The DocYard pays well-deserved tribute to one of our best and most esteemed local filmmakers with The DocYard Legacy Screening: Lucia Small Retrospective, an online presentation of Small’s films. In these three feature-length documentaries she masters the art of combining personal stories with insights into universal themes.
Small’s first feature, “My Father, The Genius” (2002), combines a candid profile of the problematic patriarch of the title with trenchant insights into the meaning of success and failure, ambition, disappointment, as well as the nettlesome nature of familial relationships. Her father, Glen, had asked Small to write his biography; instead, she turned the camera lens on not just him but former colleagues and students, ex-wives, and even her siblings. A rising star in architecture in his youth (his designs indeed look revolutionary and visionary), Glen Small never quite fulfilled his promise. In his 60s he finds himself sinking into obscurity. The resulting portrait is unflinching but affectionate and also an eccentric, endearing family album, reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001).
In “The Axe in the Attic” (2007), Small watches on TV the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and decides to investigate the disaster firsthand. Partnering with Ed Pincus, a filmmaker who helped pioneer the diaristic documentary genre in the ’80s, she drives to New Orleans. They swap small talk and bicker along the way, but their own problems and aesthetic concerns are overwhelmed by the scope of the catastrophe. They bear witness to the individual tales of loss, the ineptitude and downright racism of the government’s response, and the resilience of the survivors — the grim title refers to an escape measure taken by residents long familiar with such storms in case they have to cut a hole in their rooftop to escape floodwaters. The film provides a lyric counterpart to Spike Lee’s epic documentary about Katrina, “When the Levees Break” (2006).
Tragedy hits close to home in “One Cut, One Life” (2014). After losing two close friends in shocking, violent circumstances — including filmmaker Karen Schmeer, the editor of “My Father the Genius” — Small was further dismayed after learning that Pincus had terminal leukemia. The two decided to work together again to make a film record of his struggle with the illness and with mortality. Emotionally fraught, eloquent, and illuminating, the film is reminiscent of “Lightning Over Water” (1980), Wim Wenders’s similar documentary about the last days of the director Nicholas Ray.
“The DocYard Legacy Screening: Lucia Small Retrospective” can be streamed through July 16 at vimeo.com/showcase/7263709.
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The iceman leaveth
The Roaring 20s, the Las Vegas dive bar that is the subject of the brothers Bill and Turner Ross’s “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” is shutting down and all the regulars are showing up to pay their respects. First to arrive, as usual, is Michael; brutally hungover, he staggers in just as the doors open. A former actor who, as he admits, looks like he’s 70 but is really 58, he nonetheless prides himself on having become an alcoholic only after he failed at his profession, not before. He’s the bar’s fount of poetry and wisdom — a kind of mellower Charles Bukowski. In a wrenching scene he warns an enamored younger man to leave this bar and shun all the bars to come and so avoid his fate.
Others file in as the day passes into night and then into the following day — the Black Vietnam vet, the 50-year-old gal who lifts her top to show she still has great breasts, the old guy who looks like Einstein and might be as smart, and the 30ish guy in jacket and tie who is a mean drunk and gets belligerent. They talk, sing, dance, and weep in freewheeling, serendipitous montages of handheld, tautly composed shots with overlapping conversations backed by jukebox tunes in a mix that would be the envy of Robert Altman.
And it’s about as real as a Robert Altman movie, too. As it turns out the Roaring 20s is not in Las Vegas — the filmmakers couldn’t find any suitable dive bar there — but in New Orleans. In other words, what happens in Vegas not only doesn’t stay in Vegas but never happened there in the first place. Michael is indeed an actor, but not as washed up as his character on screen. The filmmakers spotted him onstage in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” Many others in the cast are barflies hand-picked from various establishments who were brought together for the first time and given the premise, some choreography, and plenty of refreshments, then let loose for three days of filming.
Though brilliantly put together, the film is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but an uneasy hybrid. Maybe that’s the point, to call into question the artifice of cinema, but it is at the expense of what could have been a less meta, more compelling, and more genuine tragic comedy, something akin to Sean Baker’s “Tangerine” (2015).
“Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” can be streamed on various platforms, starting July 10.
As seen in Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch’s “Mucho Mucho Amor,” the unlikely star of Puerto Rican TV for decades was Walter Mercado. Everyone adored the androgynous, outlandishly garbed, and effusively optimistic astrologer — the title of the film refers to his gushing, trademark sign-off. His popularity spread throughout the Americas, and he even appeared on the Howard Stern radio show and Sally Jessy Raphael’s TV talk show.
Then he was gone. Mercado had innocently entered a Mephistophelian contract with his longtime and unscrupulous manager (also unapologetic, as seen in his interview in the film) in which he gave away all rights to his show and even his name and he could counsel his millions of fans no more.
The filmmakers catch up with the octogenarian seer at home amid his many Buddhas and his endless wardrobe as he recounts his story and prepares for a retrospective show at a Miami museum. Up to the end — he died in 2019, at 87 — he remained joyous, kitschy, and fabulous, a sui generis caped crusader reminiscent of Liberace, Kenneth Anger, and even a bit of the late great Cosmic Muffin of WBCN, Darrell Martinie.
“Mucho Mucho Amor” can be seen on Netflix.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.