Dispatches from a Film Festival Part 1

(In Which a Scene is Made)

The film festival is a kind of cultural trapeze artist. It must negotiate the wavering, unsteady tightrope that separates obscurity from commercialism. By screening too many big budget films with too many big names, festivals like South by Southwest risk becoming just another tool of the studio system, a glamorized, de facto ad campaign. On the other hand, without any buzz to lure in audiences and media types, the festival risks irrelevance.

The question of relevance might be posed anyway, regardless of what's being screened. In the new age of indie vogue, film festivals -- once rare and vital vehicles for showcasing independents -- are now a dime a dozen. (The tote bag handed out at registration included a "Film Festival Pocket Guide," listing over 48 pages of festivals taking place around the world this year.) What makes SXSW particularly important then? What makes this year's installment, the film festival's eleventh year, unique?

"The audiences," festival producer Matt Dentler told the crowd at this year's opening screening. Citing the enthusiasm of the full house before him, Dentler implicitly made the distinction between the genuine fans that populate SXSW theaters and the jaded industry types that frequent the other festivals. Certainly, SXSW traditionally plays for a large percentage of locals. Austin is a well-known enclave for the arts in Texas, and residents flock to the festival as volunteers and attendees. Again, though, the festival can only matter by transcending this kind of regionalism in order to appeal to the film industry at large. The bind between distinction and relevance returns.

This precarious position is neatly encapsulated in the festival's choice to open the proceedings this year. Code 46 stars Tim Robbins (most recently of Mystic River) and Samantha Morton (Minority Report, In America), and is directed by Michael Winterbottom (most notably the director of 24 Hour Party People ). Star power, then, was on offer, but the film to which these names are attached is a far cry from an industry standard blockbuster.

Set in the indistinct near future, the film focuses on the love story between William (Robbins), a fraud inspector, and Maria (Morton) who is guilty of selling passes (known as "papeles") that grant citizens "cover" to travel to different cities. Winterbottom's camera contemplates vast stretches of desert surrounding these cities, hinting at some kind of post-apocalyptic dichotomy between "inside" (the stark, monolithic, yet safe confines of the city) and "outside" (the lawless, barren world of exile).

Both realms are rendered by the film's cinematography as beautiful and stark at once. The empty glow of the desert finds its counterpart in the empty glow of office buildings that surround the characters. Garish sunlight and oppressive halogen soak the screen as figures maneuver against a backdrop of impassive buildings and immeasurable sand dunes.

Taking its cue from this setting, the film's narrative is equally detached. Both William and Maria undergo memory removal in different parts of the film, which sends the story into miniature loops that repeat the action, although in a different context. In addition, the characters' very language is disjointed, an amalgamation of English punctuated with expressions in Arabic, Spanish, Italian, and French that drift in and out of conversations. The world has seemingly become more global, but more fractured at the same time. The result is a film that renders its subjects as isolated and unaffiliated cogs in a futuristic, sterile machine.

Code 46, then, is perfect for SXSW. Big names draw in the crowds and lend the festival a particular kind of industry cred, but an innovative and challenging narrative will satisfy the independent minded auteurs who sit in judgment of the mass minded visions of the studios. As I filed out of the theater with the capacity crowd toward the premiere night after-party and the promise of free drink tickets, I found myself wondering if the rest of the festival could manage to achieve this same kind of balance.

Politics as Usual

Documentaries have long been a staple of SXSW. Since few, if any, docs make it into national release, the festival is an important vehicle for these films. While many viewers may be simply satisfying their reality TV cravings, the films often focus on socially minded subject matter. (Last year's expose on an attempted coup in Venezuela, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, is just one example of such.) And though Revolution was a departure from last year's musically themed documentary selections (Rising Low, Lubbock Lights, Off the Charts: the Song-Poem Story), this year, the focus returned squarely to politics.

For the most part, this brand of politics is left-leaning and (for the past four years at least) pissed off. Hosted in the heart of Dubya country, SXSW (like a good many of its fellow Austinites) has long had an uneasy relationship with the conservative stances of the current President, who occupied the Texas governor's mansion before he took office in the White House. Fittingly, the stately manor is just a stone's throw from the Paramount Theater, which this year hosted the world premier of Bush's Brain.

Unlike in 2002, when George Jr. was a portrayed as an affable goofball in Alexandra Pelosi's Journeys With George, reporters James Moore and Wayne Slater have a much more sinister take on Bush. In their book of the same title, Moore and Slater (the latter a figure that Journeys viewers might remember as the Dallas Morning News reporter who broke the Bush D.W.I. story during his campaign for the presidency) expose the "co-president" of the United States, a ruthless politico who shadows George Bush and informs his every move: Karl Rove.

