Now Playing! Percussion, Pickles and Poetry in Your Living Room

Still from 'River City Drumbeat.' (Courtesy the filmmakers)

The major fall film festivals, especially in the hapless U.S., will take a different form because of the pandemic. The Telluride Film Festival announced the cancellation of its Labor Day weekend bash on Monday—along with its 2020 selections. Congratulations to veteran San Francisco filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt, whose poignant new work, When We Were Bullies, made the cut. As for when and where local audiences will be able to see the 36-minute film, be patient.

Another world-renowned local filmmaker, Lynn Hershman Leeson, joins curator Margot Norton of New York’s New Museum for a live-streamed conversation Thursday, Aug. 6. Their dialogue will touch, no doubt, on the artist’s longstanding fascination with the uncomfortable intersections of scientific progress and innate humanity, Big Tech and free self-expression. Hershman Leeson’s wide-ranging multimedia exhibition Twisted, her first solo show at a Big Apple museum, opens February, 2021 at the New Museum.

River City Drumbeat
Roxie, Aug. 7; Smith Rafael Film Center, Aug. 14

This week’s new streaming-on-demand releases feature a trio of films exploring how individuals relate to and are nurtured by their environments. The clear standout, Marion Johnson and local filmmaker Anne Flatté’s soulful River City Drumbeat, takes us into the Black community of Louisville, Kentucky, through the River City Drum Corp and its founder and longtime director Edward “Nardie” White.

Nardie’s 30-year mission uses musical training and performance as instruments of discipline, self-confidence, pride and African-American education. River City Drumbeat spends enough time with three student drummers for us to understand that their college-and-beyond ambitions (and possibilities) derive directly from their longtime participation in the RCDC.

Edward 'Nardie' White in 'River City Drumbeat.' (Courtesy the filmmakers)

Flatté and Johnson’s concerted attention coincides with Nardie’s decision to retire at the end of the school year and hand the reins to soft-spoken RCDC alumnus Albert Shumake. Most filmmakers couldn’t resist the urge to embrace a countdown structure, build to an emotional crescendo and fade out on an uplifting note. River City Drumbeat, however, is focused more on the journey than the destination, and with portraying a troubled ecosystem rather than celebrating a milestone.

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Without being downbeat, the documentary illuminates the factors that have limited Black progress for decades—poverty, racism, scarce public resources, insufficient political power. While it’s a cliché to call every social-issue doc “timely,” River City Drumbeat has a contribution to make to the recharged debate about public priorities and policy.

Seth Rogen and Seth Rogen in 'An American Pickle.' (Hopper Stone)

An American Pickle
Aug. 6
HBO Max

The new Seth Rogen flick is a two-hander, or more accurately a one-hander. There are two characters, and Rogen plays both of them: Herschel Greenbaum, a 1920s Lower East Side-nee-shtetl Jew (with Old Country accent, beard and cap) and his underachieving 2020s Brooklyn great-grandson Ben (without any of those fashion accessories). Scripted by Simon Rich from his 2013 New Yorker story “Sell Out,” An American Pickle is an intermittently amusing and avowedly sentimental yarn about the supposedly unbreakable bonds of family.

If I could come up with fainter praise to damn this movie, I would. An American Pickle takes hold as a Rip Van Winkle story in which salt-of-the-Earth Herschel resurfaces 100 years after falling into a vat of pickles, preserved intact by the brine. But instead of the biting, hilarious and political one-liners packed into the opening reels of Woody Allen’s Sleeper, we get lazy, obvious sight gags.

Herschel is introduced to his sole living descendant, the blandly assimilated, Internet-savvy Ben. Neither man understands the other, understandably, but in the absence of any other significant characters the filmmakers manufacture conflict by escalating the Greenbaums’ culture clash into an illogical, mutually destructive war. Then, in the final five minutes, they and we learn that blood is thicker than pickle juice. (Or of equal consistency, metaphorically speaking.)

As fractured family fairy tales go, An American Pickle (like the vast body of Rogen’s work) is as slender as a slice of Carnegie Deli corned beef. The reference points and emotional cues aren’t inspired by real life but by other movies (Fiddler on the Roof, Being There). All that said, and although comedies play better with crowds in theaters than on the couch with a partner, this one—which the new streaming platform HBO Max acquired from the original theatrical distributor—will benefit from the hunger for any kind of coronavirus escapism.

Charles Bukowski in 'You Never Had It.' (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

You Never Had It: An Evening With Bukowski
Aug. 7
Smith Rafael Film Center, Alamo Drafthouse, Roxie

A quarter-century after his death, the prolific L.A. poet, writer and artist Charles Bukowski still provokes strong reactions. More popular in Europe than at home, Bukowski wrote about society’s down-and-outers with a refreshing lack of shyness about the less romantic aspects of sex and alcohol. His public readings, in which he played up and played to his reputation as a hard-drinking, say-anything provocateur, enraged a few and endeared him to everyone else.

Italian journalist Silvia Bizio had published a couple magazine stories about Bukowski, so Italian TV gave her an assignment and a crew to interview him on camera. They were joined on this night in early 1981 at Bukowski’s San Pedro home by his partner and eventual wife Linda Lee Beighle, and a couple of their friends. Bizio kept Bukowski talking for hours, as it turned out, but the tapes were never aired. All these years later, they’ve been edited (along with contemporary Super8 footage of gritty SoCal life) into a one-hour doc.

The wine-guzzling, chain-smoking 60-year-old we encounter in You Never Had It is slightly more likable and a hair more vulnerable than you might expect. To be sure, he’s crusty and cocksure, certain of his talent and secure in his tastes. But he exudes an awareness and acceptance that he is as flawed, petty and miserable a human being as everyone else wandering the planet.

Charles Bukowski (and cat) in 'You Never Had It.' (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

Mock humility wasn’t Bukowski’s strong suit, especially when he was the center of attention, and he knew it. But he was self-aware and capable of flashes of honesty. Asked for his favorite authors, he names Celiné, John Fante, Dostoevsky and D.H. Lawrence—and that’s it. He confides that he avoids meeting other writers. “Writers are very despicable people,” he declares in a raspy voice. “Plumbers are better. Used car salesmen are better.”

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A little while later, Bizio inquires about Bukowski’s tactics at the typewriter. He takes a puff and parries. “I simply write,” he says. “I’m not trying to shock or upset. I just write it down, that’s all.”