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Roxanne Bogucka’s Diary

March 18

Experimental Shorts

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!

March 17

Beethoven’s Hair

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 Channel show.

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 story.

March 16


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.

Texas Shorts

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!

March 15


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 Services now!”

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 a taxidermist?

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.

Animated Shorts

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. Blecch!

March 14

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 fun.

The King

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?

March 13

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 standouts:

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 of fun.

2) Shortstop 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 them.

2 A.M.

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!

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