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Carolla Hammers it Home

Adam Carolla, bound for glory in The Hammer

By Vadim Rizov

Lord knows I never imagined Adam Carolla's first vehicle as a leading man would be one of Tribeca's highlights, but so it goes. The success of Adam Sandler and the subsequent Frat Pack has made film safe for unapologetically guy-oriented comedies again, and Carolla -- the affably loutish co-host of Loveline and The Man Show -- runs well with the trend he (kind of) kick-started. The Hammer is the story of an affable low-class failure ("middle-class is one of the nicest things I've ever been called," he notes) who gets an unlikely second chance through sports.

Nothing unusual (I swear I didn't intentionally try to make it sound like Rocky), but The Hammer is executed with slightly more savoir-faire than could've been guessed, and intellectually it's years ahead of The Man Show. Carolla apparently no longer takes self-conscious pride in being as stereotypically guy-ish as possible. Instead, he reconfigures his persona slightly to emphasize what it's like to not just be a guy, but a poor guy. There's much talk in the first half-hour of Carolla's frustration at his low-pay construction work, and he has a rule for himself that states no marriage can come before landing a job with health care. It's an angle that feels way less tacked-on than, say, HBO's overrated Lucky Louie.

The script is formatted to toggle back and forth between plot sequences and little breaks in which Carolla can riff at will. In between, the inevitable romantic subplot finds Carolla winning his lady over by building a deck for her backyard. Wooing through construction skills is a new one, but why not? Lowbrow laughs abound, even as the script slowly ditches the surprising verisimilitude of the opening and goes for a straight fantasy of redemption. The best lines are the ones that aim lowest, like the construction foreman who growls at a Nicaraguan worker "No habla retardo, Speedy Gonzales. You're lazy even for a Mexican." The worker replies: "I'm from Nicaragua." Foreman: "Same difference." Who would've ever guessed that Carolla and Larry Clark (who pulls the same shit in Wassup Rockers?) were so close at heart.

Two of verite documentaries' hottest topics -- ghetto and gay life -- make for surprisingly apt bedfellows in Abigail Child's well-assembled video documentary On the Downlow. Ray, age 18, starts things off by announcing "I'm a thug" and giving a litany of crimes he's been on the giving and receiving end of -- shooting and jumping others come up high -- before unexpectedly veering off into his sex life. For African-American thug men (no lesbians here), it seems, being gay largely means being "on the downlow" -- concealing one's sexuality from family and friends, creating an alternate community of similarly clandestine men. Not all identify in the same straightforward manner -- some, like Kerwin, are nominally bisexual but only for women, as he says, who are "head-turners." Then there's the most troubled of the bunch, Antonio, who announces: "Guys I've been with are from prison. I don't know why I'm attracted to guys doing life."

Child moves from person to person, creating an ad-hoc portrait of Cleveland's underground black gay scene and hitting all the appropriate topics without rushing: coming out to one's parents; black homophobia; the persisting rumor that only gay people spread AIDS. This is exactly the kind of well-assembled, meat-and-potatoes doc that festivals like SXSW thrive on: Child conducts revealing interviews with articulate subjects and illustrates with the relevant footage. The results still belong more on TV than in an $18-per-ticket festival, but there's no denying the interest of the subject or skill of execution: This is harder to assemble than it looks.

Still, if you're dead-set on value for money, On The Downlow is billed with another hour-long video doc as part of the "Coming Out" program. All the two films have in common are gay black men, but The Polymath, or the Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman is the inverse image in a lot of ways. The title's no joke: Delany is a sci-fi writer, academic theorist, sexual raconteur and generally the wordiest bastard on the planet this side of David Foster Wallace. Despite being tagged as "experimental" on the Tribeca website, all that really happens is that Delany talks for a full hour while director Fred Barney Taylor occasionally layers slowed-down images on top of each other or generally tries to do anything that'll distract from the fact that you're watching a what is at heart radio documentary. No denying that Delany is a man who knows how to tell a story and knows more than you ever will, lecturing with equal authority on Paul Robeson's college days or on how gay men used to hook up in movie theaters. Delany should know -- the initially fantastic claim that he's slept with 50,000+ people becomes quite understandable when he lays out his pre-AIDS routine. The whole thing eventually curdles into the equivalent of a claustrophobic party conversation with someone who at first fascinates and then just keeps going, cornering you and not letting you go. What you're hearing is interesting, but all you really want is a drink.

