“Red Dog” and other Reviews From The 18th San Francisco Documentary Film Festival

by on May 21, 2019

Brava Opening Night film “Cassandro The Exotico!” delivers a portrait of an openly gay lucha libre wrestler whose quarter century career has brought both honors and severe bodily injuries.  Marie Losier’s home movie-like look at this luchador Jackie Chan captures the life of someone who’s lived on both sides of physical and emotional borders. However, the film ultimately feels more spectacle than substance thanks to its downplaying details about the gay aspects of Cassandro’s life.

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Davey Rothbart’s “17 Blocks” follows 20 years in the life of the Sanford-Durant family via home video footage shot by members of the family.  The odd title comes from the fact that the subject family’s Washington D.C. neighborhood happens to be only seventeen blocks from the nation’s Capitol.

After a couple of flash-forwards, the film starts up in 1999 by formally introducing the members of the Sanford-Durant family.   Single mother Cheryl has three children: Smurf, Denice, and Emmanuel (in order of birth). Smurf’s father passed away long ago, long enough for the teen to regard lack of a father figure in his life as normal.  Cheryl’s parents used to be government workers. At this point, only the father’s still around and suffering from breathing difficulties.

Denice and Emmanuel are in school, with Emmanuel in particular displaying an energetic enthusiasm for studying that’s bigger than his height.  Smurf, on the other hand, is a literal high school dropout.

While these basic facts about the Sanford-Durant family are established, it soon becomes obvious that some important information is left unsaid.  Cheryl doesn’t appear to be working or even show concern that Smurf’s not in school. She’s obviously had sexual relations with other men yet these subsequent relationships haven’t led to those sexual partners becoming the husband she wants.

It takes footage involving Cheryl’s current boyfriend Joe for the proverbial penny to drop in viewers’ minds.  An argument with Joe goes from Cheryl screaming about physical violence to loving behavior. Later, the mother is shown having a disagreement with her boyfriend over paying for a purchase from an off-camera street drug dealer.

Some scenes involving Smurf will disturb the viewer with its disconcerting candor.  The eldest Sanford child is seen administering a beatdown to somebody who owes him money.  Drug bags are being prepared for sale by Smurf with pronounced casualness. Questions about who shot the video or whether the gangbanging Sanford-Durant child isn’t concerned about seeing these moments captured on video race through the viewer’s mind.

Even these moments don’t prepare the viewer for the moment when one of the Sanford-Durants gets senselessly killed.  The actual killing doesn’t get caught on video. But the traces of the killing’s aftermath that are seen onscreen feel horrifying enough.  There’s a sense of personal violation in where the death occurs. The blood spatters seen throughout the murder site were left by someone the viewer had gotten to know from earlier in the film.  Kittens uncomprehendingly sniff an area that the viewer knows children ran through. Even though the murder site does eventually get physically cleaned, the psychological stains prove harder to remove.

Seeing a store that specializes in printing memorial T-shirts for those lost to gun violence is unsurprising yet depressing.  On one hand, the surviving Sanford-Durants are not left emotionally floundering with this aspect of preparing for the funeral.  On the other hand, the thought that these killings happen often enough that a small business can be supported in this manner makes a person want to spit in Wayne LaPierre’s face.

The murder also drives a wedge between two of the surviving Sanford-Durants.  The details of how that division plays out as well as the individual survivors’ attempts to move on from the slaying provides the central drama for the rest of the film.

For the viewer, Rothbart’s wrestling of this sometimes incredibly candid footage into a loose narrative achieves mixed results.  The early parts of the film may introduce the Sanford-Durant family and other people important in their lives. But the languidness of the pace may try the patience of some viewers.  One of the few benefits from these segments of the film is in personalizing a victim of gun violence in the black community. If the Sanford-Durant family member who dies becomes a Pedro Zamora for viewers unable or unwilling to acknowledge this problem, perhaps that’s a small win.

The more urgent point raised by “17 Blocks” is its implied condemnation of general American indifference to the black gun violence problem.  Having the events of this film occur in a place not that distant from the seat of U.S. federal government power reminds the viewer that the problem that upended the lives of the Sanford family is a challenge that should not be dismissed as occurring in a world far different from that of other Americans.

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What does a stand-in for a famous movie star do?  How does one fall into the gig? One man’s answer to these questions can be found in Blake Johnston and Kelso Steinhoff’s short “Uncaged: A Stand-In Story.”

