SXSW Film Fest: Day 3
Ben Franklin should be taken out and shot. Daylight savings time, which that quipping old revolutionary proposed, is clearly a torture technique designed to make SXSW festgoers confess to some unspecified set of film-related crimes. I knew Sunday was going to be a long day; I'd planned it that way, with two interviews in the morning and four movies spread out from 11am until the last credit rolled at around 11:15pm. That's a journalist's fest schedule, and all day you could tell us from the rest of the crowds not just because we kept opening notepads at screenings and Mac laptops in the between-times (as opposed to the publicists, who all carry Blackberries. Seriously!), but also because the journos look both exhilarated and frazzled.
In the public space at the Convention Center between screenings, I overheard a guy dramatically narrating to anyone around him who would listen how his laptop's wi-fi connection kept failing, which was fucking unbelievable, and he was on a deadline, and this was just unacceptable. He went on like that for, I shit you not, fifteen minutes. That, my friends,is the frazzled journalist going on little sleep. But the films, ah the films.After doing a few interviews (the most fun was character actor Richard Jenkins, the quintessential "Hey, it's that guy" guy, who seemed thrilled to talk in technical detail about acting), I started the filmgoing day with Celia Maysles's doc Wild Blue Yonder. She's the daughter of David Maysles, half of the famous Maysles brothers doc-making team behind such films as Salesman, Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter. Celia's father died when she was seven, and she continues to grieve the loss. Making it worse for her is a family rift that developed. Her Uncle Albert, the other half of the filmmaking team, got into a legal battle with Celia's mother over the rights to the brothers' films and archival materials, which left the two sides not speaking. In her late twenties, Celia decided to make a film about her father to get closer to him. Being a child of Maysles, she picks up the camera and films everything, including her visits to Albert, whom she hasn't spoken to since she was a child. She wants access to the extra footage (thousands of hours of it) so she can get to know her father better. At first Albert seems moved and ready to heal the rift, but then he decides not to give her access because her film might compete with his own planned doc about his life. Celia films her own sorrow and frustration as she tries to get closer to her dead father.
Yeah, there have been several "child of famous person makes doc about their relationship to famous parent" docs (e.g. Mark Wexler's Tell Them Who You Are, about his cinematographer dad Haskell Wexler), but Celia Maysles still got me choked up. Not a masterpiece (some of her sharing about her own struggles with mental illness in her teens seems a bit too much), but a solid personal doc.
My second film in a doc heavy day was Here Is What Is, a doc by famous music producer Daniel Lanois (he's the guy behind U2's move into more layered sounds on albums like Joshua Tree, and has produced everyone from Bob Dylan to Emmylou Harris). His film is definitely not a conventional music doc; he and his two codirectors filmed a lot in the studio, but it's more focused on the music than the personalities. There's one truly remarkable sequence in which Lanois sits at a mixing board that looks more complex than the cockpit of a 747 and actually mixes a song while telling us what he's doing, how each sound element gets layered in. For me, that alone made the film worth seeing. I could have used a bit less of the manipulation of the footage (a lot of shrinking the image so it was surrounded by a field of black, shifting to negative and other fussing), but it seems like Lanois is trying to find a visual corollary for his deep ambient sound mix. Plus, Brian Eno turns out to be fascinating when talking about music and the weave of a Moroccan rug (really).
Third up was At the Death House Door, a doc about Texas's death penalty and the wrongful execution of Carlos DeLuna. It's direceted by Steve James and Peter Gilbert, the guys behind Hoop Dreams, and they know how to get close to people they are filming. In this case, it's Reverend Carroll Pickett, who has spent "final hours" with nearly a hundred executed men in Huntsville Prison, and who is now an anti-death penalty advocate. He's a great subject, and for me the frustration is that James and Gilbert were unwilling to stay focused on Pickett. Instead, at the halfway mark, the film gets more focused on the DeLuna case, and DeLuna's sister becomes the focus for a good chunk of the final portion of the film. She's interesting and you have to respect her continuing anger 18 years later, but the doc was doing so well when it stayed close to Pickett that this feels like a move away from really solid portraiture and into advocacy. There's nothing wrong with advocacy (for the record, I agree with the anit-death penalty stance the film takes up) but it's a shame to feel the doc change focus in the middle.
After some other craziness and a quick dinner with friends (how fast can I wolf down an enchilada? Pretty fast...), I had every intention of catching up with the 9:45 showing of Nights and Weekends, the latest bit of mumblecore (and yeah, I hate that term) from Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig. Gerwig is the It Girl of mumblecore, in three, count 'em three, films at SXSW this year, having also codirected Nights and Weekends. Well, sorry Joe and Greta, but life and work-related stuff intervened, and I had to miss the screening. That means my fest experience tally so far is nine films, not bad but not in fullblown geek mode. Monday looks like a four-movie day with some more interviews crammed in (I'm looking forward to talking to Daniel Lanois, though I fear sounding like a dumbass about music). And if I'm fortuante, I'll eat a meal at a human pace. But the films don't wait on appetites. They're relentless.
SXSW Image: Nadine Nakanishi