Tag Archives: Sidewalk Cinema

Van Gogh Is Visiting Birmingham

 A favorite memory of the day after Thanksgiving is of my parents taking me to Pizitz department store in downtown Birmingham and taking the escalators to the sixth floor and Santa’s Enchanted Forest. The memory of that tradition that stands out most for me was probably in the mid ‘60s. The line wound through cheerful displays of reindeer, winter scenes, and elves at work in their workshop. At the end of the path, Santa on his throne was there to greet all. After Pizitz, we trekked across the street to check out the holiday windows at Loveman’s and went a few blocks north to see the city’s newly-lit Christmas tree in Woodrow Wilson (now Linn) Park. Finally, my parents took me to a book store on Southside and treated me to a book of my choosing. In this particular memory, it was a Dr. Seuss book.

Pizitz is now a residential building where I go to see indie films at Sidewalk Cinema and to grab a bite in the expansive food hall. Loveman’s long ago became a children’s science museum. But I never go to that part of town without remembering that one special night after Thanksgiving.


I thought of Santa’s Enchanted Forest this week when I took my mother to the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Center for “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” People of all ages wandered through the three rooms of the event and I realized, as I watched kids scamper around, that a memorable holiday experience was being created for a lot of people that night.

One of the odd cultural touchstones of this second year of pandemic is the fact that about half a dozen “immersive” shows inspired by the art of Vincent Van Gogh have sprung up and been attended by enthusiastic responses wherever they landed around the world. The iteration playing in Birmingham through January 2 is the creation of French-Canadian Mathieu St-Arnaud and his team at Montreal’s Normal Studio. A Monet immersion is beginning to make the rounds and I understand that a Frida Kahlo event is in the works for 2022.

The art of each of those artists seems ripe for the sort of trippy experience I witnessed in Birmingham. The “Beyond Van Gogh” immersion begins with a line moving through a room that serves as a primer for Van Gogh, with panels providing capsule synopses of the artist’s often tortured life, interspersed with comments that include quotes from letters between Vincent and his brother, Theo. The viewer then enters the “Waterfall Room,” which seems to be there primarily to acclimate the audience to the main room. Vertigo is a real risk as the flowing abstractions move down the wall and across the floor. I realized that I needed to be careful about looking down.

The main room, which the publicity bills as “masterpieces … freed from frames” is the reason for the experience. Scored to instrumental music, with an occasional voiceover, the room has projected images flowing across all walls, on three tall triangular pillars in the middle, and over the floor. Some projections are reproductions of Van Gogh’s work but much of the event is flowing abstractions and layering of images from line to detail to color to a recognizable painting. When we entered the room, almond blossoms covered the walls and floor; some of the flora was static while other petals floated gracefully all around. It was a breathtaking moment to enter.

The audience is free to move around. Several sat on the floor. Some moved constantly, others stayed in one place; cameras and selfies were abundant all around. The experience is truly beautiful and mesmerizing in many ways. As I get older, I am more drawn to contemplative experiences, art that frees the mind to wander and find connections. Several dozen people of all ages were in the room and it seemed that each viewer was having a singular experience.

The musical score is often soothing, often soaring, and generally adds to the grandeur of the experience. There is, for me at least, one jarring exception: A lovely instrumental version of Paul Simon’s “America” plays in conjunction with the almond blossoms and beyond. That song is so familiar, at least to a Boomer like me, that I found myself humming along and distracted. Why I thought is “America” part of a Van Gogh exhibit? I still haven’t figured it out.


There have been snarky reviews and comments about the various Van Gogh immersions by art critics around the country. (I’ve written a fair amount of critical essays and reviews through the years and I know snark when I see it; I have perpetrated it on occasion.) The reviews seem to feel that the public domain status of Van Gogh’s work is being exploited and that the various immersions cheapen the work. They don’t think the works’ complexity is given its due or something like that. They don’t think it educates enough – or something like that.

Mainly, however, the snark seems to be aimed at the audience: They take too many selfies; they miss out on the true experience of viewing the works in a museum. There are children running around. It’s all just too “commercial.” The producers make a bald-faced appeal to the audience, especially the “influencers,” to take photos and spread the word. The gift shop is offensive … Or something like that. I saw one article that even told readers which museums they could go to and see the actual works represented in the immersion. That piece was by a New York writer.

