the first cut 10 years ago, and nobody knows this material better than I do. But there are still things about it that I don't understand, and that's why I like it."

Gordon suspects there will be walkouts during the Thursday-night screening. There are always walkouts whenever it's been screened, and he's even considered making T-shirts for those who make it through to the end: "I Survived Stranded in Canton." But for viewers interested in Eggleston's artistic process or the delicate seam where Memphis' starched upper-crust and its ragged, creative underbelly merged in the dazed and confused 1970s, the Eggleston/Gordon account is as intriguing, if not quite as suspenseful, as a back-lot potboiler.

"I started to realize that this [film] was all about ways of seeing. It was an opportunity to hitch a ride on [Eggleston's] eyeball and to see the world the way he sees it," Gordon explains. "And now, every time I watch [Stranded in Canton], I get more out of it because it's real vérité recording. It's real people doing real things -- things that are often fictionalized or sensationalized but that you never really get to see [on film]."

Gordon was also attracted to Eggleston's footage because it reflected the drugged-out but creatively fertile mood of Memphis' music scene in the early 1970s, a scene the author vividly chronicled in It Came From Memphis.

So what do you see when you take a ride on Eggleston's eyeball? You see delirious bikers, musicians, bizarre transvestites, family squabbles, skeletons, guns, cigarettes, drinks, anger, more drinks, confusion, drinks, and a total failure of logic. You see a vintage performance by Jim Dickinson that is shot in such extreme close-up you can see the storied musician's dental work. There's footage of Furry Lewis playing an upscale garden party and playing for friends in his humble apartment. It all adds up to an intriguing portrait of Eggleston, the one character you never actually get to see.

"Stranded in Canton is a number of things at once, which has complicated Robert's work considerably," says Cotty Chubb, director of the Eggleston Artistic Trust. "It is at once a portrait of a time and place [and] of specific people acting utterly in character, revealing themselves in sometimes shocking, sometimes lovely ways, and a portrait of an artist then very much in command of his art working in an unfamiliar medium but with the same eye and hand that distinguished his still photography and brought him such deserved renown."

When Chubb first came to Memphis in 1974, Eggleston's garage on Central was littered with electronic equipment: cameras, recorders, and high-end Tektronix oscilloscopes. The portable video camera Eggleston used to shoot the video for Stranded in Canton was outfitted with an infrared-sensitive vidicon tube made by a company called Impossible Electronic Techniques and was attached to a fixed-focal-length Canon lens for maximum sharpness. "None of this [equipment] was off the shelf," Chubb adds. The modified video recorder allowed Eggleston to get crisp shots even in low lighting, because it read heat as well as light. The infrared tube makes cigarettes seem to smolder and revelers to glow.

Stranded in Canton moves like a vivid dream always threatening to go nightmarish. This is one of the film's greatest strengths and weaknesses. Anyone who's ever had a friend try to explain a deeply personal and detailed hallucination knows that nothing on earth can be so excruciatingly pointless. But in this instance, the dreamer happens to be one of the most important American artists of the 20th century and watching what his eye glances at and what it lingers over is an education in spontaneous composition.

Mixing animation with live action, Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan tells the story of the hyperactive English-lit major from Memphis who discovered rock icon Jerry Lee Lewis and country superstar Charley Pride. Jack Clement in Nashville produced artists ranging from Johnny Cash to U2, and his songwriting credits include "Ballad of a Teenage Queen," "I Guess Things Happen That Way," "Someone I Used To Know," and "Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog." A true renaissance man, Clement has taught ballroom dancing, filmed but never finished several made-for-TV specials, and produced Dear Dead Delilah, one of the worst slasher films ever made. In the meantime, he made home movies.

According to Gordon, Morgan Neville, a fellow documentarian whom Gordon had collaborated with for Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan and for a show about Muddy Waters, "was always on the lookout for subjects who had great big piles of videotape lying around. Clement turned out to be a gold mine with rooms and rooms of home movies that had been stored in no particular order.

"Jack makes everybody he's around feel comfortable," Gordon says, attempting to explain why Clement could get footage of Johnny Cash wearing a toy crown and a pig's nose, doing absurd improvisational comedy.

"Jack inspired us to push the boundaries and to be silly," Gordon says. "It's like [Kris] Kristofferson says in the [documentary]. He likes to make a circus out of life. That was what we were looking for. Jack once wrote four chapters of an autobiography. And [he wrote it] in a way -- not entirely dissimilar from the documentary -- where you never knew what to expect. Suddenly [in the autobiography], Jack's having this conversation with Shakespeare. Well, we took that and we went from there." •

Stranded in Canton plays 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 21st, at Malco Paradiso. There will be a Q&A session with Robert Gordon, Cotty Chubb, and others involved in the project after the screening. Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan shows at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 22nd, at Malco's Studio on the Square and will be followed by a Q&A with Gordon.

See below for more information about films showing at the Memphis International Film Festival. For the full schedule, see MemphisFilmForum.org.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Studio on the Square

Saturday, April 23rd, 2:30 p.m. and midnight

In its own way, this sprightly 1972 French masterpiece from Spanish director Luis Buñuel is as much an assault on traditional storytelling conventions as his surrealistic silent-era provocations (Un Chien Andalou).

