Seen @ the SXSW Festival - Part One
For the first few days of SXSW, the cinema and technology folk ruled. That is because the festival, now in its 26th year, is divided into two, with movies and tech kicking off the event and music following about midway through.
Of course, being a newbie to Austin and attending for the first time, I greeted the event with impassioned anticipation only to find that my attitude contrasted the more casual one of the seasoned SX’ers in my midst. "Oh yeah, I might catch a show or two...," was the general refrain. But I don’t mind being the overeager dork, especially since SXSW has blossomed into an international fest of import, premiering a healthy amount of strong feature films and documentaries, as well as shorts.
I started out my fest just across the Colorado from downtown, where I caught a pair of documentaries showcasing individuals with rather odd endeavors. The first one, Lunarcy!, is about several guys who have unique (perhaps obsessive or illusory) relationships with the moon. I think I like the title most of all, but there is a fair amount of entertainment to be found in this documentary. One subject is convinced he owns the moon and actually runs a profitable business selling lunar property. Christopher Carson, whom the director Simon Ennis introduced as a friend, becomes the centerpiece. He is an affable and misguided man who travels the country fundraising for a move to the moon. He is convinced that money and awareness is all that stands between him (and others) and lunar settlement.
Christopher makes for an unlikely and relatively awkward primary subject because it is clear he has some sort of mental illness (only marginally identified late in the film). We follow his earnest and avid plights, which we understand to be doomed, with a funny mix of sympathy, frustration, and sadness. Are we to laugh at the folly of his proclamations and the futility of the sacrifices he makes? During the Q/A it was clear Ennis and Carson have a genuine friendship, yet there was unease as the director discussed his process with the suave we expect from directors, while Christopher made off-kilter jokes and spoke in tangents. Like "Maladies," which I saw later in the fest, this film has an unconventionally offhand way of dealing with mental illness.
Fuck for Forest
Similarly, Fuck for Forest possesses the awkwardness of having subjects who are beyond eccentric and to whom the audience is likely to have an ambivalent response. Unlike the director/subject relationship in "Lunarcy!", Michał Marczak, the Polish director of this film, clearly harbors at least a little disdain for his subjects, a Berlin collective of eco-activists who raise money by making outdoorsy hippie porn. As we view the lifestyle and labors (I use this word somewhat ironically, as they aren’t shown actually doing much) of this group of ruffians, we also develop an attitude - or perhaps straight up disdain, depending on who you are.
It is a markedly unflattering portrait of counterculture. I actually found myself becoming defensive at the same time I was disgusted. I wondered what motivated Marczak to adapt such a sloppy and off-putting point-of-view on his bohemian subjects. Their mode of activism is needlessly confrontational, and their sexual rituals are... not for the faint of heart or the hygienic. At one point, we actually see a long-haired man fervidly licking his semen and the menstrual of his lover from his hand, muttering a declaration about the juices of nature. Of course, the director needn’t any reason or agenda other than to profile and explore this rather contentious non-profit.
Marczak explained during the Q/A that he decided to make the film when a new recruit, Danny, joined the group, and changed its dynamic. At that point they committed to going to the Amazon on a mission of mercy, which makes for the strongest portion of the film. With his outlandish outfits and humanistic drive, you may feel Danny possesses a sort of twisted charisma; but mostly it seems like he is in a trance. When he leads the group’s efforts to convince a room full of indigenous Amazon farmers of their good intentions in pursuing some of their land, it is a truly agonizing scene. (It is like watching a big-hearted, but unintelligent animal slowly being killed). The Fuck for Forest members stand metaphorically naked before the either nonplussed or cynically unimpressed locals. Their shrill arguments fall flat and their unconventional style only adds to the absurd culture clash. In a perverse way, moments like this may make this a film worthy of sitting through.
If opening night was a minor disappointment, I was more than redeemed myself the next day when I caught Imagine, directed by Andrzej Jakimowski, which what will likely end up being my favorite film of the fest.
I came to film nearly by accident: a late-minute internet search led me this Polish produced/directed, English language film set in Portugal about a renegade blind teacher who causes waves when he brings his unconventional methods to a Lisbon school for blind children. His trademark is that he doesn’t use a cane to navigate city streets. It is this technique that both impresses and inspires his students, but ends up stirring suspicion and trouble with the administrators.
