For the last few years, everyone has noted how large South by Southwest (SXSW) has gotten. The growth hasn’t necessarily slowed down (especially in terms of the hoards of bicoastal dorks that the Interactive Conference draws), yet what struck me most this year was not the change in scale but the change in vibe. A true reflection of American media culture, it’s gotten exceedingly commercial. BRAND: A Second Coming, the opening night film, was nominally a documentary about political activism, but mostly just a hagiographic Russell Brand vehicle, with all the right laughs and kookiness intact. Other headline events included a reunion screening with the cast of The Breakfast Club (cue the DVD special feature) and previews of not just the Judd Apatow work-in-progress but also both the next Melissa McCarthy blockbuster and Get Hard. Perhaps the least welcome change of all, though, was the construction site plastered in ads for a Shake Shack and what-have-you coming soon that replaced the former, delightfully suburban, strip mall and parking lot into which the singular Alamo Drafthouse Lamar multiplex was nestled. One used to have to exit through the movie-geek gift shop; now the space by the door is a cocktail lounge.
With a few notable exceptions, the narrative feature competition also lacked some of the lustre of past years. Though the caustic exploration of a distinctly San Francisco brand of familial neurosis loses its interest quickly in Noah Pritzker’s first feature Quitters, the film gets off to a strong beginning with its main asset, Mira Sorvino, as the depressive mother wallowing in her misery in a spruce Presidio home. Once she is off to a seaside treatment centre, we shift to her only child, Noah, attempting in the early years of high school to cut off his vacant dad and fend for himself. He cooks dinner for his girlfriend Ella (Kara Hayward of Moonrise Kingdom) – with the help of the family housekeeper – and declares, in response to her brushing off a kiss, “I just think we need to learn to embrace intensity now or we run the risk of ending up like your parents.” The kids, at first, seem like the real grown-ups – rational, composed, and effortlessly laid-back, as opposed to the adults who painstakingly try to play laissez-faire Californians and wrestle with intimacy. But as the maudlin score has warned us, cliché is around the bend, and Noah has to concede his lack of autonomy and come home to ma and pa when trouble arises. The narrative’s blandness is only highlighted by a fresher but extraneous subplot in which Ella sleeps with their noxious English teacher (Kieran Culkin) without any punitive or emotionally scarring aftermath.
Uncle John and The Grief of Others both offered highly original takes on the coming-of- age film while also exploring the guardians’ lives quite profoundly. The former casts veteran character actor John Ashton in the titular role, a solitary, anxiety-ridden farmer in Wisconsin engaged in some grave, undisclosed endeavour. Director Steven Piet crosscuts between this tense landscape and his nephew’s urban life working at a media start-up in Chicago. Handheld camerawork expertly evokes the boy’s own inner anxieties, especially brought about in conversation with his ravishing female coworker. Most impressive is how long the filmmakers withhold the narrative thrust while sustaining our interest in seemingly banal situations. A Zen thriller is hard to find. This deferral of clarity, all too rare in contemporary American cinema, prevents the viewer from entering a comfortable relationship with the story and its characters. The plain state of suspension in which we are kept is an exciting counterpoint to the disorientation and disturbance we expect from, say, a film by Shane Carruth or David Lynch, for whom producer and co-writer Erik Crary has worked. The Grief of Others, Patrick Wang’s follow-up to the mostly overlooked In the Family, is similarly withholding to humanistic ends. From the beautifully grainy opening shot in a pinkish hue of two heads peering over the camera, Wang keeps us very close to his characters without belaboring the reason we’re there, then. This, and the use of impressionistic sets, bring to mind one of Wang’s touchstones, Cassavetes, and Love Streams in particular. Based on the novel by Leah Hager Cohen, the film centres around a miscarriage of a newborn baby and the Ryrie family’s process of mourning, but avoids much in the way of exposition or linear narrative, such that each character’s role in the story reveals itself organically, within the diegesis. Wang’s chief interest – and strength – is in the little interpersonal moments, concentrated to a tee in static single shots. Though the emotional scale of the film is vast, it takes pride in the art of the miniature, even offering a synecdoche of itself in the form of an artist character’s meticulous dioramas, “less Cornell than Finsler-esque,” as another puts it. “I think they’re heartbreaking,” she adds, as she might have too about a film with this level of attunement to human feeling.
