Tag Archives: Sidewalk Cinema + Film Center

Savoring Sidewalk 2021

REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” blasted through the Alabama Theatre near the start of the Opening Night festivities and screening for the 2021 “Homecoming” chapter of Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival. It was labelled “Homecoming” because the festival was returning to its home in Birmingham’s downtown theatre district after exiling itself to drive-in screenings for the 2020 pandemic version.

When I preordered my pass for the festival, I was not expecting the upsurge in Covid outbreaks and the “break-out” cases of fully-vaccinated people that have plagued the second half of the summer. Also, Alabama – embarrassingly – has one of the lowest rates of vaccination in the country. As my great-grandfather McCarn, who was an old-time country schoolteacher in Cullman County, allegedly said about some of his students, “You just can’t beat sense into these stupid people.” (And Grandpa taught school back in a time when you could try.)

But the good people of Sidewalk have been conscious and responsible throughout the time of Covid and, when screenings resumed at the Sidewalk Cinema + Film Center late last year, I felt safe each time I attended. For this year’s festival, proof of vaccination or a current negative Covid test, diligent masking, and lowered seating capacities made the event feel as safe as it could be in our current moment.

Fittingly, the Opening Night movie was Television Event, a 2020 documentary by Jeff Daniels (not the actor) about the making of the 1983 made-for-television movie, The Day After. Opening Night at Sidewalk is often something frothy and light-hearted – a respite, perhaps, before the usually more serious fare of the festival weekend. This year the programmers chose a heavier appetizer.

The Day After, directed by Nicholas Meyer, is a drama about a nuclear attack and its impact on the town of Topeka, Kansas. Daniels’s documentary explores the fear during the Cold War era and the controversy and politics surrounding the production. Younger audiences can’t comprehend what those years were like for Baby Boomers who grew up when “duck and cover” school drills for nuclear attacks were almost as common as fire drills. The film reminds us that a large portion of the U.S. population expected nuclear war within the decade. I remember seeing spray-painted outlines, representing vaporized bodies, drawn on the sidewalks at the University of Alabama to commemorate the anniversaries of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima.

One hundred million Americans watched the ABC broadcast of The Day After when it premiered in November 1983. Television Event makes much of the fact that such a communal television experience can never happen again. The documentary implies that the film might even have influenced Reagan’s decision to pursue nuclear arms limitations with the Soviets.

The screening was followed by a made-for-Sidewalk panel moderated by AL.com’s Ben Flanagan and including broadcast journalist Ted Koppel and the director, Nicholas Meyer. Among the more urgent comments made during the panel were Meyer’s suggestion that, with the rise of terrorism, the nuclear threat is as bad as it’s ever been and Koppel’s assertion that cyber-attack is an even greater threat than nuclear to national and world security in our present time.

The eye-opening Opening Night screening was also entertaining and lived up to Creative Director Rachel Morgan’s promise to scare the audience. It was good to be back at the Alabama Theatre in an ongoing search for somewhat “normal” experiences in 2021.

I have a tendency to watch mostly documentaries at Sidewalk and 2021 was no exception. Ailey, directed by Jamila Wignot, provides an intimate portrait of the celebrated choreographer and stunning archival footage of performances by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Ailey was screened at the Lyric Theatre and, in its introduction, the audience was reminded that we were the first audiences in the Lyric since March 2020. Dancer Germaul Barnes, in a moving and dramatic pre-screening tribute to Ailey, encouraged the audience to look around at the people around us. It was a reminder to be in the moment.

The Capote Tapes, directed by Ebs Burnough, revisits the life of the twentieth-century writer with new audio from George Plimpton’s interviews for his 1997 oral biography of Capote. The film focuses on the many scandals and broken friendships that attended Capote’s final legendary but unfinished novel, Answered Prayers.

The homegrown documentary, Socks on Fire, directed by Bo McGuire, chronicles a family drama. McGuire, whose writing and voiceovers in the film are impressive, directs a vivid and imaginative rendering of the squabble over his beloved grandmother’s estate – centered on homophobic Aunt Sharon, who changes the locks, and drag queen Uncle John, who assumes he will continue to live in his mother’s house.

