Beyond the Multiplex

Questions from SXSW: Will we be destroyed by an oil crisis or the credit card companies? And why is that cellphone in Parker Posey's panties?

By Andrew O'Hehir
March 16, 2006 5:00PM (UTC)
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It's the end of an exhausting, exciting week of movies in Texas and I feel something like one of those legendary Casanovas, Clark Gable or Warren Beatty or whoever, who spends his declining years brooding over the women he didn't bag. I have watched an awful lot of films in the last few days at the South by Southwest Film Festival, but there are always more, and the ones that haunt me are the ones unseen.

I saw Lindsay Lohan shake her groove thang, as much as she is able, in "A Prairie Home Companion." I sat breathless through the final minutes of the documentary "OilCrash," maybe the ultimate feel-bad apocalyptic film ever made and the one true knockout at SXSW this year. I snorted up coffee at Charles Nelson Reilly's sweet and hilarious impression of Meryl Streep watching the rushes of "Sophie's Choice." (That's in "The Life of Reilly.") I nearly jumped out of my seat when the Pixies finally played "Monkey Gone to Heaven," over the closing credits of "loudQUIETloud." I choked back tears while an Oklahoma woman described the night her college-age daughter hanged herself in her dorm room, overwhelmed by credit-card debt. (That's in the documentary "Maxed Out," another civilization-in-decline opus).


But, Jesus, how could I have missed the documentary about Tommy Chong? Tommy Chong! An icon of our age, and a hero of the anti-Bush resistance besides! On Austin drive-time radio on Tuesday, some DJ was asking him who had smoked more pot in his lifetime, Chong or local hero Willie Nelson. (Tommy graciously replied that he suspected Willie had a big lead on him in that arena.) I also missed the documentaries about full-contact medieval-warfare re-enactors ("Darkon"), about the guy who's trying to revive roller derby using original '70s roller-derby female stars ("Jam"), about the word "fuck" (sorry, that's what it's about and that's what it's called), about the deeply creepy world of underground horror films ("S&Man") and about some guy who works at a local Wendy's who people here think is kind of hilarious and cool ("Junior! The Wendy's Guy").

Notice that I haven't mentioned any narrative feature films yet. I missed some of those too -- I've heard modest buzz here about the New Hampshire-made indie comedy "Live Free or Die" and a British drugs-'n'-violence film called "The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael" -- but the fact is that documentaries are eating the independent-film world, or have eaten it already. This has a lot to do with production costs and a little to do with the zeitgeist, or maybe the other way around. But either way, most of the talked-about movies at SXSW this year were docs, and it's in that genre where this festival's spirit of resistance comes through most clearly.

Sometimes that spirit is entirely personal and sometimes it amounts to nothing more than whimsy (a fine thing on its own terms). SXSW prides itself on opposing whatever the supposed dominant paradigms of the entertainment industry are, and both the music and film festivals have been accused of creating a cultural bubble, only tangentially connected to America. This year, though, you could feel a note ranging from concern to rage in many of the films and conversations here -- a worry and anger also felt in Hollywood, which wound up giving its biggest award to a preachy little movie about race relations.


Maybe this is what it boils down to: We had a week of great weather in one of America's most pleasant cities, along with a film festival that everyone in the business genuinely enjoys attending. We came away wondering what in hell is happening to our country and what in hell the people who make, sell and watch independent film can do about it. (Answer: Develop a new distribution model!) Of course it's an unfair question; art or cultural production or whatever you want to call it doesn't solve political problems. Sometimes it can start conversations, focus attention on neglected issues and so on. But mainly what movies do, if they're any good, is engage your senses, your emotions and your intellect, and blow your mind. From that, other things follow -- more good things than bad, I suspect, but who really knows?

I've already written about the major premieres at SXSW this year, movies likely to show up in your neighborhood sooner or later. These include Robert Altman's "A Prairie Home Companion," the anti-music industry broadside "Before the Music Dies," and the documentaries "Al Franken: God Spoke" and "loudQUIETloud: A Film About the Pixies." SXSW juries and audiences have handed out their own awards (largely to movies I, ahem, didn't see), but as at any self-respecting film festival, those have little to do with either artistic merit or marketplace feasibility. I thought of giving out my own, but aren't we all sick of that format by this point in the year. Instead, in the slightly cryptic, whimsical indie spirit, here are 10 Things About SXSW 2006.

