Andrew Garrison’s Trash Dance resembles the kind of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it documentary that will briefly highlight one of the many strange cultural artifacts that our immense country produces before being relegated to the bin of free, quirky docs that makes up a good percentage of the unwatched portion of Netflix. It can be hard to work up the energy to sit through docs like this (being a film critic notwithstanding) when you’re painfully aware of how often the template which fits the film gets utilized: eccentric artist somewhere in a nook or cranny of the country works against the odds to pull off some project or piece she believes you’ve never seen before, while earnest documentarian (who hopes he’s found a subject odd yet charismatic enough to strike it big) dutifully follows, toting digital camera. More often than not, though, working up the energy to watch pays off — if for no other reason than that we do, as a country, have more than our share of driven oddballs and it is a worthy task, at least from a history-preserving standpoint, for someone with camera-competence to put them on film. Trash Dance is nothing special as a movie, just another filmed account of one of America’s odd little artistic alleyways, but as far as those alleyways go, Garrison has at least found himself a good one.
Who he’s found is dance choreographer Allison Orr, artistic director of Austin, Texas’ Forklift Danceworks. Forklift specializes in, as its mission statement puts it, finding “the extraordinary in the ordinary by creating original performances inspired by everyday life.” In this case, everyday life means the daily grind of a hardworking cross-section of Austin’s trash collectors. Orr’s passion (and, presumably, her livelihood) is finding groups of folks whose life’s work few would consider correlative to any kind of creative process, and then insisting that those folks turn what they do into art. Because of this, there are 25 or so sanitation workers in Austin who’ve now had their fifteen minutes of fame thanks to an eccentric lady with a fetish for dancing garbage trucks and a filmmaker in tow.
The problem — beyond the general blandness of the movie’s available-light digi-photography and evenly-paced editing — is that the show Orr and the trash collectors eventually put on doesn’t do much to illuminate the latters’ jobs. It just kind of exists as a bizarre, though admittedly kind of touching, tribute to Orr’s ability to cajole blue collar people out of their comfort zones, in this case into something undeniably artsy. Orr and Garrison may want you to infer, based on the fact that the trash collectors actually put on an art show (they drive their trucks in unison, do a little rapping, and speak to the audience about the experience of scooping dead animals off the highway), that trash collectors in general are more than meets the eye. If you did, you’d have exactly the kind of perception of trash collectors that Donald Anderson, the most sympathetic and dedicated of the workers, fears you do. “We’re not just these dirty people who pick up garbage. There is some grace to it. You have to be skilled, you have to know what you’re doing. We are all professionals.”
Orr’s show proves that these people are as skilled as Don claims, but who was doubting it before she got them to dance and sing in their gloves and orange vests for a paying audience? There’s not much to take away from the performance beyond an appreciation of the skills of persuasion of an eccentric art lady. These people work hard, keeping the city of Austin running clean; we don’t exactly need an art show to prove their mettle. But when Garrison settles his camera on one or the other of the workers long enough to let that person tell their story, and you find out that, for instance, almost all of them have to supplement their sanitation salary with a second job as a cashier or a youth minister, then Trash Dance comes unwittingly to life, and you have for a moment the stuff of an actually necessary documentary.