Tag Archives: Sidewalk Film Festival

Notes from a Pensioner

On June 1, I will officially become a pensioner. Others might prefer to be called “retiree” or some other designation, but “pensioner” has an almost Dickensian flair and I think that will become my designation of choice.

My target date for retirement was always May 15, 2022. The incentive to bring it forward was the obvious – the pandemic and remote teaching. I pulled the trigger when there began to be intimations that we might continue remote teaching through the end of the year. On principle alone, I refuse to try to educate students and future artists in a manner that I feel is ineffective.

Mr. McKee, one of my neighbors, told me at the mailbox today that he was striving to be the person “who lived the longest on retirement.” “I plan to stretch it,” he said with a grin, “as far as I possibly can.” As far as I can determine, he has been retired for over thirty years now. I wish him success in his goal.


On a recent new episode of SNL, Kate McKinnon, playing the high school principal at a Zoom graduation, said, “The bad news is you’re about to pay full price for fancy colleges when they are all just University of Phoenix online with worse tech support.” That sums up my feelings exactly.

An entire generation of students, through no fault of their own, are becoming victims of home schooling and a tepid national response from a dangerous and delusional President, made worse by clueless governors desperate to jumpstart an economy regardless of the risks to citizens.


My favorite memory of actor/comedian Jerry Stiller, who passed away recently, is his enervated shrieking of “SERENITY NOW!” on a “Seinfeld” episode. Around that time, as the managing director of a beleaguered theatre, I had SERENITY NOW!!! posted at the top of my computer screen. It helped calm me, somehow. Or at least it made me laugh every morning.

A recent stream of “Hearts of Space” (https://v4.hos.com/home) – a program that is still, to my mind, the most brilliantly curated collection of contemplative music ever – was called “Deep Serenity.” I listened to it three times in one night. That helped, too.


Here’s what I did in my solitude after submitting some last-minute paperwork for the job:

This afternoon, I walked out to survey my front yard with plans to finally go to a garden center and jump start my long-delayed spring planting. As I walked back in the front door, I rang the doorbell to make sure it still works.

I made some watercress pesto. I’ve developed a pesto recipe featuring Alabama products including watercress, pecans, garlic and spring onions, peanut oil, and local goat cheese.

I saw an online headline that asked “Are you washing your sheets often enough?” and when I heard myself answer No out loud, I decided I should wash my sheets.

While my sheets were washing, I listened to American Fashion Podcasts featuring Florence, Alabama-based designers Natalie Chanin (https://omny.fm/shows/american-fashion-podcast/the-alabama-chanin-story) and Billy Reid (https://omny.fm/shows/american-fashion-podcast/229-billy-reid-an-icon-of-the-slow-fashion-movemen).

I am training myself to be satisfied with streaming movies, although I find that experience far from satisfactory. So far, I’m mostly watching documentaries. Two of my pet film festivals, Sidewalk in Birmingham (https://www.sidewalkfest.com) and the New Orleans Film Festival (https://neworleansfilmsociety.org/festival), are offering streaming films during the pandemic. When you stream one of their offerings, a portion of the fee goes back to the festival. I’m sure other film festivals are offering similar services. So far, I’ve watched documentaries about film critic Pauline Kael, fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, and New York Times street and fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, and a few others, but those biographic profiles stand out.

I watched photographer Matthew Beck’s “Shelter in Place” (https://http://www.newyorker.com/…/watch-neighbors-connect-in-shelterin-place), a New Yorker documentary short. He shoots his neighbors from his apartment as they sit or stand in the windows of their own apartments and share their feelings about our current crisis. It is a loving and poignant summary of this current moment in human history.

During a large part of my adult life I have been alone but I have rarely felt lonely. As much as I want things to return to normal (and as much as I detest the phrase “new normal”!), I have been able to find peace in a stoic and patient solitude.

I suspect that I can wait this thing out without too much trauma. I hope more of us find that they can, too. The relief of being a “pensioner” is, in fact, bringing some serenity, now.