Subject Marco Kyris didn’t set out to be a stand-in.  Kyris’ preference was to be a working actor himself. But let’s say the film clips from Kyris’ pre-stand in days show why his only regular paying gig was being a waiter.  A movie extras agency’s offer of a stand-in gig must have felt to the aspiring actor like a career step down.

In movie production, the stand-in is a human placeholder.  Take someone who has the same physical dimensions and general appearance of your real actor.  Before actual filming begins, the cameraman needs to make sure the shot’s set up properly. The stand-in’s there to stand and allow all these tests to be made without wasting the real actor’s time and attention with waiting around.

It’s probable that what changed Kyris’ life was his lounging in the real actor’s empty chair.  Instead of getting at least 86’d from the set, the wannabe actor was asked if he wanted to be part of the real actor’s entourage.  Kyris’ assent led to a regular job as Nicolas Cage’s stand-in.

While Kyris works in Cage’s shadow, he gets to experience the rarefied life of an A-list movie star.  In a way, the wannabe actor sees the perks of that life without having gone through the headaches associated with becoming a superstar actor.  It also helps that Cage is generous aa a person and impresses Kyris as an inspirational actor willing to take risks with his roles.

For those lost in admiring the glamor of luxury hotels and limousine transport, Kyris’ decision to leave Cage’s employ won’t make sense.  But the subject’s reasoning comes out of a place of habituation to luxury. High-class treatment eventually doesn’t conceal the reality that a person can’t really enjoy life inside movie work’s time-eating prison.  Kyris’ departure from that emotional prison and finding contentment explains why this short is titled “Uncaged.”

Tim Wu’s “2000 Kids And The Mandala” delivers colorful, fun, and entertaining brain food to viewers.  Who knew a film about a public Lego brick project could bring in Jackson Pollock, 3-D computer models, and even an electronic music performance for kids?

At the film’s center is Wei Wei Shannon Gluckman.  She’s one of only 25 Lego Certified Professionals, people around the world who find incredibly creative ways to build things with Lego bricks.  To her, putting together seven Lego bricks is a medium for approaching infinity.

Gluckman’s newest project is a public Lego art piece for Shanghai’s Himalaya Museum.  Brick By Brick, the name of the piece, will be a 19 meter by 19 meter mandala made out of multi-colored Lego bricks.  Helping to build the mandala will be the titular kids under adult supervision.

To the untrained eye, Gluckman’s project sounds like a recipe for disaster, especially given that she has no idea what the final result will look like.  But as the viewer learns, that lack of preconception is part of the design plan. Under the guise of playing with Lego bricks, the participating children are getting a first-hand exposure to designing by process.  This design approach helps release the builder’s subconscious and creativity to shape the final build’s look. Jackson Pollock’s process of creating his paintings provides an earlier example of designing by process.

When the film gets to the day of the public build, the process turns out to be less chaotic than imagined.  The participating children are given some ground rules such as counting out 144 bricks each and using all of these bricks to create up to three basic shapes.  How these shapes are then put together depends on the kid builders’ whim.

Once all the kids’ finished builds are placed in the mandala, the resulting bits of individual creativity turn out to create a breathtaking and beautifully colorful pattern.  Simple towers co-exist with elaborate arches and pyramids. However modest an individual design may be, en masse these builds create a map of the spiritual cosmos symbolically rendered in plastic.

Gluckman notes that these kids were raised in an educational system based on rote learning, which is an example of designing by result.  Hopefully, participating in Brick By Brick will inspire these kids to do more designing by process in the future.

“Red Dog”

If you’re a certain type of Oklahoma City visitor, you will have a story about the Red Dog.  Kim Dick has tons of stories about the strip club because she used to work there as a dancer back in the 1980s.  Songwriter Luke Dick knew the rollicking club from his childhood because he considered it a treat when Kim took him to where she worked.  Luke himself would have no idea what his mother did for a living until he was 12 or 13. Now that the son has become a father, he decides to ask his mother for her stories about life at her former workplace. The result is the wild and entertaining documentary “Red Dog,” directed by Luke Dick and Casey Pinkston.

Before the Red Dog was an Oklahoma City fixture, it used to be an automobile wheel alignment shop.  Owner Ray Mackey would turn the 8,000-10,000 square foot space into a place with two sunken bars, nightly topless go-go dancing, music live and otherwise, an interior lit by neon fixtures and pinball machines, and a clientele ranging from Oklahoma oil field workers to bikers.  The club may have been a go-to place for some Oklahoma City visitors. But as ex-police officer Houck sourly noted, things regularly got crazy enough at the Red Dog that every night would see at least one visit from the cops. Really crazy Red Dog incidents would require two or three police cars to quell the disturbance.

