SXSW Film Fest: Day 2
One nice thing about Austin as a fest location is the lay of the land: Many of the screenings take place at three venues that are within easy walking distance in an area of the city that also boasts a high density of restaurants and bars. So far I've seen three movies at the Paramount Theater, an old neighborhood picture palace that looks like it was built in the 1920s or '30s, with ornate decoration in the auditorium. It's big enough to pack a good crowd, but small enough to feel sort of intimate. It's also a good place to eavesdrop on the usual fest conversation, which centers around the twin questions "what have you seen?" and "what are you seeing later?"
I spent the first part of day two at the Paramount. I started off with The Order of Myths, a doc about Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama, where the white and black communities hold separate parades and elect separate kings and queens. Looked promising.
The promise was fulfilled. Brown employs a simple technique, or at least one that sounds simple: she cuts back and forth between the two communities as they prepare for the festivities. No big deal, right? But it's harder than it sounds, and I've seen that sort of thing done badly. Not the case here. Brown has a cool observational eye, and she lets people talk about their traditions and their feelings about them.
Going in, you might think that the "point" would be straightforward: bigoted whites exclude blacks from their organizations; the black people create a more lively and vibrant tradition of their own; white people evoke the past with a misty avoidance of the pain of slavery. In fact, Brown allows people to convey complicated feelings, and the results are quite interesting. I don't know if it's commercial enough for theatrical release, but Order might do very nicely on PBS, something I do not mean dismissively.
Second up, also at the Paramount, was Emily Hubley's The Toe Tactic, which combines animation and live-action. The guy from the fest who introduced the film gave it a pretty bizarre intro that I think was meant as praise but sounded like a warning. He talked about reading the script five or six years ago and having no idea how this would work on a screen, if it could work at all. You're thinking, "Ah, now he says how once he saw it on the screen, it was a revelation." Nope. He closed out his introduction by saying he still has no idea what it means, but that it's like a scent or a word that lingers on the edge of your mind.
Imagine the uneasy feeling that ripples through the audience when the filmmaker backs up that idea, saying in her brief intro remarks "Don't worry if you don't get it all. Just feel it all." I'll just say that a set of crudely animated dogs pop in periodically to comment on the action, playing some sort of card game that has obscure symbolism related to the story about a young woman still grieving the death of her father. I didn't get it all. I'm not sure I even felt it all.
I got an hour to stretch my legs and change venues to the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz Theater for The Lost Coast. Talk about a weird disconnect of space and film. The Ritz is a converted theater with full food and drink service, the kind of place where bad zombie movie trailers are shown before the feature and Bud Cort (of Harold and Maude fame) is advertised as an upcoming guest. The Lost Coast is a well-crafted, good-looking "small" film about three people in their 20s spending Halloween together in San Francisco. At the heart of their complicated friendship is the fact that Mark, who now identifies as gay, and Jasper, who narrates the film in an email to his girlfriend overseas, used to mess around in high school, while Mark was dating Lily, the third part of this triangle.
Director Gabriel Fleming is working deliberately small, shooting what he called in the Q&A "quiet tension." He pulls it off quite effectively. I was oddly reminded of other micro American indies like Old Joy, that muse on friendship and loss without big speeches. An added bonus is that Fleming and his cinematographer Nils Kenaston make San Francisco look great on hi-def video. I got a chance to chat with Nils and Gabriel after the film at their premiere party at a nearby bar.
But wait, you say, wasn't day two going to be a five film day? What was I doing having cocktails when there were movies to see? Well, plans change, kids. And until someone tells me that the film I bailed on, Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely, is a masterpiece, I won't regret hanging out with Nils and talking about the fest business from our very different perspectives. Oh, and I'm encouraged to mention that the dog in the film gave a great performance. True.
The day wound up back in doc land, and back in the echo-chamber projection environment of the Austin Convention Center, where I caught the 9pm screening of Dreams With Sharp Teeth, a doc about writer Harlan Ellison.
There's an old bit of wisdom about docs: Half of the success is finding a good subject. Well, Ellison's a doozy. He's a rant-happy crank with no patience for stupidity. Though he wrote a lot of truly great television, including great eps of the original Star Trek and The Outer Limits, he also wrote a book about television called The Glass Teat, which basically calls the medium moronic and its audience junkies.
Ellison was on hand, and the presence of a crowd clearly whips him into a mix of hucksterism (he was hawking copies of one of his books) and foul language (in a Q&A with him and the director after the film, he claimed that people say "fuck" too often, then used the word eight times in the next minute). It's a solid, entertaining doc, and made me want to go home and dust off my copy of Dangerous Visions, Ellison's genre-changing anthology of what the uninitiated would call sci-fi and fantasy. (Who knows what the correct term is these days? Speculative fiction?)
The cruel thing was that Ellison looked ready to go for another hour, but they had to clear the hall, so we could all go change our clocks to lose another hour of sleep. As I write early Sunday morning, I've had about four hours of sleep, and today I've got interviews and screenings until 11:30pm. Hi ho, the glamorous fest-going life.
SXSW Image: Nadine Nakanishi