picture in picture

AFF2012: ‘See the Dirt’

Locals produce prize-winning short doc about a vintage vacuum fan

By Leah Churner, 9:35PM, Wed. Oct. 24, 2012

AFF2012: ‘See the Dirt’

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who like vintage vacuum cleaners and those who don’t. Scott MacMillan loves them. He’s the subject of UT grad Chelsea Hernandez and Erick Mauck’s short documentary “See The Dirt,” which won the Austin Film Festival’s jury competition prize for best short doc this year.

“See The Dirt” takes us on a tour of the 14-year-old Georgetown resident’s extensive collection of vacuum cleaners, from his mini-storage unit to the “vacuum graveyard” in his family’s garage to the inside of his house, where the appliances line the halls. (Naturally, the MacMillans have wall-to-wall carpet.) The inner sanctum is his bedroom; where other teenagers would hang posters, he has his favorite Singer antiques mounted on the wall. On the floor are round carpet samples, about three feet in diameter, for recreational vacuuming. 

What sets a vacuum cleaner enthusiast apart from other hoarders? Tidiness. An expert in the history of vacuums, MacMillan has the same nostalgia for obsolete technology as a film collector or a classic car nut. He can repair them as well. His mom says he’ll probably become an engineer for NASA. Plenty of subtext here about gender roles and family dynamics; I found myself worrying about what a few years of suburban Texas high school will do to this kid. Will he be bullied? Will he renounce his eccentricity in order to fit in?

Audience reaction at the Hideout on Tuesday was an indicator of the directors’ command of the short-form narrative nonfiction craft. A woman behind me spent about two-thirds of the film making loud, disapproving noises like Dana Carvey’s Church Lady. She wanted everybody to know she thought this kid was a problem child, and I pegged her as the kind of miserable provincialist who will someday cause MacMillan to flee Georgetown for more tolerant climes. Yet, by the last third of the film the woman had changed her tone. Annoying as her lack of theater etiquette was, I was touched by her audible conversion to the filmmaker’s point of view. It was as if she’d discovered empathy for the first time. 

“See The Dirt” reminded me of something Paul Feig said this weekend while introducing The Human Tornado: He defined geekdom simply as “the love of weird stuff.” While it would have have been easy for Hernandez and Mauk to exploit or pathologize MacMillan, they instead treat him with the respect of kindred geeks. Hoovers and Singers aside, we’ve all known a true rebel like MacMillan, a guy who pursues his life’s passion with gusto. All young geeks should see this film, and all Church Ladies too.

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