"Pop" Go the Docs: Non-Fiction Films Shine At LAIFF '99
by Stephen Garrett
If the LAIFF is any indication, the vanguard of American independent cinema more and more seems to be documentaries. No other medium more consistently challenges and questions audience expectations than non-fiction film, and the wealth of product showcased over the weekend in Los Angeles is the proof. "Perhaps it's because documentaries don't make financial sense," mused Jason Constantine, an acquisitions exec for Trimark. "It attracts a different kind of filmmaker who's passionate about the subject, or about making films. There's a high shooting ratio and an indefinite post-production period, and all the filmmaker can say to an investor is, 'we're not sure when it'll be done, or even if it's going to be good.' So making it is based purely on artistic reasons and not financial profit."
In a way, it was no surprise that the father-and-son globe-trotting odyssey "Pop and Me" won the audience award for best feature, since it's the perfect example of a movie made from the heart and without any distribution goals in mind. "Pop and Me" is Richard and Chris Roe's travelogue of a six-month world tour in which Richard, the dad, promised to cover all the expenses on the condition that his son Chris film the trip and that they interview other fathers and sons they met along the way. The irony is that as they allowed other fathers and sons to open up to each other for the first time and grow closer, the two filmmakers found their own relationship becoming more strained. From New York to France, Israel, Egypt, South Africa, Vietnam, and Australia, the dozens of interviews show the universality of tensions and generosity in father-son dynamics; and the experience ultimately brings the Roes closer together. It's an emotionally button-pushing topic and one that definitely plays well to large crowds -- its screening last Sunday at the Director's Guild's mammoth theater received the only unanimous standing ovation at the festival. "Pop and Me" is therapy lite: very entertaining, undeniably narcissistic, slightly thought-provoking, warm and fuzzy and easy to digest.
Meanwhile, a very different sort of love-in was going on at one of the few major critical hits of the festival, David Schisgall's "The Lifestyle," a clear-eyed study of America's increasingly popular swingers subculture, in which orgies are just as likely to have outdoor barbecues and potato salad along with sex harnesses and mattress sponges. "Swinging is sport fucking," spouts gleeful "Wild Bill" Goodwin, a 73-year-old Costa Mesa resident who lifts weights with his penis and hosts parties with as many as 200 guests at his horny home, the "Panther Palace." Three million strong and professionally organized into hundreds of local and national groups, today's swinger population is as likely to be Democrat or Republican as they are to be 29 or 69, although the bulk of coupling couples tend to be in their 50s and 60s. Sex, like schmaltz, is an automatic crowd-pleaser; but to his credit Schisgall profiles some very eye-opening personal philosophies and reveals delightfully liberating body-image attitudes: "It doesn