- The Washington Times - Friday, June 10, 2005

The third edition of Silverdocs, an annual showcase for documentary production co-sponsored by the American Film Institute and the Discovery Channel, reflects another growth spurt: About 90 titles will be shown during the six days of the festival, which begins Tuesday evening at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, home base for all but a handful of events.

This represents a significant expansion over the inaugural year and is admirably timed to provide the new AFI triplex in Silver Spring with a distinctive attraction while contributing to the resurgence of documentary features as promising theatrical fare.

For example, the impressive quintet of “Capturing the Friedmans,” “Winged Migration,” “Spellbound,” “Stone Reader” and “Stevie” opened commercially in Washington shortly before the first Silverdocs festival. A year ago, openings in the weeks immediately after Silverdocs included “The Story of the Weeping Camel,” “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “My Sister Maria,” “The Hunting of the President” and “Control Room.”

This year, “Mad Hot Ballroom,” “Rock School” and “Tell Them Who You Are” have anticipated a new festival. “Deep Blue” and “Shake Hands With the Devil,” which open Friday, coincide with its final days. The midsummer calendar includes a trio of festival choices: “Grizzly Man,” “The Aristocrats” and “Murderball.”

The range of topics in this group of titles — from family conflict and scandal to offbeat competitive endeavors, political polemics, showbusiness biopics and studies of the natural world — is echoed in the latest Silverdocs roster. It’s possible that showbusiness looms larger than it has in previous years. Anyway, it’s accorded pride of place with the designated opening and closing pictures, “Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream” and “James Dean: Forever Young,” respectively.

To be precise, the festival doesn’t really begin and conclude with these titles. A so-called “pre-festival event” scheduled for today and tomorrow at 3 p.m. includes revivals of the famous Depression-period documentaries directed by Pare Lorentz, “The River” and “The Plow That Broke the Plains,” with live orchestral accompaniment of their musical scores, composed by Virgil Thomson.

“Forever Young” is booked for the next-to-last day of the festival, June 18. Think of it as a euphemistic “closing night” attraction.

“Midnight Movies” rounds up several critics, filmmakers and exhibitors who acquired a vested interest in cult attractions of the 1970s. For starters, director Alejandro Jodorowsky and theater owner Ben Barenholtz recall how they blundered upon a cultural trend with a successful engagement of the former’s “El Topo,” a freakish and ultraviolent Mexican import, at the latter’s Elgin Theater, an art house in Lower Manhattan.

A similar showcasing worked for movies that might have bombed in earlier (or later) decades: “The Night of the Living Dead,” “Pink Flamingos,” “The Harder They Come,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Eraserhead.” Marketed as weekend discoveries for moviegoers seeking the outrageous, shocking or merely out of the ordinary, these titles ran for years at certain theaters.

“Midnight Movies” seems to have been financed in part by the Starz cable network, so perhaps it will take roost more or less permanently there, with or without revivals of the vintage titles it celebrates.

“James Dean: Forever Young” is a house documentary from Warner Bros. It also can be found among the “extras” on the newly released DVD of “East of Eden,” available individually or as part of a Dean set with “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant.”

It’s easier for me to get nostalgic about the Dean chronicle, although accounts of his short-lived career — prematurely ended by a fatal car accident in September 1955 — have never gone out of style. The value of this compilation is that it draws on a lot of the actor’s television work. The Dean legend tends to obscure the fact that his public exposure was not limited to the three famous movies in the DVD set.

Like most actors, James Dean went through an obscure and struggling apprenticeship. He had bit parts in several films before Elia Kazan transformed his career with “East of Eden.” Instead of soliciting nostalgic interviews with friends and colleagues, “Forever Young” reserves generous time for TV excerpts. Most of them, both live and film, originated in New York City in the early 1950s.

Seeing this selection (which includes a comparatively “hot” scene with Betsy Palmer) restores a banal sense of professional reality: an aspiring performer who needs a resume and hasn’t begun to master a public image.

Silverdocs may do its public a greater favor by uncovering some delightful impressions of show people who are beatifically on the margins. I recommend two examples without reservation: “Pucker Up: The Fine Art of Whistling” and “Stan Kann: The Happiest Man in the World.”

The former introduces us to the top contenders at an annual International Whistlers Convention in Louisburg, N.C. The latter is a first-person memoir of the irrepressible theater organist from St. Louis who became a fixture on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” after a hilarious 1965 appearance demonstrating vintage vacuum cleaners from his own collection.

The defending champion among the whistlers, Chris Ullman, is from Alexandria. His rendition of “Fat Man Rag” is plenty awesome, but rivals contribute equally impressive versions of “Under Paris Skies,” “Danny Boy,” the William Tell Overture and the national anthem. It seems an excellent idea to show the movie outside (Thursday at 7 p.m.) as a free event because it will be impossible to resist whistling along with the principals.

Mr. Kann, a pint-size dynamo, is humorously showcased inside one of the most palatial movie theaters ever constructed and preserved: the Fox in St. Louis, where he played the Mighty Wurlitzer for years and returns to play it again for a 75th-anniversary celebration in 2004. The AFI Silver has a more modest machine, but perhaps a concert evening with Mr. Kann and fellow musicians accompanying scenes from their favorite silent classics would be a showworth organizing.

EVENT: Silverdocs, the third annual American Film Institute-Discovery Channel documentary festival

CONTENT: 89 documentary features and shorts, many shown for the first time in the Washington area, augmented by workshops, symposiums, conferences and special programs

WHERE:American Film Institute Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, 8633 Colesville Road in Silver Spring

WHEN: Tuesday through June 19

TICKETS:Admission for most programs is $9, with discounts of $1.50 for AFI members, students, seniors (65 and older) and military personnel; be prepared to present valid IDs. Prices for symposiums and special-event screenings range from $25 to $45. Single-day and “all-access” festival passes are available for $130 to $600. Discounts for these passes are available to AFI members and other organizations.

PHONE:Call 866/758-7327 for additional information about single tickets or festival passes. The regular theater box-office number is 301/496-6700.

WEB SITE: www.silverdocs.com

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