Matty Rowe 
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Re: “Review: "The Entertainers" at Hot Springs Documentary Film Fest

Docfan, it's pretty typical for anyone who disagrees with a piece of writing to call into question the credentials or intent of the writer. Robert has worked in news for years and gets rightfully irked when someone tries to dismiss the content of a story by focusing on the writer. It's something done by very well by those who feel the need to counter what's published but don't have much to go on. Calling someone an "intern" is just like a smaller version of people who refuse to read the work of reporters at the top of their field in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal because of a belief that that's a liberal rag or conservative mouthpiece, respectively.

I think feeling that credentials are necessary to critique a piece of work is somewhat fair, but I do think that if it's in print, it's valid. The Arkansas Times isn't a free-for-all opinion site, and the people who work at this paper know me from my work behind a camera, which has supported me as I paid my way through college and now almost a decade into my professional career. Would it make you feel better to know that when you're reading a ~400 word review of a movie that didn't grab me the same way it did you? Besides, most of my experience in this field comes from being on the ground as an active reporter and photographer, being a part of a group of photographers that mentor and critique each other, and from what I estimate are over a thousand stories I've shot, wrote and/or edited. That sort of thing doesn't translate too well to a good bio page, but is part of the relationship I have with the people over at the Times who recognize the work I've done. Besides, I'm only a freelance writer, but that doesn't reflect anything on my work.

I debated whether or not talking about that on this discussion thread, but you came back looking for answers in earnest, docfan, so I think it's fair. I don't mind furthering the discussion about the film, because I think it adds value for anyone who finds this site while looking for the movie (I believe if you search Google for "entertainers documentary" this page is on the front page, and I imagine its page rank increases with every comment). So enough about me, let's talk about this.

You mentioned my existing biases, so let's start there. I believe you or anyone would agree with me that ragtime is not in fashion. That doesn't mean that it can't be enjoyable or we can't appreciate people who have a mastery in it. Star Trek isn't really fashionable either, but the documentary Trekkies is an amazing look at the subculture of Star Trek fans. If that movie had devoted more time to telling me the genesis of the show Star Trek and all its permutations, it would have lost me. It stays solidly on the fans, and through that lens we get a little bit of an education about the show, but mainly we get a very relatable story of people who are looking to fit in, and will buck conventional social mores to find people like them. This makes these guys heroic in some way. I can't relate to these people through their obsession, but I can relate to them through their earnestness and hopes.

My "formula of the competition" complaint is a bias, and probably reflects a preconceived notion I have about reality television's influence in documentary filmmaking. This is the 20th of 21 film festivals I have attended in Hot Springs, and through the years I've noticed a real turn from traditional/academic documentaries to those that highlight a group of strangers or have a contest or event as a narrative train. Not all of this transition is a bad one, but it's one that I feel can hem in filmmakers, and forces them to make jarring edit decisions. I still think Jim Boston deserves more time. He's completely earnest, and his story is such a triumph. He's not in the upper echelon of competitors, but he works hard to be there, to have fun. When we see him practicing at a church, it's a great moment. After he's (expectedly) cut from the competition, he's relegated to being a face in the crowd. The post script of him starting a charity in hopes that his passion of ragtime will help others who have faced despair in their lives is an amazing story that isn't explored. The relationship between Ethan, Adam and Bill was very interesting, but I felt like it wasn't explored much, either. That Bill acts like a child and Adam actually is a child was a narrative thread that I felt wasn't capitalized on. I kept wondering through the movie what other people thought of these guys. What do Adam's high school friends think of him being the champion? Almost everyone in this movie (save Ethan) seems to have some aspect of being a social misfit, and I wondered if Adam was dealing with the same problems? Does he see guys like Bill and Ethan as his contemporaries? I know what it's like to be a high school student and struggle to find friends and figure out myself, but I don't know what it's like to have my talent envied by guys like Bill. That so much time was taken away from these stories and given to the history of the competition, the worry that the competition is slowly going away, the struggle of the competition to gain younger audiences, the history of ragtime -- all that, was just not interesting to me. I've been a teenager trying to find my way like Adam, I've felt struggles like Jim Boston, I've questioned my own talent like Bill, and I've tried to earnestly make a living for me and my family like Ethan. I can't empathize with a competition though. That was my frustration.

The great thing about the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival is that you can see so many great documentaries in so little time. The Entertainers was a nice enough film, but among other movies, it didn't have the punch that others I was able to view did have. Which I thought was a shame, because all the elements were there. That's the point I was trying to make in my initial review, but at five or so paragraphs for a general audience, it's difficult to build the nuances. I hope you'll view the other ten or so reviews I made during the festival, and come away with an idea that I'm not just trying to do a hack job on a movie I didn't like.

Your internet friend -

Posted by Matty Rowe on 10/25/2012 at 2:47 PM

Re: “Review: "The Entertainers" at Hot Springs Documentary Film Fest

Good catch on the typo, docfan. As someone who types the word "media" dozens of times a day, I should have caught that one.

Thanks for commenting, because it gives a good opportunity to talk about the film. You said I missed the point, and maybe that's a valid criticism of my criticism. I was honestly frustrated by The Entertainers. I thought all the elements were there for an amazing documentary. There were so many singularly driven and charming people profiled in this movie who gave access to the filmmakers. So it was frustrating that I felt like there was a formula to the movie that got in the way of the story of these people.

The pursuit of "who will win the contest?" was not a very compelling thread for me, and I felt like there was little suspense. I thought the devotion to six(!) different competitors was too broad, and the need to tell the story of the ins and outs of the competition had the flair and excitement of a Wikipedia article.

I'll stand by my assertion that ragtime is not hip. I mean that to say I would not watch an hour and a half documentary about ragtime. There's just not enough to sustain my interest in the subject, but that and the contest is all the movie seemed interested in. Jim Boston is a transcendant documentary character, and the most memorable character from the whole weekend, for me. I would have loved to spend more time with him, but after he's cut from the competition, he's seemingly cut from the movie. Why?

So maybe I missed the point. If the point is "here's this ragtime show in Illinois and some nice music," then I missed the point. I wanted it so bad for the point to be "here are some very human characters who will help you understand your world better through their stories," and it wasn't. Much like you very much want me to be an inexperienced intern that was intent on bagging a movie, that's not the case, either.

I'm glad you're here though, because it's rare to get feedback at all. I have reviews of about ten of the movies I saw this year, and I'm sure that as a fellow attendee there was overlap with the films you saw and the films I saw. I hope as a fellow docfan, you'll be able to point out other ways that my writing can get better by commenting on those reviews.

Thanks-

3 likes, 0 dislikes
Posted by Matty Rowe on 10/24/2012 at 1:43 PM
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