Reliving ‘OXD: One Extraordinary Day’

It’s either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid to willingly fall flat on your face again and again, until the bridge of your nose is bleeding and taped up. The doctors warned you that this type of impact will harm your body. And you know too many friends and teachers who have broken limbs perfecting this craft. You’ve already ran through all the awful scenarios of everything that could go wrong. Yet you still climb the 40-feet of scaffolding and take that leap of faith, completely trusting the command of choreographer Elizabeth Streb.

Directed by Craig Lowy, his 100-minute documentary “OXD: One Extraordinary Day” captures what it’s like to be one of Streb’s PopAction dancers in the Brooklyn-based Streb Extreme Action Dance Company.

Filmed by Lucas Smith and Raul Santos and edited by Lucas Groth and Lowy, “OXD: One Extraordinary Day” invites us to be a part of Streb’s crew as they prepare and perform “One Extraordinary Day” — a seven-part series where Streb and her crew canvas the city of London landmarks as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiads.

Rather than focus on a fluid and seamless transition from one move to the next, these dancers work to defy what the human body’s capable of. Streb tells her dancers that she wants their bodies to behave exactly like a piece of plywood when they free fall off of 30 feet of scaffolding parallel to the mat. She tells her dancers to hide the transitions, so the human eye sees one move and another, but never how they get there. While bungee-jumping off the Millennium Bridge and dangling off of the London Eye, these dancers feel like superheroes, performing moves called “Superman,” “Spiderman,” “X-Man” and “Peter Pan.”

Although “OXD: One Extraordinary Day” shows us death-defying stunts, the special effects are surprisingly spare. In a few scenes, we see the camera rewind so that the falling dancers look like they’re flying in slow motion; these scenes are few and far in between. For the most part, we see their stunts in real time as Lowy spends much of the documentary building up that extraordinary day.

Four months of practice, preparations and performance are edited down to 100 minutes, but the documentary contains too much exposition, removing the suspense and magic of the actual performance itself.

The dancers tell us about how much adrenaline it takes to get through these performances, but the camera doesn’t show us what it looks like to hover more than 200 feet above any solid ground. Lowy’s camera is either too zoomed in or too zoomed out and we feel disconnected rather than in the moment.

As a result, the viewer feels safe and protected, harnessed and secure. And when that extraordinary day comes, the performances are disappointing.

It’s a shame, really. While Craig Lowy’s documentary captures such an intriguing world, its edits are poorly executed, splatting hard on the floor and failing to get up.

“OXD: One Extraordinary Day” was directed by Craig Lowy and had it’s Western New York premiere as part of the tenth Buffalo International Film Festival. 


‘Ovation’ in a theater

If you’re looking for a way to picture Henry Jaglom’s “Ovation,” think of a movie about a play within a play that wants to be a movie.

Written by Jaglom and Ron Vignone, “Ovation” is a smart and self-aware 110-minute film that plays with its art form.

Layered like one of those paintings of a painting within a painting of a painting, Jaglom and Vignone write a play within the confines of a film. Jaglom, who’s a film director and playwright, uses the structure of a play to provide the film’s narrative skeleton.

Set within the span of a week, “Ovation” houses a good dose of foreshadowing, humor, dramatic irony and many of the conventions found in a play. It even employs a soothsayer, who takes the form of a fortune teller who stars as a psychic who plays a fortune teller in a neighboring theatre production.

There’s a lot of this kind of play within Jaglom and Vignone’s script.

While we see standing ovations for “The Rainmaker” (that’s the name of the play within Jaglom and Vignone’s film), the “The Rainmaker’s” also having trouble making it rain.

Filmed and edited by Vignone, “Ovation” is mostly seen through actor dressing rooms and backstage corridors. We watch the top of people’s heads sitting in the audience while the play itself is mostly offscreen. 

