This is the program I look forward to being confounded by, and so
far it has never disappointed. Experimental film can be… well,
for example, I once saw a 14-minute film that consisted of irregular
scratches against a soundtrack of pops and clicks. The film stock
had been enclosed in crab cages and tossed into the sea, then retrieved
and unspooled for our edification. Some of the films in this program
were spiritual siblings of the crab-cage film, which doesn’t
necessarily make them bad. At any rate, this program opened with the
German short Stadtplan, whose shots, all of transportation
in one way or another, moved from B&W with sped-up split screen
to blue-tone. In voiceover we heard a Gerhard Falkner
poem that stated “the city is a book… countries are libraries…”
Next we got to use the special glasses we were issued at the theater’s
entrance. They look like 3-D glasses except both plastic lenses are
red. That worked out great for viewing The Ratsnitch Angel,
which used archival footage beneath scratchy red tones to tell a story
from the narrator’s boyhood. I kept slipping the glasses off
and on, so I could see what the baseline was. Wish they could’ve
played this one twice. Sea Change, from the U.K., was a tour
de force of editing. It consist of a boy on bike in trailer park,
but these simple images appear and reappear in various weathers and
lights, while some pretty decent jazz plays in the background. Lovely
to look at. For my money, the highlight of the program was Spam
Letter + Google Image Search = Entertainment, a film that was
exactly what it says it is. The filmmaker used words from the infamous
Nigerian bank scam email to do Google image searches, then matched
up the visuals with the voiceover for one silly movie. Way to recycle!
On March 3, 1827, Ludwig van Beethoven died a wretched
and painful death in a boarding house bed, having been treated by
battalions of mystified doctors. No one could ascertain what ailed
him. (You probably know, because it was in the papers a while back,
when they discovered it. But hang in there—it’s suspensefully
laid out.) There was an autopsy, but first, one of his students, Ferdinand
Hiller, cut a lock from the great man’s head. How these
strands of Beethoven’s hair passed down through the Hiller family
and untimately wound up in Arizona is a fascinating tale indeed. This
is supposedly a documentary film, but the presence of re-creations
of stuff like Beethoven’s deathbed, plus scenes from European
biopics about him make it seem more like an episode of some Discovery
So anyways, back to the hair, which eventually fetches up in the U.S.A.,
where two rabid Beethoven lovers have set up a Beethoven museum. They
join with scientists at Fermilab to analyze the chemical content of
Ludwig van’s hair, and Bob’s your uncle! What’s
so gripping about this movie is the emotion exhibited by the main
players in the present-day saga of Beethoven’s hair, from the
obsessed freaks who bought this relic to the awed physicist who gets
to analyze the sample. Not so great filmmaking, but a hell of a great
Probably the movie I enjoyed most of the whole festival. There was
an episode of “This American Life” (in 1996) about camp
that also captured this feeling, and I was not surprised to later
learn that that episode inspired the filmmakers to make Summercamp.
There’s something about the going-to-camp experience that many
folks relate to. Even hard-core urbanites like me, who wouldn’t
have been caught dead at an actual camp, avidly read and re-read and
re-watched The Parent Trap.
Camp shows how much kids love and miss home and family, even when
they act like they hate you. It’s a science, this camp-y technique
for handling the distressed, and it mostly works. The interesting
stories, though, are the kids from whom it doesn’t work. through
oodles of hours of footage, two campers emerge as having particularly
compelling stories. Directors Sarah Price and Brad
Beesley generously credit their editor with finding the story
within their many hours of coverage.
The movie is lovely. I hate it when people write that stuff is bittersweet,
but… it’s bittersweet, definitely. So many moments that
make you tear up, but not necessarily the obvious moments. Mr.
Spielberg, take note, for example of the 12-year-old aware
of her adult future, but still young enough to be rolling and tumbling
on her bed as she proclaims, “I want to be a comedian-author-writer.
I want to write a book that’s funny.” This comment brought
tears to my eyes, and to lots of others. Plus, you get great music
from The Flaming Lips and Noisola.
Summercamp may make you want to re-watch Caesar’s
Park (by Price) and Okie Noodling (by Beesley).
Jumping Off Bridges
Oh sigh. Someone I know made this movie, and I really wanted to
like it. It’s not bad, not dreadful, just not a whole movie.
There are fantastic performances, and this is no surprise because
director Kat Candler is known for getting fantastic
performances out of young actors. It’s full of authentic emotion,
so much so that you almost feel like they should issue a free box
of Kleenex to every viewer, but you wind up wondering what is all
that emotion in aid of? Will all these moments of emotion become something?
