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Roxanne Bogucka’s Daily Diary

Sunday 3/20/05: the wrap-up

Seems like there were a lot of music-related films this year. There always are, I guess, since there’s a music festival going on at the same time, but the percentage seemed especially high this year. I didn’t see any of them, though I heard good things about The Devil And Daniel Johnston and Be Here To Love Me (about Townes Van Zandt). It also seemed that there were far fewer sex-related films. I recollect days past when the screens were filled by the likes of Annabel Chong. Ah well.

My last festival film was Ellen Spiro’s Troop 1500, about a Girl Scout troop for kids whose moms are imprisoned in Texas’ Gatesville women's unit. This is an emotional film, full of tears and disappointments (and some high moments too), and the men who went to see it with me disliked it, apparently solely because it was a documentary that made them feel. Gratuitous emotionalism, I heard from them. It made me feel, but what for? Where’s the catch? What’s the pitch? What’s she selling? Men make me tired.

It opens with several of the girls opening mailboxes and getting letters from their moms. Spiro, working with troop leader Julia Cuba, got the warden’s permission to film parent-child visits inside the jail. Spiro got the girls trained to use video cameras, then filmed them filming and interviewing their mothers. This works well as both a film device and as a tool to discover what these girls are really thinking about their criminal mothers. There are a lot of extreme close-ups, which, yes, puts the emotions in your face, but which I think was very smart because it makes these women and girls very real people. Yes, it is a real tearjerker of a film: Some moms will be paroled, some won’t, but even more distressing, some moms’ good intentions will be seen to be all talk and no walk.

I could have done without the emo folk-guitar music, but Troop 1500 is a good movie, so see it and if your guypals behave like mine did about it, have the courage to punch them out.

Friday, 3/18/05

Today’s goal: Hear some music. I’ve identified venues with outdoor performing areas, and intend to stand outside on the street, because, you know, music wants to be free. I’m looking for Bloc Party and the Blind Boys of Alabama.

So with my good buddies, I established a base at Opal Divine’s Freehouse, where the stage was conveniently located in the fenced-in parking lot. It was easy to stand on the sidewalk and listen to the likes of Cracker, Rex Hobart & The Misery Boys, and the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash (who should not be allowed to sully his name with their association, if you ask me). I missed the Blind Boys’ in-store because there was no place to friggin' park anywhere near the venue. Sigh. Anyways, Opal’s was an ideal HQ. It was a nice night, so most folks were sitting outside on one of the porches, which meant my paisans and I had the inside almost to ourselves. The beer selection was prime (though, due to the crush of SXSW attendees they were serving beer in plastic cups that were NOT imperial pints). We easily caught a ’Dillo (free downtown shuttle bus) to take us to Stubb’s, where we gave many thanks that we hadn’t sprung for music wristbands. Even badgeholders were stalled in line as the familiar refrain, “One out, one in” dinned in our ears. Perhaps for this reason—no visual—we were all underwhelmed by the Bloc Party set, which struck us jaded old-timers as rather generic rock-n-roll. But then, the music should carry the day, without visuals, dontcha think?

Thursday, 3/17/05

Spent the entire moviegoing day at the original Alamo Drafthouse, which is about as perfect as it gets in my book. This was an expensive day, since I had to eat and drink, being at the Alamo and all. It was here that I experienced a new SXSW tradition—audience call-and-response to the pre-screening SXSW promo. See, South By makes these hip, with-it little shorts that run before every screening. In years past, there've been usually four or five of them. This year, there are just two. They involve a young filmmaker coming to the bright light, big city, and getting star maps. And also keys to stars’ homes. These are being sold by some kid on the street, for—let's all yell it together—“Ten bucks!” The kid then proceeds down a Blair Witchy staircase, encounters a chanting cult, and is invited in either by Ron Livingston or Jeff Goldblum. That’s it, but the SXSW audiences have developed a participatory act to go with every scene.

So on to the real movies, Reel Short I, a strong program of live action shorts. MaRxy, a humorous tale of young girls and their varying resoonses to visions of the Virgin Mary, reminds me of that Lily Tomlin quote—“Talking to God, prayer; God talking to you, psychosis.” Good news, experimental fans! This program included Amanda Yopp’s Genius Loci: The Spirit Of A Space and Dream Lover Fondue by Trixy Sweetvittles. The unquestionable highlights of the show, though, were Spam-ku: I Won A Haiku Contest About Spam, in which we learn a semantics lesson, and Keep Right, a tale of grown men at play and not so different from little boys.

And glory hallelujah, the Reel Shorts II program was even better. The shorts in this grouping were a little longer on average. All were so entertaining that I really have to lament not having some way for them to be seen by general audiences. I certainly would be happy to have these run before the main feature at my local cine, and I'm sure the filmmakers would too. Too bad I waited until the last day of the shorts programs! I really want to see again The Death Of Salvador Dali, a very silly, very colorful piece about whether Da-LEE is cra-ZEE!, and Desastre, in which a baguette-loving French baby is somehow born to middle American, Wonder Bread parents.