Kim was 15 when she started working as a Red Dog dancer.  Thanks to her winning a bar dance contest (and possibly having the physical attributes that Mackey favored), she was offered a job.  The age thing was quietly not brought up, which suited Kim fine. The job gave her financial and marital independence from her unemployed layabout husband Greg.

Then again, as interviews with other former Red Dog employees show, the club’s informal hiring practices would really unnerve modern day Human Resources officers.  Tiny became the Red Dog bouncer after punching out the guy then holding the bouncing job. Bartender Janet wasn’t pushed to go topless during her shifts. Jeanne became a dancer thanks to being dragooned in her teen years to provide for her family.

Kim matter-of-factly admits she treated her job as a business.   Whatever it took to roll in the dollar bill tips from her customers seemed like fair game.  Still, trying vjazzing decades before it became popular didn’t seem in retrospect like a great idea.

A mother’s youthful wildness maturely reflected on probably explains Luke’s devoting years to this project.  As someone who grew up to be a successful country-western songwriter, he’s amazed he managed to put his daughters through college without falling into the wild life led by Kim.

Luke’s drawing Red Dog stories from his mother comes from a place of love despite Kim’s sometimes feeling otherwise.  What motivates him is curiosity about a loved one rather than long-building score settling. The singer-songwriter, it could be said, turned out unconventional but relatively normal.  That result may sound surprising given Kim’s younger days of excess drug use, exposure to child kidnapping, and getting face-punched.

But it turns out working at the Red Dog didn’t turn its employees into bizarre freaks.  The dancers were religious enough to pray for a well-paying shift or liable to give a loud “Hallelujah!”  Kim may have spent a late night partying, but she ensured her son’s breakfast was ready for him in the morning.  And even if Kim and the other interviewees eventually transitioned out of The Life, they did so at their own pace.

Until that realization came, though, there were naked Halloween parties up at Mackey’s home, unfortunately placed tattoos, and drinking and drug using to excess.  One particularly memorable anecdote involves a drive made interesting by one apparently overdosing passenger who falls over backwards with his feet literally sticking up in the air.

Other interviewees add their own intriguing anecdotes about life at the Red Dog to the film’s mix.  They range from Janet’s remembering the times bar patrons referred to her as Wonder Woman to Charlie’s semi-rueful reminiscences of his relationship with Kim.  Photos and sometimes very simple animation help with the telling of these memories. It feels like a crime that the viewer can’t buy one of these tale tellers a drink and then sit back to hear their stories.

Part of the joy of hearing Kim’s tales is learning about the friends and lovers she met via the Red Dog.  Best friend Nasty Kathy served as confidante and even unintentional matchmaker for her. Luke’s future biological father caught Kim’s eye because she thought he was making a penis joke.  But learning how many of these relationships fell apart means watching a little piece of Kim’s soul die each time.

One small consolation is seeing how Luke benefited from Kim’s relationships.  Nasty Kathy found him an alcoholic drink he’d like. An ex-husband instilled in the future songwriter a love of music.  The co-director even got a step-brother for a short while.

Kim’s path to eventual domestic stability may have been long.  But she doesn’t regret how her life’s route took her to the Red Dog.  When a person’s trip to adulthood begins with riding in an old milk truck, that’s the universe’s sign that the resulting life will not follow the roads frequently taken.

“The Spy Behind Home Plate”

A finger to the lips and the words “Shhh, Secret” served as professional baseball player Moe Berg’s standard response to queries about the espionage work he performed during World War II.  Aviva Kempner’s entertaining cinematic biography “The Spy Behind Home Plate” also doesn’t brim with incredible detail about Berg’s spy work. But it frequently shows that being an espionage agent wasn’t necessarily the most interesting aspect of Berg and his life.

A description of Berg’s accomplishments sounds like a fiction writer’s wish fulfillment list.  This son of a Jewish immigrant graduated from Princeton, got a law degree from Columbia University, spoke at least six different languages, was handsome and tall, was a womanizer, and played for five different professional baseball teams before becoming a spy for the U.S. government.  Kempner may take a familiar chronological approach in telling Berg’s life story. But doing so allows her to show the life experiences that would shape this real-life Jewish hero.