1) Boy, are we in trouble. As I said above, the best movie I saw at SXSW this year was "OilCrash," a terrific work of investigative journalism-as-film that will scare the living crap out of you. Sure, you've read a little about the "peak oil" hypothesis, you disapprove in some theoretical way of the planet's massive (and rapidly worsening) fossil-fuel addiction, you're in favor of alternative energy sources and all that. You may even have the sense that things will get fairly bumpy as we try to develop cheaper solar power or new hydrogen technologies or whatever. Am I right so far? Well, Basil Gelpke and Ray McCormack's film paints a vastly grimmer picture than that, and here's the thing. Their sources are not eco-freaks from Vermont or Berkeley in Peruvian clothing, but scientists, financial insiders and retired oil executives, many of them bedrock conservatives. Their message: The era of oil is nearly at an end, and the social and economic consequences are barely imaginable.


"I've been doing TV news for a long time," Gelpke, a Swiss television journalist, told me after the premiere. "I'm not easily impressed. But as soon as I started researching this I could tell it was the most important story I had ever come across." Does his electrifying film, which combines a history of the oil industry's boom and bust with well-informed (if dire) speculation about what lies ahead, paint too bleak a picture? Is it really possible that gasoline will cost $75 a gallon in two decades, and that air travel will become a luxury available only to the super-rich? "It's a call to arms," says McCormack, Gelpke's Irish-born directing partner. "In order to have an impact you have to simplify and dramatize, and I'm prepared to defend that. It's only a depressing story if you're afraid to change."

"We hope we're wrong," adds Gelpke. "Listen, I've got kids and I love cars. I'd like to keep traveling places. Like almost everybody in the film says, I hope we're wrong. But I don't think we're wrong." Whether or not you buy the doomsday scenario of "OilCrash," it's one of the most important films of the year. A distribution deal should soon be announced.


2) No, I mean real trouble. Then there's "Maxed Out," not quite as much a hammer-blow to the skull but still quite something. When somebody can make a film about credit-card debt, with every expectation that it will reach theaters and ordinary Americans will shell out $8 to $11 to sit and watch it, we've arrived at a peculiar cultural moment. That someone is James Scurlock, and as he observed at the screening I attended, many people think he also made "Super Size Me." (That would be Morgan Spurlock.) Another strong journalistic-style film, this one exposes how unbelievably rapacious the financial industries have become in extending credit to unlikely prospects -- among them college students, nursing-home residents, small children, dogs and dead people -- and how much our entire economy, micro and macro, is driven by vast and unsustainable levels of debt. So which will happen first: American society collapses because it'll cost $800 to fill up the Navigator, or because we all owe more money (at 21 percent interest, compounded daily) to Citibank and MBNA than we'll earn from now until the day we die?

3) Never, ever read your loved ones' private papers. Unless you really, absolutely need to know. Maybe Doug Block hasn't seen enough Ingmar Bergman movies, or maybe he's seen too many. Block has made a sad, delightful and half-accidental movie about his own parents, "51 Birch Street," which was the outstanding personal documentary at this year's festival. When Block's beloved mother died suddenly a few years ago, and within a few months his unemotional, distant dad had passionately reconnected with a woman who had worked for him many years earlier, his filmmaking instincts were awakened: There was a story here. But the story isn't quite what you think. Of course Block wondered whether his dad had had a fling with Kitty (yes, that's her name) way back when, or even a long-running secret affair. But when he finds his mother's diaries -- boxes and boxes of them -- he faces an impossible dilemma: He yearns to know better the mother he is mourning, but doesn't know what he will learn about her and his parents' 54-year marriage. There are certainly surprises in those notebooks, but ultimately this profound and humane film is more autobiographical than Block understands. It's his own way of confronting the tremendous pain and sadness in his own life, which, like most of the rest of us, he's just gotten used to.

4) Charles Nelson Reilly is still alive, dammit, and boy does he have a story to tell. You'd have to be a Broadway devotee of a certain age to remember Reilly as anything but the queeny, captain-hatted wisecracker on "Match Game," plus just maybe a comic character actor on various '60s TV series. But as his solo show "The Life of Reilly" (documented in a film of the same name) demonstrates, Reilly is an actor of tremendous natural range with an extraordinary life story. Now in his mid-70s, Reilly cuts a commanding figure, spinning stories of his impoverished childhood in the Bronx and Hartford, Conn., his extraordinary career in New York theater, and his friendships with Steve McQueen, Burt Reynolds, Hal Holbrook, Jack Lemmon, Jerry Stiller and other classmates in the glory days of Herbert Bergdof and Uta Hagen's acting studio. He's too much a man of his generation and background to discuss his personal life, but along the way "The Life of Reilly" lets us know how much the world has changed. When Reilly first auditioned for NBC in the '50s, he tells us, he was dismissed: "They don't let queers on television." By the end of the next decade, he was one of the medium's most recognizable faces.


