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New Orleans Film Festival 

Friday-Thursday, Oct. 10-16 The 19th annual New Orleans Film Festival opens with the Secret Life of Bees and continues for a week of feature film, documentary, short and experimental film screenings. There are special showcases for Louisiana filmmakers, music films and festival award winners. See the festival Web site (www.neworleansfilmfest.com) for a full schedule. Below are reviews of some of the films screening Friday, Oct. 10, through Monday, Oct. 13.

 

Nerdcore for Life
Directed by Daniel Lamoureux
11:30 p.m. Fri., Oct. 10
Canal Place Cinema
Early in the documentary, Nerdcore For Life, one of the genre's proponents neatly sums up the nerdcore phenomenon: "It's nerds making music about shit that they like." Video games and sci-fi, technology and even 19th-century literature are creative fodder for nerdcore artists, whose hip-hop champions the obscure and the geeky. The film offers an anatomy of the genre, exploring its roots, its controversies and its future, including the question of whether it will ever break into the mainstream.

In focusing on "nerdy" subject matter — whether it's "leveling up" on World of Warcraft or extolling one's computer programming chops — nerdcore speaks to fans in a way that much mainstream rap doesn't. "I'm not dealing drugs; I'm not from the hood," says one artist. "All I know is Star Wars." Rather than mimicking mainstream hip-hop and rap artists, nerdcore proponents embrace their nerdiness — attitudes and interests they were often made to feel ashamed of — by rapping about topics they are passionate about.

Still, nerdcore is not immune to the drama and posturing of the hip-hop world and the music business in general. Although most nerdcore artists work in solitude, using computers to create and record their music, their connections online and, eventually, through conferences and shows led to the development of a burgeoning underground scene. With that came inevitable competition, jealousies and controversy. Two computer science grad students talk smack in an ongoing feud with all the vitriol (if none of the dire outcomes) of East Coast-West Coast rappers. When a relative newcomer lays claim to the title "first lady of nerdcore" (the field is decidedly dominated by males), a more prolific rival sounds off. More than anything, the film illustrates the consistent way in which patterns of group behavior play out, no matter how small or otherwise out-of-the-norm the group is.

The film features interviews with many of the biggest names in the genre, including mc chris (of Adult Swim fame), YTcracker (an ex-hacker charged with hacking into NASA and other government Web sites in 1999), and MC Hawking, who made waves with his animated, gangsta rap tribute to theoretical physicist Steven Hawking. Also featured is Baton Rouge rapper Hi-C, who is controversial in the nerdcore scene for his marketing efforts. — Carolyn Goyette

The Exiles
Directed by Kent MacKenzie
3 p.m. Sat., Oct. 11
Canal Place Cinema
The Exiles is a gritty noirish postcard from Los Angeles' underbelly in the 1950s. The Bunker Hill area of the city was once a prominent neighborhood, but by the "40s and "50s, it had become a dilapidated, rough-and-tumble home to an enclave of Native Americans who were in some ways acclimating to American culture.

Kent MacKenzie's film is a sort of docudrama about the community. It contains the voiced-over narrative of several real people, but scenes were often recreated with some of those people playing themselves. Some of the story focuses on a pregnant woman and her attempt to attain a stable, married life. But the father would rather carouse at bars, gamble, pick up women and drink the night away. He and his friends listen to early rock "n' roll music and talk about the songs of Fats Domino and Huey Piano Smith. They drink heavily and talk with a profound indifference to being in and out of jail. And when the bars close at 2 a.m., they find refuge and release in their own traditional music and dancing on a hill looking over the lights of the city.

The original film has been restored and is presented by Sherman Alexie, a Native American writer, and filmmaker Charles Burnett, who made his mark with his early film about a poor community in Los Angeles, Killer of Sheep. — Coviello

A Snow Mobile for George
Directed by Todd Darling
1:15 p.m. Sun., Oct. 12
Prytania Theatre There are some odd coincidences to the timeliness of Todd Darling's A Snow Mobile for George, but it's not so much about snowmobiles, or the ranchers and energy industry in Dick Cheney's Wyoming. It's about the question of government regulation. Deregulation has been at the core of several economic debacles in the last two decades, starting with the savings and loan bailout in the late "80s, going through the Enron fiasco and to the current economic crisis on Wall Street and the unregulated market of now worthless "credit default swaps."

Darling's film is sort of a road trip. The premise is that he's bought a snowmobile and discovers that it is equipped with a two-stroke engine that pollutes at a prodigious rate — 27 times that of an automobile. Two-stroke engines were supposed to be phased out by the year 2000, but when the Bush administration got to work, it changed that rule. Darling wants to know why. It's a good question, even if the setup is a bit obvious.

