February 5, 2003

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U.S. blues
Two docs tell American stories at S.F. IndieFest.

By Johnny Ray Huston

HOW WOULD YOU react if some filmmakers said they wanted to make a documentary about you? If Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky's new movie, Horns and Halos, is any indication, Sander Hicks of Soft Skull Press embraced the idea with nary a worry, convinced he'd been solidly cast as a victorious hero. The early segments of Horns and Halos present a picture of Hicks as a crusading punk: in October 1999 a camera descends into the literally underground labyrinth lair of Soft Skull, past the expected Mumia poster and William "Upski" Wimsatt books, discovering a hyper, semi-Mohawked young publisher who was drawn to his latest project "on so many different levels" because he "knew damn well" that no one else in the publishing establishment would touch it.

The project in question is a new edition of Fortunate Son, a scathing biography of George W. Bush by J.H. Hatfield that alleges, most notoriously, that Bush was arrested for cocaine possession in 1972. In fact, St. Martin's Press had already touched Fortunate Son – and, financially speaking, its hands were probably still scorched from burning the book once a Dallas Morning News reporter revealed that Hatfield (whose previous bios included quickie portraits of Ewan McGregor and Patrick Stewart) had done time for attempted murder. Enter Hicks, who comes to the rescue with a firm belief in the book and the troubled man behind it. Horns and Halos reveals the naïveté behind Hicks's faith, and the personal problems that Hatfield kept hidden behind his public face.

There's no doubt that Hawley and Galinsky favor the film's pair of unfortunate sons over the fortunate one – Bush remains a creepily distant yet omnipresent cypher (you know, kind of like the "man" we "know" today) while Hicks and Hatfield are repeatedly forced to swallow personal defeats on camera. As Bush speaks to what looks like millions of glazed minions at the Republican National Convention, Hicks – $60,000 in debt and facing a libel suit from one of Hatfield's ex-associates – enters a bookstore to find a single $3 copy of Fortunate Son in the bargain basement. Less than two years after the biography's second (and second aborted) publication, the pair head to Chicago's Book Expo America to unveil yet another revised edition that names the sources behind Hatfield's cocaine-bust claim; at a press conference, they face dozens of empty seats and a smirking journalist from USA Today.

The worst is yet to come, and a teary-eyed Hatfield hints at it when he faces the filmmakers one last time before getting into a cab to head home to his wife and infant daughter. (In an eerie bit of fateful foreshadowing, the cop car behind the cab turns on its blue-and-red lights.) Digging up the hidden details of Bush's past – including his grandfather's links to Adolf Hitler and Auschwitz – Hatfield can't avoid his own. One can't help thinking he's unconsciously drawing attention to it.

The legacy he ultimately bequeaths to Sanford Hicks is a tortured one. Boisterous at the beginning of Horns and Halos, Hicks is humbled and despondent at the film's end. The skinny punk with the patches on his jacket who proudly shows off evidence of Bush's draft dodging is gone. In his place is a recently fired publisher whose muscles seem like marks of anger and frustration, while his hairstyle – grown out and slicked back – is a half-hearted gesture toward conventionality. The lesson he's learned is one that's taken on a newer, even more ominous meaning: this isn't a president you want to go to war with.

Magical 'Magus' tour

If Horns and Halos illustrates the perils of U.S. citizenship and of becoming a documentary subject, American Magus offers a more hopeful vision of both situations. By the time filmmaker Paola Igliori began constructing this portrait, her focus – unorthodox anthropologist Harry Smith – knew where he was headed. "I'm dying, my dear," Smith answers in his craggy yet aristocratic voice when a young hipster asks how he's feeling. ("You don't take care of yourself," the hipster says. "It helps," Smith replies, lighting up a smoke.) In telling the story of a collector of music, books, and images whose treasures were sometimes trashed by greedy landlords – American Magus contains accounts of a weeping Smith searching for his belongings in a New Jersey landfill – Igliori faces a quandary: how do you archive an epic archivist?

It's a question that can't yield a fully satisfying answer, yet American Magus amuses and informs as it tries to supply one. Though Smith's friends (Jonas Mekas, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Frank) and admirers (Paul "DJ Spooky" Miller) explain his importance and describe his personality – Ginsberg compares Smith to Rumpelstiltskin – the man and his art repeatedly defy categorization. Prone to non sequiturs, Smith at one point riffs about a nest built by a bird that was high (on drugs) and at another describes the "rainbows connected to ladders from the underworld to the upper world" on one of the 29,000 Ukrainian Easter eggs he's amassed.

Smith's heroic Anthology of American Folk Music ("Dead Sea Scrolls? No, I'll take the Anthology," Igliori says, quoting John Fahey) is presented as just another section of a library life devoted to the recording and comparison of human and animal patterns. (When taping Sara Carter of the Carter Family, he asked to see her quilts so he could look for correlations between her quilt imagery and her song lyrics.) The magical illusionism of Smith's film work, excerpted throughout the documentary, offers a generous flip side to Kenneth Anger's spiteful hexes; behind or in front of the camera, Smith provides an abundance of images. "My dreams came true. I saw America changed through music – and all that stuff the rest of you were talking about," he says to an audience of music-industry types upon receiving a Grammy Award. The latter part of that quote proves Smith had an accurate bullshit detector. The first part proves why he qualifies as a hero.

'Horns and Halos' plays Fri/7, 5 p.m., and Tues/11, 7:15 p.m., Roxie Cinema, 3117 16th St., S.F. $6-$8.50. (415) 421-TIXS.

'American Magus' plays Sat/8, noon, Roxie Cinema, 3117 16th St., S.F.; Feb. 12, 7:15 p.m., Digital Movie House, 1306 Mission, S.F.; Feb. 15, 8 p.m., Expression Center, 6601 Shellmound, Emeryville. $6-$8.50. (415) 421-TIXS.

See Film listings for this week's San Francisco Independent Film Festival schedule. For more information, go to www.sfindie.com.