Next I watched Highway Courtesans, a documentary about the Bachara community in India, a community that has put its daughters out in prostitution for centuries. Director Mystelle Brabbee devoted nine years to telling this story, focusing particularly on Guddi, who is 17 at the start of the movie, and who does not wish to enter “the business.” I think there was a lot of curiosity about this movie, spurred by the recent Academy Award win of Born Into Brothels. The directors there apparently weren’t able to get the story they initially went for, which was the sex trade itself, but their story evolved into the lives of the kids in the red-light district. I especially liked the take-no-shit attitudes of the young prostitutes. When asked duh questions like, “Were you afraid your first time?” they unblinkingly toss back, “Why wouldn't I be?” Real people, folks; feelings just like anyone else. Great stuff.

Wednesday, 3/16/05

The last movie I saw last night was Dead Birds, a haunted-house movie set during the Civil War. Near as one can tell, there’s no compelling reason for the setting. I can see that placing the story in the past makes unavailable to the main characters the forms of communications that today would perhaps quickly explain their situation. But there was an opportunity to weave in what we know about the Civil War to eerie effect, an opportunity that was wasted. First-time director Alex Turner serves up a very bloody horror flick that, unfortunately, appears to have been intended as a straight-ahead scarefest. Too bad. Dead Birds is full of da-DA! moments where the annoying and incessant score blares as a sudden cut puts some “shocking” image two inches from the camera’s lens. Doesn’t horror requires at least a smidge of subtlety? Why do filmmakers confuse “scare” with “startle”? Dead Birds all but jumps out of closets and yells BOO! This movie was laughably bad horror but not laughable enough to achieve cult humor status. Bummer. I interviewed the director after, and he’s such a sweet guy that I wished I could say something nice about the movie. Wait! Henry Thomas was his usual sweet self, and fun to watch. There, I said something nice.

Today I went to the Alamo South to see Troop 1500, but it sold out. It shows again on Saturday at the Paramount, so no worries, I’ll get to see it.

Tuesday, 3/15/05

The hot-hot rumor, surely one of the most ill-kept secrets ever, is that tonight’s TBA movie is an encore screening of The Aristocrats, which showed at midnight on Friday. So here I am instead of at a party, making up for what I missed on opening night, standing in line chatting with Paul Stekler, whose Last Man Standing I so admired at last year’s SXSW. After this, I ambitiously plan to hightail it to the Alamo, to get in line for Dead Birds at midnight.

THINKFilm will distribute The Aristocrats, which is surely an NC-17 movie (it’s not what you see, it’s what you hear). Yes, it was damn funny, but not because of the joke. As many comics pointed out during the film, the joke itself just ain’t that funny. It’s all about the teller and the telling, not the tale. Standout tellings include the one by the card trick artist, who illustrated his version by having appropriate card leap out of the deck; Kevin Pollak’s piss-yourself-funny imitation of Christopher Walken telling The Aristocrats; and a perfectly understandable version done by a mime. Needless to say, a joke of this sort brings to the audience a dimension of personal psychology that may be well beyond what you want to know about these comedians. But there’s also some quasi-scholarly comedic musing on why and how the joke works. Particularly interesting is the discovery that the joke works much much better in its negative form, where the performers’ act is a model of gentility, with a vulgar label. But really, it’s the varied tellings that amuse, not the material, and Penn Gillette has assembled an amazing retinue of jokesters. Also, we discover (perhaps) the origins of Teller’s muteness! Among the performers, I found Sarah Silverman to be a revelation. I may have to re-schedule so I can make it to a screening of Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic. Chris Rock was there, used like the ambassador of black comedy, but he raised a good point. Overall, a recommended movie.

Sacred Steel is a musical tradition with which I was wholly unfamiliar before viewing Gilliam Grisman’s documentary, Press On. Grisman, whose previous work, Grateful Dawg, profiled Jerry Garcia and her dad, Dave Grisman, clearly has a feel for telling musicians’ stories. And the story of steel phenom Robert Randolph is one hell of a charming story, profiling a talented, enthusiastic young man whom you root for from the first moment you see him on screen. Randolph is now a Warner recording artist, but he got his start playing music in his church, a Pentecostal denomination called House Of God. The music that infuses parishioners with the spirit nearly set the moviegoing audience vibrating as well. While not intended as such, Grisman’s film is an irresistible commercial for Randolph’s music. I was ready to swing by my favorite record store right after the screening, to buy some of his CDs.