He starts a cross-country journey in which he looks at other areas where particular industries benefited from Bush administration decisions. Another odd one involves a dispute about allowing snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park, one of the American West's more pristine wilderness ecosystems. The park rangers oppose their presence. Other types of recreational groups, like hikers and cross-country skiers, oppose their presence. But the snowmobilers get their way (until a federal judge ruled against the Bush administration plan just weeks ago).

While that might look like an environmentalists-versus-industry dispute, the film's most interesting footage lies ahead. In Wyoming, ranchers are surprised to learn that their property rights don't cover the rights to minerals and resources buried beneath the surface. The natural gas industry has purchased those and is extracting the gas with a drilling method that displaces underground water. They pump out water to get to the gas. This causes the ranchers' wells to go dry, draining up creeks and depriving water to cattle and the grasslands they feed on. Some ranchers who have owned their homes for decades find themselves having to drive to get water for their homes just to drink, cook and bathe.

As Darling probes these and other conflicts, the central theme arises: How does government make policy about resources, and what is its role in regulating their use? Is there a process to balance various interests — even industry versus industry, like in Wyoming? Or is it all just a matter of which lobbyists have the best access? It should come as no surprise that the official regulating the situation in Wyoming is a former natural gas industry lobbyist appointed by the Bush administration.

Darling's film uncovers outrageous truths and asks hard questions. It's a film worth viewing before the next regulatory conflict is in your backyard. — Coviello

Documentary Shorts Program 3
Think of Me First as a Person
Directed by George Ingmire III
3:45 p.m. Sun., Oct. 12
George Ingmire's Think of Me First as a Person was years ahead of its time when it was filmed. Ingmire's grandfather, Dwight Core Sr., shot the film of Ingmire's uncle, Dwight Core Jr., in the early "60s. Dwight Sr.'s son was born with Down syndrome, and he knew his life would not be normal. Years later, George separately found the footage and an audiotape narration for the film. He remastered them to create this short documentary. It's a direct and sweet portrait of young Dwight, at times narrated in the voice of the boy and at times by his father.

George Ingmire finished the film in 2006. He screened it locally at Zeitgeist, and from there it became the little film that could. It was screened in a film festival in Alaska and attracted more attention. Then it was presented to the Library of Congress. In December 2006, it was one of only 25 films (including Rocky and Blazing Saddles) that were inducted into the National Film Registry.

It screens with an update about Dwight, who is now 48, entitled My Favorite Child. Also included in the showcase are the films Elegy for the Elswick Envoy by Nancy Ellis and Circles of Confusion by Phoebe Tooke. — Coviello

The Axe in the Attic
Directed by Ed Pincus, Lucia Small
7 p.m. Sun., Oct. 12
Canal Place Cinema
Horrified by the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Lucia Small began filming the news as it splashed across the TV in her Boston apartment. Soon, she and fellow filmmaker Ed Pincus headed to New Orleans on a journey that would produce the documentary, The Axe in the Attic. Beginning in November 2005, Small and Pincus traveled for 60 days, interviewing Katrina evacuees scattered in cities from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati to Murray, Ky., as well as areas surrounding New Orleans. The duo set up a home base in the Bywater in order to explore and capture the state of the city.

One way Axe differs from other Katrina documentaries is in its inclusion of the filmmakers' own, first-person accounts of their project. "When you're two white Northerners heading South, remaining behind the camera just doesn't feel like an option," Pincus says early in the film; his previous experiences in the region occurred during the Civil Rights movement. Through voiceover and by turning the camera on one another, the filmmakers record their own reactions to the devastation and their various encounters. They capture moments of frustration and uncertainty about navigating a region that is both unfamiliar to them and forever changed to its people. They also offer a sort of behind-the-scenes glimpse of the ethical issues they encounter as documentarians of a tragedy.

But the stories of the people of New Orleans that Axe documents are ultimately more compelling. Whether returning to rebuild their damaged property or struggling to adapt to cities far from home, the subjects stand as a reminder of a narrative of loss and perseverance that continues to unfold throughout the region and the country. — Goyette

New Orleans Mon Amour (NR)
Directed by Michael Almereyda
Starring Christopher Eccleston, Elizabeth Moss
9:30 p.m. Sun., Oct. 12
Canal Place
Alain Resnais' 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour was a triumph of the then-nascent French New Wave, a tone poem of how memory affects love and loss — of people, and their country — in the never-ending aftermath of atomic Armageddon. Michael Almereyda invokes many similar passions with New Orleans Mon Amour, replete with distant and disaffected lovers trying to recreate and redefine their love among the ruins.