Pounding the Sidewalk, 2016

DSCN0490 When I arrived in Birmingham on Friday afternoon for the 2016 edition of the Sidewalk Film Festival it never occurred to me that of the eighteen movies I would see over 48 hours, I would drive home on Sunday night most pumped about a documentary that featured performances by high school color guards.

Contemporary Color is directed by Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross, the filmmaking brothers whose 2010 documentary 45365 about nine months in the life of Sidney, Ohio, is still one of my favorite movies to be screened at Sidewalk ever. The Ross Brothers’ latest, Contemporary Color, was conceived and produced by David Byrne, one of my musical heroes, and documents a one-night only event at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. Byrne invited ten high school color guard units to perform live performances set to original music written especially for the event by contemporary artists including David Byrne, Nelly Furtado, Devonte Hines, How to Dress Well, Lucious, and St. Vincent. Each of the artists performs their compositions along with the color guards live at Barclays.

It’s hard to explain, really.

The Ross Brothers take the live event and turn it into a hypnotic meditation on color guards, interspersing concert footage with individual profiles, backstage glimpses, rehearsal footage, artful segues, and, at one point, the voice of an enthusiastic New Jersey grandfather cheering in the arena. The cinematography, sound, and editing are stunning. Especially powerful are shots of a young color guard performer doing his routine alone in the garage of a house juxtaposed with his powerful performance at the actual event. Contemporary Color is a fierce and brave movie presented without irony. I kept being reminded somehow of Godfrey Reggio’s “Qatsi trilogy” of trance-inducing films scored by Philip Glass that were released between 1983 and 2002.

The thing that can be most frustrating about Sidewalk is also one of the things that I enjoy most about it. Nearly 200 titles of all lengths and genres are presented on ten screens at seven locations on the north side of Birmingham’s city center in a single weekend. With ten or more screenings running simultaneously from early morning to late at night, you must plan carefully to get the full benefit. Even with the most precise planning, one is always going to miss out on something he wanted to or should have seen. That is part of the charm of the event — keep them wanting more.

Contemporary Color was the biggest surprise of the weekend but there was plenty to enjoy and savor; I only walked out of one screening (which shall remain nameless).

A nice little character-driven narrative feature called Little Men, directed by Ira Sachs and screened at the Alabama, was my kick-off to a Saturday full of screenings. Sachs has the restraint to end his film at the exact right moment. Little Men is full of fine performances by grown-ups like Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle but the breakout performance is by a young newcomer – a kid named Michael Barbieri, playing “Tony.” I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future.

DSCN0513My Sunday screenings started off at the newly restored Lyric Theatre with DePalma, a talky documentary about Brian DePalma, one of my personal “guilty pleasure” directors. DePalma, directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, is packed with scenes from DePalma’s classics like Carrie and Dressed to Kill, Scarface and The Untouchables, and a generous sampling of other directors’ movies that influenced the quirky and opinionated DePalma.

Sidewalk brings in motion pictures, audiences, and filmmakers from all over the world but it has always been notably generous in finding room to showcase Alabama filmmakers. I always work some of those screenings into the weekend. Clearly the most popular of the Alabama-centric titles this year was Gip, Patrick Sheehan’s award-winning documentary about gravedigger / blues musician Henry “Gip” Gipson. Gip, who cites his age as “somewhere between 80 and 100,” is the proprietor of the last remaining juke joint in Alabama

DSCN0488Birmingham’s central city core is undergoing a resurgence and that is partially a result of the efforts of Sidewalk at the festival and throughout the year. At opening night, it was announced that the multi-use refurbishment of the old Pizitz department store building (Pizitz was my favorite of the big downtown department stores as a youth) is set to include permanent offices for Sidewalk and two 100-seat movie theatres.  The new development will be “The Pizitz.”

Downtown Birmingham on the final weekend in August is an indie film lover’s paradise, full of memorable characters on the screens and in the streets. I always leave inspired. DSCN0493