13th S.F. DOCFEST—“THE VISITOR,” “VANNIN’,” AND “HAIRY WHO AND THE IMAGISTS”

by on June 11, 2014

Katarina Schroeter is both director and central performer in her improvised documentary “The Visitor.”  She mutely walks randomly through the streets of Sao Paulo, Mumbai, and Shanghai.  The film records her unscripted encounters with everyone from an Indian grandmother to a Chinese construction laborer.  Her only communication comes from pointing at objects or mimicking others’ actions.  Perhaps Schroeter’s facial expressions shift slightly.  Otherwise, she remains silent.

The director’s apparent muteness bridges the differences between her and the people she meets.  Physically, she generally stands a head taller than the inhabitants of the three cities she visits.  Yet that dominance of height is undercut by Schroeter’s supposedly limited ability to communicate.  As a result, her silent curiosity is less intrusive and more reflective towards the people she encounters.

Of the film’s collection of brief and extended random encounters, three particular people merit extended interaction.  Old Cigano is a Sao Paulo taxi driver who talks about life in an empty nest.  Migrant Chinese construction laborer Xilong uses his encounter with Schroeter to impart some stability to his unstable life.  Lonely churchgoer Christina Feng alternates between affection for the foreign woman and emotional withdrawal.

Those three people are in their way also visitors in their respective cities.  Xilong, for example, stays in one place as long as work exists for him.  But it is Feng’s feelings, captured in voice-over narration, which shows how her emotional alienation leads to a tentative bond with Schroeter.  Ironically, despite sharing a bed with Schroeter, the Chinese woman’s emotional distance remains unchanged.

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The romance of traveling the open road has been one of America’s most cherished myths.  But those who count themselves among the ranks of 1970s van enthusiasts live that romance rather than dream about it.  These enthusiasts are the interview subjects of Andrew Morgan and Nick Nummerdor’s documentary “Vannin’.”  Built around the 40th annual National Truck-In, a traveling gathering of 1970s American van enthusiasts, the filmmakers attempt to immerse the viewer in both vanning’s history and culture.

Individualism and genial hedonism are shown to be two characteristic strands of vanner culture.  The vanners interviewed have various reasons for adopting this lifestyle, such as not having to worry about rent or mortgages.  Vans painted with a Death Star motif or having an interior fitted with a disco mirror ball are certainly not items that would necessarily work with a house.  The drug use and casual sex of the 1970s has given way to feasting and a drunken karaoke rendition of “My Heart Will Go On.”

The lifestyle on display at the National Truck-In could be called a triumph of the 2% Movement.   That informal movement successfully rejected auto companies’ attempts to increase the van-using customer base by making the lifestyle more “family-friendly” (i.e. no drugs, no casual sex).

Yet in some ways, the 2% Movement achieved only a pyrrhic victory.  Attendance at the Truck-In is only one-tenth what it had been at the craze’s heights.  Drinking and eating to excess generally coupled with super-sized bodies don’t inspire confidence in the vanners’ longevity.  Finally, vans still require parking places and gas at prices that would not be economically ruinous.

Despite an optimistic uptick at the end, Morgan and Nummerdor’s portrayal of vanner culture generates only shallow appreciation of the lifestyle.  Genuine insight about vanning life is lacking in the interview subjects’ statements.  The film contents itself with depicting various vans’ visual flashiness.  Perhaps more ruthless editing could have turned this material into a potent short film.

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Leslie Buchbinder’s “Hairy Who And the Imagists” rewards the curious viewer with an annoying mix of hagiography and preciousness.  Rather than make the Imagists the Fishbone of the art world, the film turns the groups and their work into an intellectual in-joke.

The Imagists, who were based in the Chicago area, offered a button-pushing artistic alternative to the detachment of Pop Art.  Using visual language liberally borrowed from comics, advertising, and other mass symbolism, this informal artistic movement made that language’s familiarity a medium for stretching and distorting viewers’ cultural boundaries.

Buchbinder’s film tries using a web metaphor to describe the connections among the Imagist groups The Non-Plussed Some, The False Image, and The Hairy Who.  The titular Imagist group playfully got its name from tweaking an innocent query regarding the surname of a local art critic named Harry.   To show the Imagists’ influence on later artists, the viewer hears from cartoonists Chris Ware and Gary Panter as well as renowned artist Jeff Koons.

To lend a final patina of authenticity to these forgotten artists, Cheryl Lynn Bruce’s irritatingly breathless narration accompanies surviving Imagists’ talk of avoiding co-optation.  Hairy Who artist Karl Wirsum’s psychedelic portrait of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins or Gladys Nilsson’s bright weaving watercolor limbs admittedly couldn’t be used to sell fast-food hamburgers.  But is presenting Imagist art on an “if you don’t understand it, too bad” basis truly the way to make a case for Imagism’s merits?  Art that does not yield to a viewer’s reasonable efforts at even unconscious association surely deserves a word from an expert in sequential art, for example, to make the case for its merits.

Also undercutting the film’s effectiveness is its omission of basic details such as the reason for The Hairy Who’s break-up or what happened to its members beyond a vague sense of their continuing to make art.  In the end, these shortcomings leave Buchbinder’s documentary as little more than a mash note for the Imagist in-crowd.

(“The Visitor” screens at 2:45 PM on June 14, 2014 at the Oakland School of the Arts Theater (530 19th Street, Oakland).  “Vannin’” screens at 7:00 PM on June 12, 2014.  “Hairy Who And The Imagists” screens at 7:00 PM on June 15, 2014 and 9:15 PM on June 17, 2014.  Screenings for the latter two films take place at the Roxie Theater (3117 & 3125-16th Street, SF).  For advance tickets and further information on the films, go to www.sfindie.com .)

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