What the world needs now are more documentary filmmakers like Detroiter Russ Forster and fewer like PBS poster boy Ken Burns. That is, an increased proportion of filmmakers working in the trenches documenting the fringes of our dynamic contemporary culture and fewer interested in adding a new layer of gooey gloss to our history. Actually, Forster’s two feature-length documentaries, So Wrong They’re Right (1995) and Tributary (2001) don’t so much investigate pop’s fringe as they examine the ripple effects of mainstream pop culture’s habit of planned obsolescence and the things it says about the nature of how we consume the culture around us.
The next two weekends offer two unique chances to catch Forster’s work in two very different environments. This Friday, April 5, Cranbrook Art Museum (39221 N. Woodward Ave., Bloomfield Hills — 7 p.m., $5, or $3 for students with ID) will host a screening of So Wrong They’re Right (SWTR, for short). SWTR is the filmic extension of 8-Track Mind, the underground zine chronicling the world of 8-track culture (yes, the ever-looping audio cartridges) that Forster published until two years ago.
SWTR is an hour-and-a-half document of a 10,000-mile odyssey Forster and fellow 8-track enthusiast Dan Sutherland took around the United States in search of other 8-track fanatics. Along the way, they find more than 20 such “8-track minds” who share anecdotes, insights, preservation tips and conspiracy theories about and involving 8-track cassettes, and what bubbles up by film’s end as “8-track culture.” Eight-track tapes are borne out in the documentary as a cipher for commentary about force-fed consumerism and as a fetish item. (Indeed, the two ways of seeing these misunderstood cartridges are inseparable.)
It’s inspired, funny, homemade and as honest as it is iconoclastic. The Cranbrook screening is also a “retirement” of sorts for the film. But Forster’s certainly not resting on his laurels. His most recent film, Tributary, will be screened the following Friday (April 12, 9 p.m., free) at Motor City Brewing Works, 470 W. Canfield, in Detroit.
Tributary finds Forster logging thousands of miles on his vehicle again, only this time he’s in search of a different cultural beastie — the tribute band. From Olympia, Wash., to New York City and Los Angeles to Detroit, Forster crisscrosses the country interviewing groups of people who have dedicated at least a healthy chunk of their musical talents to paying homage to such bands as Devo, T. Rex, Mötley Crüe, the Rolling Stones, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Black Sabbath, the Runaways, Guided by Voices and Led Zeppelin. His timing, apparently, was spot-on. The footage was shot in the 1999 heyday of tribute bands before ironic culture and the dot-com boom put some of the bands in high demand and made them less accessible.
“When I started filming, it was just the ‘Jim Morrisons’ that were difficult,” recalls Forster. “After a while, they got the ‘legitimacy.’ They didn’t need people like me to tell their story.”
Forster’s handheld interview and concert footage adds an immediacy to the proceedings that’s as infectious as hearing Mötley Crüe tributers Too Fast For Love play “Shout at the Devil” (ahhh, remember when?). Forster allows each act to tell their story such that you’re not consciously aware of either his reportorial or filmic hand at work. By dividing the tribute acts into four groups: “Postmodern” (including Detroit’s Ace’s High, a Kiss tribute band), “Social,” “Working” and “True Believer,” he ends up pointing out as many similarities as differences in the process. But one constant, besides the affable and often hilarious stories from the bands, is the sense of immersion into a role. This isn’t limited to the bands, either.
“As an audience member, you become part of the role playing,” says Forster. “I lost sight of the fact that it was a fake Mick Jagger on stage.”
For the Motor City Brewing Works screening, Forster has promised to bust out his karaoke chops too.
Documentaries don’t have to tackle “big” topics to conjure big questions. These next two Fridays should offer ample proof.E-mail Chris Handyside at [email protected]