5) Great things come in odd little packages. I don't suppose this film has much hope of finding American distribution, but "Bata-ville: We Are Not Afraid of the Future," by the British duo Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope -- I'm afraid you'd have to call them conceptual artists -- was the most unexpected, and perhaps most undiscovered, delight at SXSW. Guthrie and Pope dress in matching outfits that suggest mid-'60s airline hostesses, with all the suggestions of calm helpfulness and repressed, packaged sexuality they imply. In "Bata-ville," they lead a group of downsized shoe-factory employees from a depressed English town on a bus tour of the Czech Republic, partly to visit the headquarters of the shoe company that fired them, and partly just because. It's drily funny, sad, deeply weird and British to the very core of its being. If I owned a TV network, I'd keep playing this until people started to like it. But that's why I don't own a TV network.

6) And speaking of getting fired, it's a great career move. Actress Annabelle Gurwitch has been pretty much making a living off it. She got canned from a Woody Allen play a few years ago, she says after Allen called her acting "retarded." Then she wrote a book in which she interviewed other showbiz types about their humiliating job-loss experiences, whether in Hollywood or at the mall. Then she turned it into a theater piece, a long-running L.A. hit. For the film version of "Fired!" Gurwitch and directors Chris Bradley and Kyle Labrache have followed a broader, Michael Moore-esque trajectory, exploring fired-ness as a distinctive economic experience shared by many, and the result is generous-spirited, often funny and occasionally striking. This is presumably the one and only time that Tim Allen, Robert Reich and Ben Stein will all appear in the same film.

7) "Vertical integration" of the movie business makes sense. Still, it gives me the whim-whams. This one's pretty wonky. At an SXSW panel discussion, various representatives of the new Indiewood mini-colossus that comprises 2929 Entertainment, HDNet, Magnolia Pictures and the Landmark theater chain (along with other brand names and subgroupings I've forgotten) convened to discuss their business model. Whatever it's actually called, this company headed by Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner has brought us "day-and-date" release, meaning that an increasing number of independent films will be released simultaneously, or nearly so, in theaters, on DVD and on some form of pay-cable TV. Wagner was very reassuring here, telling the assembled film geeks that he wasn't trying to kill the movie-theater business: "My God! We want people to go to the movies, just the way they always have." He's also one of those guys who could sell ice cubes in Greenland, and he talks about films as "product" and audience members as "consumers," apparently unaware how that is likely to affect film-festival-type people. Everything these guys said about the current illogic of the business was 100 percent true, but I still came away feeling highly uncomfortable.


8) Hey, that Parker Posey? She's pretty good. I don't have a lot to say about "The Oh in Ohio," a sweet, undercooked sex comedy that premiered at SXSW. It has a decent chance of reaching and pleasing audiences, given its oddball cast (cameo by Liza Minnelli! Danny DeVito playing sexy!) and its female-friendly empowerment message, but it's a very tame bit of business indeed. Still, Posey is absolutely terrific as Priscilla, a married career woman in Cleveland who has never -- and apparently never means never -- had an orgasm. Posey's hipster affect has disappeared completely; this woman is a repressed mid-American beauty, all big teeth, angular elbows and brunet locks. Even playing ludicrous goofball scenes -- Priscilla leads a meeting with visiting Scandinavian executives, apparently forgetting that she has a vibrating cellphone wedged in her undergarments -- Posey totally overpowers this weak material.

9) Some movies were just passing through. SXSW audiences also got sneak previews of various films already on their way to wide distribution. Director Mary Harron was here to present "The Notorious Bettie Page," a biopic of the pinup queen that, like all of Harron's movies, is going to divide audiences. I loved it, and we had an interesting talk about morality, psychology and sexuality in the movies, as well as Harron's upcoming film about the early days of punk. (Much more on that in a future column.) Then there was Wim Wenders' and Sam Shepard's fractured western "Don't Come Knocking" (I'll tackle that next week) and the opening-night film from Sundance, Nicole Holofcener's "Friends With Money," which will be released nationwide in early April.

10) I have an early flight back to New York tomorrow, and I don't really have a No. 10. If I'd seen the Tommy Chong movie, or the one about the Wendy's guy, I wouldn't have this problem.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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