With anxious debates over gentrification, development, and displacement, there is perhaps no more appropriate adage for Portland right now than "stop and smell the roses." Honky Tonk Dirt, a peculiar and simple documentary, does just that. For an hour-plus, with little fanfare, a camera mediates on a hapless and aging street musician, Lucky Buster. The effect is a charming and disarming passing of time; any inclination to mock the poorly tuned crooner is defused and replaced with sincere admiration.
For 15 years, Lucky stood along the corners in Northwest Portland, playing remedial chords on his guitar and bellowing like a hound dog with tonsillitis. At its smallest aperture, the film gives a glimpse into Lucky's life--his time touring with carny shows, his brief encounters with greatness like Johnny Cash, and his struggles with alcohol and arthritis.
These scenes trace a thin thread through the disappearing lifestyle of the South and the hard life of a marginal entertainer. But the directors don't dwell on this topic, nor give much in way of a Ken Burns history lesson. Instead, with the majority of the movie consisting of street scenes of Lucky playing his guitar, the film simply hangs out.
Late in the movie, by the time the viewer has surrendered to Lucky's charms--his humility and completely non-cynical outlook on the world--two tipsy ex-sorority chicks wander onto his corner near Cinema 21. Standing in their hip-hugging Prada dresses and stirring gin and tonics, these two women are yuppie carbon copies from the pages of Elle. One of the women, with disparaging giggles, begins to criticize Lucky's tone-deafness. She talks directly to the camera and asks, "What's with this guy?" Little do they understand that it is Lucky--and not them--that the camera admires; and that it is humility and gentleness, not youth and beauty, that are virtues.
Honky Tonk Dirt works well because the filmmakers don't dwell on these lessons and don't preach. The camera simply gives us glimpses at some of Portland's characters and asks us who we would hang out with.