It’s good that the director isn’t afraid of long silences
in a film, but… what are these long silences for? Set in 1992,
and based, I later learned, on actual events from Candler’s
life, Jumping Off Bridges focuses on a quartet of high school
seniors, and the year when one of them becomes emotionally unstable.
A family crisis rekindles the young man’s emotional problems,
but really, they have their origin in the family’s tragic past.
For a while, Candler makes a bit of a mystery of just what the tragic
past event is, though it’s not particularly hard to guess, given
how way-far over in Ordinary People territory we are. It
seems like it would have been bolder to just tell us what happened.
Instead, Candler’s approach derails the story, making it seem
to be about the reveal of this “mystery” when, in fact,
it is not. It is really about friends and how much they can and cannot
give each other.
Sometimes the story you need to tell isn’t the story the world
needs to know. And that, sadly, may be the case here. It happened,
it’s tragic, it’s authentic—the feelings and events—but
that just isn’t enough.
There’s some mighty good work being done deep in the heart
of, but I didn’t see much point to Redemptitude, the
bucolic Aussie comedy about a priest who tricks a paraplegic into
accepting a sacrament, by local film heroes the Zellner Bros.
The Aussie accents were bad and the story was just… not funny.
Far better was Michael Cahill’s Vegan Candy,
a hilarious send-up of homegrown Houses of Horrors everywhere, set
to Raymond Scott’s music. Three boys, who may
just be a tad too old for trick-or-treat, enter a domain of total
lefty-hippie-progressiveness, and are shown not gore, but the various
horrors of TV, body-consciousness, capitalism, and patriotism. Two
of the lads come out the other end with only sticky squares of carob-sesame
candy, but Pink Panther-kid emerges with a little something more.
Delightful. Also delightful was Sons Of The Rodeo, a sort
of Fight Club for the country crowd, with an underdog novice
fighter. Nice atmosphere, great characters established with minimal
efforts, and mighty fine music that reminded me of C.C. Adcock,
but was actually Chili Cold Blood.
The Tuesday Nighter is a doc about cyclists in a regularly
held pirate race, involving dozens of racers, including occasionally
Lance Armstrong. Having the Tour de France on TV
in background at the bar as they interview some racers was a nice
touch, and Lord only knows it was tough to watch the excellent footage
of these maniacs careening down trafficky roads. This is another production
of Beef & Pie/Mike Woolf, the folks that brought
us Growin’ A Beard and The 72-Oz. Steak. Wowzers,
Kyle Bogart’s Room 314 has a nice,
dread-filled opening and the tingly heeby-jeebies don’t let
up. This narrative about the “Arizona Ripper,” whose grisly
string of murder keep newspaper sales booming, and a traveling salesman
husband really plays nicely with our expectations. Is he the Ripper?
Is he the Ripper’s next victim? Or is something even more sinister
afoot? Usually wavery video just makes you sigh and long for movies
shot on film, but in this case it actually works to the story’s
advantage, like you’re watching on “housecam”. Room
314 was genuinely hard to watch, the mark of a successfully scary
movie, and probably had the best acting of all the narratives in this
bunch. It also had an ultra-cool moment when something happens that
makes you go, “Now wait a minute…” and then it gets
explained for you. Presto! No plot hole. How neat is that? Junior!
The Wendy’s Guy is maybe a doc only locals can love, about
the fastest hands on the Wendy’s register, bar none, and the
day he tries to break his record for ringing up the most sales during
the lunch hour rush. Yeah, that’s it, that’s all of it,
but it’s fabulous. Junior is a force of nature.
Everybody here knows Junior, and he’s someone actually worthy
of being put on film, with his energetic “How ya doin’?”s
and “Hey there!”s. Try not to break a sweat watching his
amazing attack on the keys of the Wendy’s cash register. Exhilirating!
Lifelike was preceded by the confounding short The
Aluminum Fowl, directed by James Clauer. This
documentary about uneducated Louisiana brothers who are violent and
destructive was subtitled, probably because the guys’ backwoods
accents were difficult to understand. Basically, Clauer profiles three
young guys who live in the country, in one of those sorry shacks you
sometimes see from your car window as you whiz down a state highway.
All these guys have to do—and apparently all they care to do—is
get their animals to fight and blow shit up. Dunno how Clauer found
this family, but my first instinct is “Call Child Protective
Tally Abecassis’s documentary, Lifelike,
is about a couple of guys going to their first taxidermy competition.
So there’s a certain inescapable Spellbound aspect—as
with any film made henceforth, that involves a competition)—though
not as much suspense. The camerawork and presentation are fairly straightforward
here; our main interest is on the subject matter, not on the filmmaking.