I get their righteous snark. I really do; there were moments during the event when I felt that I was being a little bit suckered. But they miss the point. These enterprises are clearly commercial and are buoyed by the entertainment aspect of a necessary and mostly pleasant escapism inspired by the art of Vincent Van Gogh. All audiences do not necessarily have the access to the authentic art of Van Gogh that a New York audience might. And I suspect that the majority of the audience for an “immersive” art experience already has at least a basic knowledge of the art they’re being immersed in; that’s probably why they bought the ticket to begin with (and it’s not a cheap ticket). Others, who may not know the work but are drawn in by the enthusiastic word-of-mouth, may be inspired to learn more after the experience. As for the children, I was amazed at how well-behaved they were. And I was delighted when something would happen that would stop them – wide-eyed and gaping – in their tracks.

My mother, for one, left the experience “a little sad.” Viewing the work, and watching the audience response, she found it sad that Vincent did not live to experience the acclaim he achieved in his post-mortem.

These immersive experiences are certainly destined for oversaturation and for the waning popularity of audience-pleasers of the past like Cirque du Soleil and Riverdance. But, for now, they are achieving their goals and providing an interesting footnote and diversion for our need to readjust and recalculate in the face of a pandemic that doesn’t seem to fade away gracefully.


In Act Two, scene nine of Sam Shepard’s 1980 play, True West, a mother returns home from her vacation and announces to her son that “Picasso’s in town.” Her son replies that “Picasso’s dead, Mom.” The mother insists, replying, “No, he’s not dead. He’s visiting the museum.”

In the final weeks of 2021, at least, Vincent Van Gogh is not dead; he’s visiting Birmingham’s convention center and he’s providing a pleasant and enjoyable hour or so of community and escape.

Light in August

Friday, August 24

One of William Faulkner’s best novels is Light in August (1932). There is much speculation about the meaning of the title – a reference to a house fire, a reference to the pregnancy and impending delivery (getting “light” again) of the character Lena Grove. I prefer Faulkner’s explanation:

. . .in August in Mississippi there’s a few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall, it’s cool, there’s a lambence, a soft, a luminous quality to the light, as though it came not from just today but from back in the old classic times… It lasts just for a day or two, then it’s gone. . .

I thought of Faulkner’s lambent light in Birmingham recently as I walked from the Redmont Hotel to opening night of the Sidewalk Film Festival at the Alabama Theatre. There was a cooling breeze and the late-summer sun was low in the western sky, casting a golden light on tall buildings and church steeples as I passed.

That was a quiet moment before I turned onto 3rd Avenue N., sighted the Alabama Theatre marquee, and saw the line of a sell-out crowd for opening night of the 20th annual Sidewalk Film Festival (www.sidewalkfest.com).

The opening night movie, White Tide: The Legend of Culebra, documents a bumbling real-life caper involving Floridian Rodney Hyden’s search for a legendary stash of cocaine buried in the Caribbean. Director Theo Love presents Hyden and other principals of the story to create reenactments and interviews.

The filmmakers, along with Hyden and his wife, Jamie, were brought to the stage for the post-screening Q and A. Afterwards, the Alabama Theatre hosted the opening night party featuring a treasure hunt. The party was tempting, crowded, and noisy. I made my way from the upper balcony to the lobby and out the door as I headed back to my hotel.

The Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival began in 1999. My first was the 2003 edition; I was instantly hooked. Eventually I was on screening committees for the SideWrite screenwriting competition and this year, for the second time, I was honored to be selected as a Juror for the SideWrite screenplay competitions.

Sidewalk and its partner, SHOUT! festival of LGBTQ-themed films, present a couple of hundred titles screened in ten venues over three days with preliminary screenings and year-long events leading up to Sidewalk’s Friday night opening in late August.


Lyric Theatre

Saturday, August 25

Total immersion in movies begins on Saturday. Michelin Stars: Tales from the Kitchen, directed by Rasmus Dinesen (www.michelinmovie.com), feeds into my interest in food culture. It investigates how Michelin star ratings are determined and how chefs attain them. The movie was slow-paced, not as accessible as some of the memorable food-centric movies I’ve seen in previous years; I’m particularly thinking of the Ella Brennan documentary, Commanding the Table (www.ellabrennanmovie.com), and The Search for General Tso (www.thesearchforgeneraltso.com).

Feature length documentaries are my primary draw at this festival. I like the opportunity to see stories I might not otherwise see and to see them in an actual theatre with an audience. Three Identical Strangers (www.threeidenticalstrangers.com), by director Tim Wardle, documents the story of identical triplets who were separated as babies and raised in different households. A serendipitous movie about three carefree young men who find each other grows darker as the three learn the circumstances of their birth and separation.