Of course, this time, the devastation comes courtesy of the climatic instead of the atomic. Hurricane Katrina hovers over the lovers like the darkest of clouds. We know early on that it will take more than FEMA and funding to help them find their road home. Almereyda had a previous New Orleans Film Festival entry in Happy Here and Now. Interestingly, his 2000 version of Hamlet was a polarizing work among critics, some of whom lauded its contemporary spin while others found it tedious (sometimes in the same review).

Maybe that's because Almereyda is heavy on mood and atmosphere but, unlike Resnais, can't make the disparate parts add up to a magical whole. (Given the almost inexplicable powers of Hiroshima Mon Amour, it's a tough trick to pull off.)

But Almereyda is nothing if not daring, even going so far as to name his Garden District physician Dr. Jekyll (Christopher Eccleston) and his younger, relief-worker paramour Hyde (Elizabeth Moss of TV's Mad Men). At times it feels like this isn't so much a May-December romance (they're not too many years apart) as it is an Uptown/downtown conflict. Lovers before the levees broke, Dr. Jekyll and Hyde both are trying to put the pieces back together — of their city and each other, and almost completely unsure as to what role the other will play in the rebuilding.

After their chance encounter in the Lower Ninth Ward, where Hyde is gutting houses along with her scruffy boyfriend, Dr. Jekyll ruminates over their dysfunctional connection. Recently engaged to someone closer to his own age and social status, he can't help himself.

Their addiction to each other is as palpable as their addiction to painkillers. "The first thing they tell you in medical school is that 80 percent of the people who come see you will heal all by themselves and then there are cases where it's hopeless. I saw you again, and I knew it was hopeless."

As their story comes into focus, we learn that Jekyll thinks you can pick up where you left off and pretend that nothing changed, while Hyde insists that at least she has changed some. It's a fitting, if deliberate, metaphor for a city still trying to find itself again.

The most amazing aspect of New Orleans Mon Amour is how the city, three years on, can provide itself as its own movie-set of destruction. Panning shots of the devastated neighborhoods — the too-familiar crushed homes, mangled cars and felled trees — contrast with single images of people working almost futilely against the decay. Almereyda also has the ear of an evesdropper, listening in as central and peripheral characters spill their post-Katrina guts in bars, dusty streets and makeshift beds. Almost everything is poetry, sometimes sad, sometimes angry, always wounded.

He makes wonderful use of the exterior and interior locations, including a concert inside One Eyed Jacks featuring R&B legend Andre Williams — who appears throughout the film — onstage with Quintron, Miss Pussycat and Derek Huston, among others. New Orleans Mon Amour, however flawed, remains a love letter to a city, however in tatters. — David Lee Simmons

MEMBER OF THE CLUB
Directed by Phoebe Ferguson
4 p.m. Mon., Oct. 13
Prytania Theatre
Member of the Club became a Katrina-related film only after the fact. In the prologue to director Phoebe Ferguson's Carnival-inspired documentary, most of the gowns, costumes and archival photographs captured on film were lost in the floodwaters.

And so history is made with a film that has a lot of history to reveal in its portrait of the New Orleans debutant season from the African-American perspective. The story is told through the eyes of teenager Marisa Ariane Mitchell, who hopes to be named queen of the Original Illinois Club, the African-American social aid and pleasure club, during the 2003-2004 season.

Member of the Club joins a too-small group of documentaries — including All on a Mardi Gras Day, Always for Pleasure and Faubourg Tremé — that tell the story of black New Orleans. And like those first two, Mardi Gras plays a heavy role, as the culmination of the Carnival season includes the society balls throughout the city. Marisa proves a charming central character, who wants to build on the success of her mother, who'd always wanted to be a queen and has invested perhaps a bit too much in her daughter improving on the family tradition.

Ferguson follows Marisa's family through the routine of the season: interviewing the club elders, meeting the "modiste" (maker of the ball gowns), enduring countless rehearsals, and so on. It is at times a tedious process, and often Ferguson captures Marisa in moments of ennui and disinterest — almost to the point where the viewer might lose interest.

But what keeps Member of the Club moving along is the incalculable sense of history and tradition that's at stake with a season and a process that to an outsider might seem archaic and meaningless. Through interviews and archival footage, Ferguson traces the roots of the Original Illinois Club back to the predominantly black Pullman porters who worked the railways between New Orleans and Chicago, and how the social aid and pleasure clubs instilled a sense of black empowerment. Even for queens.

