Outrages big and small, and the occasional miracle, at DOC NYC

ScreenerBlog

Picking your way among the choices at DOC NYC 2017 is a rewarding but sometimes daunting task. There are documentaries about strife in the Middle East, the cats of Istanbul, a science-fiction utopia in Minnesota, a Golden Age of Hollywood hustler, and how an animated store clerk has driven a standup comedian insane for years. Opening the schedule to a random page works too.

It’s not uncommon to come across documentaries about the genius of this or that artist. What something like Miracle on 42nd Street does is quite different. Alice Elliott’s years-in-the-making project is a valentine to an unlikely subject. The Manhattan Plaza is a frankly ugly complex whose two high-rise apartment towers rose on 42nd Street in the 1970s in a misbegotten attempt to lure luxury residents back to the crime-ridden district. Converted largely to subsidized housing for performing artists, the Plaza served as an incubator and semi-dormitory for the nearby theatre district.

Elliott captures warm recollections of the Plaza’s tight community from residents like Giancarlo Esposito, Terrence Howard and Angela Lansbury (pictured above). It was the kind of place where an as-yet-undiscovered Samuel L. Jackson worked as the doorman, and Larry David found inspiration for part of “Seinfeld”in his fellow comic and resident Kenny Kramer. Although the movie suffers, not surprisingly, from repetition and some clunky structuring, Elliott makes a strong case not just for the importance of mixed-income housing like the Plaza in general but specifically how it helped ensure that a steady stream of talent was there to keep the lights on Broadway lit during not just the dark years but for the Broadway renaissance of the 1980s and beyond.

A different kind of planned development is dissected in The Experimental City. Working from the opposite direction of Chad Freidrichs’ last feature, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth—which deconstructed the urban legend of an infamous St. Louis housing project—this time he explores a project that never was. Working from the relatively few pieces of archival material available, Freidrichs pieces together the incredible and little-known story of how Athelstan Spilhaus, an enthusiastic futurist and “Rabelaisian” scientific popularize, nearly convinced the federal government to fund a city of the future to be built somewhere in Minnesota in the 1970s.

Freidrichs’ science-factual account of Spilhaus’ quixotic project is something like the urban-studies version of Lost in La Mancha, where great ideas founder in nearly comical ways. As all manner of urbanists and tinkerers and inventors convened in Minneapolis under the aegis of Spilhaus and a local newspaper magnate, they imagined how to create a perfect new “Experimental City” (or MXC) for a quarter-million people that would solve the problems of postwar urban blight. Their $10 billion utopian dream is fast interrupted by the muck-and-mire realities of funding and implementation, not to mention 55,000 acres that nobody needed. Rarely has the gulf between top-down planning and the desires and fears of people on the ground been more brightly drawn.

The anti-city anxiety feeding the push toward MXC was generated in some part by events like the 1967 Detroit riots. Brian Kaufman’s taut and unforgettable 12th and Clairmount is a tapestry of sight and sound that details how the tightly knit urban neighborhoods of pre-riot Detroit were targeted by the suburban-biased “urban renewal” (“Negro removal,” as others called it) and also how the racist brutality of the Detroit police set the stage for the July 1967 riots that burned the heart out of the city. Crafting its story out of news footage, home movies and ghostly voiceovers without any talking heads to provide a more reassuring context, the movie calls to mind the year’s other great urban insurrection chronicle, LA 92. Made up equally of crackling drama—the sight of paratroopers patrolling American streets and tracer rounds lighting up the night don’t easily fade—and seering tragedy, 12th and Clairmount is both history lesson and keening lament for what was lost in the conflagration.

By the 1980s, the Detroit that burned those years earlier was ripe territory for the heroin- and crack-dealing gangs that descended on most American cities. In Shawn Rech’s tightly knotted gangland chronicle White Boy, we see just how devastating the loss of civic trust can be. A half-comic sequence tells how the legend of Richard “White Boy Rick” Wershe, Jr. was spread around the country by suburban white kids eager to fantasize about taking part in the larger-than-life exploits of inner-city drug lords. As Rech tells it, though, the long-incarcerated White Boy Rick was less criminal mastermind than small-timer who got caught in a web connecting the FBI, multiple drug gangs and an almost certainly corrupt city government and police force so tightly that it quickly becomes difficult to identify who is playing who.