Next I went to see Michele Ohayon’s documentary, Cowboy Del Amor, about Ivan Thompson, a matchmaker for American men and Mexican women. I'd read that the movie is full of non-PC moments, and this was no lie. Whether you think these gringo Lotharios are whiny losers who can’t make it with hometown women who are their peers or whether you think they’re good guys with a lot to offer to women who will be properly grateful will depend, I guess, on your romantic history. What transcends all of this, though, is Thompson, a man who takes life so cheerfully that you’ll be charmed (even if you don’t want to be).

It strikes me that, as the years pass and successive SXSW festivals roll by, the documentaries show evidence of having access to a lot more money. They’re slicker, glossier, more professional-looking. Production values are definitely up, and while I do not lament the days of docs with grainy images or subpar sound, I do find a certain homogeneity of presentation. It’s like a bunch of filmmakers read the same book, and that book was titled How To Sell Nonfiction Film to General Audiences. Is this the price we pay for having documentaries become more popular and thus financially viable?

Monday, 3/14/05

Today’s highlight is The Grace Lee Project, an eponymous documentary about Asian women who share this name. Apparently “Grace Lee” is the Asian-American equivalent of Mary Smith. Naturally, one’s mind (if one is a geeky, movie-watching shut-in) and instantly goes to Alan Berliner’s 2001 film, The Sweetest Sound,in which he meets other Alan Berliners and invites them to dinner. And in fact, director Grace Lee had seen the movie, and said so with a, yes, grace, that belied how sick she probably is of being asked that question. This namesake movie, however, was funnier and less neurotic than The Sweetest Sound. It was also an exploration of ethnic identity, as Lee confined her Grace Lee profiles to Asian-American women. And unexpectedly, the story becomes an examination of Asian-American Christianity; Lee discovered that several of the Grace Lees were named for values from religion, which came to loom large in their lives. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 3/13/05

Animated Shorts, o light of my life! Fire of my… No wait, that’s Lolita. Well anyway, the program of animated short films is always a festival treat and this year was no exception. Highlights include Tatia Rosenthal’s A Buck’s Worth, a talky, thoughty stop-motion film about a homeless man and a business man who meet on the street; the political hilarity of Chris Harding’s Learn Self Defense; and Backseat Bingo, Liz Blazer’s documentary about the sex lives of octogenarians.

Still too tired to go to parties or late movies. Old age, it ain’t for sissies!

Saturday, 3/12/05

Heading downtown at 6 to catch the 6:30 screening of Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room at the Paramount. My dear one goes with me, though being badgeless, he has to stand in the buy-a-ticket queue. Still, the Paramount is a 1,200-seat house, so he’ll get in, no problem. And he does get in.

And the movie just sucks.

It does a good job in the education department, explaining how the bamboozling could have happened. But it’s a very editorial movie, news-entertainment to the bone, with all the subtlety of a sack of hammers. It made me wonder how Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind (the author’s of the book on which the movie is based) felt about this treatment of this serious story. Here is a classic example of throwing money at the problem, in this case the money of executive producer Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, co-owner of HDNet, and now movie guy (2929 Entertainment). With Cuban’s deep pockets, director Alex Gibney was able to spend buckets of money for a kick-ass sountrack. Trouble is, the music selection was done by an excessively literal-minded person. For example, when the film describes Ken Lay’s poor and pious upbringing, up swells “Son of a Preacher Man.” I’d never say that Lay and Skilling are right guys, but this film nearly makes them mustachio-twirling melodrama villains. Which, I think, undermines attempts to look seriously at the fraud that was Enron. Jobs and pensions and health coverage were lost when the great ship Enron went down, and it happened in part due to an extremely permissive business environment. It can happen again, and it will happen again, especially if citizen outrage over non-existent regulation does not boil over. Presentations like this one, so clearly editorial, give the bad guys an opportunity to partly discredit the story by trumpeting the slant of "liberal media" and their "overblown claims."

In the whole movie, only one Enron guy admits he was wrong, and it’s not one of the biggies. I’d say skip this and read the book.

Friday, 3/11/05, in which I am a total punk-ass bitch and go to bed early instead of attending movies.

Okay, tonight my plan was to see The Last Mogul, about Hollywood’s Mr. Big, Lew Wasserman, then hightail it over to the Alamo Drafthouse for the midnight screening of The Aristocrats, sure to be a huge line due to mad buzz. I’m wondering why a movie bound to generate as much interest as The Aristocrats is booked only once, and in a venue as small as the Alamo. “The Aristocrats” is the punchline of a joke told for years, usually only among comedians, a very filthy joke about a vaudeville act. The joke varies with the teller, but typically includes inventive combos of bestiality, incest, and pedophilia. For the movie, Penn Gillette gathered a stellar list of comics and got them all to tell the joke. At 10 p.m., having skipped the Wasserman documentary for a rather late dinner, I find myself wondering whether I really want to ponder the psycho-sexual revelations made manifest by 20 comics’ versions of “The Aristocrats.” If I listen to Jason Alexander tell a dirty joke I may never have sex again.

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