Beginning with a fanciful bit of anticapitalist wish-fulfillment -- the premise that Bill Gates was assassinated on Dec. 2, 1999, in Los Angeles' MacArthur Park -- Brian Flemming's "Nothing So Strange" spins off from there into a Sturges-esque satirical jumble about special-interest groups, conspiracy theories and the state of social activism in America.

Beginning with a fanciful bit of anticapitalist wish-fulfillment — the premise that Bill Gates was assassinated on Dec. 2, 1999, in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park — Brian Flemming’s “Nothing So Strange” spins off from there into a Sturges-esque satirical jumble about special-interest groups, conspiracy theories and the state of social activism in America. This crackling good movie is a smart, aware, polemical work concealed beneath a surface so playful — a “mockumentarty” approach handled as expertly as Christopher Guest’s films — that you don’t even realize you’re learning anything. Pic should receive more fest exposure and specialized commercial play.

“Nothing So Strange” was conceived by Flemming (who co-wrote Off Broadway hit “Bat Boy: The Musical”) in collaboration with his cast — a mixture of professional and non-pro performers — who improvised the film over two years and about 70 hours of shot footage. Flemming threw his actors into the fray of real events, “staging” scenes for the film at real community action meetings and even the 2000 Democratic National Convention. There’s a consequent vigor to what’s onscreen; the events seem to be unfolding in the moment, all captured by Flemming in crisp DV images. It may be the ideal prototype film for the digital age (i.e., a film in which video really enhances the viewing experience), so much so that one laments its inevitable transfer to film.

A brief news recap relates the events of Dec. 2, complete with “eyewitness video” of the assassination itself: Gates was silenced by two bullets, fired by a lone gunman from atop the Park Plaza Hotel, just as he was about to take the stage at a charity event. Then, in the chaos that followed, attendees claimed to spot a black male scurrying from the hotel roof; a lone LAPD officer, new on the job, encountered 24-year-old Alek Hidell (an alias once used by Lee Harvey Oswald) in the hotel’s basement and fired, believing he had his man. That, at least, is the official story.

But there’s always another version of events, and part of what makes Flemming’s film so smart is the research he and collaborator David James conducted into the history of assassinations and conspiracies in America; they’ve digested the prism-like scattering of truth that comes attached to these events. The thrust of the film is its documentation of an activist group — called Citizens for Truth — that comes together in the wake of the assassination. Spearheaded by print-shop worker James (“playing” himself) and magazine proofreader Debra Meagher (Laurie Pike), it’s a ragtag collective of non-pro investigators, brought together as much out of boredom as a true spirit of activism. Part of the film’s point is that the ’60s idealist spirit of nonconformity has worn from the culture like so much pigment from a tie-dyed T-shirt. And Flemming suggests if we do find his characters funny (despite the fact that he never plays them for laughs), it’s at the expense of our own past subversiveness. Pic posits that we should always be looking for the conspiracy, whether or not there really is one.

Here, there are many reasons for disbelief; the LAPD’s inquiry into the assassination was, of course, hopelessly bungled; there’s the amateur video of “Running Man,” a white male seen fleeing from the Park Plaza; lunch-counter worker Julia Serrano (Sarah Stanley) claims Running Man ran through her cafe, shouting, “We shot him” (conspiracy buffs will recollect that a Sandra Serrano claimed to hear people fleeing from the Robert Kennedy assassination shouting the same words); and there’s Serrano’s controversial police interrogation, in which she is badgered, over many hours, into admitting that maybe, just maybe, the words she heard were “They shot him.” All of which is just the tip of the iceberg.

Citizens for Truth has an arsenal of alternate assassination explanations, and the snap of Flemming’s film comes from the meticulous detail (accompanied by intricate CG renderings) in which it imagines these scenarios.

“Nothing So Strange” has a great, attention-getting premise, but it doesn’t come at you from any of the obvious angles. The film isn’t really a “what if” pic about the Gates assassination, as the filmmakers are smart enough to realize that the world wouldn’t be that different without Gates.

Flemming has a bigger vision. He sets up Gates not so much as an individual of any real political or social significance, but rather as a symbol of the unspoken class divide. (When Hidell’s hotel room at the Park Plaza is searched, a journal is uncovered expressing similar sentiments.) And he sets up the assassination and the aftermath’s sloppy handling as merely the latest scandal in the post-Rodney King, post-Rampart scandal era, in a city where conspiracy runs as thick as the smog.

As pic progresses, its focus narrows, until it becomes an intricate analysis of group dynamics, acase study of what happens when people unite behind a common cause. The petty bickering, the getting off track, the getting on each other’s nerves — Flemming gets it all. Yet it’s also what’s wrong with the film. As the group moves away from its initial impetus, so does the film — a perfectly logical development, but one that saps much of the pic’s rollicking energy. It’s a strange dilemma, one that seems to spring organically from its subject matter, and it’s tough to see how it could have been avoided. Still, the ensemble cast is superb, particularly James and Pike. Pic’s real gift is the way these actors playing “real” people seem so unawares, so uncannily un-actorly.

Nothing So Strange

Production

A GMD Studios presentation. Produced by Brian Flemming. Executive producers, Brian Clark, Tammy J. Kearns. Co-producer, Garland Slack. Directed, edited by Brian Flemming.

Crew

Camera (color, digital video), Flemming; music, No War but the Class War; line producers, George B. Kelly, Sam Tucker; associate producer, Steve Wilcox; assistant director, George B. Kelly. Reviewed at Slamdance Film Festival (Special Screenings), Jan. 13, 2002. Running time: 82 MIN.

With

David James - David James
Debra Meagher - Laurie Pike
Steve Martinez - Steve Wilcox
Bill Gates - Steve Sires
Alek Hidell - Philip Anthony Traylor
Julia Serrano - Sarah Stanley
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