PS Int’l Film Fest staffers Michael Lerman and Lili Rodriguez take us through their highlights for Week 1.
Pablo Bryant learned the film business from his iconoclastic filmmaker parents. So, it’s no wonder he’d make his feature documentary directorial debut on another iconoclast.
Bryant’s father was the Baird Bryant, an uncredited cameraman on the Peter Fonda-Dennis Hopper’s road picture, “Easy Rider.” His most famous moment came while shooting the Rolling Stones on stage at the 1969 Altamont Festival for a documentary by the Maysles brothers called “Gimme Shelter.” He noticed a disturbance in the crowd and turned his camera on a Hells Angel biker, who was stabbing a festival-goer.
Baird Bryant lived in Idyllwild and helped chronicle the growth of Jazz in the Pines before his death in 2008. He and his wife, Pablo’s mother, Johanna Demetrakas, also made a 1971 documentary with Joan Baez and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “called Celebration at Big Sur,” and a documentary on the founder of the Idyllwild Dharma Center, Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, titled “Crazy Wisdom: The Life and Times of Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche.”
Pablo Bryant accompanied his parents on those Idyllwild shoots and learned the business just by working with his parents.
“My father brought me on as his camera assistant when I was 14 on a documentary about Ernest Hemingway,” he said. “We went to Europe with Margaux Hemingway (the author’s late granddaughter) and retraced his footsteps. We went to Paris and Venice and Pamplona for the running of the bulls. I helped log the tapes and change the batteries and carry the tripod. I learned a lot about what that world was at a young age. It’s long hours and tough work and that was my introduction.”
Bryant is now a cameraman for hire. He covered the Winners Walk at the Golden Globes for the Hollywood Reporter on Sunday, but his first love is documentaries. He was looking for a documentary subject to direct when he was listening to a public radio broadcast in Los Angeles. An editorial cartoonist called Mr. Fish was talking about how he goes through the five stages of grief every day, in reverse. He wakes up with an acceptance to the world and then gets depressed. So he tries to compromise and winds up getting angry. Finally, he goes to bed in denial so he can get some sleep.
“I found it to be very funny and yet heartbreaking at the same time,” said Bryant. “He was helping the station do a fundraiser, so he was giving away his book, and I thought, ‘I’m going to get this guy’s book.’ Then his art and his essays just blew me away.
“I look at the world and it’s terrifying to me. It’s easy to ignore the realities in Western life and just forget about everything that’s going on. But, if you’re paying attention, there’s an incredible amount of exploitation and degradation and ecological disaster happening and it’s very intense for me to contemplate. And here is a guy who is facing all this stuff and creating art that’s looking straight at it but finding humor in it somehow. It’s challenging the viewer to think about things in a deeper way, and I really felt like I had found an artist for our time, who is facing our reality straight on and fearlessly with just wit and style.
“I started following him. He has a Facebook page and I see he’s having a gallery show in Los Angeles. So I went down there to see if I could meet him. I didn’t even known if he would be there. I met him and said, ‘I think I want to make a film about you.’ He said OK and we started filming a month-and-a-half later.”
Mr. Fish is Dwayne Booth, a husband and father of twin daughters from Philadelphia. His cartoons have appeared in such publications as Harper’s Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, The Village Voice, Vanity Fair and Truthdig.com. Lenny Bruce and John Lennon are influences and both have shown up in his work. His portrait of Lennon says society is screwed because, “The idea of give peace a chance feels like nostalgia.”
While liberals especially identify with some of his recent cartoons about Donald Trump, he alienated his liberal base with a cartoon of Barack Obama siccing attack dogs on the Rev. Martin Luther King.
Bryant’s documentary, titled “Mr. Fish: Cartooning from the Deep End,” is introduced with the words, “This is a test of the First Amendment of the United States of America.”
Truthdig Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer explains that what’s most important to Booth is to “not sell out.” But, at a time when print media is suffering, cartoonists who routinely alienate their base audience are finding it difficult to get work. The distributor of Mr. Fish’s cartoons is seen telling Bryant he stopped distributing Mr. Fish because he “doesn’t value the size of his audience.”
Critic F.X. Feeney says of Booth, “He is in a dark cloud all his own.”
That creates strife between Booth and his wife, who must pay the family bills. She is shown telling her husband, “It’s time to step up and grow up.”
Instead, Booth is working on a show “about the teenage years of Jesus Christ in a modern day setting. Of course, totally dangerous.”
Baird is attracted to Booth’s sense of iconoclasm. But they have a family bond, too.
“There’s a scene in the film, where he’s talking about meeting Joan Baez and David Crosby and Graham Nash, and asking what happened to the promise of the ‘60s,” Baird said. “When we were done filming that scene, I said, ‘Do you know this film, ‘Celebration at Big Sur’? He said, ‘Yeah, I love that film.’ I said, ‘Well, my parents made that film. It’s a film my father shot and my mother directed.’ That film is on YouTube and Mr. Fish would put it on and just draw to the music. So ,there was this beautiful little connection we had. My parents’ filmmaking had connected with him before. Then we ended up having Graham Nash in the film.”
Baird started work on the documentary in 2012 and paid the expenses out of pocket for the first year. He got a grant from the Pacific Pioneer Fund to shoot a second year and then did fund-raising. He premiered the documentary at the Austin Film Festival in October and the film has two screenings in Palm Springs starting at 1 p.m. Wednesday at Palm Canyon Theatre. He’s hoping an outlet like HBO or Netflix might pick it up. But this is truly a passion project.
“Documentary filmmakers are interested in the truth of something,” Baird said. “There’s something interesting about real life, whether it’s a character like Mr. Fish or Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche that is interesting to explore. They’re thought-caring people and I feel blessed to have grown up around them and to have been exposed to that world.”