*Listed below the review.*
Having words with...Paul Devlin.
Sitting through some spoken word poetry showcases a few years ago, I noticed that after awhile the poems were starting to sound identical. Squeaky metaphors and cliches (mostly along the lines of "The Statue of Liberty is a Ho/ And America is her pimp!") started to wear me down, even when the audience was roaring. So I wasn't exactly dying to see "Slamnation," a documentary about performance poetry competititions known as "slams." But because of director Paul Devlin's judicious editing, the poems heard here are mostly polished crowd pleasers, and their authors/performers aren't just out for free therapy. Their lives, which Devlin lets us glimpse, are even more interesting than their three-minute acts.
The film starts in New York at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe's 1996 Grand Slam. Saul Williams, a brooding young poet, wins the grand prize, which puts him on a plane to Portland, Oregon, with three other top New York poets: Beau Sia, Mums the Schemer, and Jessica Care Moore. Boosted by the Nuyorican's rep, they arrive at Portland's national finals ready to conquer. But the competition and the judges turn out to be tougher than they expected. The teams from Boston, Providence, and Austin are particuarly good. Still, many in the audience groan at the low scores the judges give to poems they really dig. Portland's organizer explains that cruel judges push the teams to fight with their sharpest work. One of the more brutal combatants, Providence's Taylor Mali, resorts to mimicking his arch rival. Paced for big laughs, Mali's poems savage the timid, the inarticulate, and the self-indulgent. He pushes his team up the ranks by deconstructing spoken word poetry with a stand-up comic's ease. Though Mali claims he's in it strictly for the money while his nemesis says the poetry is his foremost concern, their performances show that they're both half lying.
While structured like a TV sports event recap (minus the hyperbole-riddled narration) "Slamnation" makes welcome dips and turns. We see Saul Williams preparing for a play while distilling his theories about the uselessness of marking time; Beau Sia, a brilliant Asian-American smart-ass, tossing out ironic non sequiturs as hilarious as his poems about race and class (he claims that he's white inside; he only deals with fellow Asians when he needs food or weapons); Jessica Care Moore turning an Apollo Theater amateur night into a madhouse with her erotic, angry "Black Girl Juice"; another poet composing a piece while working at a construction site; and a publisher fretting over the difficulties of putting spoken word performances in print, despite their popularity. Devlin captures the sense of a grass roots, community-level art scene not dependent upon critical heat or corporate sponsorship. The poets' workaday lives go directly into their poems--like Mum's job as a morgue attendant, which colors his slangy ruminations on God. Yeah, the poems get a little pretentious at times, but Devlin proves squeamish enough to cut away quickly from the real bombs. What lingers in memory are the poets themselves, who come from all over the cultural map to bond and fight with words. Most feature films are still too segregated to show even that.--Steven Boone