Socks on Fire takes place in Alabama and earned the best documentary prize at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival in New York. McGuire tells his family’s story with humor, love, and energy. The film itself is a creative log ride; in case that was not enough, McGuire’s animated introduction included live performances by three drag queens on the Alabama stage (well, two drag queens and a third act, “Saliva Godiva,” whose frenzied performance seems to defy any known label). One performer, Queen Brown Suga Spice, seemed to have a couple of praise dancers as back-up. As the ladies performed, runners passed the hat around the theatre to collect tips from the audience.

In his introduction, McGuire again made the point that seemed to be a theme for this 23rd edition of Sidewalk. He stressed the importance of the communal audience experience that is central to the filmmaker’s art. Being back together in actual theatres in downtown was a reminder of how much has been missed over the past year and a half.

Queen Brown Suga Spice at the Alabama

In earlier years, I would try to see how many screenings I could squeeze in on Sidewalk weekend. Nowadays, I curate carefully and take time to savor the experience. Sidewalk 23 did not disappoint.

Icarus | Bourdain

The Icarus myth has always had special appeal for me. It’s the story of the boy who, on man-crafted wings, flew too close to the sun and, when the sun melted the waxen wings, fell into the sea and drowned. A favorite poem is W. H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts,” which begins, “About suffering they were never wrong, / The old Masters …” and ends with a consideration of Pieter Breughel’s painting, “The Fall of Icarus,” which portrays the tragedy as an ignored event in the midst of a world that goes on with its daily tasks. The viewer has to look closely to find the legs of the boy as he plunges into the sea.

In my teaching years, I used the Auden text as an introduction to my Oral Interpretation performance class. I used it as an exercise in perspective and point of view. The poem reminded me, decades after Auden wrote it in 1938, of the brilliant late-summer morning of September 11, 2001, when television hosts on “Today” were casually chatting with tourists in Rockefeller Plaza — commenting on the weather — as the unthinkable was happening just four miles away. Coincidentally, I was — at the same time — reading Franzen’s The Corrections and getting what was probably my last true suntan on a Florida panhandle beach.

I gained a new perspective on Icarus recently as I watched Morgan Neville’s documentary, Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Bourdain, at Birmingham’s Sidewalk Cinema – one of my favorite refuges from the Pandemic. Bourdain’s brother, Christopher, reads an anonymous tribute left at Anthony’s former Manhattan brasserie, Les Halles, after his death. It says, “Icarus didn’t fail. He was coming to the end of his triumph.”

Near the beginning of Roadrunner, we hear Bourdain’s voice: “Here’s a little preemptive truth telling; there’s no happy ending.” We knew that going in and perhaps that is the reason we are so eager to see the film. Three years after Bourdain – a writer who did not write a suicide note – took his own life, many are still searching for a reason; Neville’s film offers some possibilities to mull, but the depth of the grief of Bourdain’s friends, family, and colleagues is palpable.

Despite the promise of a bleak ending, much of the film is triumphant and fun, chronicling Bourdain’s rise from dishwasher to executive chef, from author to influential and charismatic television personality. It deals with his addictive personality, commitment issues, and demons as he becomes a globe-trotter, sampling the world’s foodways and using that pretext to explore the world’s issues and humanity. Neville focuses at times on the haunted look on Bourdain’s face in the middle of a shoot; we also see Bourdain’s suspicion of his rise to fame and his horrified face as he must admit that he’s about to appear on “Oprah.”

Raodrunner has faced some manufactured controversy over certain directorial choices and omissions, but documentary – like journalism – is always a subjective form at its core and each creator makes choices about how the “truth” will be presented. Bourdain certainly made those types of choices throughout his globe-trotting culinary documentary career, which the film and many of its interviewees assert was never really about food.

Neville’s documentary choices seem sound to me and his aesthetic choices are intriguing throughout. The insertion of footage from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now seems right, highlighting Bourdain’s obsessions with that movie and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – the source novel, when he is finally able to spend time in the Congo. When Bourdain and his film crew are stuck in Beirut in 2006 during the July War between Hezbollah and Israel, Bourdain questions the ethics of getting a tan at the hotel pool; he has little choice – the airport is closed and there is little to do but stay at the hotel, listening to the sounds of war all around. He seems both excited and guilty at his predicament.

Bourdain was always one to speak truth to power and, even at his most brash and surly, his authenticity and humanity come through. Roadrunner manages to capture another side of Bourdain – his vulnerability and joy in his family and relationships. When one interviewee seems to favorably compare the relationship of Bourdain and his first wife, Nancy Putkoski, to “Sid and Nancy,” I laughed out loud a little thinking, That’s a good thing? Maybe, for Bourdain, a little bit; Bourdain worked hard to maintain his punk persona throughout a career that was ultimately respectable and highly influential.

