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Screens

From airmen to animators

A few of the week’s 100-plus on-screen excursions

Black aviators training at Tuskegee in Silver Wings and Civil Rights.
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Published 11/3/2004

Monster Road

Imagine Robert Crumb crossed with Ed Wood — with maybe the slightest hint of the Unabomber thrown in — and you might get Bruce Bickford, the subject of director Brett Ingram’s scruffy, fascinating Monster Road.

Bickford’s biggest claim to fame was as Frank Zappa’s favorite stop-motion animator in the ’70s and ’80s, when he added intricate, grotesque and truly phantasmagoric sequences to some of Zappa’s films. Like an acid-trip version of Gumby and his pals, Bickford’s characters sprout out of the ground, torture each other, and copulate until they turn inside-out, or into some other creature or object altogether. But the film’s most intriguing aspect is its suggestion that Bickford would — and does — continue to toil away on his miniature clay animations whether or not anyone else is paying attention.

Ingram paints a compelling portrait of Bickford and his aging engineer father as reclusive savants, feeding off the atmosphere of their backwoods, Twin Peaks-ish corner of the Pacific Northwest. Both men seemed haunted by the specter of war — Bickford by his time in Vietnam, his father by WWII. Their recollections in the film’s second half more than answer the “how the hell did he dream up that?” question posed by the extended scenes from Bickford’s homegrown claymation epics. Ingram passes over some tantalizing details — what was it like working for Zappa, anyway? — but by the time Monster Road is over, you’re likely to get as detailed a peek into one marginalized genius’ obsessions as you’d get from any overblown Hollywood biography of a “major” artist. -Michael Hastings

Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan

A lovingly photographed and surprisingly serene look at post-Taliban life in Afghanistan, Phil Grabsky’s film may seem at first the story of one impish boy’s irrepressible spirit in the face of war — a nonfiction Life Is Beautiful, anyone? However, it ends up being a complex, nuanced look the almost superhuman resilience of Middle Eastern refugees. Grabsky gets the cute stuff out of the way in his film’s first third, as the 8-year-old Mir leads the filmmaker on a tour of his “home,” the decimated remains of the Mount Rushmore-like Buddha statues in Bamiyan, which were destroyed in 2001 by the Tailban because of their religious significance. We soon learn that Mir and his extended family are squatters in the caves and passages that remain carved into the mountain. Forced out of their village months earlier, they wait for the molasses-slow reconstruction of Afghanistan to eke out some meaningful change in their lives, whether through jobs, a decent living space or a consistent source of food.

Grabsky leaves himself out of most of the proceedings. Instead of narration, there are extensive interviews with Mir’s father and brother-in-law, and Grabsky punctuates their soliloquies with stunning details both large and small: snow-dusted mountains, soldiers’ battered machine guns, glistening U.N. convoy trucks. The lack of a distinct real-life narrative arc makes the film slow-going at times, but it’s the opinions and hand-to-mouth routines of Mir and his family that give the movie a quietly powerful undercurrent. Two decades of upheaval may have left them calloused and battle-scarred, but their hope in the feisty, almost blissfully oblivious Mir goes a long way in explaining their unflagging willingness to survive. -Michael Hastings

The NEA Tapes

This hour-long offering from filmmakers Paul Lamarre and Melissa Wolf gives a pretty thorough overview of the controversies surrounding the funding of the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). Established in 1965, the NEA, once seen as an altruistic venture, is now seen by many as the devil’s spawn — as a direct result of the rise in power of conservative groups who saw the agency as a symptom of society’s ills.

Several flashpoint artists are represented in the film — Andres Serrano (whose “Piss Christ” gave the anti-funding forces a two-word rebuttal to every argument), Robert Mapplethorpe and Karen Finley — as well as art critics, lawyers and several politicians. The latter are shown demonizing the NEA on the floor of the House and the Senate, with a theatrical flair that itself seems like a debased art form. Tim Robbins and Ed Asner (or, as they’re known on the right, “the usual suspects”) also show up, to give the film a little star appeal.

Some arguments against the cutting of funds are unconvincing — one artist claims that if they ban art deemed offensive they could next ban people who use the color red. The best compelling argument is that the vast majority of NEA-funded art goes to non-controversial projects, things like local community theaters, folk singers, budding poets, Native American basket weavers and others who enhance rather than threaten the status quo.

Despite a preponderance of talking heads, Lamarre and Wolf manage to keep their film moving at a fair clip and squeeze quite a range of voices into this short film. Although it may not change your opinion about the ultimate need for government funding of the arts, it does make the case that the attacks on the NEA were both overwrought and dishonest. -Richard C. Walls

Silver Wings and Civil Rights: The Fight to Fly

This film is bold, important, and inspirational — for the first 10 minutes. The remaining 80 minutes play out at a drudging pace. Although informative, the lackluster delivery of this documentary may mean an important historical message will be lost on a younger, less patient audience.

The film spans the historic achievements of the nation’s first black aviators to serve in the U.S. armed forces. In July of 1941, five black men made aviation history by earning their silver wings and joining the United States Army Air Corps. Hundreds of eager airmen followed suit, creating a legion of black fighter pilots that defied white expectations and tenaciously fought in WWII. Known as the Tuskegee Airmen, these pilots went on to become one the most distinguished fighter pilot groups in history. Much of the film deals with the gripping effects that segregation in the military had on the men of the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bomber Group, in which former Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young was a bombardier and navigator. Anderson doesn’t overwhelm the audience with a lecture, instead allowing the individual fighter pilots tell their inspirational stories.

The researched clips and archival photos used in the film are extensive. Considering that pre-WWII footage must have been scarce, and that the average age of remaining Tuskegee Airmen hovers around 80, filmmaker Jon Anderson’s attempt at piecing together the summer of 1941 is impressive. Yet the film lacks style.

This film has its place, but viewers might need an extra latte if they expect to stay awake until the end. -Jonathan Cunningham

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