First there was Pixelvision -- the '90s work of filmmakers such as Michael Almereyda or Sadie Benning who utilized the graininess of a toy Fisher-Price camera to create a new aesthetic. Now, if you talk to the right academic or festival programmer, cell-phone cinema might be the next big thing. Cyrus Frisch's Why didn't anybody tell me it would be this bad in Afghanistan definitely isn't the movie that'll make this trend actually happen if it ever does, but it's an interesting enough example of how this could be a cool way to pump some life into the avant-garde. The festival catalog explicates the movie better than I could by watching it (a soldier with traumatic flashbacks stays in Afghanistan), but whatever the meaning is seems to get lost –- which seems to be the whole point anyway.

Cell-phone movies are, unsurprisingly, frequently grainy to point of unintelligibility, and the film becomes a study in abstract textures as much as any kind of coherent narrative framework. One particularly interesting sequence has Frisch pacing around a grocery store, trying to spy on a violent confrontation between customer and guards: As he circles around, trying to be inconspicuous, the floor tiles he inadvertently captures keep changing in texture and depth, a constant re-arrangement of pixels that deranges the original image. Afghanistan isn’t nearly this interesting on a regular basis, and one gets the feeling that most of its boldest visual coups are happy accidents. Still, the adventurous should find plenty here to bolster the case for cell phones as the next big way to create previously undreamed-of visual textures.

João Moreira Salles’s Santiago is a doc that rises above others solely by virtue of the festival competition. Salles is the brother of the much better-known Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries, Central Station), but his formal chops are in much better working condition. Ostensibly a re-consideration of footage for a documentary project about the retired family butler –- shot in 1992, finally beaten into a workable shape now -– what Santiago is really about is the pleasures of rigorous black-and-white framing. Even projected in HD, Santiago has to be one of the best-looking movies in competition. It’s a good thing too, because the titular Santiago is equal parts fascinating curiosity and tiresome, self-consciously quirky. Now retired, the butler spends all his time finishing up his notes –- some 30,000 pages’ worth of copied information about seemingly every dynasty under the sun, with some obsessive list-making thrown in for good measure. Santiago’s grand project is nothing less than keeping perpetually in memory history’s grand eccentrics, both major and minor. At 80, the man is shockingly vigorous in conversation, yet he also seems to be trying too hard to be a “character” (like when he insists that Salles film the “dance of his hands,” a bunch of vague, swishy air-waving filmed in extreme close-up). Fortunately, there’s also Salles’ voiceover musings upon the film; only now, years after giving up on the original project, can he really confront the footage honestly, musing at his unintentional condescension to his subject and helpfully providing clips from Ozu to explain his framing decisions. The beauty of the images suggests an equal depth of content that simply never arrives, but Salles has the good grace to say as much in his narration. The result is equal parts technical exercise and character study -– half-successful on each front, but fun for anyone who enjoys collecting human oddities.

To reiterate my most frequent complaint about Tribeca’s documentaries: Hard as Nails is a perfectly respectable video documentary that belongs on HBO (where it will eventually air), not in an overpriced screening venue. The subject is Justin Fatica’s Hard As Nails Ministries –- an evangelical organization led by the unordained Catholic Fatica. The opening sequence suggests an awesome blend of The 700 Club and Jackass, as Fatica bellows at a group of students that Christ loves them. How much does he love them? To demonstrate, Fatica stands telling a girl repeatedly that he loves her while a flunky hits him really hard on the back with a wooden plank over and over again. The effect is supposedly to dramatize the pain Christ bore for humanity, but the kid seems to be putting a little too much smirking joy into his work, and as for the effect on the kids -– who knows.

If Hard As Nails is supposed to be some kind of expose, it’s impossible to tell; the documentary never tips its hand, and director David Holbrooke hasn’t done so publicly either. Fatica has a few more shock tactics in hand –- one of his regular features is to get a member of his team to stand up, yell that she’s fat repeatedly, and then inform everyone that it’s her inner beauty that matters -– but he’s really not that outrageous in the overall scheme of the evangelical world, and his sincerity is unquestionable. A weird combination of pumped-up thick-neck and endlessly zealous Christian, Fatica yells, cries and bullies his charges into conversion and commitment. (The Catholic diocese of Burlington ends up banning him from preaching in all Catholic churches in Vermont, and one school has to cancel half of his appearances after freaked-out kids start wailing for guidance counselors.) The results are certainly compelling, although the first 10 minutes are basically the entire film; Holbrooke shows us the ministry’s fundraising success but never manages to suggest any kind of progress made over the time spanned by the documentary. It’s fun, but you could stay home and watch TBN for free.

Discuss these and other Tribeca titles at Spout:

The Hammer
On the Downlow
The Polymath, or the Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman
Why didn't anybody tell me it would be this bad in Afghanistan
Hard as Nails

Posted at May 1, 2007 6:55 AM

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