For a far more sui generis probing into our futile attempts to take the reins of reproduction, Creative Control takes us into the frighteningly not-very-distant future, where David (Benjamin Dickinson, also the director and co-writer) works for Augmenta, an “augmented reality system” enterprise. One’s fantasies and daydreams have become projectable, like holographic installations, from Warby Parker-esque frames taking a shot at Google Glass: “enhance real life with a magical layer in front of it,” goes one motto. The real target of satire, though, is not high tech innovation, but the entitled, so-called “creative class” headquartered in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “We feel very strongly about this,” a marketer declares, “Augmenta isn’t Main Street: it’s Bedford Avenue.” David and his girlfriend are avatars of this culture, living in a luxurious condo, always impeccably dressed, throwing money around at oyster bars and electro lounges, at the mercy of their iPhones. The film’s high-contrast black-and-white, airbrushed visuals are a clever stab at Uber propaganda. While the screenplay (co-penned by Micah Bloomberg, heretofore a distinguished sound mixer) lacks the biting sociocultural observation that makes the production design so effective, its probing of electronically stimulated desire is cohesive and all too timely. Whereas Ex Machina, which also made its U.S. premiere during SXSW, ultimately explores similar issues with absurdist tragicomedy, Creative Control benefits from a premise built on the ground and works best when closest to the bone.
SXSW has moved on from mumblecore, if Dickinson’s film as the only Brooklyn-based production is any indication, and honed back in on the real Lone Star State. Bill Ross IV and Frank Turner Ross’ Western is a documentary tone poem about the towns of Eagle Pass, Texas and Piedras Negras that neighbour each other across the U.S.-Mexico border. The issues that tie these communities together – migrant labour, drug trade warfare, and the often inscrutable relationship between local and national politicians – are not so much explored by narrative strands as evoked through seemingly casual encounters with the natives of all walks of life and through a similarly gentle montage style. The Ross Brothers wield particular restraint in not showing us the blood and guts being spilled along the Mexican borderlands, instead suggesting the violence with clips from the radio news and ominous, pastoral images: of a tense bullfight in Piedras Negras, for instance, or a crow landing on barbed wire at the border. A potent antidote to the representations we have grown used to of U.S. xenophobic animosity toward the turmoil south of the border, Western depicts the intense concern that the citizens of Eagle Pass have for the conditions of labour on the other side of the Rio Grande. One cowboy laments the plight of the Mexican police officer so underpaid that his succumbing to bribes is all too understandable. The mayor of Eagle Pass speaks in Spanish with visitors from Piedras Negras with greater ease than with his fellow politicians.
Such a verisimilitudinous approach to Texas proved to be hard to find, where the growing crop of whimsical fictions shot in and around Austin (including Manglehorn, 6 Years, Funny Bunny and 7 Chinese Brothers) inevitably garnered much of the festival chatter. Even Wild Horses, a take on a subject as classic as Texas rangers, had to take some creative license: as writer-director Robert Duvall lamented in his introduction, budgetary restrictions forced them to lens in Utah. “The times, they are a-changin’” is the guiding theme of the picture, though, from the opening shot in which Duvall, in the lead role, rides across a desert plain on horseback until his cellphone starts to ring. A long dormant case of a Mexican boy who went missing gets reopened, and tension between the Texas police and the family quickly builds. The crime plot feels perfunctory for Duvall, though, who is more interested in his own character’s home, divided between his tough-guy sons and two other children, an illegitimate daughter he had with his maid, and a city slicker played by James Franco, for better or worse. Home to settle his part of the will, Franco’s character has to defend his sexual orientation amidst a family milieu that considers it a capital sin. The seemingly indefatigable fascination with gay culture that Franco brings to the role might make us consider it another iteration of his life-as-performance-art charade. More interesting is that Duvall himself allows for meta-cinematic moments within the dialogue. Someone asks his character at one point, “Do you think that blood runs thicker than truth?” “I don’t know why you’re asking me that,” he retorts, “but no.” Slippery sections like this, or those on race, gender, and sexuality, suggest that Duvall may have made his own Gran Torino, but the loose narrative and squeaky tonal shifts remind us how far Duvall’s indie ethos runs from the economical, Warner house style.
