Twist

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Twist

If Frank Tashlin were a post-hippie Canadian documentarian with a jones for popular culture, he'd probably make movies a lot like Ron Mann's: zippy, colorful, and imbued with an infectious sense of fun. Best known for the slick pot movie Grass, Mann makes documentaries for people who don't like documentaries: The defiantly cinematic director seems determined to rid the genre of its reputation for stuffiness. One of three Mann films recently released on DVD along with related interviews, bonus footage, and trailers, 1992's Twist documents the strange history of a dance that, in Mann's telling, helped signal an important paradigm shift between the staid conformity of the '50s and the rebellious '60s. A documentary with a danceable beat, Twist duly covers the dance's invention, rise, and fall, but Mann is more interested in the way it reflected the complicated racial and class divides of the '50s. Invented by singer Hank Ballard, whose song "The Twist" failed to chart largely because of his bawdy reputation, the dance hit the mainstream via Chubby Checker, a modestly talented, affable showman who specialized in impersonating other singers. Checker was instructed to imitate Ballard's version, and did such a good job that Ballard, upon hearing it, initially mistook it for his own rendition. Both performers make memorable appearances in Twist, with Ballard oozing silky charm as he bemusedly recounts the song's strange history, while a self-deprecating Checker graciously gives Ballard credit for the song's success. As Twist illustrates, Checker's hit represented only a fraction of the Twist's impact: Before it ran out of steam, the dance inspired several films, countless copycat songs, and Twist-centered dance troupes, two of which are featured prominently here. The dance also sparked a maelstrom of criticism from reactionaries who saw, within its hip-shaking and wild gyrations, a libidinous genie that needed to be kept in its bottle. Twist would be worth seeing just for its archival footage, which includes such fascinating bits of pop-culture debris as clips from Louis Prima's Twist movie and an interview in which Marshall McLuhan dryly defends the dance as a heightened form of social interaction. Like Grass, Twist essentially pits snobs against slobs, and while Mann's sympathies are never in doubt, he at least makes his case in an extremely diverting fashion. Less successful but often rewarding is 1988's Comic Book Confidential, which begins, like Grass and Twist, as an irreverent pop history depicting the forces of liberation against the squares intent on ruining everybody's fun. At first, Confidential effectively chronicles how renegade artists, writers, and publishers like Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, William Gaines, and Harvey Kurtzman revolutionized the form while battling censors and industry closed-mindedness. But Confidential falters in its second half, which is dominated by a survey of current comic-book artists discussing their craft and "performing" their work in a manner that explains why they're artists and not actors. The first half benefits from Mann's razzle-dazzle, but his showy style begins to backfire during his only intermittently successful attempts to bring the artists' work to life. This is most glaring during an excruciating segment featuring Zippy The Pinhead creator Bill Griffith and a man in a cheap, frightening-looking Zippy costume shouting Zippyisms while contemplating the pop-culture landscape. Essentially Ron Mann's not-so-def poetry slam, 1982's Poetry In Motion features a cavalcade of beatnik and post-Beat poetry all-stars performing their work and discussing their craft in highly stylized, self-consciously cinematic environments. The film boasts a roster seemingly designed to set the hearts of undergraduate English majors racing, with heavy hitters like Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Tom Waits, Amiri Baraka, and Jim Carroll leading a who's-who of modern poetry. Mann goes out of his way to make each performance as cinematic as possible, but too often the poets devolve into self-parody, giving alternately mannered and hysterical readings that all but beg to be satirized. Mann's sense of fun and irreverence abandons him here, and is replaced by a fawning, reverential awe that makes Poetry In Motion an important historical document, but not very compelling to watch. For all his good intentions, he's more likely to scare outsiders away than bring them into the fold. In his gleefully inclusive later documentaries, Mann would find ways to avoid that problem.

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