Docu-Memphis: Part Two of a Two Part Series
Morgan Jon Fox’s film “This is What Love in Action Looks Like” shows a clash of cultures in Memphis
This is part 2 of a two part series. Part 1 is available here
Jaz Gray remembers films in school were a mixed blessing. “I remember in college and in high school, which was only a few years ago, when the teacher said ‘we are going to watch a film’ on one hand you were excited because you were thinking ‘at least I don’t have to do some work’ but on the other hand you knew it was going to be boring. When the lights go out some fall asleep,” Gray aspires for more. “For me a documentary is the opposite of that experience.”
Gray has an ideal of her concept of a film. “It tells information that is accurate but has a great story and it is done in a make the viewer want to respond say and not just say ‘oh that was nice’ but to give or share the information with someone else. That is a great documentary.”
“I encourage my students to not have all their ideas gen by movies. They need to read to look out to listen to keep a running list of possible story ideas and not think ‘that’s a great movie Blind Side. That would be a great documentary,” Craig Leake says. “You can’t just sit in the dark and watch movies you’ve got to read.”
Much like a traditional movie, Leake suggests creating, “a good story with good characters.”
“Find what you’re interested in and ask ‘how do I put a face on the statistics? Who can I meet to tell me about that issue?” Leake suggests. “So many movies have been done but usually you can’t say that about documentaries.”
Alan Spearman’s work as a Commercial Appeal photographer puts him with a variety of people and a variety of places. Not only is it inspiration for his true –story films but he is collaborating with Craig Brewer on the film Ground which is will be a work of fiction “going full circle,” he said on his film about letting go. “Documentaries have never really fascinated me even though people label the work I do documentaries. I like chasing things ethereal or spiritual or transcendent. I attempt to show visually rather than through dialogue. You get a feeling more so than you hear delivered through language and that is what I strive to do.”
“Will it move me?” Spearman asks of a film. “If it has universal element people can relate to or if it is showing me images I have never seen before, that excites me very much. I don’t want to see anything I have seen before. I want to go to a different place and be surprised.”
But the point of this article is documentaries and Memphis. Where are these documentaries coming from and why Memphis? Is it the area’s history? Perhaps the music? Maybe it is the University of Memphis’ Communication Department film classes?
“Memphis is this strange laboratory where you can conjure up these kooky ideas and people be will be like ‘that’s a good idea!’ There’s something about Memphis. You can look at it historically, the independent vision whether it’s FedEx, Holiday Inn or Sam Phillips,” Spearman said.
Gray never associated Memphis and documentaries, until she began her work with More than Skin Deep. “With each step we are taking forward as Memphians in filmmaking it does open a lot of doors . I have met a lot of people,” she said. And, as mentioned in the previous article, she exceeded her funding goal, thanks primarily to Memphians who believe in her vision.
“I think we live where storytelling is a tradition. There is something in the water. There is music and writing,” Craig Leake said. “The best documentaries are not term papers. They involve characters. I think the history and the arts make Memphis ripe for these kinds of films.”
Another component in the rise of true films could be as simple as the price of equipment. Gray’s cinematographers use Panasonic HPX 170 and that can be had, new, for less than $4000. Spearman uses the Canon 5D which is averages about $3,500 for the body only. These prices may be far beyond what most people use to shoot their child’s birthday party, but an affordable capital investment.
A newcomer to Memphis could get a decent sense of place seeing true stories of Greater Memphis and different perspectives on local icons Saint Jude Hospital in The Chemo Ate My Homework and the Mississippi River in Nobody. They can get a sense of community spirit of the Germantown teen firefighters in Hometown Glory. They can see a flawed city but one with good people who want to make it better in Babyland and Undefeated. The arts are captured through Shooting Robert King and with a totally different photographer in William Eggleston in the Real World . And Memphis history – and nostalgia – is captured in the Memphis Memoirs series and Memphis Heat.
This summer most readers of the article will be in the theater for The Amazing Spiderman, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. But take a look at a few of these movies and you just might get a different perspective on a place you thought you knew. And there is no need to rent 3D glasses.
Craig Leake, David Appleby and Richard Copley teamed up again for this local followup to the ABC News broadcast of Babyland.
Today Germantown, just east of Memphis, is home to Tennessee’s highest per capita zip code. In the 1970’s it was a fast-growing small town. As towns grow, so does the need for more fire protection. Germantown High School students as young as fourteen years old were given the opportunity to become volunteer firefighters. An alarm sounded and it was time for the students to rush out of class to the nearby fire station and off to their next call. Ray Costa remembers and captures this time in Hometown Glory with the tagline “Before they were men, they were heroes.”