British actor Edward Hogg does a brilliant job of playing this romantic figure - a self-assured man with a genuine love for his (challenging) reality. In a very composed manner, he exudes joie de vivre - an infection that spreads to his students and seduces a beautiful, reclusive resident (also sight-impaired). There is a hint of romance and more than a hint of the inspiration narrative, by which I mean a story in which the protagonist galvanizes characters who are in some ways downtrodden, to lift themselves up out of the doldrums.
However, this movie is far too acute to succumb to clichés, just as the teacher is too cool to be easily pinned down. He is organically defiant in his fearlessness and independence but also obedient, sensitive but with some badass tendencies. Jakimowski’s film teases and leads viewers in unexpected directions. It’s difficult to imagine a more engrossing protagonist or a more well-balanced narrative about living with a disadvantage.
The next day I caught another film with a renegade-of-sorts at its center. Continental is one of the gay documentaries I didn’t manage to screen before the festival, and the renegade was Steve Ostrow, the clever proprietor of the famed Continental Baths where gay men in NYC congregated in the late 1960s (before it was legal to be gay) and early 1970s. Ostrow is a much more straightforward guy than the fictional teacher of "Imagine," but he is also a seducer.
Director Malcom Ingram ("Small Town Gay Bar," "Bear Nation") gets him to candidly tell the story of his rise as a business innovator. It was by accident, really, that he fell into opening a bath house in the elegant Ansonia Hotel on the Upper West Side; but what he ended up creating was truly astonishing - a realm where gay men could not only fuck safely (the occasional police raid notwithstanding) and catch notable performers, who included Bette Midler, who established her gay following by her appearances there, Peter Allen, Labelle, Barry Manilow, the Andrew Sisters, Gloria Gaynor, Patti Page, the Pointer Sisters, Yma Sumac, Barbara Cook, Jim Bailey and Holly Woodlawn (amongst many).
Naysayers may declare him a megalomaniac - indeed one audience member asked Ingram if he ever questioned the veracity of Ostrow’s claims to influence - but most will agree, and the director clearly feels strongly, that he gave generously to the community and contributed to the movement to legalize gayness. And now he continues to give, as the founder of MAG, a group for older gay men in Australia that is the world’s largest such organization.
Bette Midler does not appear in the film - Ingram explains that she has gone on record explaining that she no longer wants to discuss her bath house origins - but she is mentioned as a force that helped define the Continental as an ’it’ place to be for comedy, theatre, and music. The story is well told by those who worked at and patronized the Continental. Village Voice writer Michael Musto (who also appears in "I Am Divine", which I caught later in the week) is one of the lively voices who expounds on the glory of having a venue that is both dignified and raunchy, where one could get off and then show up for a top rate show, in towel. I was also pleased by a mention of Rudolf Nureyev, the famous Russian ballet dancer who defected. I recently read a novel inspired by his life, and thus have become fascinated with his story. Ostrow relayed that he had concern for Nureyev because he was a celebrity, but he came to the Continental to have sex with the roughest trade he could find.
Monday was my first full day for film viewing. First I caught Elena, a Brazilian documentary about the filmmaker’s journey to New York to become an actress and to rediscover her older sister who left for the same reason years ago. From its advertising, I knew to expect a stylized film; still I was struck by how visually imaginative the film was. When I asked director Petra Costa about her inspiration for the poetic sequences, she mentioned Ophelia and famed peripatetic director, Chris Marker.
The film has interludes that feel like a reflexive experimental film. Of course, the film is very personal and reflective at its core, as documentaries can be, but there are various threads at work here. They all conspire to create an opaque and exciting portrait of an artist’s journey. It is about sibling ties, leaving your homeland, and coping with suicide, but more than all of those elements it is about searching and discovery. It feels like a young, inspired artist finding her voice - and she excels.
Swim Little Fish Swim
The next day I opened with another film about a budding artist settling in New York, in this case the narrative Swim Little Fish Swim. This one, I’m sure, will be the happiest accident of the festival. A late bus caused me to miss "Sofia’s Last Ambulance," which I had hoped to see having spent a few snowy days in the Bulgarian capital a couple of years ago and was keen on seeing a documentary about strained EMS workers struggling to care for the injured amidst great hurdles. Instead I secured a spot for this New York indie, co-directed by Lola Bessis and Ruben Amar, that still echoes in my mind.
