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What's up, doc?

Wednesday, May 23 2001
Most people would rather eat chalk than watch a documentary. The argument goes, if folks wanted to see the plain, everyday lives of normals they'd invite themselves over to their neighbors' houses. Viewers don't want to be reminded of their own bland milquetoastness during a movie -- they want to relish the lives of the exotic, outrageous, or at least spell-binding.

The San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, organized by the staff of the S.F. IndieFest, hopes to change those (mis)conceptions. The S.F. DocFest offers such vivid subjects as corn-mating rituals, freak-show retirement homes, and Brazilian horror icons, as well as six features devoted to music. (It takes place Friday through Monday, May 25-28, at the Academy of Art's Post Street Theater.)

The film Plaster Caster is bound to make the biggest splash. The movie, directed by Chicago-based music engineer Jessica Villines, focuses its wide-angle lens on Cynthia Plaster Caster, a Windy City denizen who shows her affection for her rock idols by molding their penises in cold goo. For the last 30 years Plaster Caster has been the second most famous groupie in rock history (behind I'm With the Band author Pamela Des Barres). Her most famous sculpture is of Jimi Hendrix, but she also corralled Hendrix's bandmate Noel Redding, two members of the MC5 (at the same time), Jon Langford of the Mekons, and S.F.'s own Jello Biafra. Scottish "tender pervert" Momus even sang about his casting and subsequent inclusion in an art exhibit in "The Penis Song": "So many people saw my penis in a glass case/ They recognize my penis now before my face."

You certainly won't mistake Plaster Caster for some boring treatise on landfills. Any film with an excited Camille Paglia deconstructing member molding has got its heart -- or something else -- in the right place. And instead of mocking its star (as one might expect), the film paints Plaster Caster as a slightly batty but rather endearing accidental artist who turned her lust (she lost her virginity to Starcast No. 1, Mark Lindsey of Paul Revere & the Raiders) into a vocation.

Still, there's a vein of sadness running through the film. It's hard not to feel uncomfortable as an aging Plaster Caster hesitantly approaches the marginally talented 5ive Style guitarist Bill Dolan and Demolition Doll Rods axeman Danny Doll Rod for casts. But there's also something inspiring about seeing her strut around her apartment in a lace camisole and no pants, as if to say, "I'm just as sexy now as I was in the '60s."

Another of the featured docs, An Incredible Simulation, is equally lurid -- more for what happened off screen than on. According to co-director Jeff Economy, the film's initial co-director (and 8 Track Mind editor) Russ Forster split from the production during shooting and took a large portion of the footage with him. Eventually, Economy and third co-director Darren Hacker finished their film, while Forster completed his own ode to tribute bands, called Tributary. (Forster's flick played ATA recently.) Simulation is pretty painful viewing unless your idea of kicks is laughing at earnest small-town folks whose life dream it is to ape Neil Diamond, Gary Numan, the Rolling Stones, and -- be still my spinning head -- Molly Hatchet. If you ever needed a reason not to leave the Bay Area, this film provides it.

Far more inspiring is What About Me: The Rise of the Nihilist Spasm Band, which tells the story of a group of musically untrained artists who gathered in Ontario, Canada, in 1965 to make a soundtrack and ended up cult legends. The band, which has performed nearly every Monday night for 36 years, is now revered as the impetus of the noise music scene -- or, as one member says, the "uncles of punk." The group's helter-skelter mix of free-jazz drums, homemade kazoo bleats, frenetic guitar and bass wrangling, and anti-authoritarian lyrics has made fans of such avant taste-makers as Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Run On's Alan Licht; in Japan, the band's hard-to-find records fetch insane prices. The wonderful thing is that the geezers are still completely untouched by fame or commerce; to these codgers, art is a mission, not a means to a mansion.

If you haven't had your fill of music documentaries by the end of the festival, you can head over to the Roxie Cinema for The Legend of Teddy Edwards and Horace Parlan by Horace Parlan, two short docs about obscure jazz musicians, playing May 29 and 30. Both films are directed by Don McGlynn, the man behind Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog, a film so intensely moving that I cried during it -- twice. Maybe there's something to this documentary thing after all.

For information about the S.F. DocFest go to For the Roxie Cinema shows call 863-1087.

About The Author

Dan Strachota


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