And Lifelike succeeds admirably at answering two questions
you may never have thought to ask yourself before sitting down to
this movie: Who are the clients for taxidermy? Who decides to become
In showing the practice of taxidermy, both the hunting/trophy variety
and the show variety, we see the craft, as well as learning some interesting
factoids that I have struggled to insert into conversations ever since.
Were you, for instance, aware of a company called Flex Eyes, Inc.?
You say you have no need for fake eyes? Well, you never know when
they might come in handy, so make a note. The most interesting storyline
involves the taxidermy clients, one of whom has sought out these services
to memorialize her beloved dog, Wonder. A great deal
of time and discussion goes into Wonder’s final appearance,
right down to posing and the brushing of the whorls of hair on his
freeze-dried carcass. Abecassis effectively contrasts this woman’s
reasons for keeping Wonder’s body on the coffee table with an
interview with a big-game hunter in his animal-stuffed trophy room
in Quebec. Not a great film, but an interesting one, of the kind that
makes going to a film festival a real joy.
This is the shorts program I look forward to the most each year.
It opened with the latest greasy piece of Dreamworks sentiment, First
Flight, which was everything you would expect. My gripe isn’t
with the animation, which shows every penny they spent on the screen,
it’s the wretched storyline. Jeez, Steven Spielberg’s
schmaltz-dripped fingers are on every bit of their product, aren’t
they? So this guy misses his bus, then spends the morning teaching
a little bird how to fly, complete with soaring orchestrals. It’s
real drippy, sappy stuff, but at least they got it over with early
in the program. Blecch. A Painful Glimpse Into My Writing Process
In 60 Seconds is a marvelous collage cartoon homage to authors
the animator esteems. Vaudeville looks almost like a woodcut
or linoleum cut. You know, I like films that are stories shown in
animation and I like films that are storyless animations, playing
with color and form. What I don’t like are animations where
they throw in some story, but not a complete story, apparently feeling
that they can get away with that shit because it’s just an animated.
Have some respect. Confessions Of A Professional Eulogist
has that shivering, wiggly style of outline and watercolor that I
particularly enjoy, against constant narration of a visit to a rabbi.
Filmstrip, reportedly based on a true story, from folks whose lives
are way more complicated than mine, incorporates found images into
the format of one of those distressing school filmstrips we used to
watch, complete with soothingly sensible narration and the change-frame
tone for each slide. One of the two best in show was I Am (Not)
Van Gogh, which has simply beautiful color, and plays with time
using wavering animation over live action, while the narrator is being
interviewed about his grant proposal. Just great! The other best-in-show
was The Wraith Of Cobble Hill, a B&W claymation set in
Brooklyn, about a young man whose home life leaves much to be desired.
Our protagonist is basically raising himself, and none too successfully…
we think. Given some unusual responsibility—a friendly corner
store owner asks him to care for the dog while he’s away for
the holidays—the lad instead takes the opportunity to bring
his homies into the shop to lift whatever they desire. Each day, he
heads out the door with his laden shopping bag, ignoring the hound
that barks and wags cheerfully, expecting food, water, exercise, a
pat, something. Beautiful shades of gray on the screen and in the
story. Pilgrim’s Progress, visually like an old-timey
computer game, was more satisfying (to some) for its heavy lefty political
content than for any strides or innovations in animation. Let’s
Play! was tons o’ fun, with toys and games pulsing to the
dance beat that, yeah, you’d have to call infectious. The
Zit was just the disgusting story of a zit, with that Jimmy Neutron
look to it. Not a deserving ending to a mostly strong program of animation.
Reel Shorts III
This shorts program was less easily characterizable, but the best
of the films shared the feature of being memorable, creepy, and haunting,
starting with Bump Tick Scratch, a quickie doc about a guy
whose manipulations of vinyl record albums produce self-scratching,
with the originally recorded melodies coming through like ghost voices
from the beyond. Awesome! Heavy Soul opens with a Fantasia-like
sound-imaging and then proceeds paint a picture of a blood junkie,
layering in religion and sex against creepy voiceover. In B&W
mixed with color. Man Up, easily one of the creepiest in
the program, shows B&W talking heads of an adolescent son and
the dad who has determined to subject his child to a succession of
fairly harsh experiences to toughen him up for a military career.
The arresting subject matter is what drives this film. You can’t
watch it without straining toward the screen, willing the young man
to take charge of the direction of his own life. The documentary Prom
Date was just creepy in that “eew, gross!” way. An
18-year-old places an ad for a prom date between 18 and 36 years of
age. And she gets for the respondents. Not only does online dating
seem inexpressibly sad, but you have to wonder about the parents,
seen in the film, who cheerfully go along with this nonsense. Fourteen
leads you to believe it’s heading down one path, then reveals
a situation that is so disturbing that I wished it had been the last
film in the program, so that I could get away and think for a while.
