Tuesday, March 16, 2010
SXSW 2010: Day Two
No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson. Whenever the great documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The New Americans) has a new doc, he shows it at SXSW, and it's always one of the festival highlights for me. This year's world-premiere screening of No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson was no exception. The 90-minute doc was shot as part of ESPN's 30 for 30 series (it will air on April 13), in which 30 directors each tell a story about an athlete "that really resonates for them personally," as James put it at the screening. The films are about sports, but — at least in the ones he's seen so far—always as "an avenue to something else."
As told by James and his crew, Iverson's story is a great American tragedy, a harrowing look into the gaping racial fault line that runs through America in general and Hampton, Virginia, in particular. The city is the filmmaker's hometown as well as the ballplayer's; James even played basketball there in high school, his father lettered there in three sports, and his mother still lives there.
Without those strong roots in the community, he said at the screening, he could never have made this film — and even so, he had to work hard to get most of his subjects to talk to him, since they didn't want to re-expose rifts they have worked hard to paper over. But in the end, he got a good sampling of the community on film, including people who coached or otherwise mentored Iverson, community leaders and lawyers who supported him after his arrest, reporters who covered the case, retired policemen and other community officials, and a few people who thought he got what he deserved. Almost all are frank and articulate about what they thought and felt about his arrest 17 years ago — and still do, just as strongly.
Iverson himself never talked to the filmmakers, so they piece together their portrait from archival footage and what others say about him. He comes off as a soft-eyed, soft-spoken, proud, easily wounded, and incredibly gifted young man with an iron will. "Go to a hardware store, pick up the smallest nail in there, and try to bend it. You can't. It's tough. That's Allen Iverson," says one man who knew Iverson as a boy.
It also seems clear that his sense of responsibility comes from the street. (Loyal to family and friends but suspicious of institutions, he essentially raised himself and his two younger siblings for several years while his young single mother was addicted to drugs, often skipping school to take care of family obligations.) That street code has not served him well as a professional athlete. Iverson was the NBA's first draft pick in 1996, but his habit of abruptly quitting teams and his reputation for not being a team player or listening to coaches has kept him from the kind of stardom achieved by Michael Jordan (who we see Iverson outplaying in one thrilling clip.)
As James asks in the voiceover that guides the narrative, "Barely six-feet tall, is Allen Iverson, pound for pound, the best basketball player ever? Or...is he a thug in basketball shorts?" People convinced he was a thug made sure he and three of his African-American friends were arrested and charged with felony crimes as adults when they got into a brawl with some white kids at a bowling alley (none of the white kids were charged with anything). That incident, which led to Iverson's doing time and then being expelled from high school, was a turning point for him—and for the town of Hampton, whose black churches and community leaders rallied behind the jailed boys and, as one community leader recounts, very nearly rose up in rebellion.
Time and again, James returns to the image of that beautiful young man in handcuffs, being led to and shoved into the back of a police van. It's an eloquent illustration of what one of the organizers who he interviews said at the time: "The plantation of the 21st century is the penitentiary."
Animated Shorts. Free from the laws of gravity, the geography of the natural world, and the personalities, charisma, physical appearance, and chi of live actors, animation provides about as clear a window as you can get into a filmmaker's imagination and perceptions. Some of the animators at this year's SXSW use their art to focus on familiar situations or emotions, while others want to create new worlds or play around with some of the components of our own. A couple are after nothing less than spiritual transcendence.
The Polish Language, an Irish filmmaker's tribute to Polish poets, is a dreamily seductive concrete poem of a movie, creating visual metaphors for phrases chosen from poems in "this sonorous, consonant tongue," and The Orange is an original take on origin theories, tracing the journey of an orange that ruled the world for a while (the orange always glows, often against a black-and-white background)—until the narrator buys and eats it.
One Square Mile of Earth, a very funny tour of a gay bar with stops to eavesdrop on some familiar types, is fun to look at. One character looks like a cross between Peter Lorre and a rabbit; another has a long, horsey face with lips you just can't stop watching. It's even more fun to listen to, with lines like: "I think before you can call yourself an artist, you have to complete one project."
This year's entry by Bill Plympton, The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Burger, is as alive and dryly funny as all his work, with its vibrating lines, vibrant colors, and clearly motivated—and often quixotically deluded—characters. The star this time is a determined little calf, who pumps iron and runs away from her horrified mother to try to live her dream of becoming one of those happy burgers she sees on a billboard.
A couple of the animated shorts were disappointingly literal-minded, though they made their points. Bygone Behemoth, a heavy-handed metaphor about Hollywood, shows an aged movie monster surrounded by his posters at home, reading depressing news in Variety about the death of his cronies and the rise of CGI characters. And Poppy, a tale of two WWI soldiers from New Zealand behind enemy lines in France who find a baby with her dead parents and save it at their own peril, is the kind of story that works better when you hear it from someone who experienced it (as director James Cunningham did from his great-grandfather) than if you see it on film, where it feels sentimental and contrived. This also felt like a misfire as an animated movie; I think it might have worked better in live action. The characters look startlingly real in long and medium shots, but their heads look like chiseled plastic, giving them a GI Joe feel in close-up. The best thing about a film is the expressions on the soldiers' faces, thanks to the performance-capture technology the filmmakers used. So why not just show us the actors? Bygone Behemoth would like to know.
Written for The House Next Door