Actually this disk contains two movies, the second one being Another Big Fat Homeless Berkeley Movie, but they basically are one work. Johnny Allen Shaw is the filmmaker, and his subjects are the street people of Berkeley, California.
Among these hardy citizens are a pseudo-Dylan, a rather mesmerizing South African activist, and a man who sings a long complicated song about the nutrient, niacin. There are a couple of celebrities. The Hate Man, familiar to us from Ace Backwords’s book Acid Heroes, says a few words. Wavy Gravy, clad in total-body tie-dye, recites a poem.
This film provokes such questions as, “How can someone play guitar for 20 years and never get any better?” Another question: “Where are the women?” Oh, we see several, and a couple of them even get a few words in, but in all this footage of talking heads and active bodies, the very huge overwhelming majority of the subjects are men. Why is that?
Like Venice Beach and many similar places, Berkeley is a magnet for oddballs of every ilk. Indeed, at least one of the people in this documentary has also been a Venice denizen. In such enclaves, one always finds a few locals who try too hard to be characters. There’s a strenuous air about them. The quality of mercy is not strained, as Shakespeare noted, and neither is the quality of weirdness. Whatever their trip is, you know it’s schtick, and not their natural essence.
What you definitely need, in order to be a character, is the right hat. Where do they get these hats? One ancient dude wears a towering headdress made from, apparently, his spare clothes. A structure is so intricately designed could be in an art museum.
If anyone deserves 15 minutes of fame, then everyone does. Yet sometimes 15 minutes are too many. Here, in many cases we are offered interminable minutes of an individual whose entire essence could as well be grasped in a few seconds. Sometimes that’s all one needs. One admits to fast-forwarding through a lot of it. I call this kind of movie a People Anthology, and as such, can’t help comparing it to Rubber Tramps, whose cast of characters I found much more simpatico.
Apparently, quite a few street people feel that making funny noises is the perfect way to express their joie de vivre. And some not so funny. A guy in a red outfit lets himself be overtaken by negative passion as thoroughly as a toddler luxuriating in a tantrum, and carries on like a Primal Scream therapy patient, or a voudoun celebrant possessed by a particularly pissed-off loa. Which would make him either the most mentally healthy guy on the planet, or the holiest.
The truly weird are not always flamboyant exhibitionists, and we see that in, for instance, the bearded man who goes through a practically endless series of elaborate motions preliminary to lighting a cigarette. In constant motion, he also seems to carry on a dialogue with someone whose existence is evident only to him.
So we’ve got folks whose cumulative “issues” run into the double digits, and folks who prove the maxim, “Hell is other people.” We’ve got folks propounding theories that could just as easily come from the mind of Malcolm Gladwell, the only difference being that his theories are published by top-tier magazines. And there are some radiant-faced youths, though we don’t know whether any particular one is a university student or a street kid.
And then there are the bums you’d like to hang out with, or even to be. From some there shines an inner light you just know would be extinguished by another kind of lifestyle. These weather-beaten feral humans, survivors of years on the streets – what have they got to be so damn happy about? Is it fair, that some toothless pieces of human flotsam should possess such aliveness? Is it possible they know something we don’t?