Father Bernard Berg imparted to Moe a tempered love of being Jewish and a chance to flourish in America.  While Bernard liked the Jewish identity, that love didn’t extend to being heavily religious. Moe didn’t become an orthodox Jew, or intensely study the Torah.  Also, Newark, where Moe spent his childhood, wasn’t the sort of community where neighbors’ disapprovals on the Bergs’ not attending religious services were a cause for scandal.  It was a place where the children could grow up immersed in American culture.

Yet Moe Berg’s interest in that most American of sports, baseball, led to friction between father and son.  Moe may have had a rocket arm for pitching. But to the older man, a talent for pitching in what seemed a foolish activity was not worth developing especially when intense development of that “pointless” talent would turn his son into a goyim.  Better for his son to become a lawyer, thought the Berg paterfamilias.

For Moe, his baseball talents opened career doors for him.  He gained renown as the best ballplayer to graduate from Berenger High School.  Princeton bent its openly anti-Semitic policies to allow the young graduate in because his baseball skills were so good.  However, Berg’s being accepted at an elite university didn’t mean he turned his back on his Jewish heritage. The networking opportunities offered by joining a Princeton Eating Society paled next to the implications of saying nothing while the society tried changing its rules to prohibit future Jewish students from joining.

Another thing Moe Berg could not keep silent about was being forced to choose between a possible law career and playing professional baseball.  It’s probable Moe Berg obtained his law license to placate his father, as his heart really wasn’t into practicing law. Some advice from a seasoned lawyer helped the younger Berg decide.  The lawyer noted that the young man can always become a lawyer…but not everyone can become a professional baseball player.

Bernard did not take Moe’s decision to pursue a pro ball career very well.  He refused to attend any baseball game where Moe was playing. At least the younger man’s law professors were willing to let him take time off when baseball training schedules conflicted with law school classes.

Yet if Moe Berg got into Princeton for his baseball chops, he didn’t spend those years taking bonehead classes or living a totally sybaritic life.  Thanks to his photographic memory, he was able to acquire such languages as Hebrew, Yiddish, Greek, and Russian. Latin proved useful for exchanging play plans with the second baseman during games.  And just in case an opposing player knew Latin, both teammates had their knowledge of Sanskrit in reserve.

As that anecdote shows, Kempner’s discussion of Berg’s baseball career will not drown non-baseball fans in technical minutiae, aka insider baseball.  The closest she comes is in explaining the catcher’s role in a baseball game, and the details there reveal the types of skills that would serve Berg well during his espionage work.

Berg’s public baseball persona shows him living up to several American pop culture archetypes.  He was the experienced player who was a friendly mentor to team newbies. For professional sports writers, Berg displayed his intelligence and gave great quotes without a trace of arrogance.  Learning that Berg kept a dinner jacket in his locker for the embassy party he’d attend after a baseball game brings to mind the archetype of the American man who’s at home in both the formal and informal parts of society.

Just how early did Berg begin his espionage career?  Kempner doesn’t speculate, but there are ambiguities in her subject’s life.  His major reason for going to embassy dinner parties was to meet people from countries he was interested in, a desire aided by his speaking the language of that country.  A desire to be well-informed could also explain his regularly packing a wicker suitcase with books on foreign affairs and local newspapers.

Berg’s role in the 1934 All Star All-American Baseball Team tour of Japan is where questions about spy work first start popping up. The official reason for the tour was a goodwill effort to teach the sport to college baseball teams who had only a textbook-level exposure to the game.  Was it a coincidence that Berg became a last-minute substitute for a player who had to drop out? Why did Secretary of State Cordell Hull write a letter asking US embassy staff to extend Berg “every courtesy?” Was Berg’s feverishly learning Japanese during the two week voyage to Japan a way to communicate better with his Japanese hosts?  Or was he playing off the hope that some Japanese he encountered would be more unguarded if they assumed he didn’t speak the language?

Berg’s filming of the Tokyo skyline during his visit certainly didn’t sound like an exercise in gratuitous rule-breaking.  Using a supposed visit to a sick American at St. Luke’s International Hospital gave him a chance to access the roof of one of Tokyo’s highest points for his filming.  The film of the skyline would have military value, which is why the Japanese authorities forbade such filming. In fact, planning for the Doolittle air raids on Tokyo would rely on Berg’s footage.  Finally, this skyline would not be the only “sensitive” location that Berg would film during his extended stay in Japan.

