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The Lens: At the 2009 Festival on Nov. 14

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 13, 2009 - Branson, Directed by Brent Meeske - I've been to Branson, the clean-cut, God-fearing, traffic-congested, America-firsting Fantasyland in the Ozarks, and I always say if you're forced to choose between it and Hell, go with the one that has the fewer Yakov Smirnoff billboards.

Brent Meeske's fascinating new documentary offers a hard look at the town Bart Simpson described as "Vegas - if it were run by Ned Flanders" and finds a more down-to-earth and slightly depressed place than that suggested by the lights of their star-studded strip. We all know that Branson is home to a unique collection of aging or semi-forgotten performers - Andy Williams, Jim Stafford, several generations of Osmonds - but what about the shows that struggle to stay open and the dozens of aspiring singers and dancers who hit the stage every night but have to take day jobs just to pay the rent?

Meeske's film reveals the less romantic side of living in a town where show business - and show business of a very particular nostalgia-and-family-values sort - is the core of the local economy.

"Branson"  steps behind the scenes to look at two struggling shows, "#1 Hits of the 60s" and "Blast." The first has an enthusiastic cast and loyal producers who work hard to keep the show running, despite a lukewarm audience. (They may have had a change in luck since the film was made; they're currently in their seventh season.) The second closes down as the filmmakers watch, leaving two of its performers, a married couple, wondering why they left six-figure salaries in New York for the promise of Midwestern family values.

The real story of "Branson," however, is that of "Jackson Cash," a talented Johnny Cash impersonator with a turbulent past who arrives in Taney County with little more than his guitar and a handful of self-produced CDs. His rapid rise and fall - and rise again - quickly provide a dramatic center for the film.

When the filmmakers first meet Cash, he's facing eviction, going into Mall salons to borrow hairspray and hawking CDs for gas money, but a series of fortuitous events turns him into an overnight sensation, and just as quickly brings him back down to earth. In a few short months, Cash finds a theater, is "born again" on national TV through the efforts of Jim Bakker (another celebrity who has found a second life in Branson) and then nearly loses everything in circumstances that recall the early years of the original Man in Black. Cash, to his credit, is astonishingly frank in discussing his career and his faults with the filmmakers, creating a searingly open portrait of a gifted but troubled artist with more than a fair share of personal demons.

"Branson" is an excellent documentary, not because it pokes holes at the All-American-Country-Hillbilly-Jubilee facade of a town that (to quote "The Simpsons" again) "took 'Nick at Night' and made it a town," but because it illustrates the many dilemmas - from the small struggles of the gung-ho casts of "Blast" and "Hits of the 60s" to the personal turmoil of Mr. Cash - facing anyone who hopes to tap or strum their way to a decent living. Henske manages to pull out open and honest portrayals of his subjects and, without exploiting their honesty, tells a powerful story.

For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism

Directed by Gerald Peary
11.am.,  Tivoli

In the past two years, we've seen a lot of discussion, both online and in print, about the future of film criticism, some of it thoughtful, some of it motivated by rivalry between the declining world of "old media" and the boisterous and noisy world of the new, and far too much of it shaped along the lines of "If film critics are so smart, how come 'Transformers 2' made $400 million?" Gerald Peary's "For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism" is a no-nonsense talking-heads audiovisual accompaniment to the discussion, shaped by someone who is passionate about films and criticism and knows the field from within (Peary has written about movies for decades and has been a columnist for the "Boston Phoenix" since 1996).

Using film clips and interviews with some of the more prominent members of the profession - Andrew Sarris, Roger Ebert, Colleen Haskell, A.O. Scott, J. Hoberman, Richard Schickel - as well as young-turk bloggers, the first half of the film follows the history of film discussion, from the primarily descriptive accounts of silent programs at the beginning of the 20th century through the emergence of voices like Vachel Lindsay, James Agee and Manny Farber, climaxing with the celebrated rivalry between Sarris and Pauline Kael, a feud that was never settled but succeeded in giving movies an equal footing with the traditional high arts.

