By Anne S. Lewis
APRIL 12, 1999: Louis Alvarez and Andy Kolker make documentaries for people who, if given the choice, would pick root canal work over the doc experience. What they've managed to do is strip all of the medicinal earnestness and polemics from the traditional genre and add in something not usually associated with nonfiction films: entertainment value. You know an Andy and Louie film when you see it -- not just from the jazzy soundtrack but from the really clever, quick-paced, funny (both ha-ha and peculiar) ways they wrap their films around subjects that anyone can dance to. Like the crazy-quilt of regional accents with which Americans speak (American Tongues), how we do politics in this country (the award-winning, six-hour, Vote for Me with Paul Stekler), the outlandish ways the Japanese express their idolatry of things American (The Japanese Version), and their latest film -- the one they're bringing to the Alamo on April 14 -- Moms.
"Our idea," says Alvarez, "is that people should be able to sit in their living rooms, drink a beer, and watch one of our films on a Saturday night and have a such a good time that they don't realize they've learned anything until it's over." Sounds better than nitrous oxide.
When the credits roll on the PBS-sponsored Moms, Andy and Louie will be pleased if you've been moved to pick up the phone and call your mom to let her know you're thinking about her. Actually, the film has just that desired effect. Of course, if you also happen to be a mom, you'll no doubt groove to what 40 or so similarly situated women have to say about an experience you know so well. We hear from lots of women, in quick, punchy succession, reflecting about everything from how they popped out their babies to that decades-ago spanking they'll always regret.
There are a few extended portraits, like the incredibly upbeat, "fun" mother of a now-adolescent retarded son who recalls her early grieving for "the child [she] thought [she was] owed." Now when she catches sight of some other mother supervising her young child at a neighborhood pool and pauses to reflect that it's her fate to be doing that forever, she also realizes, with true Bombeckian resignation, that means she'll always have to find "that perfect black bathing suit that fits." We spend a few days with a mom who lost custody of her son when he was two because she had a drug problem and who now sees him only a few weekends a month. She would love to join in when the other women at the office talk about their kids, to let her coworkers know that she actually has a 12-year-old son, but she doesn't because she fears the inevitable question.
And then there's the woman with six kids, who runs her household with military precision, each child color-coded and numbered -- and occasionally hugged for the camera. At the end of the film, we come back to her, a terrific, telling, would-be outake, in which she's annoyedly shooing her kids out of the room before her interview is to start. Then, realizing that the camera is running and how that must have looked on camera, she flashes a second's worth of silly self-consciousness before regaining her self-possessed, captain-of-the-ship composure.
Kolker and Alvarez are particularly adept at blitzing a topic from every conceivable, unexpected angle: In American Tongues, for example, they managed to track down the woman who does the accent-less Directory Assistance recordings for most phone companies. The self-taught filmmakers, who met and worked in New Orleans, where for 10 years they made films about that area's peculiar brew of local color before moving to New York, have a knack for eliciting from their subjects the perfect surprise response that drives home the point. Take the scene in American Tongues which intercuts people from different parts of the country with thick regional accents. A New Yorker defines the word "schlep," and then we cut to a man-on-the-street somewhere in the South, who cocks his head with must've-heard-you-wrong disbelief when asked what "schlep" means: Sleep; must mean sleep, he insists.
Andy Kolker: Our style is definitely not Mike Wallace. We try to draw people out, to get them to talk to us by making them feel comfortable. If that means nodding your head eight million times, well, that's what you have to do. If it means getting out a bottle of wine, well, that's okay, too, up to a point.
AK: Well, one will take the lead, and the other will kibbutz, then we switch off. But we're always both present.
Louis Alvarez: We don't rehearse people, but we do do pre-interviews and so have a sense of what they're going to say. It's like, remember to ask her to tell the story about ... and hope they'll do it as well as they did on the phone.
LA: Sometimes the stuff you want them to recount they don't do as well on camera as they did on the phone, but sometimes you'll get new stuff from them that you didn't expect. You probably noticed in Moms the process of being interviewed was a very emotional one for many of the mothers. Sometimes, we'd all end up crying.
AK: Moms was really a film of 40 experts -- it's like these women were all just sitting around waiting for someone to approach them and ask them about this subject that they really know something about. So people opened up on the topic of motherhood without a lot of prompting.
LA: All it took was a few triggers like: Do you ever open your mouth and hear your mother's voice come out? Every woman was off and running on that one.
LA: We tried not to have the kids in the room at the time because we thought the moms would be more open. But every once in awhile, they would be in the room and would hear their moms' stories for the first time. Some of the older mothers' kids never thought of their mothers in quite the way we were talking to them -- they sounded like experts. You could almost see the kids thinking: Gee, I guess my mom is really somebody more important than I thought she was! It was a nice experience for the kids.
AK: We don't have a template for our films. We don't hew to a script; we tend to let our films grow organically. It's a miserable cliché to say that a film is a journey, but in fact, it is, the way we do it. We never really know where we're going to be when it's over -- we have a reasonably good idea, but what we try to do is get those privileged, unexpected moments, the things you can't manufacture. The most you can do when you're making a doc is to maximize serendipity -- maximize the opportunity for something really great to happen. And that means you have to spend a lot more time getting to know your subjects.
LA: Actually, we do.
AK: I think there's something to be said for topics which tug at your heart one way or the other and that make you think. But, on the other hand, as Louie says, we're not interested in leaving an audience on the floor, to be peeled off. There are other people who do that better than we do anyway.
LA: It's not really our nature. Vote for Me was a serious subject; our next film is about social class in America, a serious subject, but that doesn't mean it has to be handled with a deadly earnestness that says we're going to teach you something. We think if people laugh and enjoy themselves, they are often more receptive to your message.
AK: That's not to say that we don't take ourselves seriously or that there's not serious content in our shows -- there is -- it's just perhaps a different way of looking at it.
LA: It's much harder to make a film that makes people laugh than cry.
AK: We fight like cats and dogs.
LA: We say it's like our other marriage.
AK: Ultimately, our films are better because both of us work on them. Sometimes we'd like to just say: Okay, why don't you just do this one? I'll do the other one.
LA: Our tastes are essentially close enough that we're ultimately really behind the same eight-ball as far as what we want the film to look like. There are partnerships that aren't like that and their films often reflect the different visions. But, with ours, we know what we want to do. So we fight over little bits and pieces but 10 seconds later, it's forgotten, because someone has had a new great idea and that's the end of that.
AK: Or else you have these knock-down, drag-out fights over two or three edits, and the next day, that whole section is gone: So what was that all about?
AK: No, not very often.
LA: That's one of the secrets to the partnership, I think. We have our own lives -- we're actually quite different people. And we just come together in the workplace.
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