Beyond the Multiplex

Bowling, genocide and one man's strange blimp dreams: A new wave of documentaries offers great tales and impressive variety.


Andrew O'Hehir
May 26, 2005 12:59AM (UTC)

As Walter Ray Williams Jr. surveys the inadequately oiled surfaces of New York's Bowlmor Lanes, he is not pleased. He can tell, he says in a confidential tone, that no serious bowling occurs in this venerable Greenwich Village establishment. He's right, of course. Bowlmor is mainly a site for kids' birthday parties by day and retro-hip cocktail hangout parties by night, rather than a temple for serious practitioners of America's most popular recreational sport.

"This is entertainment bowling," Williams sighs as we watch a guy in a fake-'70s polo shirt roll at -- and miss -- a 2-4-7 spare. "To a professional like me, that's just sad."

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Why am I hanging out with a bowling legend, one of the Professional Bowlers Association's biggest stars over the last 20 years, in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon? Because I write about independent film, that's why.

As other critics have begun to notice, the default setting for indie films these days is basically nonfiction. It's increasingly rare for a conventional scripted drama or comedy, when released by a small distributor without significant promotional dollars, to break out of its tiny niche audience, absent extraordinary word of mouth. (We'll have to wait and see whether Arnaud Desplechin's "Kings and Queen," the best and most adventurous film I've seen in the last two years, can accomplish that.)

As I've written previously, I'm unsure whether to call this new wave of nonfiction films, following the trail blazed by Michael Moore and the makers of "Spellbound," documentaries. Most are a long way from the cinéma-vérité strictures of Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles brothers. Instead, they tend to be carefully structured entertainments whose characters exist in the real world, with a sensibility and craft drawn more from cable TV than the stringently gritty documentary tradition.

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One thing these movies definitely offer is impressive variety. It shouldn't be shocking to learn that films about real people can be as different from each other as the people are, but the documentary genre -- or whatever you want to call it -- has definitely broken free from its earnest political-ethnographic origins. In addition to "A League of Ordinary Gentlemen" (the film in which Walter Ray Williams plays a starring role), this week also offers a troubling return to Rwanda, 10 years after the genocidal massacres there, and Werner Herzog's latest poetic and tragic voyage into the South American jungle with a fallible, doomed dreamer (who isn't even him).

"A League of Ordinary Gentlemen": The fall and rise (sort of) of pro bowling
A couple of hours after competing in the finals of the Professional Bowlers Association's world championship, Walter Ray Williams Jr. is on top of his motor home with a shovel, trying to chip off enough ice so he and his wife can set out for Florida. That about sums up the portrait of the pro bowling world in Chris Browne's audience-pleasing film "A League of Ordinary Gentlemen," which follows the PBA's 2002-03 season as the league and its bowlers try to crawl out of the entertainment industry's basement.

If you're somewhere north of 30, you probably remember when bowling was a quasi-major television sport, with Saturday afternoon broadcasts hosted by ABC's genial Chris Schenkel and a gallery of stars who looked like your neighborhood's dads -- and, as the '70s and '80s progressed, like your neighborhood's mullet-head muscle-car drivers. In 1997, the PBA was driven off the air after years of declining ratings, and while bowling has rattled around the weekend schedule of ESPN since then, the league came close to folding entirely.

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In 2000, the PBA was purchased lock, stock and lane oil -- along with, most importantly, its mounting debt -- for $5 million by a trio of former Microsoft executives. They installed Steve Miller, a marketing guru whose résumé included Nike and the National Football League, as the PBA's CEO, with an eye toward solving bowling's demographic crisis. While recreational bowling remains hugely popular, especially in the heartland, pro bowling has near-zero advertiser appeal and not much coolness among the ardently desired market slice of males aged 18 to 35.

Following four players through the first season of Miller's regime, Browne captures not just a high-energy sports spectacle played out in the bowling megaplexes of outer suburbia but, even more interestingly, a clash of cultures between bowling's hallowed past and its possible future. It's clear that Miller and his bosses see what has become of stock-car racing, professional golf and, for God's sake, poker, and wonder why bowling can't be the next second-tier sport to become an Anheuser-Busch executive's marketing wet dream.

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Not all the bowlers share Miller's enthusiasm for this vision. Williams remains one of the best bowlers in the game, but he came to New York with Wayne Webb, a star bowler of the '80s who becomes the accidental hero of "A League of Ordinary Gentlemen." Winner of 20 PBA titles in his career, Webb was driven to bankruptcy (and a career as a karaoke entrepreneur) by gambling and drinking problems, and the movie finds him making one last stab at stardom on the lanes. He actually rolls a gutter ball in one scene -- it happens, even to pros -- and murmurs, "I think I just convinced myself to quit fucking bowling."

Despite their disparate fates on the tour, when I meet Williams and Webb over Buffalo wings at Bowlmor, they sing the praises of Browne's film but don't sound too sure about pro bowling's Microsoft-fueled future. Webb admits he was "incredibly worried" about being filmed while going through a career meltdown. "They had me at every bad moment that could possibly be. I was the guy that was wired constantly, and there weren't many good times. They could have taken me -- as some media would -- and just had at me and destroyed me. I was real worried until I saw the movie, and then it was like, everything was done in really good taste. They showed what they had to show. They showed the truth and didn't try to hurt anyone."