It opens with a girl waking up, while in another room, a woman is
getting gifts ready and preparing a cake. It has the look of fuzzy
home video in a way. But it’s not the family celebration you’ll
expect it to be. Shudder-inducing. Hiro is beautiful and
funny and haunting. A man of exacting habits, who cherishes little
save his bug collection, enters a costume bar and walks smack into
the middle of intrigue that leads to a car chase, gunplay, wearing
wings, and becoming an inadvertent hero.
Some come strictly as critics, but I’ve always though I should
be a participant-observer. There’s a kinda-sorta tradition at
SXSW, of the audiences intuitively settling on some line from the
festival intro trailer that runs before each screening, and yelling
it out loudly. This year, it’s “Shut the hell up!”
In the past, for example, when South By had the “Star Maps”
intro, it was “Ten bucks!” I like to do this; it’s
Oh holy shit! Really. James Marsh and Milo
Attica (Monster’s Ball), co-writers and director,
serve up a very strange, extremely compelling tale of family ties
gone awry. Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Elvis, a man
recently discharged from the Navy, who heads to Corpus Christi to
hunt up the biological daddy he never knew. Turns out, Daddy (William
Hurt, in ludicrous facial hair), now a preacher, an upstanding
husband, and the father of two teens, is less than thrilled by Elvis’s
presence. Elvis, however, is more than thrilled by the presence of
his half-sister, whom he mesmerizes.
Listen, from here, it’s like Badlands amped up to
operatic level. Murder, incest, betrayals—every manifestation
of twisty human mess shows up in this fantastic and horrifying down-spiral
of a story. Truly, the only misstep in the movie is William Hurt,
who should be more smooth, more a businessman than a stereotype of
a slick preacher. And those sideburns—yeesh! Otherwise, it’s
all amazingly good, with an ending that… well, remember asking
the nuns if everyone who repents will get absolution, even Hitler?
Reel Shorts I
I make a point of attending as many Shorts programs as I possibly
can (excepting the Music Shorts, which just don’t hold much
interest for me, I’m afraid). This year, I was amply rewarded
for this practice. Reel Shorts I could generally be called the humor
program, and most of the films hit the funny bone. These were the
1) Robot-ussin, about a cartoonist who downs an entire
Karo-syrup-bottle of Tussin, then stumbles onto the street and does
battle with, yes, a robot. It was as silly as it sounds, and a lot
was a fairly lengthy short about two Latinas rapping in the car in
front of the house, and discovering that Jesse is not so faithful
to either of them. It featured really good young actresses, who also
wrote and directed the film.
3) A Short Film is an indescribable delight. An older couple
prepares for bed, and there’s a revelation. Really can’t
tell you anything about the plot of this extremely short (maybe one
minute?) film. Suffice it to say that its two lines of dialogue turn
mood, atmosphere, and expectations upside-down.
4) Okay, so the documentary Viva Morrissey! couldn’t
exactly be called humorous, but it was a fascinating glimpse at a
subculture many viewers were wholly unaware of—Mexicans and
Mexican-Americans who are rabid fans of Morrissey.
Its amusing elements were the ones you always get when you see folks
who’ve made one of their interests into a lifestyle, but it
is also a genuinely touching reminder that one person’s pop
entertainment is another person’s, yes, art. Music matters.
5) Lastly, K-7, which
has great Rohrschach-blot opening credits, is a flat-out comedy about
two job applicants who undergo psych testing for what turns out to
be an unusual position. The actors had a ball with a script that was
meant to be over-the-top from word one, and I had a ball watching
It takes a lot to get me to sit still for a romantic comedy, but
I not only sat still for 2 A.M., I had fun. Full disclosure:
I worked on this film briefly, so I know lots of the participants.
Just to show you that that didn’t wholly cloud my critical faculties,
I can report that there was some bad makeup and way too much slow-talking
for a comedy—the actors often needed to pick up the pace. And
yes, it suffers from production issues (like variable sound and levels)
that one is not surprised to encounter in low-/no-budget independent
movies. Nevertheless, this story of five buddies looking to get lucky
as last call approaches, is surprisingly insinuating. Writer/director/all-around-mouthy
guy Korey Coleman can generate the zingers and the
smack talk with the best, yet he kept a beating heart in his story,
so that style never overwhelmed substance. The Carroll-Joey relationship
is particularly pleasing. I can’t imagine how you’ll get
the opportunity to see 2 A.M. outside of a film festival,
but if you frequent such places, check it out.
Valentine to Korey: I am so proud of your work here. I was unaware
of how invested I was in your succeeding until I sat my ass down in
the theater, a tad worried, and rose up proud. Go little bro!
e-mail the chief
Like this article?
it to a friend!