The film is ostensibly a video version of the book's arguments, but they are compelling and disturbing in any medium. In the film's introduction, Bush is shown strolling confidently toward a podium amid cheering soldiers and blaring fanfare, a pertinent question flashes onscreen: "How did this happen?" The remainder of the film answers this question with a litany of anecdotes that stretch all the way back to Bush's first botched attempt at state Congress. Although the stories are different, they are tied together by the thread of Rove's purposefully downplayed influence.

The film traces the authors' arguments in the book, illustrating Karl Rove's dangerous and unmitigated influence on the President and, hence, the rest of the nation. Tracing Bush's rise to power, the film interviews a host of Texas politicians and newspaper writers, whose collective commentary paint a portrait of an evil genius in the form of Rove, an arch-conservative who will stop at nothing to win political victory. Democrats like former Texas governors Mark White and Ann Richards are shown as victims of Rove's insidious whisper campaigns, the former losing an election after Rove "finds" a bug planted in his office, the latter having to deflect questions about her sexual orientation circulated by the Bush advisor.

According to the film, not even fellow Republican John McCain is spared the wrath of Rove, who reportedly circulated questions about McCain's mental state (as a former prisoner during the Vietnam War) to push Bush over the top in the 2000 South Carolina primary. Rove, of course, has vehemently and consistently denied all of these allegations. Tellingly, however, he denied many of them in a letter to Moore and Slater before the book was even released. Allowing that he had received a manuscript copy "in circulation," Rove is countered by the authors who claim to never have circulated the book before its publishing date. During the Q & A after the screening, Slater further revealed that he was just audited for the first time in his life, only after the release of the book. In light of these shadowy circumstances, Bush's Brain may well serve suspicious minds (or angry Democrats) in the coming election in November.

And if the specter of an underhanded government run amok wasn't enough to boil the audience's blood, Super Size Me followed on the footsteps of Bush's Brain, documenting the equally insidious, and potentially more life-threatening, practices of the McDonald's corporation.

First-time filmmaker Morgan Spurlock brought this film to SXSW on a wave of publicity. His nod for best director at Sundance, coupled with the "coincidental" decision of McDonald's to eliminate its Super Size menu options, had generated a fantastic amount of buzz around the film. Fortunately, unlike a great many festival darlings (last year's hyping of Phone Booth springs to mind), Super Size Me seemed to genuinely deserve all this praise.

The film documents Spurlock's decision to turn himself into a human guinea pig. Eating exclusively from the McDonald's menu for 30 days, Spurlock also limits his exercise to mimic the slothful lifestyle of the "average" American. The results are shocking. Not only does Spurlock increase in weight and body fat substantially, his liver becomes toxic in a way the puzzles and concerns Morgan's doctors. His McDonald's diet is literally life threatening by Day 17.

Spurlock manages to stick things out for the remainder of the month, however, and makes some convincing arguments about the health risks posed fast food industry in the process. As he readily admits, such an extreme experiment is not the norm for any typical American, but his case is used to prove a point about the rise of obesity in the United States. (One statistic, of the many offered by the film, that stood out was that medical costs for diabetes have doubled in the past five years.) In the wake of Congressional efforts to ban lawsuits against the fast food industry, Super Size Me offers some forceful support for reforming the ways that McDonald's and its fat-peddling ilk market to children specifically. Happy Meals are no longer the harmless treats of youth, but the insidious first steps toward a lifetime of over-consumption.

The film, however, is far from a gloomy polemic. Spurlock laughs at his growing gut throughout the film, and encourages us to laugh along with him. The result makes for a more effective argument, pointing out the absurdities of our fast food nation rather than shaming us for behaving thus.

While Super Size Me does make for a good laugh, the film, along with Bush's Brain, is more an invitation to pause and consider the state of the nation more carefully. After these films, crowds left the theater shaking their heads in an apparent mixture of disgust and amazement, as likely to vote Republican as they were to eat a Big Mac.

Family Values

South by Southwest's third day saw the festival building momentum as it continued to tiptoe between big names and independent visions. Nursing their Saturday night hangovers, SXSWers were nonetheless buzzing about this night's premiere of Jersey Girl, the latest Kevin Smith project which showcased Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez -- the first time they could be seen onscreen together since the roundly savaged Gigli. In the midst of rumored sightings of Smith film staple Jason Lee (Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma) at the local Starbucks and rampant speculation about a Ben-n-J.Lo reunion, I eschewed the hype in favor of less noticed fare, fully confident that Jersey Girl would be coming soon to a multiplex near me.