Williams is a lanky, mild-mannered fellow who looks something like a high school science teacher -- which is, he says, exactly what he'd be if he weren't a bowler. At 45, he's coming to grips with the realization that his days as a top bowler are running out. "One of these days it's gonna happen," he says. "I'm not going to be bowling quite as well, and I'm gonna be on the outside looking in. Hopefully when that happens I'm gonna be OK with it. Fortunately I've been able to make a living bowling my whole life. I've been on tour since 1983 and made a lot of money doing it."

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Some perspective here is required: In 23 seasons, most of them as one of the best bowlers on the tour, Williams has earned about $3.5 million. That's $152,000 a year, which from one point of view is a comfortable upper-middle-class income. From another point of view, his total earnings are roughly one-quarter of what New York Yankees pitcher Randy Johnson will make this year alone, and that's not even mentioning the tens of millions made by superstar athletes like Tiger Woods, LeBron James or David Beckham.

Can bowling become a media-friendly 21st century spectacle that pushes its younger stars toward at least the fringes of that territory? Williams and Webb don't claim to be marketing geniuses, but they're worried that the sport is leaving its blue-collar, middle-American roots in an errant quest for aggro coolness.

Webb says he feels that players of his generation -- and in his late-'80s prime, he was the sport's frizzy-haired, party-hearty wild man -- are being swept under the rug. "I felt that I was being treated unfairly, that all the players were being treated unfairly," he says. "They only care about the kids. The kids are their selling point, and they put special effort into promoting the kids. Guys who were older, and like me maybe weren't bowling that well? They were like, screw you. They couldn't give a shit about the older guys."

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This year, Webb says, he was disinvited to the PBA's Tournament of Champions, despite his 20 tour titles and the years he devoted to the tour. The new regime has driven the fun out of the game, he says. "It made me want to quit bowling. I think that I can still win. But I don't want to go out there every weekend. I have no desire."

Williams, on the other hand, has plenty of desire -- he wants to stay on the PBA tour until he can't compete anymore, then shift to the over-50 senior tour, where the money is even more marginal. But he too is skeptical about the new PBA. "They are trying to attract non-bowlers" to watch the sport on TV, he says. "That's a near impossible thing to do -- get someone who has no interest in the sport to come in and watch it. How do you do that? I don't know. They've been trying to create a television format that's exciting to somebody who doesn't follow bowling. Maybe they did that, but the problem is that they also alienated some of the real bowling fans. Is that better? I don't think so."

"A League of Ordinary Gentlemen" opens May 27 in New York, June 10 in St. Louis, and June 24 in Cleveland, with more cities to follow.

"Shake Hands With the Devil": A return to the heart of darkness
Not many Americans have heard of now-retired Canadian Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire. While he was commanding an embattled United Nations force during the Rwanda genocide of 1994, you and I and our countrymen were hypnotized by the early stages of the O.J. Simpson case. North of the border, though, the fact that a Canadian officer had been entrusted with such a sensitive and difficult mission was a source of tremendous national pride, at least at first.

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But after Belgian, French and Italian troops pulled out of Rwanda amid an increasingly ominous atmosphere -- and the governments of the United States, Britain and Canada more or less stuck their collective fingers in their ears and shouted "I can't hear you!" -- Dallaire became something closer to an international martyr and pariah. Stuck in a compound in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, with a few hundred ill-prepared troops from Bangladesh, Ghana and Tunisia, he could do nothing to stop the roving Hutu militias from committing a genocidal massacre as bad as anything else in recent history.

Egged on by an unprincipled government eager to exploit tribal divisions (which, as Dallaire explains in the film, had more or less been invented during the era of Belgium's colonial rule), Hutu hard-liners murdered about 800,000 of their fellow citizens -- Tutsis and moderate Hutus -- in 100 days. The world did almost nothing. Dallaire and his embattled U.N. forces tried to help, and by some accounts they saved thousands of lives. But it wasn't nearly enough, and the laconic, mustachioed general went home to Quebec a broken man and a perennially controversial figure.

Filmmaker Peter Raymont accompanied Dallaire and his wife on his return to Rwanda to mark the 10th anniversary of those terrible events, and the result is a remarkable, and remarkably painful, confrontation with history. (The film also includes compelling and horrifying news-camera footage of 1994 events; at times it is extremely difficult to watch.) One may feel that Dallaire didn't do everything right -- he clearly feels that way and has never forgiven himself for what happened and how -- and still see that he is an extraordinary man who faced an impossible, indeed unimaginable, situation with courage and dignity.

As the Western world's appointed overseer, Dallaire basically sat and watched the massacre. Understandably, his bitterness today is directed toward the United Nations and the international community that forced him into that position, rather than the Rwandans who murdered other Rwandans in such amazing numbers. As he tells a captivated audience in Kigali's football stadium, he believes the Western world's attitude was that Rwanda didn't matter: It was a tribal question, deep in Africa. It was blacks killing each other, and perhaps there were too many of them anyway. No one could understand it or stop it.

