Dispatches From a Film Festival Part 2

This is the second in a two-part series. Click here to read Part 1.

DAY FOUR:
Business Unusual

After attending a few of these film festivals, one begins to recognize and interpret certain tell-tale signs. For example, if a cheer goes up at the appearance of the boom operator's credit in a movie, this means that his or her family is in attendance at the screening. If certain segments of the crowd boo or hiss the appearance of the editor's credit, this means that members of the cast are in the crowd. And if the filmmaker introduces a film by explaining that it took eight years to edit, this means that the film, too, will be as rambling and incoherent as a George Bush monologue after the teleprompter breaks.

Trading With the Enemy, unfortunately, was introduced in just such a fashion. The film that followed was doubly disappointing because its subject offered such potential. The documentary tells the story of Terry, an enterprising fellow whose main occupation seems to be smuggling Cuban cigars into the United States. The film follows Terry on one of his business trips, recording his efforts to collect the cigars from various factories in order to sell them at a massive mark-up to upscale lounges and bars back in America. The trip is not all business, though. Along the way, Terry finds time to carouse in local cantinas and spends time with a variety of young, pretty Cuban women. Their company represents still another form of illicit commerce, as it is clear that Terry's money is what keeps them around.

Trading With the Enemy, then, could be a probing look at alternative economies of exchange, informed by the ongoing trade embargo the United States maintains against Cuba. We do see glimpses of this idea, as Terry's associates are shown at times complaining to the camera about conditions in their home country. One scene shows a drunken local ranting about his hatred for the all the American presidents. When he asks a passerby to chime in, though, the man looks pointedly at the camera and politely refuses to comment, hinting at the specter of government repression.

For his part, Terry shows little interest in the politics involved with his cultural exchange. Instead, he methodically collects his cigars, consorts with local women, and drinks Cuban beer. What's more frustrating, however, is that the film for the most part seems to share his attitude. Rather than giving further screen time to examining the embargo's effect on the country, it opts for a variety of cinematic montages, showcasing slow-motion scenes that feature dancers at local clubs or sunbathers at the beach. The random introduction of such tangents speaks to the difficulty (eight years' worth) in editing Trading With the Enemy into a coherent whole. What's worse, they interrupt the film's narrative and keep it from exploring the social or political context of Terry's business activities in any meaningful way.

A more successful documentary dealing with the other side of business is Slasher, a documentary by John Landis (Animal House, Blues Brothers). The title refers not to horror flicks, but to the moniker given to used car salesmen. A "slasher" is a traveling selling specialist, brought in to bolster the regular salespeople by dramatically reducing the ticketed price of the cars.

The film follows one such specialist, Michael Bennett, who arrives at a Memphis dealership to invigorate a sale being held over Memorial Day weekend. In tow is Kevin, Bennett's hand picked DJ, and Mud, a mercenary salesman from Washington selected by Bennett to bolster the local crew. The trio's arrival is looked upon by the regulars with a mixture of reverence and expectation, as legends about their selling prowess precede them. Before the sale, though, the three seem more like old high school buddies than seasoned professionals, bragging, telling war stories, and roughhousing around in the days leading up to the sale.

The main focus, however, is squarely on Bennett. He is introduced in the film preparing for his trip at the last minute, throwing clothes into a suitcase and hurriedly kissing his wife and children good-bye. No time to eat, Bennett instead pulls two beers out of the fridge on his way out the door. It's 7:00 a.m.

As the scene indicates, Bennett is at once a devoted family man and a relentless alcoholic. He ¡s the kind of character few scriptwriters could produce. A bundle of manic energy, Bennett is also a study in constant motion. Unable to sit still, he is constantly talking, which perhaps explains his success as a salesman. He has an uncanny ability to hypnotize the listener with overwhelming emissions of verbiage. Bennett is so full of energy and talk that his behavior seems more pathological than a personality trait.

Once the sale begins, though, Bennett is in his element. Dressed in a tuxedo and with a microphone in hand, he dashes around the lot exclaiming, "Price sells cars!" and encouraging patrons to "Buy a car, be a star!" As the sale drags on with less success than expected, Bennett becomes an increasingly sympathetic character, engaged in a Herculean effort to part customers from their hard-earned money.

Ultimately, Bennett and his crew are selling not cars, but themselves. The art of the sale is the film's focus, then, as director Landis revealed in the post screening Q & A. The project was originally intended to investigate the ways in which President Bush "sold" the idea of Saddam Hussein's involvement in September 11th and his possession of weapons of mass destruction. After realizing that news footage cost 400 dollars a second, however, Landis hit upon the car salesman as a suitable substitute for examining the workings of salesmanship.

Such a focus is an appropriate one for SXSW. Whether contemplating the ways in which cars are sold or the ways in which the legal economy is circumvented entirely, both films are on offer in a festival that is itself a venue for a particular kind of exchange. The films of the festival are essentially being sold, to studios, to distributors, and to audiences. Some, like Slasher, are well worth purchasing and others, like Trading With the Enemy, are better left on the shelf.

