Two short films with strong ties to Duke have their world debut at Full Frame this year: Kudzu Vine, by Josh Gibson, and One Night in Kernersville, by Rodrigo Dorfman. Gibson, on the faculty in Duke's MFA Program in the Arts of the Moving Image, teams with Duke composer Anthony Kelley for a telescoping, nostalgic look into kudzu's past—and future. Dorfman (a Duke grad) submits in his film a strongly resonating musical portrait of John Brown, director of Duke's jazz program.
Both filmmakers are making return visits to the festival after screening features in the past: Dorfman's autobiographical film essay, Generation Exile, played last year's festival, while Gibson's Full Frame credits include Siamese Connection, a feature about Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese twins, who lived in Mt. Airy, N.C.
Kudzu Vine (U.S., 20 min.) — Alien invader, or manna in the wilderness? Miracle plant, or Confucian practical joke? Emblem of progress, or telltale sign of a blighted civilization? Our views on the prodigious pueraria lobata vine have flip-flopped since its introduction to the U.S. from Asia to fight agricultural erosion in 1896. Gibson's taciturn, black-and-white images of kudzu—and the people who are finding ways to live with it—promote the plant from a creeper on the edges of our landscapes and consciousness to a protagonist that writhes and rises in time-lapse motion, as beautiful and vaguely sinister as any CGI animated creature.
Seemingly capable of swallowing anything, from trees to cars to abandoned buildings, kudzu was once praised for its utility, medicinal powers and even metaphorical value. Growing a foot a day, up to 50 feet a year, this real-life Jack-and-the-Beanstalk is still considered by some to have near-magical powers, though many regard it as an invasive weed. In the days before air conditioning, kudzu shielded Southern porches from the sun, and kept cotton farmers' topsoil out of the gullies. Gibson pairs old radio broadcasts in praise of kudzu with portraits of modern folk who are finding uses for it, from baskets and papermaking to dairy silage and potato chips.
From the opening frames, Anthony Kelley's musical score perfectly complements the ambiguity of Gibson's storytelling: Is this nostalgic newsreel footage, or the surreal world of a fantasy feature film? Will kudzu turn out to be supervillain, or superhero? As this bewitching and disorienting film shows, kudzu is all in how you look at it.
One Night in Kernersville (U.S., 20 min.) — A lot of great things in life are made greater through anticipation—for a musician like bassist John Brown, it was one notable recording session. From a posture of anticipation, Dorfman's film peeks behind the scenes when members of Brown's jazz big band convene in Kernersville to record the following morning at Mitch Easter's The Fidelitorium studio. Sharing collard greens and a few laughs together will become just as much a part of the session as the musical preparation. According to Brown, "When you're hearing musicians play together ... you're hearing the evidence of a good time." Cool, articulated gems like that, illuminating the technical and spiritual aspects of the musical life, are the film's payoff, bringing you face-to-face with Brown. The other, more obvious payoff is the session itself, with scenes of world-class musicians such as Vincent Gardner, Adonis Rose and Brian Miller. A highlight is drummer Herlin Riley playing an solo in the booth as an unidentified small boy sits in one corner, looking on. Dorfman uses handheld camera, giving studio footage a spontaneous, on-the-road feel, and a lot of tightly composed close-ups in more staged scenes portraying Brown's night-before jitters.
"Big band is power," as Brown says, and inevitably the music carries a film like this, but one could wish for a deeper musicality in the editing itself. For instance, Dorfman often translates tempo into faster, repetitive visual cuts; while that communicates a superficial freneticism, it doesn't necessarily build intensity and can in fact diffuse the through line of a musical thought. And at least once, Dorfman cuts from studio footage that is audio synced, to a close-up, during the same piece of music, that is not. That said, the film is a bonbon for jazz, swing and big band lovers, and an intimate look inside the brilliant mind of a bandleader.