One of the festival’s better crime stories is Barbara Kopple’s A Murder in Mansfield, getting its world premiere at the event. With its close-up warts-and-all camerawork and workaday Midwestern setting, it resembles a few other documentaries one finds streaming everywhere these days. But instead of trying to right a wrong, Kopple is following a victim as he struggles to understand the trauma of his youth. Collier Boyle’s mother Noreen was murdered in 1989 and his father John convicted for it not long after. The bright and almost preternaturally self-dramatizing 12-year-old Collier who testified at the trial is now the more guarded adult who comes back to Mansfield looking for answers, particularly from his imprisoned father, who still claims to be innocent. While Kopple’s movie is a straightforward account of a spooky and horrific murder, it is also a gripping investigation of what Collier calls (with shades of Errol Morris’ Wormwood) “the traumatic damage of violence” and how it ripples through families with dark, usually unforeseen consequences.

Easier to foresee, in all likelihood, was the result of two decades of Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank following the 1967 war. Julie Bacha’s Naila and the Uprising is a sometimes frustratingly narrow look at Naila Ayesh, a woman from Gaza who joined the anti-occupation resistance in 1987 during the first Intifada. While the Palestinian leadership was being systematically deported by the Israel government, Ayesh and some of her fellow female organizers created their own grassroots, nonviolent women’s movement against the occupation. Bacha’s openly admiring interviews with Ayesh and her compatriots tell a good story about women picking up the slack of a patriarchal power structure, but until the final section, dealing with the return of Arafat and the Oslo Peace Accords, they lack a sense of the broader conflict.

One of the festival’s more unusually lighthearted stories is Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood. Scotty Bowers was one of those Hollywood fixtures that everybody in the town knew, and for reasons that were unable to be talked about at the time. A farm kid from Illinois who washed up in Southern California after World War II, Bowers was working at a gas station on Hollywood Boulevard when, to his telling, he was propositioned by Walter Pidgeon and later George Cukor. That kicked off Bowers’ long career of secretly connecting stars with willing hustlers and also doing a little hustling himself in Hollywood’s gay community.

Matt Tyrnauer (Citizen Jane) tracks down the 94-year-old Bowers, a puckish and cheerful pansexual jokester who has just published a tell-all about his exploits and uses him to create a kind of shadow narrative of Golden Age Hollywood. The stories Bowers tells, of stars like Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn keeping their gay relationships secret and his either procuring lovers for or participating in group sex with other A-listers (one night apparently involved him in bed with Lana Turner and Ava Gardner), are not unlike the salacious tidbits published in gossip rags like Hollywood Confidential. Only this time, they’re all, or at least mostly, true. The movie doesn’t spend much time excoriating the homophobic hypocrisy of old Hollywood and instead tries to divine what exactly drives Bowers, who is either running hard from some deeply buried demons of his own or simply a happy-go-lucky hedonist with a strong work ethic.

Nobody ever said that Apu, the Indian store clerk on The Simpsons, isn’t a hard worker. Compared to lazy schlubs like Homer Simpson, he’s almost mythically industrious. For Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu, though, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon was hardly a fictional character to look up to and more a source of torment or just straight ethnic insult. The short and jokey The Problem with Apu—having its world premiere at the festival—chronicles Kondabolu’s seemingly hopeless attempt to get an interview with Hank Azaria, the (white) actor who voices Apu. It isn’t the strongest spine to carry a whole movie on, and things tend to sag when Kondabolu isn’t interviewing other South Asian performers about their reactions to Apu or just the headwinds they faced trying to succeed in show business without resorting to the worst kind of stereotypes. It’s a complicated question. While Kondabolu hasn’t exactly created a South Asian Hollywood Shuffle type of manifesto, his earnest anger helps push this material past the one-man-show type of framework that it often resembles.