These American Lives
Rooting out characters in the Mississippi delta, the streets of Milwaukee, and summer camp in Michigan
When you think of documentaries, you don't really think of characters. These are real people, with real problems, real stories to tell. Not characters. But to make a good documentary, you have to find good characters. As in, "That guy's a real character." And that's exactly how filmmaker Bradley Beesley stumbled into his first feature documentary, 1999's Hill Stomp Hollar, about the Delta blues scene.
"I saw [R.L.] Burnside play in Oklahoma City," Beesley, a frequent Flaming Lips videographer, explains. "I went and hung out with him after the show, and I thought, 'This guy is a fucking character.' That's what it was based on." Burnside is a character, a now-legendary blues guitarist with two bottom teeth and an affinity for corn whiskey and telling it like it is.
Sarah Price -- whose 2000 film, Caesar's Park, will screen on a double bill with Hill Stomp Hollar Wednesday, April 2, at 7:30pm -- knows a thing or two about characters. Her documentary, about her neighborhood in Milwaukee, is full of them. Like Genevieve Waraka, an eightysomething Polish war bride who likes to use phrases like "up shit creek without paddle" and practically assaults Price with the question, "haven't you ever seen a pecker?" -- and that's with a midday cocktail in one hand, the other hand squeezing a long, thin, inflated balloon for effect. Or Richard Bridenbaugh, a lonely and sweet-natured young man who keeps close, curious watch on all his neighbors. Not unlike Price, Bridenbaugh is a chronicler of what he sees. But there is something immeasurably sad in the way Bridenbaugh photographs each of the graves in a nearby cemetery (some 700), just to prove a point, or photographs his window -- a picture of the place where he sits and pictures the rest of the world, a world he doesn't have much to do with. (He tried to make friends with three women at a community club, but the women complained to management that Bridenbaugh was creeping them out.) Caesar's Park is a moving, somewhat melancholy portrait of real people -- characters, yes, but characters more like the ones we encounter day to day -- not the boozing and brawling mad geniuses of North Mississippi, but the characters who sleep above, beside, and down the street from us, at whose interior lives we can only guess. Price's film goes a long way in illuminating those lives.
As the title would suggest, Beesley's Hill Stomp Hollar is a more raucous affair, with a terrific soundtrack, live performance footage, and funny, revealing looks at grizzled Mississippi musicians like Burnside, Cedell Davis, and T-Model Ford, all of whom are signed to Oxford, Miss.'s homegrown Fat Possum Records. The shoot was not without its troubles, though, starting with the death, two weeks prior to filming, of key player Junior Kimbrough (who left behind 36 children). Beesley rushed into production, figuring, "These guys are all in their mid-70s. If they croak, we're not going to have a movie." The troubles got worse after the filmmaker screened Hill Stomp Hollar to the record label. Displeased with the way they were represented, Fat Possum demanded changes be made, changes Beesley refused to make. However, he had neglected to secure music rights prior to filming (an oversight Beesley now affably chalks up to him being a novice and an "idiot"). He eventually sold all the footage back to Fat Possum and from those funds paid off his $18,000 credit card debt, thus enabling him to charge another $26,000 to make his second feature doc, Okie Noodling, about the extreme sport of catfish fishing -- extreme in that fishermen use their hands as bait and rod (see p.48 for the DVD review).
These days, Beesley looks back at the film as a trial run for a first-timer. "I don't really harbor any bad feelings. ... I still buy everything [Fat Possum] puts out, even though they don't send it to me free anymore." True, the label could take legal action if they knew he was screening the film in public -- a film which, by the way, is a wholly affectionate look at Fat Possum's musicians -- but, as Beesley cheekily notes, "I don't have anything for anyone to take. What are they going to do to me?" He pauses, then smiles. "Although they do carry guns. ... "
Most likely the subjects of his next film won't pose a similar threat: They range from ages 10 to 16, denizens of a summer camp in Michigan. Inspired by a segment on NPR's This American Life, Beesley has set out to record the summer lovin' and cabin fever of that particular rite of passage, and he's asked his friend Sarah Price to join in. Beesley, a former Okie recently transplanted to Austin, met Price, who still lives in Milwaukee, at SXSW 01. The two filmmakers hit it off -- as Beesley puts it, "The documentary film community's pretty tight" -- and so, when Beesley struck upon the idea for Camp Life, he asked Price to collaborate. This summer, the two will live, eat, and hang with the campers for a month, Price bunking with the girls, Beesley on the other side of the lake with the boys (and yes, there really is a lake in between). The screening at the Alamo is a fundraiser for the project, which is in preproduction now. In a couple of weeks, they'll go to Chicago to shoot preliminary footage.
"We're doing, for lack of a better term, a casting call," says Beesley. "If we get a hundred kids, we're going to interview them all, ask some questions, and review the tapes, and be like, 'OK, this kid's a winner. He's a freak. We're going to follow him.' A freak in a good way -- insanely smart or whatever. So that's the plan."
In short, to find the real characters and see where they take them.
Hill Stomp Hollar and Caesar's Park will screen on Wednesday, April 2, at 7:30pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown. Both filmmakers will be in attendance. Admission is $14.