Two just-less-than-feature-length films this week are opening at the Loft, and both deserve attention. One's a documentary that should hit close to home, as it covers the occasionally heroic, occasionally strange Tucson pirate radio scene. The other's the most artistic exercise in hardcore pornography ever to hit the screen.
First, the porn. Director Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People) probably wouldn't label his film as porn, and maybe it's not, but it does graphically depict actual sex. If pornography excludes art, then I guess 9 Songs isn't porn; it's a concert movie with real sex.
And it's one of the most realistic depictions of a romantic relationship I've ever seen. The film alternates between intimate scenes, live concert footage and aerial shots of the Arctic. There's no plot as such, just a series of moments in the relationship between Matt (Kieran O'Brien) and Lisa (Margo Stilley), but these moments show aspects of life that have never been adequately treated by film before.
And it's not the sex that's groundbreaking. It's the casual, meaningless dialogue, presented with a stunning naturalism that's a testament to first-time actress Stilley's amazing ability to capture the unguarded playfulness of youth and love. Winterbottom's script precisely presents exactly those things that lovers say to each other, and Stilley's performance gives them an embarrassing reality. It's impossible to depict in writing what makes these scenes so effective, but if you can imagine that moment when you spoke in a funny, made-up voice, making a joking comment that cannot be removed from that context, you'll have some idea of how this film works.
It simply and effectively shows how strange and pointless and precious these moments are. I think Winterbottom made the right choice in setting this dialogue in scenes of actual sex, because he was aiming for a kind of documentary realism that Hollywood-style "love scenes" are unable to present. In one scene, Lisa lies in bed crying as Matt tries to comfort her. No time is wasted on what caused her emotions; Winterbottom just wants to capture the way lovers behave at the moment of tears.
On the down side, if you're not a fan of the nine songs in the film, you're going to have to sit through some fairly dull concert footage. The film starts and ends with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and then goes through the usual high-profile hipster bands, including Franz Ferdinand, The Dandy Warhols, Von Bondies and Goldfrapp. There are also a couple Michael Nyman pieces for the more high-brow viewer.
Which sounds something like the set list for a night with Tucson's legendary pirate radio station Radio Limbo, which features prominently in Making Waves. Documentarian Michael Lahey does a great job in this hour-long look at a handful of people who thought that providing a little free radio to the huddled masses might not be a federal crime. Or at least shouldn't be a federal crime.
Lahey neatly lays out the legal issues and difficulties of broadcasting without a license, and covers some of the ups and downs in the long fight to make low-power broadcasting legal. He spent some time with the strangely non-Tucsonan Pastor Rick Strawcutter, a Michigan preacher who tried time and again to get a license for his low-power, public-service station. Fed up with the feds, he went pirate and was later shut down for the crime of providing free radio that aided and abetted the goals of his congregation and community.
His criminal activities helped inspire Tucsonans Marshall Home, Shane Eden and Aage Nost to set up their own pirate station. These three are well known in the local community, Eden for his public-access show and uncanny resemblance to a man who would slide down a chimney, Home for his quixotic fight against driver's licenses, and Aage for his quixotic quest to become a congressman. Their story, which devolves into weird infighting, lockouts and a spinoff station, is probably the most entertaining part of the film, not least of all because each of them would have some fairly interesting scores on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory.
While their KRVL radio went into confrontational self-destruct mode, the sly Radio Limbo, home to the best freaking music shows ever heard on Tucson's airwaves, managed to continue a shadowy existence by playing hide-and-seek with the Keystone Cops at the FCC. This tale is well-known to many Tucsonans, but Lahey scored quite a coup by getting alleged Limbo leader David Forbes to talk on air.
Strangely, this is the second documentary to feature Forbes in the last few months: He's also at the center of High and Dry for his role in grounding and partially founding Tucson's early punk scene. While he definitely did that, he might also have been involved in setting up an ingenious scheme for maintaining a low-power station in the face of relentless, but largely incompetent G-Men who were under the mistaken impression that the role of government was to protect multi-million dollar businesses from fair competition by tiny not-for-profit good guys. Or maybe he wasn't. Who knows? Surely not me.
But if he was, indeed, the man behind Limbo, then he pulled off something tremendously precious: He gave the airwaves to people who loved music, instead of people who loved the cocaine and hookers that music companies hand out in exchange for polluting the airwaves with the latest Ashlee Simpson release.
Making Waves efficiently and dramatically tells this story, and the tale of the other pirate radio stations. It's neatly edited to create narrative tension, and yet remains both informative and true to its subject. It's a must-see for all Tucsonans, and for anyone who wants a government that's on their side.