The ballplayer’s return route to America through Nazi Germany exposed him to enough negative local attitudes to confirm that war was a future inevitability.  On his return, Berg publicly talked about fascism’s threat to America. While President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for one agreed Nazism was a threat, isolationism from foreign events still held sway in American political culture.  Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor would quickly sweep that sentiment into America’s political dustbin.

The national anger that made it possible for Roosevelt to enter America into the Second World War gave way to disconcerting realities.  One unfortunately relevant problem was that America’s foreign intelligence structure was outmatched by those of the Germans and Japanese.  Kempner fortunately avoids using the metaphor of the underdog team to refer to the American war effort at this point.

But it’s fair to say that Bill Donovan, the man Roosevelt entrusted to build up America’s foreign intelligence service, took a page from Moe Berg’s book regarding learning Japanese.  He engaged on a crash course in setting up a foreign intelligence service. Future James Bond creator Ian Fleming taught Donovan Foreign Spying 101. Recruits for Donovan’s new outfit, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), came from all over society.  Some of the more prominent talented amateurs who became part of the OSS included Marlene Dietrich, Ralph Bunche, Julia Child…and Moe Berg.

Unlike Moe Berg’s earlier decision to become a professional baseball player, Bernard Berg was strongly on board with having his children contribute to the war effort.  Moe’s years in baseball certainly showed he had personal qualities useful in tradecraft. These qualities included an ability to think on his feet, adaptability, and a willingness to do crazy stuff.

Once Berg becomes part of the OSS, Kempner’s film becomes light on details regarding Berg’s work at the agency.  A viewer can imagine him smiling, putting a finger to his lips, and saying “Shhh.”

However, the filmmaker does relate two missions of Berg’s which would impact the war effort.  A hunt for Italian scientists doing rocketry-related work led Berg to one Antonio Ferri. The Italian Air Force scientist studied aerodynamics using a high-speed wind tunnel.  Rather than let his work fall into German hands, Ferri took his sensitive papers and hid somewhere in northern Italy. Berg eventually found the fugitive scientist turned partisan group organizer and realized Ferri needed to be lifted back to the United States.  The direct intervention of Roosevelt allowed Berg to get Ferri to safety.

Assessing German progress in making an atomic bomb turned out to be the basis of the mission that provides the dramatic climax of Kempner’s film.  Werner Heisenberg was Germany’s most prominent atomic scientist. An upcoming Heisenberg lecture provided an opportunity for Berg to personally assess how close the Germans had gotten to making the atomic bomb.  Berg was to assassinate Heisenberg if needed, knowing that this might be a suicide mission. While the ballplayer had been given a working knowledge of the physics involved, it turned out that Heisenberg was speaking at a more rarified theoretical level of physics.  Berg may not have understood the science the German scientist spoke about. Fortunately, he understood human nature well enough to make his determination.

Had the OSS not sought out talented amateurs or 1st and 2nd generation immigrants for recruits, it’s fair to say America’s World War II efforts would have turned out very differently.  Kempner’s film may not mention current American nativist attacks on immigration or even the virtue of cultural diversity. But after hearing Berg’s amazing story, it’s hard to not feel that America ultimately benefits from having more Moe Bergs and less Tucker Carlsons.

(“The Spy Behind Home Plate” opens June 7, 2019. The San Francisco screening will be at the Landmark Opera Plaza Cinemas (601 Van Ness Avenue).  Director Aviva Kempner will appear in person for the opening night screenings.  For further information about the film go to http://spybehindhomeplate.org/.)

(San Francisco DocFest runs from May 29 to June 13, 2019 at the Brava and Roxie Theaters.  “Cassandro The Exotico!” screens at 8:00 PM on May 29, 2019 at the Brava Theatre (2781 – 24th Street, SF).  “17 Blocks” screens at 7:00 PM on May 31, 2019. “Uncaged: A Stand In Story” and “2000 Kids And The Giant Mandala” screen as part of the program “Shorts 1: Ask Me About My Job,” which screens at 12:15 PM on June 1, 2019 and 7:00 PM on June 3, 2019.  “Red Dog” screens at 9:15 PM on May 31, 2019 and 9:00 PM on June 5, 2019. These screenings take place at the Roxie Theater (3117-16th Street, SF). For further information about these and other DocFest films, and to order advance tickets, go to http://sfindie.com .)

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