In following three well-to-do couples who keeping trying -- and failing -- to have a dinner together, Buñuel uses the notion of the meal as social ritual to dissect and skewer the artificial constructions --the small talk, the class biases, the codes of behavior -- that hold together his protagonists' upper-class world.

But Buñuel's tone isn't derisive so much as slyly comic. His work had never allowed villains or heroes, but in this late film (his last would follow five years later) there's a bemused serenity noticeably removed from the harsher tone he struck in earlier satires such as Viridiana and Simon of the Desert.

A series of interruptions, digressions, and asides that suggest Buñuel's roots in surrealism, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie builds up a considerable spread of chewy ideas and evocative incidents. But if you come into it expecting the narrative it constantly hints at and just as constantly denies, it can be rough going.

Nights of Cabiria

Studio on the Square

Saturday, April 23rd, 7 p.m.

For a generation of American cinephiles in the '50s and '60s, Italian director Federico Fellini was one of the names (along with Bergman, Antonioni, Godard, and few others) that became synonymous with cinematic art.

Fellini's reputation bloomed with his heavily symbolic 1954 film La Strada then exploded with such zeitgeist-y touchstones as 1960's ennui epic La Dolce Vita and 1963's 8 1/2, an unparalleled experiment in stream-of-consciousness filmmaking.

Nights of Cabiria (1957) is a key transitional work: Its ostensibly simple visual style and focus on "common" characters are in keeping with neorealism, but its concerns are as much personal and philosophical as social and political. Fellini's developing sensibility reveals itself in a mise-en-scène that frequently gives way to pure spectacle. But it's also simply better than the preceding, more celebrated La Strada, a parable that now feels overburdened with self-significance where Cabiria's profundity is more real, more natural.

A series of vignettes from the life of an aging Roman prostitute (played, ferociously, by Fellini's wife and muse Giulietta Masina), Cabiria traces an trajectory from hope to disillusionment but turns the corner with a deeply felt, fully earned final grace note. An underappreciated classic from an acknowledged master.

Searching for Angela Shelton

Studio on the Square

Sunday, April 24, 7 p.m.

Searching for Angela Shelton isn't the most polished documentary you'll ever see, but it might be among the most harrowing and moving. Director Angela Shelton started with a concept: to attempt to contact and interview every woman in the country who shared her name as a means of examining a cross-section of American women.

But what she discovered is that 24 of the 40 she eventually tracked down had been victims of abuse. An incest survivor herself, Shelton took that as her theme and personalized the film, culminating in an on-screen confrontation with her abusive father.

The film, which profiles a fascinating and diverse array of women from all over the country, has been featured on Oprah and 48 Hours and has become something of a touchstone work among groups working to help victims of domestic abuse.

As a tour guide, Shelton can be a little too earnest or awkward (to one of her subjects after a gospel-singing demonstration: "I wish I could be a black woman!"), but her story is a terrible and compelling one and is matched by the memorable women she captures on her journey.

The General

Studio on the Square

Friday, April 22nd, 9:30 p.m.

Sunday, April 24th, noon

A fictionalized account of real-life Irish criminal Martin Cahill (Brendan Gleeson in his biggest, maybe best role), who stole more than $60 million during a string of daring robberies in the 1980s before being assassinated by the IRA for not spreading the wealth, The General won British director John Boorman (Deliverance, Hope and Glory) the best director award at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival.

Entertaining and accessible, this handsome film balances the tension between artistic impulses and commercial aspirations, which marks Boorman's career. It's essentially a large-scale art film that functions effortlessly as mainstream entertainment, but it also rhymes nicely with Boorman's best film, the small-scale color noir Point Blank (1967). Both films are about violent protagonists, outsiders in conflict with society. And both films open with moments of violent certainty, which lend the unfolding narratives a tragic mythic air.

The General is both entranced by Cahill's outsized persona and critical of his actions. Cahill is a murky, not entirely sympathetic figure who lords over his tight-knit gang as a sort of tribal chieftain. The notion of the criminal gang as a tribal order in opposition to the complexities of modern society is central to gangster movies from The Godfather on down. With The General, Boorman delivered a film worthy of the genre's short list.

The Wind Will Carry Us

Studio on the Square

Sunday, April 24th, 2:30 p.m.

In international film circles, contemporary Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami has a reputation on a par with Kurosawa, Godard, and Bergman a half-century ago. What he lacks is the popular audience to go with his critical acclaim, at least in the U.S. Despite the increased presence of Middle Eastern -- particularly Iranian -- films on local screens in recent years, there has never been a public showing of a Kiarostami film in Memphis --until now. The Memphis Film Forum corrects that with this screening of 1999's The Wind Will Carry Us, which follows a TV camera crew from Tehran into the remote mountains of Iranian Kurdistan, where a 100-year-old woman awaits death. The camera crew wants to film the funeral ritual that awaits.

I haven't seen The Wind Will Carry Us (only the early And Life Goes On and the 1997 Cannes winner Taste of Cherry), but I would tend to trust critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, perhaps the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable American critic of international cinema, who calls The Wind Will Carry Us Kiarostami's "richest and most challenging work." There has also been a counter-argument that the film borders on self-parody. Regardless, the stillness of Kiarostami's work is always in danger of being labeled dull by viewers unaccustomed to his style. •

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