Camera Obscure

Maggie Kuhn is demonstrating her "Gray Panther growl" -- the signature move of an activist group that has challenged the mandatory retirement age, protested negative media portrayals of the elderly and, in general, encouraged senior citizens to make a ruckus. The indomitable founder of the group stretches out her hands. Bent with arthritis, they quiver like seaweed. "Compassionate hands," she says. But her warm gesture is coupled with a stuck-out tongue. "Cry out against injustice," she exhorts the crowd in front of her, which responds with enthusiastic screams.

Kuhn is the star of a new documentary, Maggie Growls, which recently opened the inaugural season of the PBS and Independent Television Service series, Independent Lens. (Maggie Growls aired this past Tuesday at 10 p.m.) Focused on the quirky, the heroic and the communal, the series' first few documentaries vary in subject matter from Kuhn's activism to the offbeat world of the song-poem industry. But while they aim to shed light on strange aspects of our lives and probe deeply into subjects' minds, the documentaries rarely transcend two-dimensionality -- bland cheerleading, "Isn't that weird?" moments, a sort of beige generality. Kuhn, for instance, is not a boring woman. But Maggie Growls doesn't let us get to know her, doesn't show us what drove this lifelong activist to fight on behalf of working-class women and people of color, and to start a new movement for senior citizens. Indeed, many of the series' first films suffer from the same complacency, which leads to the same result: We have a nice enough hour watching one, but more than likely the film doesn't provoke, jolt, challenge, question or stick around in our heads after it's over.

Which is a pity, because the films often focus on such interesting things. Kuhn, for example, is fierce, fearless and witty. I wanted to see more of her in action -- taking on politicians, rousing up people of all ages and races to participate in protest. When we do catch glimpses of her, she gives the film a real charge, a lusty, gutsy verve. More often than not, however, the documentary rounds out its time with stock footage and talking heads, sapping it of the urgency and conviction Maggie had in real life. Much of activism draws on finely honed outrage. During her lifetime, Maggie had it; this film about her doesn't.

Off the Charts, which will premiere next Tuesday, also at 10 p.m., fares a little better. Delving into the strange song-poem industry -- send your lyrics in, pay a fee and producers will make it into a song -- the documentary introduces a whole slew of unusual characters. My favorite is Caglar Juan Singletary, a young man who likes to write poems about "martial arts, ladies, religion and science fiction." One of his songs, "Nonviolent Tae Kwon Do Troopers" features the stunner, "Thank Jehovah for kung-fu bicycles and Priscilla Presley." We're treated to another little ditty later in the show, this one about how Singletary would think about giving up his vow of premarital celibacy for Annie Oakley, if only he had the chance. "I might lose to Miss Oakley / It's not funny / Annie is one of my historical honeys." We also meet a collector and connoisseur of song-poem recordings, as well as the musicians who "write," perform and record the songs, often in less than an hour after first reading the lyrics. Unfortunately, we aren't really given a good sense of why these people become involved or obsessed with writing the poems, making the songs or buying the albums. And when dealing with something that gives off a whiff of fringe or subculture, a filmmaker has to delve into personalities, find out what obsesses people and show how their hopes and dreams humanize them. Without that, the subjects just seem freakish and don't spark reflection on the part of the viewer.

The third film (to be aired Feb. 18) fares the best. On the Island focuses on the tiny Maine island of North Haven, home to an unorthodox school drama program developed by Tony Award-winning producer John Wulp. Though the drama program helped revitalize the island's school, Wulp and school principal Barney Hallowell drew fire from parents who favored a more traditional approach; it was a conflict that nearly rent the fabric of the island community. Wulp attempted to heal North Haven through a new play about life on the island, and what unfolds is a beautifully drawn portrait of the town, the tensions that threatened to tear it apart and the potential of community-based art to bring it back together.

Stephanie Slewka, the film's director, has a deft eye for storytelling. In one excellent scene, she rides along with two smart, jaded teens who dissect the different ways to wave at people in cars. There's the big friendly wave, the polite wave, the finger flick. We see them put the wave into action as a police officer drives by. In those few minutes, the teens tell us worlds about what life on the island is like, and they come across as real personalities with real insights. Slewka only stumbles in the film's final act: She's set up the documentary around the question of whether the film will help heal the island natives, and we never really find out. She suspends the tension with a sweep of bathos, a feel-good performance. Even with that shortcoming, however, the film manages to develop strong characters and insights that stretch well beyond the island.

Despite working with such a visual medium, too often the filmmakers don't take advantage of the power of images. Downside UP (Feb. 25) meditates on how a giant museum of contemporary art may revitalize a western Massachusetts mill town, but it fails to illustrate the potential dissonance loopy art may create in the eyes of its down-to-earth hosts. In lieu of sharp visual storytelling, we're battered with the director's self-indulgent meditations on growing up in North Adams (the town), as well as the ramblings of her family members. The town itself doesn't emerge as a character -- and without that, how are we to care about what happens to it?

The first spate of Independent Lens documentaries were clearly made with love, with the compassion that was part of Maggie Kuhn's memorable trademark protest. But most of them lack the growl part -- the urgency, the fierce questioning of the status quo, the desire to probe into the reason why people are the way they are. And without that, we're left with only half a story -- and a whole hour of missed opportunity.

Noy Thrupkaew writes regularly about culture for The American Prospect and TAP Online.

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