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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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!
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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