The film, which this writer has not seen, includes interviews with some of the alumni of the program which continued until 1985. It also includes reenactments of those students of the 1970’s balancing their teens with saving lives. And it got them started in making their lives what it is some thirty to forty years later as a few of them are STILL on the trucks and engines of the Germantown Fire Department.
It is melodrama where the villains were oh so villainous. The heroes were oh so heroic and it was one of the most popular Saturday Morning TV shows in Memphis. No, not Super Friends. It was wrestling or, in the local vernacular, rasslin. Take Jimmy Hart, who looked like the kind of guy who would be wearing a black cape and tying a girl to the train tracks in a silent movie. It had showmanship to the level that would have made P.T. Barnum envious, such as the a match where the looser was thrown in a box with a Burmese python. And of course there was that incident with Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler.
Way before wrestling became a national spectacle, it was a local one, first as a carnival side show, then a regular auditorium attraction supported by a Saturday morning TV show with ninety minutes of some of the highest rated TV in Memphis history. But before turning one’s nose up, give this film a chance for a look at a fascinating documentary including pop culture, interviews and a story on how one of the “bad guys” gave a body slam to Memphis segregation.
On and off since 1995, the local PBS station, WKNO TV, has done a series mixing history and nostalgia and as of now they have done nineteen episodes showing early television in Memphis, Overton Park and Downtown and many others were just some of the places and their past explored. Ten of those DVD’s are available here with a $300 donation to the station.
Shooting Robert King
Robert King of Memphis had an ambitious goal when he started photography and that was to be the youngest Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist. He soon headed out to the dangerous spots in the world and this film shows him in Bosnia, Chechnya and Iraq. Later on in the film he ventures to Mexico to document drug cartel violence.
He marries and has a child, bringing civility to his life which took a turn towards self-destructiveness. He credits his wife with being a lifesaver to him.
Though he still does not have that Pulitzer, his images are unquestionably powerful. “I have stepped over countless dead bodies. I am kind of damaged goods,” he says.
This is Elvis
This 1981 documentary blends the world of documentary and drama where film from Elvis’ life meets reenactments with actors to create a story of Presley’s life from his childhood in Tupelo to his 1977 death. A voiceover of a Presley impersonator narrates, further blurring the lines.
Tennessee seems to have more bio-pics per capita than any other state ( Alvin York, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tina Turner, Bettie Page and Johnny Cash) but this differs greatly from all of those and even other biographies of Presley.
This is What Love In Action Looks Like.
Love in Action was a ministry aimed at converting gay people from their lifestyle to one of heterosexuality through prayer, scriptures and behavior modification (among other things, teaching men auto mechanics, to overcome their fear of sports and more masculine dressing). Originally it was aimed at adults who were uncomfortable with their homosexual tendencies. After the ministry moved to Memphis near the Raleigh Springs Mall, they began taking in teens that were sent to the program by their parents. In the summer of 2005, Zach Stark was one of those teens and he was updating his life with the group via My Space.
Friends began protesting at the church and quickly drawing media attention. John Smid, the director of the program, was the target of their wrath. Smid, who said he gave up the gay life in 1984, was not dehumanized by the group but as he drove into the church, but instead heard chants like “God loves you.” He seemed surprised not to have been met with in-your-face type protests with Smid burned in effigy by men clad in leather, but a group of passionate, yet civilized, mostly young people.
Smid was shown as equally respectful. There are no scenes of him shouting about the lake of fire to protestors. In the film he had what appeared to be a very friendly sit down chat with director Morgan Jon Fox at a Midtown Memphis coffee shop (an area of town the participants were told to avoid). He later closed the program and apologized to anyone who he may have hurt. For a culture war, the two sides seemed very nice about it.
William Eggleston in the Real World
Hillmont Avenue is a dead end street, about one block long of homes built in the mid 1960’s. For some reason – he said in an interview he does not know why- Memphis photographer William Eggleston ended up on that road in the winter of 1969- 1970 and discovered a tricycle siting in a driveway. He placed his camera on the ground, used his wallet to point the lens up a bit higher and made the photo he titled “Memphis” where a tricycle seems to tower over homes in Everytown, USA.
Eggleston shot color while most other photographers – save for advertisers, magazine photojournalists and amateurs – were shooting black and white. He focused on barbecue grills, showers and people whose expressions one could not quite figure out when most other photographers were shooting landscapes, portraits and journalistic imagery. This 2005 film followed Eggleston, his family, his work and his lesser-known passion for music. It is a fascinating film looking into the life of a prolific artist.
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