The James River Film Festival arrives in its 17th year brimming with more Hollywood anti-matter than you can probably handle. We've culled through the Richmond Moving Image Co-op's week-long list of independent cinema to find the stuff you don't want to miss. Personal projects, DIY aesthetics and unusual approaches to narrative — it even has special effects, from the dawn of filmmaking, no less.
What: A documentary by Jem Cohen on the legendary punk-rock band Fugazi.
Who: Cohen, whose incompatibility with Hollywood led him to a career shooting in Super 8, 16mm and video in collaboration with such musical artists as R.E.M., Cat Power, Elliott Smith and Sparklehorse, will spend one night at the festival showing a collection of his short films. But with Richmond's punk-rock connection to the Washington, D.C., area and Cohen's own roots in DIY punk-rock art, the centerpiece of his visit will be his presentation of “Instrument,” a 1999 documentary of D.C. band Fugazi, which tracks the group for more than a decade, from the late '80s to the late '90s.
What of it? Cohen has known Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat) since high school in the 1970s, but don't expect your garden-variety film. The movie is part 10-year-long “Don't Look Back” and part 10-year-long music video, a surprisingly fluid mix of behind-the-scenes stuff and the music itself. When asked the goal of the film, Cohen reportedly once responded, “What I really wanted to do was just capture music-making and try to make something that felt, visually, like music.”
When: “Instrument” screens Friday night at 10:30. “An Evening With Jem Cohen” is Saturday night at 7. Both take place at the Plant Zero Art Center and cost $5. Also look for “Benjamin Smoke,” a profile of the Atlanta-based musician (who died at 39 in 1999), Sunday, 6:30 p.m., at the VCU Grace Street Theatre (also $5).
“Wild Blue Yonder”
What: A documentary about Celia Maysles' attempt to connect with her father, David Maysles. David and his brother Albert formed a groundbreaking filmmaking team in the 1960s responsible for such seminal documentaries as “Salesman,” “Gimme Shelter” and “Grey Gardens.”
Who: Maysles was only 7 when her father died in 1987. She finished this documentary in 2007, which in part features Albert Maysles, who later became antagonistic to the project. Maysles says the film is an exploration as much as anything else, a way to try to get to know the father she lost at a young age and to fill the void left by his absence.
What of it? Maysles met unexpected resistance from Uncle Albert, which has never been completely resolved. Yet the more she worked on the film, the more she says she felt a connection with her father. Her favorite film of her dad's had long been “Grey Gardens,” about reclusive socialites living in a decrepit mansion. “I was running a low-income health clinic in Oregon,” she says, “and I sat down and watched it, and they were like my clients — kooky and eccentric and out there and kind of wonderful. And my dad ran towards them, just like I would have done. I love homeless people.”
When: See “Wild Blue Yonder” with Celia Maysles noon Saturday at Plant Zero ($5).
What: A narrative by Richmond filmmaker Rick Alverson, “The Builder” is loosely about a man (Colm O'Leary) who is obsessed with building the perfect house.
Who: Alverson co-wrote the film with Brooklyn resident O'Leary. The two worked together at a coffee shop in the early 1990s while Alverson briefly attended film school at New York University. Alverson abandoned filmmaking because it was too expensive back then, requiring him to express his talent in bands such as Drunk and Spokane. The advent of digital is at least partly responsible for “The Builder,” which soon will be followed by “New Jerusalem,” pairing O'Leary with Will Oldham.
What of it? Though the film is standard length (94 minutes), Alverson warns audiences not to expect a Hollywood-style experience, which tends to gratify audience expectations with complete information and perspective. Alverson says he and O'Leary have tried to get closer to the way real life works by focusing on incidental and tangential details instead.
When: Alverson shows off “The Builder” March 24, 6:30 p.m., at the Firehouse Theatre ($5). S
The James River Film Festival runs March 19-25 at a variety of locations. Other special events include a live performance by Richmond's Hotel X for the special-effects-laden (circa 1904) films of motion-picture pioneer Georges MAcliA"s, plus movies by Akira Kurosawa, about Charles Bukowski, and featuring the talents of many Richmonders and Virginians. It's a big festival. For more information go to www.rmicweb.org/jrff.