DAY FIVE:
The Indie Aesthetic

The "independent" label is thrown around with reckless abandon these days. And lately, the term has come to signify more than just an institutional outsider. Where once a film was independent because it wasn't financed and distributed by one of the major studios, films today are discussed as having an indie "feel" to them. Super 8 footage, a disjointed narrative, or the appearance of Vincent Gallo alone may be enough to earn a film indie cred, even though it may enjoy a full studio backing. This slide from a question of economics to issues of aesthetics speaks to the rising popularity of "alternative" films (the arguable legacy of successful indies like The Blair Witch Project), which somehow seem hipper or more authentic to audiences by virtue of their unconventional aspects.

The other side of the coin is the issue of legitimately independent films that act like their studio counterparts. Not every film outside the pale of big budgets and catered lunches is reveling in its obscurity. There are, in fact, a great many indies dressed in studio clothing, trying desperately to imitate their conventional brethren in the hopes of national (or global) distribution. Interestingly, the final official day of the film portion of SXSW offered an indie film trying to be mainstream, and a mainstream film striking its best indie pose.

The night of its screening, Killer Diller had all the trappings of an indie darling, playing to an enthusiastic crowd composed primarily of the film's cast and crew and what must have been their extended families. The film tells the story of a group of delinquent young adults somewhere in the deep South, who get a second chance at life by staying at the "Back On Track Again (BOTA)" house at a Baptist college, a halfway home operated by Ned Sears (played by the always hilarious Fred Willard).

Ned's idea is to rehabilitate this troubled youth through music, and so he leads them through a series of tuneless hymns for various small audiences around the college. All this changes, however, at the appearance of Vernon (Lucas Black), an autistic piano player who is discovered by the group's guitarist Wesley (William Lee Scott). Despite flying into uncontrolled rages that can only be alleviated by sliced tomatoes, Vernon is a musical genius, and his addition to the mix turns the group into the Killer Diller Blues Band (borrowing one of Vernon's favorite expressions).

It's not hard to guess where things go from here. The story of a group of misfits doing well for themselves in the face of impossible odds is nothing that hasn't been done before. (The film, actually, is based on a Clyde Edgerton novel of the same name). Killer Diller has "heartwarming" written all over it and is riddled with cliches and tired formulas designed to tug at audiences' heartstrings. The stodgy dean of the local college is (for no apparent reason) bent on shutting down the BOTA house and ending the Killer Diller Blues Band. Will the group overcome this obstacle? Will Vernon gain independence through his newfound friends? Will the film end in a musical montage that speaks to the "triumph of the human spirit"? The answers to these questions are never in doubt.

As a result, Killer Diller is entirely predictable and predictably safe. It could easily pass for a Disney film if it wasn't screening as an independent at SXSW. As such, it is also an important reminder that independent does not always mean interesting or different. The tired formulas trotted out in so many studio films provide equal fodder for those films that are simply trying to join the club.

One such club member that would sooner deny its affiliations is Blind Horizon. The stars alone (Val Kilmer, Neve Campbell, even Faye Dunaway) mark this film as mainstream long before the Lion's Gate distribution credit rolls. Still, the film does its best to adopt the narrative and visual techniques pioneered in independents like Memento.

Kilmer plays Frank Kavanaugh, a dark stranger in a rural town in New Mexico who has the misfortune of being shot in the head and rendered an amnesiac. Soon after he awakens, Frank's wife Chloe (Campbell) shows up, much to the suspicion of local sheriff Jack Kolb (Sam Shepard). Frank and Jack set about trying to piece together the circumstances surrounding Frank's assault, while Chloe tries to ease Frank's troubled mental state.

This trouble increases when Frank realizes that he is somehow aware of a plot to assassinate the President. The plan, known ominously as "Rhombus," is revealed piecemeal in a series of grainy flashbacks that feature Frank with some underworld types (including Faye Dunaway) discussing an unspecified plan to be carried out according to unspecified directions.

Like many conspiracy movies, the film draws heavily on the Kennedy legend, dropping terms like "triangulation of fire," the "kill zone," and even showcasing shady dealings held inside a movie theater. It's not this obvious historical derivative, however, that's most distracting about the film. Instead, Blind Horizon is rife with weak attempts to out-Memento Memento. Frank (and the audience) is tormented by tantalizing clues about his connection to the assassination plot, all of which are rendered in speedily cut flashbacks that increase in frequency as the movie progresses. Rather than using his character's amnesia as a way to subvert conventional narrative (as in Memento) though, the film is fairly predictable fare that is so punctuated with these flashbacks that they become simply cuts for cuts' sake.

The difficulties of both Killer Diller and Blind Horizon point to a blurring of the line that separates notions of independent and studio film. One the one hand, "indie" is an aesthetic pose to strike by major studios in a bid to capitalize on the success of less conventional, less visible films. This is not to presume, however, that this pose is the goal for every film. The slick, safe formulas that have proven successful staples of major studio films are as likely to be adopted by independents in their own bids for success. As both of these films demonstrate, the grass is always greener on the other side of the indie fence.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close
alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.