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Dallaire doesn't especially want to go back to Rwanda, as he tells Raymont's camera. His leonine head has gone from dark brown to steel-gray; his eyes have deepened and hollowed. Once back in Canada, his memories drove him into alcoholism and a suicide attempt, and even now politicians in Europe (less so in Africa) are eager to make him a scapegoat for the entire tragedy. But Dallaire is also a profoundly religious man who believes he saw God and the devil in combat on earth. After seeing this film, you may not be willing or able to contradict him.

It's paradoxical, and perhaps unfortunate, that it takes a film with a white Western protagonist to engage the indie-film audience's attention to the near-destruction of an entire African nation, which could have been stopped but wasn't. But in some ways "Shake Hands With the Devil" hits harder than either "Hotel Rwanda" or the recent HBO film "Sometimes in April." If Dallaire isn't and wasn't a hero (and he insists the label doesn't fit), it's his flawed humanity and surprising humility that makes his journey back to the country that shaped him so redemptive. In the classic white-man-in-Africa tale, a civilized man loses his humanity in the Dark Continent. Roméo Dallaire found his there.

"Shake Hands With the Devil" is now playing in New York and Boston. It opens June 3 in Los Angeles and Washington; June 10 in San Francisco, Berkeley, Calif., and San Jose, Calif.; June 17 in San Diego; June 24 in Chicago; July 1 in Atlanta and Seattle; and July 8 in Denver, with more cities to follow.

"The White Diamond": A burden of dreams lighter than air, heavier than death
When I interviewed Werner Herzog for other purposes last year, he told me: "Documentary filmmaking as we see it on TV is very boring. I call it the 'accountant's truth.' It only shows you the surface of what is supposed to be true. I am always trying to dig much deeper, illuminate things and illuminate an audience, instead of boring an audience. I've always been after the ecstasy of truth."

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Well, if a documentary about bowling sounds too trivial and one about the Rwanda massacre too much to bear, I direct you -- nay, order you -- to do whatever you must to see Herzog's latest exploration of that ecstasy, "The White Diamond." It's an indescribable, haunting human story of airships, disasters and the mysteries of the Guyanese jungle. As smarter people than I figured out years ago, in Herzog's later career he has pioneered a new-but-old style, in which the conventional documentary fuses with a highly personal quest to produce a unique alloy I guess you'd have to call art.

At least on the surface, "The White Diamond" is about Graham Dorrington, an enthusiastic English scientist on a mission to revive the airship, that ill-fated aeronautic conveyance otherwise known as the blimp, the dirigible or the zeppelin. Dorrington's airship doesn't have that familiar cigar shape, though; it looks like a sideways teardrop, or possibly a puffy white goldfish. For reasons that are never 100 percent clear -- and, to put it mildly, don't seem sensible -- Dorrington decides to test his craft not in the genial controlled circumstances of the European countryside but in the distant rain forest of Guyana. It won't surprise anybody who has followed Herzog's work that he feels he must go along.

Many wondrous things ensue from this voyage, but among them is not really a documentary film about airships. There are tropical rainstorms that threaten to destroy Dorrington's balloon. There are flashbacks to a Sumatran tragedy that haunts him and frames his current mission. There is a local Guyanese diamond miner known as Redbeard who virtually kidnaps the film with his mythological and botanical knowledge, his relationship with his beloved rooster, and his lament for his family, who he says emigrated to Spain years ago and have lost touch with him. (It is he who gives Dorrington's airship its nickname, and the film its title.)

If "The White Diamond" echoes many of the major themes of Herzog's fiction films, and returns to the South American jungle he ventured into so fatefully with "Aguirre: The Wrath of God" and "Fitzcarraldo," that's not accidental. With these poetic, deliberately digressive quasi-documentaries, I think Herzog has found the form that justifies his secular quest for spiritual transcendence. (I like many of his feature films, but these are frankly superior.) Like "La Soufrière" or "Herdsmen of the Sun" or "Lessons of Darkness," "The White Diamond" is an inexpressibly beautiful and moving film, even though (or because) it seems to be about someone unimportant doing something irrelevant, perhaps something silly, in the face of insurmountable odds and a world that doesn't care.

No one else in nonfiction filmmaking is doing what Herzog is doing, and no one could. The good news is that he ain't slowing down any: Over the next few months we'll see both "Wheel of Time" (a nonreligious man's movie about Buddhism) and the much awaited "Grizzly Man," his film about Timothy Treadwell, the would-be visionary who tried to live with the wild grizzlies of Alaska -- and succeeded, at least for a while. Like Treadwell and Dorrington, Werner Herzog is ready to risk his life on a quixotic quest to escape the "accountant's truth." May he keep winning his gambles, because we can't afford to lose him.

"The White Diamond" opens June 1 at Film Forum in New York. More engagements (and a DVD release) will follow.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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