A From George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods On Fire Birmingham News BOOKS & THE CULTURE Documented History Movies and Movie History at SXSW 2000 BY MICHAEL KING festival is a filmgoer’s dream and nightmare. Hours on end, one film bleeds into the next, making connections one hadn’t imag ined but also blurring useful distinctions like the one between Saturday night and Sunday morning. And on Observer deadline after only one weekend of the Austin Chronicle’s annual weeklong South-by-Southwest extravaganza, all I can think of is that while I’m typing, I’m missing more movies. Consider what follows one writer’s very partial snapshot of SXSW 2000, with some obvious early highlights and much more yet to be seen. If there’s an early theme to the millennial festival, it’s that this is the year of the documentary. The keynote film, given the Sunday-night-at-the-Paramount pride of place, is Paul Stekler and Daniel McCabe’s George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire, an epic political biography which makes most fictional films seem thin and lifeless by comparison. It’s unlikely that any narrative film on the schedule can approach the high emotion and historical reverberation of Wallace \(at three absorbing, big-screen hours, doomed to the PBS ghetto of lectureother current and revived documentaries highlight the week: D.A. Pennebaker’s young Bob Dylan explosion, Don’t Look Back; Anne Lewis’ elegy for the stripmined Cumberlands, To Save the Land and People; Aiyana Eliot’s examination of the myth of her hard-travelin’, folk-singin’, self-mythologizin’ father, The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack; Pennebaker’s already classic deconstruction of the 1992 Clinton campaign, The War Room \(one of four featured Nava’s telescopic history of immigration, American Tapestry, and many others. As George himself would certainly have wanted, George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire is a towering effort, more than a decade in the making, and as much a history of the times \(centrally the fifties should note at the outset that the film relies heavily and forthrightly on Dan Carter’s biography, The Politics of Rage, and Carter collaborated in the production. Using riveting historical footage as well as incisive contemporary interviews, it follows Wallace from his days as a politics-obsessed youth \(as a boy, goes the family legend, he would introduce himself to strangers and announce, “If I can do anything for you, let once “liberal” circuit judge \(who abruptly re-learns that racism is the bright, shining national stage as a far-right presidential candidate; to his near-assassination, spiritual conversion, decline, and death. Paul Stekler says he first got the idea for a Wallace film fifteen years ago, when he saw some old footage of Wallace “just leaping off the screen” unlike most drearier politi cians. It’s true that Wallace had a dominating, soap-box presence that is mostly gone from our television-blanded politics. Wallace, who died in 1998, was too ill to be interviewed, but his ancient glowering visage powerfully frames the film. It’s also true that villains make better copy. One of the most revealing moments in Wallace is just following the almost-successful 1972 assassination attempt by Arthur Bremer. After a sharply-rendered sequence on the shooting itself, Stekler and McCabe cut to the White House, where President Nixon and his feckless minions immediately begin plotting to frame the Democrats for the attack, specifically by planting pro-McGovern leaflets in Bremer’s Milwaukee apartment. They were foiled only because the F.B.I. arrived first and secured the premises. Had Oliver Stone scripted that conspiratorial passage, the howls of outrage from the right would 30 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MARCH 31, 2000
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