Onscreen is TV actor Steward Henry (played by James Denton of “Desperate Housewives,” “Devious Maids” and “Good Witch”), who tries to convince “The Rainmaker” star Maggie (Tanna Frederick) to lead in a television show with him.

While “Ovation” is a package of paradoxical parameters, it’s cleverly wrapped. The film’s opening credits remind us of the opening of a TV show.

Jaglom and Vignone continue to break the fourth wall with some bits of sophisticated dialogue. In one scene, a playwright has a revelation that one of the film’s subplots would be great for a play.

It is, of course. And when the curtain rises, we can’t help but applaud.

“Ovation” was written by Henry Jaglom and Ron Vignone and directed by Jaglom. It premiered in Western New York as part of the tenth annual Buffalo International Film Festival. 

‘Tower’ sheds light into the Texas Tower massacre

Near the end of “Tower,” is a montage of news clips — too familiar scenes from Columbine and Virginia Tech and Umpqua Community College. It puts Keith Maitland’s 93-minute documentary, “Tower,” into perspective — that “there are monsters and they walk around us.”

Directed by Maitland, “Tower” is a chilling recreation of the 96 minutes near the University of Texas campus on August 1, 1966.

Maitland grew up hearing the first-person stories of the Texas Tower shooting when he was in seventh grade. After reading Pamela Colloff’s 2006 Texas Monthly article, Maitland was inspired to capture some of these narratives in a documentary. Over the course of six weeks, his project raised $70,000 on IndieGogo.

Maitland and producer Susan Thomson interviewed more than 100 eyewitnesses to research the film. The interviews are the basis of the film’s narrative, which began on the steps outside the campus tower. Tom Eckman (voiced by Cole Bee Wilson) and his heavily pregnant girlfriend Claire Wilson (voiced by Violet Beane) were heading to the parking meter near campus when they were shot. It was “like stepping on an live wire, like I’ve been electrocuted,” Wilson describes.

Alternating between animation, grainy archival footage, photos and more recent interviews, “Tower” lets us live through the events of August 1, 1966. Interviews are dubbed and animated to allow us to picture the younger shelves of Texas Tower shooting survivors. We don’t see actual interview footage of much older versions of cops Ramiro Martinez (voiced by Louie Arnette) and Houston McCoy (voiced by Blair Jackson), KTBC anchor Neal Spelce (voiced by Monty Muir) and others until the end of the film.

This technique allows the animators to recreate events and emotions from 50 years ago. We see hope in bright colors — like the vivid, orangey-red hair of Rita Starpattern (voiced by Josephine McAdam), a women who ran into the face of danger. And for the bleakest moments, they strip the animation of color so all we see are black and white. As we listen to the sound of gunfire, white silhouettes of people fall over a crimson red background.

“Tower” is emotionally draining documentary, yet it’s an important testimonial of the unfathomable events that plague our country. Rather than focus on the killer though (his name is only mentioned briefly at the end), Maitland makes sure the stories of the 13 people killed and the many more wounded are remembered forever.

“Tower” was directed by Keith Maitland and premiered in Western New York as part of the tenth annual Buffalo International Film Festival. 

The idea behind ‘Idea Thief’

University of Herfordshire Master student Dani Alva is an idea thief in his own way. He borrowed the idea for his and Juan Lozano’s three-and-a-half-minute animated UK short from a quote from fantasy author Ursula K. LeGuin:

“I doubt the imagination can be suppressed. If you truly eradicated it in a child, that child would grow up to be an eggplant.”

In “Idea Thief” (2015), eggplant-like men exist in the world — these rotund purple beings with pink bulbous noses. But eggplants still crave the imagination of children.

With a pair of binoculars, an eggplant burglar is drawn to boy with a bright incandescent light bulb above his head. He attempts to steal it, but some ideas can’t be stolen.

There’s no dialogue in Alva and Lozano’s animated short. There’s no need for it. Some ideas are universal.