Roadrunner doesn’t sugarcoat; nor does it explain anything, really. But it reveals and listens and leaves the viewer with many things to ponder. Without giving too much of the ending away, it involves the mutilation of an image by a Bourdain friend and confidante. It’s the kind of moment Bourdain would have chosen.


Based on years past, I should be a couple of hours away from my annual December getaway to Point Clear on Mobile Bay as I type this sentence. A couple of months ago, I optimistically booked a room at the Grand Hotel for December 13 through 18. I knew I might have to cancel, but I wanted to be ready just in case things had changed by now.

When I booked my room, the resort was still dealing with damage from Hurricane Sally in September. I have been exceptionally conscious and careful during the pandemic and was impressed with the safety protocols the resort has in place. My plan was to stay close to my room, reading and writing, to take regular walks around the grounds and community, and to have room service and takeout. It seemed to me to be a responsible way to get a break and finally to celebrate my retirement.

As the dates got closer and the news reports grew more grim, I realized that the responsible thing is to cancel for the time being. The world around us and people depending on us make it feel imperative to take a stand. And, as my friend Deborah says, now that I’m retired, I can go down any time I please … once the health crisis has passed, anyway.

It will be the first time I have missed the December escape since 2005 – the year of Hurricane Katrina and its extensive damage to Mobile and Baldwin Counties.

Even as I entered my cancellation, the music and memories of Baldwin County and Mobile Bay invaded my thoughts. I think about downtown Fairhope, the intersection of Section Street and Fairhope Avenue, and the light-bedecked trees along the sidewalks. The planters, hanging from the light posts, complement the plantings of poinsettias and pansies in the ground-level beds.

I think of the Camellia Café, Dragonfly, Panini Pete’s, the Wash House, and other places to grab a great meal. I think of Market by the Bay and its abundance of fresh catch seafood.

I think of drives to lonely overlooks across the bay, to Magnolia Springs, and to the search for bags of fresh local pecans and satsumas.

At the Grand, the gentle surf grazes the docks and, beyond the marina, the lights of Mobile, across the bay, glisten beyond the traffic of the causeway.

The Grand sunset, usually spectacular, will still be there when I return. And, upon that return, I think I will cherish the place more than ever.

For now, I slowly and surely prepare my house to sell and keep my eyes and ears open for possible places to move in Birmingham.

To stay grounded, I read as much as possible. After reading stacks of magazines, a few books, and news articles, I have found comfort and solace in reading a couple of very good cookbooks. Sean Brock’s second book, South: Essential Recipes and New Explorations, is as thoughtful and thorough a consideration of Southern foodways and contemporary thought on the subject as one might find. Kelly Fields’s chatty The Good Book of Southern Baking: A Revival of Biscuits, Cakes, and Cornbread is as inspiring as one might expect from the dedicated and well-travelled James Beard Award-winning pastry chef.

I feel grateful, as I read these books on food, to have spoken with and experienced meals prepared by both of these chefs. I first had Brock’s food at an unforgettable dinner at Alabama Chanin’s factory in Florence. I met and broke bread with Fields at two dinners at the same place. Her New Orleans bakery and restaurant, Willa Jean, is a singular New Orleans experience.

I am also, grudgingly perhaps, becoming more susceptible to the necessity of streaming video. I have even fallen prey to the New Age-y call of calm.com, and especially its hypnotic video series, “The World of Calm.” My most frequent stream, however, has been the Spike Lee-directed concert movie, David Byrne’s American Utopia, which is a most hopeful document of our country and its current situation. I have lost touch with how many times I’ve watched it already.

To satisfy my former habit to watch a movie in an honest-to-goodness cinema, I have been able to venture to Sidewalk Cinema + Film Center in the basement of the Pizitz building in downtown Birmingham. The not-for-profit indie theatre limits each screening to twelve patrons in well-spaced seats in a 100-seat theatre and I have enjoyed welcome escapes there to view films like On the Rocks and Mank. Each visit to Sidewalk Cinema makes me more anxious to move back home to Birmingham when the time is right.

Holiday season 2020 is a unique and memorable one. Perhaps it has made us a little more aware of the pleasures of the simple things. Be safe as we move into a promising new year.