The location is NYC’s Chinatown, the focus is on fragile couple Mary and Leeward. Into their lives comes Lilas, an adorable, pixie-ish French émigré who crashes with them. Her story, which follows her interactions with Leeward, is amusing and touching. But it is the dynamic between the central couple where the writing really shines. The brilliance is in the way that they are completely believable despite their vivid differences. There is an underlying chemistry beneath the bickering and divergent dreams and ideals, so that we can easily imagine them falling in love in years past.
Leeward is the irresponsible artistic genius - a musician who refuses to take a job composing for a commercial because it offends his artistic integrity. Mary pleads because they need the money (it’s double what she makes slaving away at a hospital), then praises him profusely when he pretends to take the gig. In a refreshing reversal of typical gender dynamics, Mary is the practical one and the breadwinner. To the film’s credit, our sympathies fluctuate; it is easy to understand where both of them are coming from, and it is a deeply entertaining ride as it all comes to a head. Lilas encourages Leeward to finally cut a record, but it still seems he is more concerned with hanging out and socializing with strangers than with forging a career. Is there hope that this well-meaning couple can outgrow the mires of their own making?
On Monday, I followed up "Elena" with a Turkish film, Zayiat at the Alamo Ritz, Austin’s iconic theater on bar-heavy 6th Street. But before the film, I was treated to a publicity stunt by the "Big Joy: the Adventures of James Broughton" crew. The gay director, wearing hot pink shades, was lying on a bed in the street, inviting the crowd to lie with him and be photographed. I watched as a raucous punk girl climbed in beside him.
But back to the film: I love Turkish cinema, and seeing a Turkish film on the big screen is a rare treat these days, and I was itching to see a film by a fresh new talent, director Deniz Tortum. I learned during the Q/A that it was his thesis film, which is quite impressive. The film, whose title translates to "Casualties", is a moody piece that makes great use of Istanbul’s photogenic-ness. It concerns the search for a missing father/husband, whom we see falling into the Bosporus in the film’s opening. There could be melodrama in the man’s son confronting his mistress, but the director goes a different route. Instead there’s an eerie foreboding that is difficult to pin down. This feeling, which the director acknowledged in conversation afterwards, was marvelously realized in a scene in which son and mother are praying together at the seaside.
I was pleasantly surprised that Tortum was present, and I have to say that almost all of the screenings I attended had directors present for Q/A, often with actors/subjects and crew in tow. Such was the case with the next film: I was smiling upon discovering Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s presence for the screening of Don Jon, which he wrote, directed, and starred in. Neither me nor SXSW are really about big names, but there were a few in town. I was a bit letdown to find that James Franco wasn’t present (at least not for the screening I went to) of "Maladies;" but having long admired Gordon-Levitt, it was a huge relief when I (just barely) made it into the massive Paramount cinema to see his film.
For the first ten minutes of "Don Jon" I was concerned, even turned off. It was a bit unnerving to watch Gordon-Levitt play a bimbo-chasing meathead. It was a sequence of horny male clichés. He spots Scarlett Johansson’s character at a swanky hookup bar and sets to it. I thought, ’oh God, this is so infantile. Is this what he is about?’ I didn’t have faith that it was parody, but as the film went on it became clear that he was taking a jab at our cultural obsessions, particularly the way that porn and media in general curses us with unrealistic expectations and a proclivity for objectifying each other.
Don Jon is a hotheaded Italian womanizer who, despite the copious amount of real life sex he gets, prefers porn. He recites the Lord’s Prayer while working out at the gym and trots to confessional every Sunday to see how many Hail Marys the unreceptive priest will assign him this week. But he evolves, thanks partially to Julianne Moore’s character, a hippie-ish bereaved classmate. The Q/A started off with a bang, as a devious audience member hurled an inappropriate question at Tony Danza (who plays Gordon-Levitt’s dad in the film). But Gordon-Levitt’s explanations were succinct and endearing. Here’s a handsome actor who is not afraid to declare himself a feminist and to criticize Hollywood on stage.