It’s like when your haircutter jumps to a new salon: you scurry after. So I was off to Silver Spring, Maryland, and the Fourth Silverdocs Documentary Festival earlier this month, because Sky Sitney, previously of the Newport Film Festival, had taken over as director of programming. How would this expert chooser of films make out, with, at her disposal, the three houses at the American Film Institute’s sumptuously restored AFI Silver Theatre?
SPACEMAN: T hat would be former Sox pitcher Bill Lee.
Good job, Sky! I saw a half-dozen new documentaries of exceptional merit, including, ideal for a Bosox lad, the world-premiere screening of Brett Rapkin’s Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey, an affectionate portrait of the irrepressible Bill “Spaceman” Lee. The former Red Sox starter remains the political anti–Curt Schilling, pot-smoking and pot-bellied, a regular partaker of el béisbol in Fidel’s Cuba. He’d never join a ballplayers’ prayer group, or campaign, as Curt did, for the hated George W. Bush. According to his biographer, who's interviewed in the film, “He’d talk about a Godard movie, a Fellini movie.” His befuddled outfielder friend, Fred Lynn, confided that Lee dabbled in “extistentialism.”
Silverdocs was filled with crowd-appealing special events. A screening of Wordplay was followed by a Will Shortz–led, open-to-the-audience crossword-puzzle contest. J.L. Aronson’s music documentary Danielson: A Family Movie prompted a live concert by the unclassifiable, elusively talented Christian family band: this skeptic Jewboy became an instant Danielson disciple! How about a dialogue between Jim Jarmusch and Martin Scorsese concerning Scorsese’s three decades of documentaries? Conversation centered on Scorsese’s 1974 Italianamerican with Marty’s parents on their living-room couch. Scorsese: “She was more outgoing, he more the Sicilian baron. Right was right, wrong was wrong, why I related to East of Eden, James Dean not being able to talk to his father. At the time, I was 29, I’d grown a beard, my father didn’t like it. Now I’m older than my father, I shaved the beard, I wear glasses, I look like him!”
Jarmusch asked Scorsese to recall the first time he met the subject of his latest documentary, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005). It was in the 1970s, and Dylan asked him, “Do you know about this guy Fassbinder? You should see his film Beware of a Holy Whore.”
Preceding Jarmusch-Scorsese was Al Gore, new superstar of documentaries because of An Inconvenient Truth, delivering a keynote address. Gore was there to chat about media and non-fiction films and plug his new cable network, Current TV. I watched to see whether he’d be a better, globally warmer presidential candidate than the last time around. My depressing conclusion: he’s mostly the same old Al Bore, a stiff, pedantic college prof. Yeah, it was impressive to have a politician name-drop Adorno and the Frankfurt School, Galileo and the Enlightenment, Thomas Paine. But what a meandering, ponderous, talk! I’ll confess: the Tennessean who used the word “disintermediated” led me to several minutes of deep shuteye.
Jim Jarmusch, whom I talked to at a late-night funky tavern, had a different vantage. Backstage, he and Scorsese ran into the ex-VP, and he marveled at seeing Marty and Al have a conversation about how they both loved the films of John Cassavetes! Then, somehow, Jarmusch and Gore got into a discussion of quantum physics, Jarmusch made a statement about string theory, and Gore corrected him. Jarmusch was impressed. “Gore has a soul, and he's probably too soulful to be elected president.”