After years of being a virtual only event, the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival returned to the Carolina Theater, and Convention Center in downtown Durham, N.C. this last weekend. Despite not being as robustly attended as in the pre-pandemic days, there was a healthy roster of films with 50 titles including 35 features and 15 short films from 22 countries, and a lot of familiar faces piling in to take in the four day run of primo infotainment.

The shadows of Full Frame founder Nancy Buirski, and documentary filmmaker god D.A. Pennebaker, who both passed since the last in-person Full Frame in 2019, and were lovingly celebrated this festival with screenings of their work, and tribute panels featuring remembrances from colleagues.

Having missed the first day of Full Frame 2024, I kicked off my Friday at the fest with Buirski’s final film:


(Dir. Nancy Buirski, 2022)

Nobody who’s ever seen John Schlesinger’s 1969 classic, MIDNIGHT COWBOY, the gritty X-rated counterculture drama that won the Best Picture Oscar in 1970, will ever forget it. I say that because it’s been decades since I’ve seen it on VHS, but its scuzzy depiction of the friendship between two hustlers, Jon Voights Texan rube, Joe Buck, and Dustin Hoffmans sleazy schemer “Ratso” Rizzo is permanently burned into by brain.

Inspired by Glenn Frankels 2021 book, Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic, Buirski examines the complicated feelings, and tumultuous times behind the amorously questionable adaptation of James Leo Herlihys 1965 novel, and offers a lot of tasty context to take in, especially in its exploration of the gay cowboy motif, which, of course, leads to BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN comparisons (and use of clips).

Voight appears in tight close-up to give his side of the story, happily with no right-wing nuttiness, while co-star Hoffman appears only in archival interviews, alongside insights provided by actors Bob Balaban (whose first film this was), Brenda Vaccaro, Jennifer Salt (daughter of screenwriter Waldo Salt); and critics Charles Kaiser, J. Hoberman, and Lucy Sante.

Buirski’s superb film effectively breaks down of Schelishers unforgettable film in thought provoking moment after moment, leaving one to reevaluate MIDNIGHT COWBOY’S place in film history, queer cinema, and pop culture overall. Having seen several other of the Pulitzer Prize winning woman’s other films having gotten spotlights at previous Full Frames like THE LOVING STORY, BY SIDNEY LUMET, and THE RAPE OF RECY TAYLOR, with her in attendance, and participating in Q & As afterwards, it was quite moving to take in her latest, but extremely sad to not have her there at the end this time to discuss it.

Next up, I finished off my Friday night with a ragged rock doc:

A POEM IS A NAKED PERSON (Dir. Les Blank, 1974)

Going in, I was expecting to learn something about the life of legendary Tulsa musician Leon Russell, but this curious, ramshackle doc that was shot 50 years ago, but shelved until 2015, doesn’t aim to educate – just entertain. The film is split between weird, quirky footage from over a three-year period (‘72-‘74) filmed at Russell’s studio on Grand Lake in Oklahoma, and rowdy concert sequences that show Russell at the top of his game mesmerizing packed audiences.

There are also fascinating time capsule-worthy appearances by George Jones, Willie Nelson, and the lesser-known singer-songwriter Eric Anderson, who seems to clash a bit with Russell in the studio. So I didn’t learn anything about Russells background, catalogue, or what makes him tick, but I did learn that he was a glorious crowd-pleasing showman with a killer voice, and grand piano chops. And despite this relics disjointed, dated approach, that was all I needed.

Stay tuned for Part Two for more Full Frame 2024 coverage.

More later…

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