The Midnight Special Bookstore, 1318 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica, on Saturday presents "Documental," its monthly documentary and experimental film and video series, composed of two different programs, at 7 and 9 p.m. Screening in the earlier program is Danielle Renfrew and Beth Seltzer's fascinating 25-minute "Dear Dr. Spencer: Abortion in a Small Town," a model of an illuminating documentary dealing with a controversial subject. Renfrew and Seltzer make it clear how a physician in Ashland, Pa., a small coal-mining town in the eastern part of the state, could perform abortions for decades without interference.
When Dr. Robert Spencer opened a clinic on Ashland's Center Street in 1925, he quickly established a humanitarian reputation for not only treating local coal miners for black lung disease but also for going inside mines, no matter the risk, to treat injured miners. As Ashland was a center of labor organizing and home to freedom-minded European refugees, it was imbued with a libertarian spirit that endures to this day among those who remember Spencer, who performed illegal abortions almost until the day he died at age 79 in 1969. According to his widow, Eleanor, Spencer did not start performing abortions until the Depression hit the community hard in 1931. He performed an estimated 40,000 abortions, and he left behind some 30,000 letters of appreciation.
His reputation spread across the Eastern Seaboard at a time when women had to leave the country in order to have a safe, legal abortion. Ashland, including its law enforcement agencies, knew Spencer and respected him well enough to preserve his open secret. A number of those interviewed, all of whom knew him, express their disapproval of abortion, yet they regarded Spencer so highly and believed strongly enough in doctor-patient privacy that they were willing to protect him. (That familiarity can be more powerful than abstract moralizing is the inherent message here.)
Even a local priest, who called him "a dreadful live-and-let-live man"--a telling phrase--seemingly accepted Spencer's presence. Spencer's community in fact acquitted him in 1957 when he was brought to trial when a woman from New York died of heart failure while undergoing an abortion.
Spencer would only perform an abortion if the woman was absolutely certain that she wanted it. His widow says that he often paid for a needy woman's meals and her return fare. Among the women interviewed who went to Spencer for abortions is renowned Beat poet Hettie Jones, who speaks of her enduring gratitude to him. Renfrew and Seltzer cover a lot of territory in a mere 25 minutes, and cover it well, in a forthright, understated manner.
Their work is enhanced on the soundtrack by Lili Taylor's narration and mandolinist Mike Marshall's gentle music. Preceding "Dear Dr. Spencer" is Andy Parker's four-minute "Drum Tribe," celebrating the infectious music of the Venice Beach drum circle.
Screening in the 9 p.m. show is Mara Feder's 17-minute "Trouble in the Womb," adapted from a story by Veronica Gonzalez and starring Brooke Hailey as a lovely young woman resorting to religious ritual, including a bit of voodoo, in hopes that a young butcher (Abraham Willock) will fall for her as she has fallen for him. The result is an impressive short, made with wit and crispness. It will be followed by James Knight's quirky 57-minute "Ballad of Fire," which chronicles Knight's own Silver Lake neighborhood while under siege by an arsonist. Knight uncovers an astonishing range of social and political injustices coming to the surface and reveals a distinctive, authentic talent--and also a tendency to an off-putting facetiousness. Note: The American Cinematheque premiered "Ballad of Fire" in March. (310) 393-2923.
"Cine-Nites," a venue at the Warehouse, 7347 Ethel Ave., North Hollywood, for artists working in film and video, as part of tonight's program (7:30-10:30 p.m.), will screen two sharp, tantalizing shorts by Sven Berkemeier, who with hope will be able to develop them to greater length. Made with Rich Samuels, "Chris Nichols: The Googieman" is a five-minute sketch of a self-described urban archeologist obsessed with local coffee shop architecture and all things 1950s, which he calls an "era of optimism." The near-seven-minute "Kafkaesque" introduces us to Egon Kafka, a distant cousin of Franz, who's doing his best to fulfill his famed relative's fantasy novel, "Amerika." Both men, especially the brilliant, witty Kafka, deserve more screen time because they have such a passion for popular culture, its artifacts and dynamics.
Individuals like Nichols and Kafka tend to be labeled as eccentric until time passes and more people grasp that their capacity for appreciation and urge to preserve can prove to be invaluable in understanding--and enjoying--our heritage. Heilman--C, a group of Westside artists, sponsors the monthly "Cine-Nites." (310) 824-2508, Ext. 100. Admission is free.
Although documentarian Carlos Marcovich does answer the question he poses in the title of his "Who the Hell Is Juliette?," which opens a one-week run Friday at the Grande 4-Plex as part of a continuing series of documentaries, it is a highly problematic film. Marcovich seems to be raising the old question as to whether you can in fact neatly divide film into fiction and documentary only to wind up seeming more manipulative and irritatingly discursive.
While shooting a music video in Havana in which the ravishingly beautiful Mexican model Fabiola Quiroz would appear, Marcovich met and cast, as Fabiola's younger sister, a local 16-year-old, Yuliet Ortega, also a beauty with personality to spare. Marcovich understandably became intrigued with Yuliet, whose father left for America when she was 6 months old, and her mother, who stayed behind, died when she apparently set fire to herself. Yuliet, who has drifted into a life of prostitution with foreign tourists, blames the father she never knew for her mother's death, but he in fact may not be the individual who drove her to it.
Yuliet proves to be a natural charmer and you become concerned for her future, and you also wish good fortune for the poised, reflective Fabiola, already on her way to success. (213) 617-0268.
Note: The Nuart is launching a one-week, 12-feature "Universal Comedy Festival" Friday with a pair of treasures from its Paramount trove, Mae West's two best pictures, "She Done Him Wrong" and "I'm No Angel," both co-starring Cary Grant.
Doboy's Dozens presents "Set No Limits," a filmmaker's monthly showcase, Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Regency West, 3339 W. 43rd St. (three blocks east of Crenshaw Boulevard). The program will present a variety of short films. (213) 293-6544 or (213) 991-2158.