"For the Love"'s historical survey may emphasize the personalities of the critical pantheon over their differing approaches, but it's a good introduction to the field, tracing the growth of the critical establishment alongside the evolution of the medium itself. My only quibble with Peary's account is that it gives the impression that story ends some time in the mid-70s, ignoring trends like genre studies, semiotics, ideological criticism and the rise of film magazines like "Film Comment" and "Film Quarterly." Those developments might have pushed the film into slightly more esoteric territory, but they're still part of the history.

The remainder of the film, which covers the declining status of professional film critics and the emergence of the blogger as a critical force, becomes a bit defensive and less convincing, relying on a number of unsubstantiated premises (one argument can be summed up as "You old critics just don't get 'Fight Club'!") and a highly limited definition of a film critic as a salaried columnist for a newspaper or a national magazine, a definition that allows any number of mediocrities (some of whom are seen in the film) but would exclude Susan Sontag, Parker Tyler, much of Manny Farber, Sarris' earliest auteurist manifestos and dozens of other excellent but underemployed commentators.

What might have been a legitimate discussion of the decline in critical discourse in the box-office-obsessed climate of the past 30 years or so (the film doesn't make this point, but the national premiere of "Sneak Previews" in 1977 isn't just a coincidence) comes off looking more like a print-vs.web turf war.

What Peary's film misses is that the problems of contemporary film discussion don't stem from the method by which they're published. At worst, they're symptomatic of a decline in critical thinking, not in circulation. It's easy to poke fun at the quote-feeders and junket-whores whose gushy exclamations fill so many news ads (something of which both print and web critics are guilty) - but not so convincing when it's being done by Rex Reed, a man whose own contributions to the dignity of his craft include several years on the panel of "The Gong Show."

(Note: This is a free program.)

Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie

Directed by Michelle Esrick
3:30 p.m., Tivoli

If you've ever heard of Wavy Gravy (formerly known as Hugh Romney), it was probably as one the Merry Pranksters immortalized in Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," as leader of a commune called the Hog Farm or as the toothless hippie making on-stage announcements at Woodstock ("What we have in mind here is breakfast in bed for 400,000"). Any misconception of Wavy/Romney as little more than a question from "Trivial Pursuit: The Psychedelic Edition" should be put to rest by "Saint Misbehavin'," a loving portrait of a rich life devoted to good works and anarchic clowning.

Gravy (whose adopted name came from a throwaway remark from B.B. King) is a clown, in more than one sense. A Beat poet in the late '50s, he became a stand-up comic when he realized that audiences were more responsive to the off-the-cuff stories he delivered in between poetry readings. After forming The Hog Farm, a loosely structured collective, he took to wearing a jester's outfit and adding slapstick and street theatre to nonviolent demonstrations: when The Hog Farm was recruited to provide security at Woodstock, he vowed to keep the peace using cream pies and seltzer bottles. Years later, when asked to entertain children in a hospital, he became a clown in the literal white -greasepaint-and-rubber-nose sense, a look he maintains today.

Esrick's film is a very intimate look at Gravy, his family and friends, and he rambles around Berkeley (in clown garb, of course), ducks into the local Ben and Jerry's (where he gets free ice cream for life, his reward for letting them name a flavor after him), and tells stories of his counter-cultural adventures in a life that led him from performing in Greenwich Village nightclubs (where his roommate was a skinny kid from Minnesota with a nasal voice who wanted to be a folksinger) to freewheeling his way across Asia.

But "Saint Misbehavin'" is more than just a nostalgic visit with an aging hippie raconteur. Between Gravy's candor and the filmmaker's expert organization of interviews, historic footage and contemporary recording, the film looks beyond its subject's holy-fool persona to reveal an exceptionally rich and generous life. For several weeks in each year, the Hog Farm runs Camp Winnarainbow, a summer camp where children practice meditation and learn clown skills like juggling.

With the late spiritual leader Ram Dass and longtime friend Dr. Larry Brilliant, he was instrumental in forming the Seva Foundation, an organization that provides cataract surgery to poor people in third world countries. The film shows Gravy putting energy into both of these projects, leading the campers in exercises, organizing an annual fund-raising concert for Seva, and visiting impoverished villages that have benefited from Seva's medical work.

That's a pretty heady list of accomplishments for a clown, but Esrick's film captures the whole thing and leaves the viewer with a strong sense of respect for Gravy and his clownish, constructive life.

The Lens is the blog of Cinema St. Louis, hosted by the Beacon.