It seems Rialto Cinemas Elmwood has a bad – or in this case, good – case of the blues this month. I Am the Blues arrived at the Elmwood two weeks ago, and now Two Trains Runnin’ pulls into the station on Friday, Sept. 22.
Despite an establishing shot of Bentonia, Mississippi’s Blue Front Café — the same juke joint prominently featured in I Am the Blues — these are very different films. Whereas Blues relied on a plethora of homespun stories from the Delta, Two Trains Runnin’ focuses on the search for two legendary bluesmen set against the backdrop of the Freedom Summer.
Director Samuel Pollard (Oscar-nominated for 4 Little Girls, and currently producing a film about ACORN) sets the stage by detailing the early ‘60s folk music scene’s embrace of traditional country blues, which gave the careers of old-timers such as Mississippi John Hurt and Bukka White late-in-life second winds. The music’s crossover to the largely white, middle-class folk scene supplied a pool of fanatical youngsters with both the time and resources to obsessively pursue their heroes.
Two Trains Runnin’ follows two separate groups of young men – one including finger-picking legend-to-be John Fahey – as they headed south in the summer of 1964 to find the near-mythical Son House and Skip James. In parallel, it relates the story of the Freedom Riders, including James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.
In that far-off pre-internet age, news traveled slowly. The white men looking for House and James were unaware of the efforts by other northerners to register Black voters and didn’t appreciate the dangers they’d face driving a VW Bug with New York plates through the remotest parts of the Deep South.
Pollard brings the story into the 21st century with a coda highlighting the ignoble rollback of voting rights that’s characterized Republican Party politics of recent vintage. While the blues has long since been well integrated into American pop culture, the tide of white supremacy has come in again, threatening to set the stage for another Freedom Summer.
If you’re not familiar with the films of the Kuchar Brothers, prepare yourself for their 1966 magnum opus Sins of the Fleshapoids, screening at Pacific Film Archive at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, September 20th. Unless you’ve spent a lot of time attending underground film festivals, you’ve never seen anything quite like it, and PFA is dusting off its pristine archival print for the occasion.
Shot silently and in color by Mike Kuchar (with brother George amongst the cast), Fleshapoids is set “a million years in the future” where “the fleshapoids are mechanical men (who are) the servants of the human race”, according to narrator Mike Cowan, whose quavering, overly dramatic tones make Plan 9 From Outer Space’s Criswell compare favorably with Walter Cronkite.
The film’s surprisingly contemporary conclusion is that these creatures have developed a dangerous sentience causing them to revolt against their human masters. Did Stanley Kubrick see Sins of the Fleshapoids before conceiving the project that Steven Spielberg would later complete as A.I.?
Be warned: this is a low-budget, New York-shot short with speech bubbles in lieu of dialogue and embarrassingly bad costuming, make-up and acting – especially by Cowan, who doubles up as a fleshapoid bearing an uncanny resemblance to The Producers‘ Franz Liebkind. Perhaps both Kubrick and Kenneth Mars were Kuchar Brothers fans!