“Idea Thief’s” been shown at many international film festivals, even winning the Sand Dune 1st Jury Award for Animation in India. Directed and animated by Dani Alva and Juan Loranzo based on Alva’s story, “Idea Thief” made its Western New York premiere at the tenth annual Buffalo International Film Festival. 

‘Some Kind of Quest’ to maintain the largest model train set

“Some Kind of Quest” is about a man chasing windmills. Not literal windmills, of course, but the kind of thing that’s absurd or crazy.

Bruce Williams Zaccagnino’s windmill is Northlandz, the 52,000-square-foot miniature model train museum in Flemington, New Jersey. Track by track, he painstakingly designed and built this museum over 16-plus years.

Directed by Andrew Wilcox and filmed by Matt Clegg over half a year, their 11-minute documentary showcases Zaccagnino’s creation within Northlandz. More than 100 model trains run over 50,000 feet of rail road track over 400 bridges.

Zaccagnino’s quixotic quest began in the ’70s when he began building the model train set in his basement. Over the years, it grew and grew as Zaccagnino spent 17-hour days with his trains. Now, it takes about two and a half hours to walk through the mazes in Northlandz. Zaccagnino considers expanding.

Still, he’s erecting ephemeral monuments. Zaccagnino’s getting older and business is slow. There’s no plans for succession after he retires as the museum’s curator. And his hobby can easily put him in debt. His friends also think he’s an idiot for living with model trains as his companions.

Despite it all, Zaccagnino chases after that impossible dream — that quest to entertain somebody with his life’s work. For now, at least, if the windmills keep turning, Zaccagnino will keep running into them.

“Some Kind of Quest” was directed by Andrew Wilcox and premiered in Western New York as part of the tenth annual Buffalo International Film Festival.

‘Guru Dian’ hopes to expand your worldview

Sometimes you need a reminder that not everyone wakes up with high speed Internet at their fingertips. Somewhere in the world, even a cell phone signal is a cherished blessing.

That’s what Purnomo Aziz 79-minute Indonesian film, “Guru Dian,” reminds us: to look at things from another point of view.

Aziz’s feature film takes us to a remote and rural village in Indonesia, an half hour walk from any drivable roads.

This is a village surrounded by high rolling mountains cloaked with green vegetation — the kind of place where Mac Book Pros, televisions and cell phones look like alien objects.

Here, children grow up aspiring to become like their parents — entering the cycle of humble migrant workers and farmers. Small chores, like looking after the goats or minding the store, take precedent over schooling. And the village’s school has long been abandoned by both teachers and pupils.

That’s how Dian (Aji Sanrose) finds the dilapidated hut where she’s been assigned to teach. Her classes are empty because school isn’t as important as finding food.

The film shows us socioeconomic pressures in a small and poor rural community, but fails to emphasize why or how schooling can better these villagers’ lives. The village boys will take over their father’s trade and the village girls will be sent to a foreign country to work low-paying jobs as factory workers to earn money for their families.

Young and idealistic, Dian’s a transplant with a giving heart and Western values, but she lacks the insight that comes with experience. While she firmly believes that a child’s place is in school, she flounders at explaining how or why to the village’s elders. Without their support, it seems impossible to teach.

Slowly, but surely, though, Dian earns the children’s trust and attendance (Part of it involves installing a television in their school). But it’s hard to see how her schooling can change these student’s lives. And if that’s the lesson Aziz’s trying to teach us, it’s one that’s hard to reconcile.

“Guru Dian” was directed by Purnomo Aziz and written by Sad Purnadi, Risdi Sulaeman and Dirmawan Hatta. The film premiered in Western New York as part of the tenth annual Buffalo International Film Festival.


‘Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present’ documentary plays the record of his life

At a quick glance, “Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present” doesn’t look like a polished documentary. The camera’s shaky. The lighting on the subject’s overblown at times. The wires of a Lavalier microphone dangle noticeably in an interview shot. And that grating and monotonous drone of a violin playing the same note is enough to give anyone a migraine.