The question of paying notice, however, can be a tricky one at film festivals. The critic's ideal is to happen upon an empty theater and being the first to discover a cinematic genius that had been previously denied a venue to showcase such talent. The reality, however, is that empty theaters are generally just a sign of bad movies. Just as a film can be too big budget, too formulaic, and too unoriginal to matter, so can an independent film be too stilted, too amateurish, or too pretentious.

The happy ground is generally in the middle, as offerings like Code 46 had already demonstrated. Young Adam (playing to a full house) looked as if it might follow in the same footsteps, marrying mainstream talent with a project that sought to create a more daring cinematic vision. The film stars Ewan McGregor as Joe, a Scottish bargeman who lives and works on a boat with a family of three. After discovering a woman's body in the harbor, Joe experiences a series of flashbacks that relate his connection to the victim as an old girlfriend. In the meantime, he carries on an affair with his boss's wife Ella, played by Tilda Swinton (Adaptation), in the restricted confines of the barge and under the seemingly oblivious nose of husband Les (Peter Mullan).

What follows is a brooding study in amorality. The barge moves the characters slowly up and down the river, the tensions between them ebbing and flowing. Joe soon moves from Ella to her sister, to another landlady, and (in the flashbacks) to his old girlfriend Cathie (Emily Mortimer), and his character is reduced to an expression of base carnality. Joe has sex in rowboats, on barges, under trucks, in alleyways, and in strangers' beds with every woman with whom he seems to come into contact. In the meantime, an innocent man goes on trial for the murder of his ex-girlfriend. Rather than acting in any forceful manner, he smokes and drinks whiskey in the local pubs.

Young Adam is a challenge then, asking audiences to follow a protagonist whose morality and inactivity make him generally repugnant. A particularly telling scene shows Joe, during an argument with Cathie, beating the unfortunate girl with a stick before covering her with custard, ketchup, and a variety of other condiments and having his way with her on the bedroom floor. Joe's insensitivity goes from mysterious to ridiculous here, and the film does little to redeem his character (the only one we really spend any time with in the film) for the audience. This is not to demand a "happy" film or even likeable characters. The most frustrating aspect of Young Adam, though, is that its content seems to wallow in its own lasciviousness, without any apparent notion as to what point to make about such behavior.

Such pointlessness, however, seemed to be precisely the idea behind 24 Hours on Craigslist. Documenting the San Francisco based website's influence in the span of a single day, the filmmakers sent out eight crews all over the city to create a montage of the bizarre stories behind the site's thousands of posts.

For the uninitiated, craigslist is a sort of virtual Greensheets. Anyone can post ads for goods or services (to sell or to buy) for free. Since the site's creation in 1995, craigslist has grown from San Francisco to offering the same service to over thirty cities around the world, with plans to provide for dozens more. The posts are also almost entirely uncensored (some drug references are coded to avoid prosecution), which makes for some extraordinarily compelling ads. Consider this post, taken off the Austin craigslist at random (apparently in honor of St. Patrick's Day):

"Looking for some Irish charm, Gaelic sensuality and wit? I'm fit, fun, and very skilled in the Hibernian oral arts. Find out why 69% of the world's women, when given a choice, choose Irish men. Looking for single women and couples for a wee bit of sensual fun. Discreet, honest, and eminently trustworthy."

This, then, is the stuff of 24 Hours on Craigslist. The film documents such rare characters as a male Ethel Merman impersonator looking to start a heavy metal cover band, a couple interested in setting up a support group for owners of diabetic cats, and a gay porn star advertising his services as "porn star massage." The film spends time with a multitude of similarly "unique" people, all of whom are inclined toward their own particular brands of idiosyncrasy.

The movie is careful to make the case, however, that craigslist is more than just a meeting place for freaks. Following the antics of a flash mob (those groups who descend en masse to pre-designated meeting places as instructed by text messages on their cell phones), the film draws a parallel between these groups and craigslist users as members of a community. We are all unique together, the argument goes. In this sense, the documentary is an interesting example of postmodern anthropology, looking at a group whose only affiliation is via the World Wide Web.

For groups or for individuals, both 24 Hours on Craigslist and Young Adam explore the notion of the alternative. Whether it's anonymous encounters with Scottish housewives or a husband and wife Judo team, the films turn a critical eye toward the accepted standards of what passes for "normal" these days. The idea seems an apt one for SXSW. As midnight struck in Austin, revelers turned toward the city's drinking quarter, housed on the (in)famous 6th street. Music blared over the asphalt, drunken buddies careened arm in arm down the sidewalk, and a man wearing a Burger King crown and sunglasses slapped away at a bass guitar, singing into the night. Vive le difference.

Look for the second and final installment of South By Southwest Festival dispatches soon.

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