Woodpecker deserves more than cult status; brilliant new film plays one night-only at CDS

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On Friday night, WOODPECKER, Alex Karpovsky’s low-key, hilarious “ficumentary,” screens at the Center for Documentary Studies in Durham. The screening is part of the Southern Circuit Filmmakers tour, which mostly features documentaries, with the occasional fiction film thrown into the mix. Genre-wise, Woodpecker throws a curve of its own, with a concocted plot about a pair of intrepid birdwatchers threaded through a conventional documentary about the fabled ivory-billed woodpecker, a species thought to be extinct until sightings began to crop up in the Arkansas bayou in 2004.

Still from Woodpecker
  • Still from Woodpecker

Karpovsky’s playful interweaving of fact and fiction makes the film a hard-to-classify documentary hybrid. It’s an aesthetic cousin to the “mockumentaries” of Christopher Guest and company (Spinal Tap, Best in Show), but a significant portion of its footage is actual interviews with birding experts and residents of the town of Brinkley, Ark. We’re left to guess which parts of the film are “real” and which are scripted (hence the term “ficumentary,” which the DVD insert attributes to a Boston Globe reviewer. We’ll see if it catches on).

It’s to Karpovsky’s credit that it’s not always apparent which is which: His ear for truth in drama makes the transitions seamless, which provides fertile ground for the patient character-building that drives the comedy (a strategy that Karpovsky explores in his most recent project, 2009’s Trust Us: This Is All Made Up, a self-assured documentary on the improv comedy duo TJ & Dave).

Credit also goes to Jon Hyrns, who plays Johnny Neander, a downtrodden house painter who’s obsessed with the ivory bill as his ticket to attaining the “varsity” level of birdwatching. The particulars of his casting also straddle the fiction/documentary boundary: Karpovsky met him at the Sarasota Film Festival, which he attended with the film Johnny Berlin, a feature-length documentary about Hyrns’s life as a porter on a high-end passenger train. That experience may have prepared him for his starring role in Woodpecker as the subject of a documentary. His performance is remarkably natural, and it’s only partway through that you realize he’s on Karpovsky’s payroll. And there are other characters you’re not sure about until the end credits.

Though it’s primarily a comedy, Woodpecker’s second half includes some very touching set pieces as Neander and his sidekick Wes (played by literary critic Wesley Yang, whom Karpovsky met at a party) confront the futility of their quest. This lends the film a surprising emotional range.

It’s remarkable, and perhaps fortunate, that despite his hugely evident talent no one’s yet given Karpovsky, who’s in his mid-30’s, a big pile of cash to make a film (he gets by with a number of side jobs, including a successful acting career). His very first feature, The Hole Story (2006), about a mysterious hole in the ice of a lake in Minnesota, was called a “minor cult fave on DVD” by Variety; if there’s any justice, Woodpecker will win Karpovsky a larger audience.

Woodpecker plays tonight at 7 p.m. at Durham's Center for Documentary Studies. A 6 p.m. reception will precede the screening.

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