A director friend came to Sidewalk several years ago to screen one of his films. He commented that the name of the festival makes sense since you are constantly pounding the sidewalk to get to the next screening. Steven’s comment came to mind as I rushed to First Church Birmingham’s screening of The Gospel of Eureka (www.thegospelofeureka.com), directed by Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri. The Gospel … examines the coexistence of one of America’s longest-running outdoor Passion plays with the LGBTQ community of Eureka Springs, Arkansas – all under the stony gaze and outstretched arms of the Christ of the Ozarks statue.


In the early years of Sidewalk, one of the growing pains was the dearth of places to eat near the theatres. Lyric Hot Dogs in the old abandoned Lyric Theatre building was a godsend in those years and was always packed with festival patrons. Food trucks were often brought in to take up part of the parking lot along 19th Street.  Unfortunately, Lyric Hot Dogs was a casualty of the Lyric Theatre renovation – pushed out in the name of restoration. That loss is still felt.

In the meantime, with the resurgence of downtown, a host of dining opportunities have opened in the area. One of the best options for variety is the food hall at the Pizitz, a legendary Birmingham department store whose flagship location has been converted into a multi-use facility with retail, offices, and apartments (www.thepizitz.com). There are over a dozen dining options at the Pizitz, all centered around The Louis bar on the ground floor.  Even more exciting for me is that the Pizitz will soon be home to two 100-seat movie theatres, the Sidewalk Cinema, providing a year-round showcase for independent films.

Thomas Jefferson Tower, Birmingham

After three documentaries in quick succession, I was ready for a break and made my way to the newly renovated Thomas Jefferson Tower for a late lunch at Roots and Revelry (www.roots-revelry.com). The Thomas Jefferson is a 19-story hotel, opened in 1929 (www.tjtower.com). It was abandoned for years and has been restored for residential living and retail. A most notable piece of trivia about the TJ Tower is that it still has its zeppelin mooring mast rising from the roof. In 1929, the prospect of mooring airships on the roof of a high-rise hotel was a realistic and practical one. This was, after all, eight years before the Hindenburg disaster.


After a relaxing meal, I returned to my day of documentaries. Next up was Stephen Kijak’s If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film about Lynyrd Skynyrd. I was never a huge fan of Skynyrd although “Sweet Home Alabama” is ubiquitous in Alabama and many a late night was reenergized by “Free Bird.” I saw the band for the first time at the Georgia Jam, a stadium show in Atlanta, in 1974. They were one of several bands in a day-long event that ended with the Allman Brothers Band. Kijak’s documentary covers all of the high and low points of the band’s existence and brought back a lot of memories of the 1970s and my college years. I saw Skynyrd a couple more times before the 1977 plane crash.

My day concluded with Western Hills – Sarah Marie Orr’s “making of” documentary about Birmingham musician Dan Sartain and the process of recording his album, Western Hills. I was drawn by the movie’s title, inspired by a mall in the western section of the Birmingham metro. Western Hills Mall has fallen on hard times and has been the site of gang violence, but it was a prime shopping destination for my mother and grandmother when I was a kid.

Dan Sartain, star of “Western Hills”

Sartain, an erstwhile Piggly Wiggly butcher, previously released an album called Century Plaza, whose title is inspired by another defunct Birmingham mall. Western Hills is not about its eponymous mall, but is about the making of an album featuring Sartain’s remakes of “western” music. Orr’s documentary is the epitome of low-budget indie – quirky, personal, and odd. As the credits rolled, Sartain hit the stage with his guitar to perform a couple of songs from the album. I went to sleep that night with the “Theme from ‘Rawhide'” ringing in my ears.


Sunday, August 26

Skizz Cyzyk’s documentary, Icepick to the Moon (www.fredlanedoc.com), encompasses events I witnessed, some of which had their genesis in my own back yard. Checking out of the Redmont, I headed over to the Birmingham Museum of Art for the screening.

Raudelunas (www.raudelunas.com) was a 1970s artists’ collective in Tuscaloosa during my college years. It was highly influenced by Dada, Surrealism, and Alfred Jarry’s concept of “Pataphysics,” which is metaphysics on acid (but trippier). The talented Raudelunas artists came from all fields, especially music and visual arts. Two Raudelunas principals, LaDonna Smith and Davey Williams, founded TransMuseq, an improvisational music ensemble and record label, and are known internationally for their experimental music (www.transmuseq.com).

