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The ultimate balancing act

An extraordinary documentary opens the 2008 Maine International Film Festival
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  July 9, 2008

Maine International Film Festival | July 11-20 | at Railroad Square Cinema, 17 Railroad Square + Waterville Opera House, 1 Common St, Waterville | $9 per screening; $12 for special events; passes $85-200 |  207.861.8138
James Walsh’s new documentary MAN ON WIRE opens this year’s Maine International Film Festival, which runs from July 11 to 20 in Waterville, on a soaring high. The film, which is poised to become one of the most successful documentaries in years and screens at the 900-seat Waterville Opera House on July 11, chronicles French thrill-seeker Philippe Petit’s quest to walk across a tightrope between the World Trade Center's twin towers in 1974.

Petit, a spirited, infectious protagonist, dreams of bridging the towers before they’re even complete. (In the meantime, he walks between spires of Notre Dame and stops traffic with a stunt on a bridge in Sydney, Australia.) Equal parts rebel and amateur physicist, he has to pull off his baldly illegal stunt by monitoring security in the towers, considering wind variabilities, and planning for innumerable intangible occurrences (he likens himself to a bank robber). Walsh supports the tantalizing premise with a sense of humor, visual panache, and inquisitiveness that would do Errol Morris proud; full of gorgeous photography, archival footage, and memorable characters, Man on Wire is quite literally an awesome feat.

About 100 films deep, MIFF ’08 has intriguing offerings for cineastes of all stripes. Here’s a slice of what to look out for (recommendations are in bold).

Mid-life achievement
2008’s Mid-Life Achievement Award — previously bestowed on Sissy Spacek, Terrence Malick, and Lili Taylor, among others — will be given to John Turturro on July 17. A regular fixture of films by Spike Lee and the Coen Brothers, Turturro is one of the most recognizable character actors in American cinema. The festival’s selection of films featuring Turturro — his innocent, touching dramatic work in Lee’s DO THE RIGHT THING (1989) and his absurd, cult-worshipped performance as bowler Jesus Quintana in the Coens’ The Big Lebowski (1999) — prove as much. They’ll also show his three directorial efforts, culminating in the awards presentation and screening of last year’s inventive musical ROMANCE AND CIGARETTES, on the 17th.

Artist bios
Among a deep slate of documentaries about artists and musicians, Matt Wolf’s WILD COMBINATION: A PORTRAIT OF ARTHUR RUSSELL, does a fine job of arguing for the legacy of a musician relatively few people have heard of. Russell moved seamlessly between the avant-garde, disco, and folk music scenes in the East Village of New York City in the 1970s and ’80s, collaborating with Allen Ginsberg and Philip Glass before his death from AIDS in 1992. Russell’s influence is apparent in today’s avant-garde pop scene (his voice is similar to Antony of Antony and the Johnsons), and Wolf’s film makes the point with dignity and restraint.

Other artists docs of note: Patti Smith: Dream of Life, directed by Steven Sebring, is a beautifully photographed but suffocatingly indulgent first-person look at Smith’s life over the past decade or so; Eric Metzgar’s follow-up to The Chances of the World Changing, the well-received Life. Support. Music., tracks an up-and-coming singer-songwriter who’s suddenly hospitalized after a brain hemorrhage leaves him vegetative; and Jeremiah Zagar’s IN A DREAM — a festival hit at South by Southwest this year — follows a prolific mural-maker at work in Philadelphia.

Comprised of two decades of intimate footage, Ellen Kuras’s The Betrayal (Nerakhoon), brings to light the unintended consequences of the US’s secret operations in Laos during the Vietnam War. Beginning in Laos, Kuras chronicles a large family’s transplant to a crack house in Brooklyn. The film is an awfully long 96 minutes, but the decades of footage at Kuras’s disposal ultimately make the family’s slow breakdown harrowing.

UNDER OUR SKIN: THE UNTOLD STORY OF LYME DISEASE, directed by Andy Abrahams Wilson, is a widely praised cinematic documentary that implicates the American health care system in the fast spread of the title disease. Scott Galloway and Brent Pierson’s A MAN NAMED PEARL, the festival’s closing night selection, is said to be an uplifting look at a black man named Pearl Fryar who taught himself to garden and has maintained a massive topiary garden for decades, after hearing someone quip that “Black people don’t keep up their yards.” A number of environmental documentaries are also on the slate, including Christina Hemauer's and Roman Keller’s A Road Not Taken, about the journey of the solar panels installed on the White House during Jimmy Carter’s presidency to Maine’s own Unity College.

Feature films
The most prominent fiction film at this year’s festival is Towelhead, the provocative directorial debut of Alan Ball, writer of American Beauty and creator of HBO’s Six Feet Under. The film finds a nearly pubescent girl in a Texas suburb being influenced by her immigrant father, racist neighbors, and the onset of the war in Iraq.

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  Topics: Features , Arthur Russell , Spike Lee , John Turturro ,  More more >
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