Sxsw Film Festival – Austin, Texas
After a brutal execution, the killer, Leonard Shelby, tosses his gun aside, fetches a camera and snaps a Polaroid of the crime scene. We watch as the picture slowly develops…and then as it slowly fades away. You see, the gunman can’t make new memories — an unfortunate condition resulting from a blow to the head suffered during his wife’s rape and apparent murder. Now Leonard, the walking cipher who haunts Christopher Nolan’s wildly inventive neo-noir Memento, must piece together the past with a handful of snapshots and hastily scribbled notes, relying on instinct and faith to guide him in his pursuit of her assailant.
A slow fade, a constructed past, a barely tenable faith — apt metaphors for the moviegoing experience as well as our often unreliable memories. After my recent four-day stint at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival — racing from film to film, jotting down barely decipherable notes, recalling snatches of misprized dialogue — I can’t help but empathize with poor Leonard. Viewing thirteen films over a compressed period (with ample timeouts afforded for Austin’s distinctive culinary terrain and the Ginger Man’s generous tap selection) tends to dull the critical faculties, rendering initial impressions hazy, if not altogether unreliable.
That said, Memento was definitely a festival highlight. Building both backward and forward toward a central whydunit causal event, Nolan wisely skirts the impossible task of replicating his protagonist’s fractured mental state. Instead, the film approximates Leonard’s perpetual sense of disorientation through splintered chronology and an intricate narrative weave. And though the director indulges several emotional sucker punches in the film’s final moments, the overall effect is gripping, even thought-provoking. Powered by Guy Pearce’s emotionally flat yet strangely resolute performance, the film will surely top many critics’ year-end lists.
Mexico’s Academy Awards entry, Amores Perros, another SXSW standout, boasts an equally audacious narrative scheme. Despite borrowing its tripartite structure from Pulp Fiction, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s assured debut displays a compelling, truly unique vision. Especially in the film’s headlong opening storyline, a punishing mix of amour fou and dogfights, Inarritu adopts a mercurial directorial approach — staccato edits, extreme close-ups, jarring shock cuts — that effectively overwhelms the screenplay’s many lapses in taste and logic.
Though less successful, the final segments, chronicling a relationship’s goofy downward spiral and a former freedom fighter’s elegiac bid for redemption, showcase an emergent talent with a surprising command of the medium’s vast technical and tonal possibilities — one to watch.
Coincidentally yet notably, both Memento and Amores Perros address the complex issue of modern identity — Leonard’s mutable sense of self, the former guerrilla’s efforts to reclaim his past. Understandably, the accumulation of such serendipitous coincidences tends to influence the moviegoer’s perceptions and judgments. Faced with a large number of seemingly disparate films, the critic frequently constructs a thematic overlay, an imagined subtext, that helps clarify the festival experience. The resultant “metastructure” may often prove artificial, but even this year’s duds, specifically Bartleby (office complex dispossessed as everyman) and The Slow Business Of Going (rootless international traveler as non-person), dealt explicitly (perhaps too much so) with our collective struggle for personhood.
Certainly, the individual’s role as integral-yet-distinct community member is a central concern of Lukas Moodysson’s genial second feature, Tillsammans or Together. Set in a suburban commune on the eve of Franco’s death, the light Swedish comedy resembles a gentler, more forgiving Alice’s Restaurant. As the counterculture’s practices and values are slowly but inexorably normalized, commune members strive to redefine their cause, their raison d’etre. The improvised solutions aren’t always profound (men, women, the young and the aged — all can enjoy a friendly game of football!), but as the director slyly implies, co-optation has an equally profound, if less obvious impact on the “dominant” culture.
Melissa Shachat’s documentary Gibtown explores yet another marginalized community: Gibsonton, Florida, winter home to many carnies and circus folk. But despite several striking visuals and the residents’ often fascinating back-stories, the documentary never generates narrative momentum, rarely capitalizing on its rich source material.
Far more effective (and affecting), Laura Dunn’s Green targets corporate America’s bottom-line-driven “environmental racism,” giving voice to the disenfranchised residents of Louisiana’s river country. Surrounded by chemical refineries, the region’s predominantly African-American populace suffers from an alarmingly high incidence of disease. A compelling exercise in leftist polemics, Green is hardly great art (or even a balanced argument); rather, as Dunn is quick to note, her work was conceived as a tool to heighten awareness and hopefully affect change.