Also shot in Utah was the documentary Peace Officer, which stars Dub Lawrence, a former county sheriff who organised one of the country’s first Special Weapons And Tactics teams in 1975. This was one of his many proud accomplishments until a precarious SWAT rundown and eventual manslaughter of his son-in-law several years ago led him to question whether the militarisation of police had gone horribly astray. According to one source, every year 50,000 homes get raided by SWAT teams on allegations of nonviolent crimes (e.g., growing marijuana, now legal in some states). That officers trained to suppress gunfire and unrest should not be deployed in these cases is beyond obvious, but the film is in fact a groundbreaking excoriation of the current state of affairs. Utah, where in the last five years SWAT raids have taken more lives than gang or drug warfare combined, is one of the only states that has begun to protest these paramilitary forces; Dub, who initially approached one of the directors for help editing his own documentary on the subject, is a born protagonist. Directors Brad Barber and Scott Christopherson, both first-time feature filmmakers and professors in the region, strike a sound balance between Dub’s story and exposé of the broader issue.
Fears that I’d missed another gem in the documentary feature competition were assuaged when Peace Officer won both the grand jury and audience awards in that category. For directing, the jury also recognised the other competing doc that I caught, A Woman Like Me. A New York native and part of the ’90s wave of Columbia Film graduates that included Lisa Cholodenko and Kimberly Peirce, Alex Sichel directed this chronicle of her two-year battle with cancer in collaboration with Elizabeth Giamatti. As Sichel explains to a nurse early in the film, “I’m a filmmaker (but) this is just a home movie. It’s my way of understanding, making sense of what’s going on.” A large component of the film adheres to another hyper-personal genre, the confessional video diary. The first-person account of grappling with terminal illness proves to be startlingly fertile ground for cinema when juxtaposed with the other strand of the film, an impressionistic fictionalisation of everyday events like meetings with doctors and friends in which Lili Taylor plays the protagonist. Taylor approaches the role with a sense of wonder that concretises some of the existential musings that Sichel indulges in on-camera, but the scenes aren’t allowed to stand on their own, couched as they are in documentary footage of their own making. Once A Woman Like Me relinquishes its attempt to aestheticise or intellectually unpack the experience of the patient, it submits to the vital flow of daily routine, and listless interstitial moments like lying in bed, with grace. This filmic progression echoes the personal revelation that Sichel eventually arrived at about how to work through dying, namely whether one should be asking questions at all. She relates the story of Ikaria, an ailing Greek man who returns to the island of his birthplace to spend his few remaining days. Drawn by the flora and the fauna that need to be tended to, he gets engrossed in gardening and simply forgets to die. Sichel’s choice to make a film about her illness, of course, not only has the opposite effect of firmly directing her attention to her own mortality, but it also forces her to engage with technology and stress, two leading triggers of sickness today. But the film gradually drifts in the direction of Ikaria’s garden, when Sichel lets herself enjoy the company of her husband and daughter, or get away to a meditation centre upstate.
The feature competitions’ best offerings may have been humorless and grim, but there was no shortage of comic relief elsewhere. Ever mischievous Jason Schwartzman stole the show in both The Overnight and 7 Chinese Brothers, which emulates the tentatively wistful, jangle pop of the sophomore R.E.M. album on which the namesake track appears and which, on the basis of its cast alone, marks a big step forward for Austin auteur-slacker Bob Byington.
But The Overnight, about a casual dinner party between two young families that goes off the rails, is the real ensemble piece, a gross-out Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice for hippie-bred hipsters. A less polished, but more audacious, Los Angeles comedy with a comparable unity of time, A Wonderful Cloud brandishes its irreverent pizazz from the title sequence in which the camera, strategically placed above a girl’s thighs, looks at writer-director and lead, Eugene Kotlyarenko, taking care of business. To depict Eugene’s reunion with an ex-girlfriend visiting L.A. (Kate Lyn Sheil), the film oscillates between a verité mode (at times even shot on an iPhone) and demented comedic situations the two find themselves in over the weekend. Across both registers, the propulsive, anything-goes energy that the nine-day shoot must have conditioned is palpable onscreen. At the same time, Cloud flaunts a meticulous production design all too rare for low-budget American films. The costumes at times enliven the material, as when Eugene goes to the airport draped like Fozzie the Bear incarnate, and at other times they seem to take control of it. Whether the actual onanism onscreen is overboard will depend on the viewer, but there is no denying that the way to which Kotlyarenko has let selfie culture inseminate his work is painfully prescient.
13-21 March 2015
Festival website: http://sxsw.com