Yet the 102-minute experimental documentary is a film that shows filmmaking at its seams. Filmed and edited in a way that breaks most of the conventional rules of filmmaking, “Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present” abides by its iconoclastic subject’s avant garde and anti-authoritative values.

Tony Conrad, who passed away this past April at 76, taught so he could teach his students how not to do things — how not to follow the conventional rules where art, music, filmmaking and politics intersect.

As an artist, he pinned soiled granny panties to cork boards and filmed men dressed as women in jail cells. He fearlessly scored the controversial and pornographic Jack Smith film “Flaming Creatures” (1963) and encouraged reactions of disgust even from those who respected him in the art and music world.

It took Tyler Hubby 20 years to capture the footage for the film, initially meeting Conrad in 1994 when he toured with German Krautrock band Faust. Told in chapters marked by the record, play, pause, fast-forward, and rewind buttons on a VCR player, Hubby’s documentary begins on Ludlow Street in New York City, outside the very apartment that housed the inspiration for the Velvet Underground’s name. (Conrad’s roommate John Cale got it off one of Conrad’s books in their apartment. And while Conrad wasn’t a part of the Velvet Underground, he toured with two of its founding members, Cale and Lou Reed, before they became the Velvet Underground).

The camera’s subject, a 62-year-old Conrad, holds a ring of five microphones connected by an interwoven bundle of cords. Walking across the street conducting New York City traffic, Conrad looks like a senile old man. A passerby even stops him to ask him if he’s OK.

Yet Conrad knows exactly what he’s doing and exactly how to get it done. It’s like watching a brilliant magician reveal the secret behind his tricks. Even though the scene looks absurd, he’s pointing us to the music of the ordinary — the harmonics of passing trucks, bicycles, and sounds we wouldn’t typically think as music. The music in the streets otherworldly when magnified over the hum of his violin. Yet Conrad could have just as easily coaxed music out of a weed whacker.

This was the type of music Conrad was famous for — a minimalist style that can described as “sound coming at you like a railroad train.” Conrad produces these eerily hypnotic sounds with out-of-tune violins. Standing in front of a light with a curtain draped in front of him, his shadow would fill up a room, swaying back and forth as he played the same precise note as long as humanly possible. He once took this sound and dubbed it over itself, creating the piece “Four Violins” (1964).

In the mid-1960s, Conrad, along with his colleagues La Monte Young, John Cale, Angus LacLise and Marian Zazeela, created this minimalist movement while The Beatles were at its height. But even as one of the founding members of The Dream Syndicate, Conrad’s music legacy was often overshadowed by La Monte Young, whose often credited as the first minimalist composer.

Conrad’s work, however, transcended his field. He was an artist, first and foremost, but the form it took spilled beyond its medium. His piece “Yellow Movie” (1973) is a film designed to spans over the course of 50 years. He figured that if he painted a black square over cheap white paint, the paint would eventually erode and yellow over time. Conrad also produced a series where he cooked strips of film — currying, pickling, roasting and deep frying these strips so its composition changed entirely.

One of his earliest films was “The Flicker” (1966), where he played 30 minutes of flickering black and while slides on a film projector. Audience members at its first screening reported having seizures and discovering that if you stared long enough, these black and white slides were like a Rorschach test, and you begin to see shapes and images that weren’t really there. 

Hubby’s mesmerizing film mimics techniques in Conrad’s work. Parts of the documentary flickers to a metronomic beat. And the credits are bright flickering white lights — where you begin to make out shapes of names.

The biggest name on the screen is Conrad’s. He’s invasive and larger-than-life, bleeding beyond the silver screen. Even hours after you leave that dark theatre, you hear the droning hum of Conrad’s violin as the soundtrack of his life fills your mind.

“Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present” was written and directed by Tyler Hubby and premiered in Western New York as part of the tenth Buffalo International Film Festival.