Even the most handy rubric fails to account for every variation, and though Ginger Snaps focuses on two committed outsiders, identity politics is merely one of many ingredients spicing its lively pomo stew. A revisionist genre flick that conflates lyncanthropy and menstruation, John Fawcett’s grrrl-powered feature maintains a marvelously breezy, dexterously ironic tone while skewering many of teendom’s long-closeted horrors (think a less jaded Heathers or a more savage Buffy The Vampire Slayer). The film only falters in its final act, when the cleverly inventive script ultimately succumbs to a sea of stage blood.
To be honest, most filmgoers ultimately construct their own festival experience. Forced to pick and choose between 70 features and a plethora of shorts, only the most committed (i.e. masochistic) cineaste could possibly adjudge the overall quality of this year’s SXSW Film Festival — or even discern a meaningful trend. I sheepishly noted self-definition and community as thematic commonalties. Who knows how other festival favorites — the jury-awarded Low Self-Esteem Girl, the high school football doc Go Tigers!, the in-depth Cassavetes study A Constant Forge, the archival clip-enriched Cinema Verite — would have shaped and altered these vague impressions.
If so moved, I could have easily assembled an entire program from the festival’s music-related offerings — and several entries definitely tempted. D.A. Pennebaker’s much-anticipated Down From The Mountain, a reverential account of last year’s O Brother concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, wisely foregrounds the show’s often spellbinding performances. Though intermittent backstage anecdotes and revelations (Emmylou Harris’ baseball jones, John Hartford’s librarian dreams) provide welcome warmth and color, Pennebaker’s unobtrusive camerawork and bare-boned editing rarely match (or even approximate) the excitement and elusive chemistry of the actual event — i.e., keep an eye out for the promised soundtrack.
Surprisingly, Penelope Spheeris’ Ozzfest doc, We Sold Our Souls For Rock ‘N Roll, provided a more entertaining cinematic (if not musical) experience. I’ll never fully comprehend metal’s enduring appeal (call it a well-nurtured blind spot), and Spheeris’ Almost Famous-style reportage inevitably sacrifices objectivity for access, but the film effectively captures the festival’s cathartic “dumb fun” essence while hinting at its potentially dangerous underside. At the very least, I now have a much better understanding of the distinctly masculine, lower-middle-class rage and frustration that fuels Eminem’s always troubling, often brilliant, deeply conflicted horrorscapes.
And speaking of hip-hop, my darkhorse favorite among the fest’s music docs was Doug Pray’s Scratch, a chronicle of the turntable-as-instrument evolution. Recalling his grunge-era exploration Hype!, Pray’s latest lays out the basics for the uninitiated while investigating the music’s deeper motivations and significance for committed scenesters. From party-starting pioneer Afrika Bambaataa to cut-and-paste classicist DJ Steinski to front-and-center turntablist DJ Qbert, Scratch persuasively posits the modern-era DJ as today’s guitar hero. Amazingly, before the project, the director claimed little firsthand knowledge of the hip-hop scene. His quick cuts, well-orchestrated flow and propulsive soundtrack certainly provide a compelling framework for a movement that continues to expand, evolve and surprise.
Much like the DJ culture of Scratch, the modern independent film scene — with its roots in Sundance’s mid-’80s breakthrough if not Cassavetes’ 1961 debut — remains incredibly fecund and vibrant. As the privately-owned art house inches ever closer to extinction, regional festivals such as SXSW have become increasingly important, providing a welcome, nay necessary, alternative to Hollywood’s overwhelmingly plastic norm.
Of course, as Chuck Workman’s otherwise negligible digital workout A House On A Hill makes excruciatingly clear, far too many “rugged independents” eagerly compromise their hard-earned cred for the commercial brass ring. A cautionary lesson seemingly lost on two of Austin’s own: Celis Brewery, which tragically folded under Miller’s debilitating mismanagement; and Richard Linklater, who purportedly withheld his visionary beauty Waking Life from the festival to better position for Cannes.
Needless to say, my heart, in theory if not always practice, is with the beautiful losers and committed iconoclasts. In one of the quietly reflective moments in Scratch, sampling maestro DJ Shadow wanders through a maze of discarded LPs humbly stunned. Each record, no matter how trifling or obscure, represents a dream, a desire for outreach, a forgotten or neglected voice that deserves at least nominal recognition.
Similarly, each of this year’s SXSW entries reflects an individual’s distinctive vision, a desire to communicate and be heard. Regardless of the work’s ultimate quality or longevity, that desire bespeaks a bravery of spirit — perhaps foolhardy, perhaps misguided — that nonetheless warrants our respect, if not always admiration. SXSW’s stated mission: “To showcase visionary filmmakers and innovative films” — amen and more power. Now, where was I?