As one member puts it, "It shows you've more to offer than cleaning hotel rooms in New Orleans." — Simmons

Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry
Directed by Erich Weiss
5:30 p.m. Mon., Oct. 13
Prytania Theatre
"Stewed, screwed and tattooed," is not a redundant description of drunkenness. It's an account of shipping out — or through — Hawaii during World War II. It's estimated that hundreds of thousands of sailors and Marines hit the Chinatown area of Honolulu for a possibly final bender before heading off to fight in the Pacific. The Hotel Street district was lined with bars, brothels and tattoo parlors, which men hit in rapid succession, usually in that order. Bars had lines down the street and thus offered to sell soldiers four shots of whisky all at once — the sailors were expected to down the booze and leave to make room for the next guy. From there, they either headed to the brothels or tattoo parlors or both. Some of them found their way to Sailor Jerry.

Born Norman Keith Collins, Sailor Jerry grew up fast and joined the Merchant Marine at 19. Traveling the Pacific, he became interested in the tattooing going on in other nations, particularly Japan. By the time World War II started, he had his own tattoo shop in the Hotel district. And he become one of the foremost tattoo artists of his time. He is considered the father of modern American tattooing. Erich Weiss' film chronicles his life (Collins died in 1973) mostly through the eyes of tattoo artists who were inspired by him or apprenticed under him.

Sailor Jerry cut quite a figure. He was a brawler known to pull a knife on a rowdy client — and to sew the victim up afterwards. He also was a tinkerer and was gifted in the field of electronics. Later in life, he launched a midnight radio show and became known as a radically right-wing libertarian.

But he was best known for his tattoos. During his era, tattoo artists developed their own needles and inks. Sailor Jerry was the first American artist to use purple, with a pigment he developed himself. He also imported elements of (much more advanced) traditional Japanese tattooing, particularly shading colors. He developed friendships with Japanese artists and took his nickname "Hori Smoku" from the association. "Hori" was the slang honorific of Japanese artists. It means "to cut." Jerry took it as a Japanese mispronunciation of "Holy Smokes."

The photos of Sailor Jerry's work and him at work are impressive. If this film suffers any flaws, it's that the interviews come across as a bit too distant and nostalgic at times. But more often than not, it's the salty reminiscences of men who lived through some wild times. Most of them — Mike Malone, Lyle Tutle, Philadelphia Eddie Funk, Bob Roberts — were either too young or too remote to have experienced the World War II Honolulu days, but the film's history of that era is fascinating. The seedy allure that tattooing got from the era come from the giddy last hurrahs of men who knew they might not be coming back — rather crass final indulgences far from home. They had both vulgar, banal and beautiful things inked on their flesh — sometimes knowing it might be the way their body would later be identified. It seems only appropriate that an artist and character of Sailor Jerry's renown would offer that skilled, needle-prick flirtation with mortality. — Will Coviello

Wendy & Lucy
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
7:30 p.m. Mon., Oct. 13
Canal Place Cinema
Wendy & Lucy is, purely coincidentally, a Bridge to Nowhere. Wendy is driving through the Pacific Northwest on her way to Ketchikan, Alaska, where she hopes to get a lucrative job in a fishery. It's the area where the infamous Bridge to Nowhere — at a cost of more than $400 million — was going to connect Ketchikan to an island occupied by an airport and 50 people. A ferry runs every 30 minutes.

Regardless, Wendy is trying to stretch her meager resources in order to reach Alaska. She sleeps in her car and bathes in gas station rest rooms. The only bright spot in her determined journey is her dog Lucy. But then her car breaks down in a small city in Oregon, and as she struggles to find a way to cope with a series of misunderstandings, Lucy goes missing.

Kelly Reichardt's film is spare and bleak. Wendy's isolation and vulnerability are clear from the meager interactions she has with others as well as the long, slow and sometimes wobbly pans as she walks around town trying to hold her life together. A phone call to her strange and estranged family suggests her home in Indiana was similarly bleak and economically hard pressed. The people of the town are for the most part good-hearted, decent people, but this isn't a fairy tale, and there's just so much they can offer her.

The film is based on Jon Raymond's story Train Choir. It reaches a short story's final moment of revelation, one I really hadn't expected. Up until that point, I hadn't particularly liked the film. I would say I still don't, but the final scene is perplexing in its ambiguity, ominous in its implications, and I can't stop thinking about it. — Coviello

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