Sunday, March 27, 2005

SXSW: notes on film

This is a bit late, but I was too busy during SXSW and too sick immediately after to recap the festivals.

Our Brand Is Crisis is a doc about the last Presidential election in Bolivia where James Carville's political consulting firm worked for one of the candidates. While not a great film, it's a solid work from a young filmmaker, Rachel Boynton. The access she got was incredible. She was able to follow the candidate, Goni, everywhere and sit in on all the political strategizing by the Greenburg, Carville, Shrum (GCS) firm.

At documenting the events and thought process of the campaign, the film succeeds. It also raises good questions about GCS going to Bolivia and applying their American brand of campaigning (something they've done in something like 15 other countries). I was a bit disappointed that there wasn't more of specific critique of GCS not only taking American "innovations" like negative campaigning and focus groups into a quite different culture, but also GCS' history of working for monied, slightly-to-the-left mainstream candidates and acting like they are the saviors of progressive politics. Nevertheless, it's a solid political doc and has inspired me to find out more about GCS' global activities.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is a doc developed from the book of the same name (minus the Enron: part) by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. While it is informative and has fantastic talking heads, it ultimately fails for me due to its profound artlessness.

There is a common critique of documentaries made up mostly of people sitting in a chair, talking. The rather static nature makes them visually monotonous, so most docs that, as a matter of course, have to feature talking heads cut away to more dymanic shots from time to time. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is colossally heavy-handed with its cutaways. When the talking heads compare Enron's schemes to gambling, there's a cutaway to a casino table. When the heads speak about the bull market? A statue of a bull. Duh.

More egregious was the music. The amount of the music budget could have alone financed a whole 'nother documentary, and every cue was crushingly obvious. When a talking head noted that Enron head Ken Lay was the son of a Baptist preacher, in comes "Son of a Preacher Man". When the film shows how California got fucked by Enron during the blackouts, "Californication" plays underneath. And on and on and on. Really annoying.

Ultimately, the film lays out well a fascinating subject with incredibly compelling characters, but is damaged by a relentless beat-you-over-the-headedness. Still, see it for an great examination of corporate greed, especially if you'd rather not read the book.

180 degrees away is The Devil and Daniel Johnston, an incredibly heartfelt, beautiful, and most of all respectful doc about the musician and his struggles with mental illness. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, but this film moved me to tears several times.

I have always felt a connection to Daniel Johnston's music. It has a naive yet powerful quality that touches me. I defy anyone to listen to him sing "Going Down" without feeling something break inside. The film honors Johnston's ability to channel the emotional spectrum into deceptively simple pop songs, an ability that many people recognize despite his off-key voice and ragged guitar playing.

The director, Jeff Feuerzeig, has done a fantastic job of assembling a portrait of Johnston crafted from interviews with his friends and family, as well as selections from the hours of audio and video tapes that Johnston and his friends made through the years. Just one example of priceless material is the audio tape of Johnston being arrested by Park Police for drawing Christian fish symbols all over the inside of the Statue of Liberty, a tape made by Johnston himself.

Granted, being from Austin, having previous knowledge of principle interviewees (e.g. friends of Johnston Louis Black, publisher of the Austin Chronicle weekly paper, and Kathy McCarty, Austin musician formally of the band Glass Eye for whom Johnston used to open), and personally advocating for the continued existence of the alien frog mural at 21st & Guadalupe helps to establish a closer tie to the film than the average viewer. Still, I believe that anyone who watches it, whatever their familiarity with Daniel Johnston, will gain from the experience. Well, unless you're an asshole who laughs during scenes of Johnston's mental breakdown and therefore prompt me to dearly wish to beat you about the head and neck.

I wish I could have seen the end of Code 33, a procedural doc about the search for a serial rapist in Miami. While the look of the film is decidedly low-end, this only enhances the you-are-there quality to the manhunt, which is compelling. Unfortunately, I had to go to work, so I missed the end. Someday. Oh, and the filmmakers Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley are lovely people with an adorable daughter.

The audience was psyched for Jesus is Magic, basically a filmed performance of comic Sarah Silverman. Unless she's performing live in your town, the film is the only way to see comedian Sarah Silverman do her whole act, since much of it is decidely TV unfriendly. Starting with the standard standup comic concert film formula, Silverman and director Liam Lynch add fresh elements like an odd musical framing device and an on-stage backup band (who knew Silverman could sing?). The material is hilarious, but only if you like Sarah Silverman's brand of edgy comedy. Here's a test, one of her jokes goes something like this:

SS: When I was 9 I was raped. I'm very conflicted about it though because I'm Jewish and he was a doctor.

Did you laugh? Then you'll love her. Did you groan? Then not so much. Were you offended? Then avoid all contact with her.

Besides the previous written about The Comedians of Comedy (wonderful and frickin' funny) that's all the films I saw (that I care to mention). If you noted that I wrote only about docs, good on you, that's where the quality tends to be at SXSW. In what is an ongoing issue, the festival attracts quality doc submissions and just so-so narrative ones. I chalk it up to reinforcing feedback. People see that it's a great place to premiere docs and which later get picked up for distribution, so the quality of docs goes up. SXSW Film isn't known as a showcase for quality narratives, so the great ones go elsewhere. Others who know more than I about the industry have made similar arguments, so I think it has merit. I just hope that in the future, some gem gets submitted to SXSW and not Sundance or Toronto therefore breaking the cycle.

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