East Bay View (a blog about several things)

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Saturday, February 04, 2006

Indiefest diary 1: Too much fun

Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher (David Di Sabatino)

This is the kind of well-reasoned movie about an intriguing public figure that would get a primetime TV slot if the channels claiming quality weren't afraid of meaning. Lonnie Frisbee achieved notoriety in the early Seventies as a major player in the Jesus Movement, in which counterculture kids were attracted to a less rigorous Christianity, emphasising love while minimising constriction. Frisbee was affiliated with the fledgling Calvary and Vineyard churches, both now multinational, but fell out with both, growing embittered before dying of AIDS. Director David Di Sabatino comes from an evangelical family, but possesses a modicum of scepticism to leaven the occasional sanctimony of his talking heads. (Sadly his open-mindedness doesn't transfer to the visual, as he overplays certain tics like zooming into stills off-center. Sometimes it's okay to just show the picture.)

When the movie shifts to deal with Frisbee being squeezed out of the Vineyard after it was revealed he had been in a gay relationship, although it does smack of trying to force a thesis, that thesis stands: this major figure in the development of these churches has been whitewashed out of their history books. One could argue, however, that the movie does its own whitewashing by downplaying Frisbee's other sins, like his drug use. In any case, some Christians would consider the idea that a sinner could convert so many people to be perfectly apt (they're the target audience for this movie); other Christians would prefer not to contemplate such things. Hinted at is the question of whether it's possible for Christianity to thrive as an anti-authoritarian movement, like it originally was. Christianity's ubiquity would be impossible without its hierarchies; while open and reformist thought is possible at the fringes, can it affect the religion as a whole?

Frisbee, for his part, seems from the archival footage to be a likable, charismatic innocent, joyful at being saved and wanting to pass this feeling on. When those who were ministered by him discuss him, he comes across as something more: an apostle, a prophet, just not a saint. Some of them to this day credit him with miracles. You may not believe them, but to possess the holy stature and earthly magnetism to have others even ascribe this gift to you is rare. The enraptured testimonies help explain the explosion of the evangelical movement, like it or not.

One other thing that must be mentioned is the music, which consists mostly of prehistoric Christian rock. Like most of the genre then or since, the tracks are watered-down reassignments of what was fashionable five years earlier, except Di Sabbatino's choices are only slightly watered-down, so that, in the context of the movie, they sound actively pleasant. As Larry Norman asked, why should the devil have all the good music?

The Holy Modal Rounders: Bound to Lose (Sam Wainwright Douglas and Paul Lovelace)

This starts out as the funniest rockumentary Christopher Guest never made, thanks to Steve Weber, to whom the word "mercurial" doesn't do justice. Weber's onscreen antics pale compared to stories of his even chemicalier past: a Fug claims that Weber once treated a toothache by dropping acid. One running joke is that no one can believe Weber is still alive, least of all his long-suffering 40-year bandmate, Peter Stampfel. (The other running gag is that almost everyone thinks the band sucks.) Even before he went straight in the mid-Seventies, Stampfel, who everyone besides Weber considers the better musician (though Weber's no Ringo), had to deal with Weber's epicurean and Bacchanalian tendencies, which naturally precluded practising.

The movie (which evolved out of, of all things, a documentary about Stampfel's champion and lookalike, critic Robert Christgau) isn't a history, so swathes of Stampfel's and Weber's lives are left unexplored, and inevitably some of these absences are cause for regret: Hurley/Stampfel/Frederick's Have Moicy!, strong evidence for the existence of collective genius, isn't considered, and the Rounders' mutual ex Antonia is only mentioned in passing. What is there is a depiction of a very odd couple. Early on, they're shown light-heartedly needling each other on stage; later, though, their arguments are weirdly passive-aggressive, like in Some Kind of Monster. Stampfel obviously has a lot of affection for his pal, but experience has taught that relying on him is inadvisable. Weber's mind is unreadable: what's going on there beside working out where the next drink will come from? Whatever it is, he doesn't let anyone know. Near the end, it's heartbreaking when Stampfel comes to the conclusion that although he'd like to play with Weber again, it's alright if he never does.

You get the Rounders' music or you don't, only be warned that in either case you'll be totally disorientated after a first listen; the best way into the catalogue of the Rounders and friends is still Have Moicy! The soundtrack here includes comparatively well-known classics like "Euphoria", "Boobs a Lot" and "Griselda", as well as rarities like the Holy Grail of Rounderdom, "Fucking Sailors in Chinatown" (if the filmmakers are reading this, "Chinatown" on the DVD; this is not negotiable). Stampfel's wedgied funnyvoice (which turns out to be more or less his normal speaking voice) balances Weber's lackadaisical ease. The music evokes Weber's idea that enjoying the present moment is everything, especially if it's lunchtime. But it requires Stampfel's professionalism to sustain the illusion. So in the end, guys, does it really matter that much who wrote those songs?


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