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doc talk | peter keough


Actor Carel Struycken with a “Witches of Eastwick” crew member in “When the Witches Came to Town.”Sue Straley/courtesy of Jennifer Sherman

This year’s Massachusetts Independent Film Festival (Aug. 25-26) hosts several documentaries that examine the tricky subject of how we make the world meaningful. They are films about the artistic impulse in all of us that persists despite inevitable frustrations.

Here are five of them.

There’s lots of frustration in David Frasina’s short “When the Witches Came to Town” (Aug. 25). In 1986 Warner Bros. sought out Little Compton, R.I., as a location to film its adaptation of John Updike’s “The Witches of Eastwick.” Directed by George Miller, it starred Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer as the necromancers of the title and Jack Nicholson as the devil they summon. 

The town council approved, but many locals in the tiny hamlet, founded by Puritans in 1682, vehemently objected to such a blasphemous film taking over their community. Shoot a scene in which the devil bursts into their church and spews a torrent of cherry pits (actually Boston baked beans)? Not if they could help it. They drove WB out of town. The then-head of the Rhode Island film commission and a local pastor who supported the project describe the situation as reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”


Little Compton’s loss was Cohasset’s gain. The picturesque seaside town on the South Shore embraced the production, enjoying the influx of Hollywood glamor — and money: Local businesses, property owners, and craftsmen benefited handsomely. Celebrating the 30th anniversary of the shooting, they reminisce about what for many was the most memorable event of their lives.

Herbert Golder’s “Ballad of a Righteous Merchant” (Aug. 25, following “When the Witches Came to Town”) looks behind the scenes of one of Werner Herzog’s more enigmatic films, “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done” (2009), which Golder co-wrote with Herzog. 

Based on the true story of convicted killer Mark Yavorsky, Herzog’s film features an actor (Michael Shannon) whose monomaniacal immersion into Aeschylus’s matricidal “Electra” during a school production drives him to murder his own mother. That may be taking Method acting too far.

Golder, a classical studies professor at Boston University who had befriended Yavorsky and has collaborated with Herzog for over two decades, takes on a threefold investigation of artists shaping their vision. There is Yavorsky, whose commitment to acting pushes him over the edge into monomaniacal, apocalyptic paranoia. There is the playfully intense Herzog, whose effort to grasp the “ecstatic truth” of his subject requires flamingoes, ostriches, the San Diego Police Department SWAT team, and a can of Quaker Oats. And then there is Golder himself, who tries to comprehend both Yavorsky and Herzog by drawing on his knowledge of classical mythology. A must-see for Herzog fans.


Poetry can contain the whole world, but can it pay the rent? That’s the nagging question in local filmmaker Olivia Huang’s short documentary “Grolier Poetry Book Shop: The Last Sacred Place of Poetry” (Aug. 25 at 8 p.m.). Founded in 1927, the Grolier is the oldest bookstore dedicated solely to poetry — and may be the last. A one-room establishment packed with books in the heart of Harvard Square, it is a cultural landmark that has hosted such luminaries as E.E. Cummings , T.S. Eliot , Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Marianne Moore, Robert Pinsky, Lloyd Schwartz, Adrienne Rich, Ruth Stone, and many others.

There are days when the store sells only a couple of books, but the current owner — poet and Wellesley College professor Ifeanyi Menkiti — has been resourceful in seeking funding from various sources. Making money doesn’t matter, he says. What’s more important is seeing a high school student rapt for hours reading poetry. Even if she doesn’t buy anything.

Through interviews and footage of some of the store’s cozy, uplifting readings Huang captures the spirit of a precious, endangered resource.

No high school or college kid in the late 1960s could claim to be cool without having read such Kurt Vonnegut novels as “Mother Night” (1961), “Cat’s Cradle” (1963), and “Slaughterhouse-Five” (1969). J.J. Harting’s “Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without a Country” (Aug. 25, following “Grolier Book Shop”) presents an intimate look into the life and anti-establishment politics of the acerbically brilliant satirist and sci-fi writer who died in 2007, at 84.

With voice-over readings from Vonnegut’s book of the title, a 2005 collection of Mark Twain-like essays denouncing the politics and society of his time, the film also shares reminiscences by friends and family. Mostly they remember his humanity and kindness. He practiced what he preached; his son recalls how as a struggling writer with a family of his own Vonnegut adopted his late sister’s suddenly orphaned children.

The title of Emerson College faculty member Heather Cassano’s “Limits of My World”  (Aug. 25) comes from a quote by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein — “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

It would seem at first glance that the world of Cassano’s brother Brian is limited indeed. Autistic and barely verbal, the young man yelps, howls, and laughs as he gesticulates violently and rocks back and forth. Big and athletic, he can be menacing. Cassano has their mother read e-mails she sent out describing her son destroying things and terrorizing Heather (the filmmaker mentions in passing that her therapist has told her she is suffering from PTSD from growing up with her brother).


Despite these challenges, Cassano is determined to learn her brother’s language and share his world. The resulting film is raw and observational, its seeming lack of structure perhaps reflecting Brian’s own fragmentary perceptions. Slowly the therapists working with him make progress, limiting his negative behaviors and introducing him to new experiences. Visiting a sun-dappled farm with a paddock full of ponies, Brian lets loose a cry. “Did you hear that?” his therapist says. “He said, ‘Amazing’!”

The Massachusetts Independent Film Festival takes place at the Regent Theatre, 7 Medford St., Arlington.

Peter Keough can be reached at