I knew many of the Raudelunas principals and its breakout act, Rev. Fred Lane – who performed in a tuxedo jacket and boxer shorts with his face liberally covered in bandages, lived in an upstairs apartment directly behind my four-plex in Tuscaloosa’s student ghetto. Rev. Fred Lane was the stage persona of artist T.R. Reed, who is now known for his elaborate and fantastical whirligig sculptures (www.whirligigman.com).

Arriving at the museum, I realized that there were people waiting in the lobby that I knew in the Tuscaloosa years but I decided I wanted to stay anonymous. I probably should apologize to anyone who might have recognized me. I wasn’t snubbing them; I just wanted to play the role of moviegoer.

Icepick to the Moon is a wickedly wacky evocation of a certain time of creative fomentation in Tuscaloosa. The documentary footage of events like the Raudelunas Marching Vegetable Band in the University’s homecoming parade – which I remember well – captures a sense of the creative lunacy that lurked around the University when I was an impressionable undergraduate. I attended a number of Raudelunas and Trans events at the time but was too naïve to appreciate the full impact of what was happening at their “Happenings.” Over time, I have begun to more fully appreciate what I was seeing. Rev. Fred Lane’s “(Having lunch with a) White Woman” was, and is, one of my favorite lyrics ever (right up there with David Johansen’s “Frenchette” from the same era).

Mapplethorpe, directed by Ondi Timoner, is a narrative feature about artist Robert Mapplethorpe starring Matt Smith. The film is sketchy and fragmented and doesn’t feel completely true to its complex title character. Mapplethorpe’s relationships with Patti Smith and Sam Wagstaff feel oversimplified and at odds with what is known about both of those relationships from other sources (especially Patti Smith’s excellent memoir, Just Kids). Mapplethorpe’s mercurial nature comes across as one-note through much of the film. But, as Birmingham Museum of Art director Graham Boettcher said in his introduction, it was nice to revisit the 60s, 70s, and 80s in the film.


On a Sunday morning at Sidewalk in 2009, I saw a movie that I still regard as one of my most transcendent experiences at the Festival. 45365, Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross’s meditation on a small Ohio town, is a moving piece of non-linear visual art in which all the elements come together to achieve a cinematic stunner. I still recommend it frequently to anyone who hasn’t seen it (www.45365movie.com).

When preparing for Sidewalk 2018, I had high hopes for my final screening of the weekend. I hoped that Hale County This Morning, This Evening (www.halecountyfilm.com), by director RaMell Ross (no relation, as far as I know, to the Ross Brothers), might live up to my memories of 45365. RaMell Ross’s documentary, set in Alabama’s Black Belt region, won a Special Jury Award at this year’s Sundance and has received well-deserved critical acclaim.

Hale County, Alabama, is a small rural county in an impoverished region of Alabama. Despite an out of the way location, the place, which flourished in the cotton economy and floundered in the 20th century, has lured writers, artists, and visionaries over the decades. Walker Evans and James Agee were based there while working on the book that became Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Artist William Christenberry’s life’s work focused on Hale County. Architect Samuel Mockbee chose it to be the home base for Auburn University’s innovative Rural Studio.

In many ways, RaMell Ross takes the buildings and landscapes that Christenberry photographed and immortalized and shows us some of the people who inhabit them today.

The movie focuses on two young men – Daniel and Quincy – and spans half a decade. Daniel goes to college as an aspiring basketball player; Quincy has a family and works in a catfish processing plant. The strengths of the movie, however, are in its acute reflections on place. A toddler runs back and forth through a room to exhaustion, never giving up on a quest known only to the toddler. A ball is dribbled and the camera focuses on the drops of sweat collecting on the gym floor. Car headlights are paused on a highway for deer that casually cross. We are at the conclusion of a baby’s funeral. A long sequence past cotton fields along a road is one of the movie’s most lyrical and memorable sequences.

A long shot takes us down a parade route on Greensboro’s Main Street. At one moment, later, the camera veers off Main Street and stops at an antebellum house. Archival black and white footage of pioneering early twentieth century entertainer Bert Williams, a black man who performed in black face, peers through bushes at the contemporary scene in one of the movie’s signature tropes.

Ross interrupts his movie’s flow with rhetorical text statements that add to the mystery. He asks us to look, to listen, and to decide what to take away. Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a good movie, a compelling movie that never fully soars.

I don’t know. I want to see it again.

As I reflect on my Sidewalk #20, I realize that cinema – like politics – is local. Out of dozens of titles to choose from, I chose to see movies, sometimes inadvertently, that had some personal reference and connection. I guess I still seek definitions – for self, for experience, for art – in a dark theatre, watching a movie, on a late summer day.