Beyond the Multiplex

The best of South by Southwest: An extraordinary look at Kurt Cobain's life and an absorbing film about a forgotten pop legend. Plus: A chat with a Cannes winner.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 15, 2007 12:00PM (EDT)

Two of the best films at the 2007 South by Southwest Film Festival are movies about musicians, one of them the dead godhead of indie rock and the other an almost forgotten (but still living) pop legend. That certainly befits this festival in the self-professed live music capital of America. But if this year's edition of SXSW's movie bash will be remembered for the Genesis-scale downpours that have washed out patio parties (in between the gorgeous days) and maxed out this city's modest fleet of taxicabs, it will also be remembered as a festival of surprises.

Austin always offers a strong showcase for quirky documentaries and low-budget genre movies (especially horror films), but the field in both categories seems especially broad and deep here this year. I could stay another week and not catch everything I want to see. Many of the most-discussed movies here have been low-budget affairs that arrived with little advance publicity. Meanwhile, some of the most anticipated premieres, including critical biopics about Michael Moore ("Manufacturing Dissent") and Arnold Schwarzenegger ("Running With Arnold"), along with the farcical New Zealand horror picture "Black Sheep" (from the special-effects workshop behind "Lord of the Rings") are widely seen as disappointments.

Nobody's saying that about unanticipated delights like "King Corn," the unlikely true story of two college buddies who plant and grow an acre of Iowa corn and follow it into the food chain, or the fearless personal documentary "Crazy Sexy Cancer," or "Fish Kill Flea," about a flea market that's revived a dead shopping mall in New York's Hudson Valley, or "Audience of One," which chronicles a Pentecostal preacher's quest to make an action-adventure epic for the Lord.

Similarly, the narrative features that have left audiences buzzing are all over the map. There are certainly horror films, from the hipster-slapstick slasher farce "Murder Party" to the gruesome New York rat-attack saga "Mulberry Street" and the grainy, grim French-Romanian nightmare simply called "Them." There are also artier, less classifiable pictures like "Frownland," the willfully strange first feature directed by a projectionist at the Museum of Modern Art, "Monkey Warfare," an anarchist quasi-remake of Godard's revolutionary manifesto "Les Chinoises," and "Orphans," a striking (if unevenly crafted) first film that simultaneously summons the spirits of Bergman's "Cries and Whispers" and Brian De Palma's "Sisters." (There's also an actual remake of "Sisters," starring Chloë Sevigny and Stephen Rea, at SXSW this year.)

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Before we delve deeper into the SXSW catalog, let me call your attention briefly to Ken Loach's lovely and haunting picture "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," last year's Palme d'Or winner at Cannes, which opens commercially this week in New York, Los Angeles and other major cities. Starring Cillian Murphy as a young Irish medical student drawn into the revolutionary "Troubles" of the early 1920s, "Wind" depicts the brutal backcountry guerrilla warfare that drove the British from Ireland (or most of it, anyway) and then the fratricidal civil war that followed, whose baleful influence on subsequent Irish politics and history remains unresolved.

This is a classic example of Loach's work with his longtime screenwriting partner Paul Laverty, meaning that it blends colorful scenery -- in this case, the damp, green lushness of County Cork, on Ireland's southwestern coast -- with meticulously rendered sociology, straightforward family drama and tendentious political debate. Having grown up with an extended family that told and retold anecdotes from those years (some of them apocryphal), I couldn't resist the film's emotional appeal and didn't try. I wouldn't mind Loach and Laverty's old-line Marxist convictions either if they didn't tend to create scenes where characters suddenly stand off against each other like ideological positions rather than people.

Click here to hear my interview with Loach in Salon Conversations, which may help illuminate the film's appeal, along with its contradictions, in more depth than I can offer here. He denies any conscious attempt to remind viewers of the Iraq war with this fable of occupying forces and resistance fighters, these images of soldiers smashing down doors in a hunt for "terrorists" and "bandits." I suppose that, like a good Marxist, he means that the parallel lies within history itself. For Loach, Ireland's early moment of anti-imperialist rebellion, with its clash between nationalism and international socialism, marks a crucial turning point in 20th century history -- when the wrong path was taken.

Kurt Cobain took the best paths available to him on his road from miserable obscurity in Aberdeen, Wash., to intensely symbolic pop-culture stardom, or such is the implication of "Kurt Cobain: About a Son," the extraordinary montage film by AJ Schnack that premiered at SXSW on Monday. (Actually, it premiered in Toronto last fall, but this was the first showing of the final theatrical version.) Cobain's face is not seen in the film until its final moments, but it's entirely narrated by him, over an evocative stream of images showing places he lived, went to school, worked and played.

Schnack worked with reporter Michael Azerrad (author of the book "Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana") to edit the latter's extensive 1992-93 audio interviews with Cobain into an approximate narrative, then set out to shoot a film to accompany it. He went to Aberdeen, to Olympia, Wash., and to Seattle, the three places Cobain lived, and shot people and places in those cities as he found them today. So "Kurt Cobain: About a Son" isn't exactly a documentary, or at least it's a highly unconventional one. It contains no archival footage, no talking-head interviews with friends or bandmates or family members, no voice-over from a semi-hip celebrity (Sting? Parker Posey?) telling us what to think.

It's something else, something that combines impressionistic biography, poetic film essay (in the spirit of Godfrey Reggio's "Koyaanisqatsi" and its sequels) and psychiatric session or confession. Cobain comes off as strikingly intelligent and self-critical at many moments, and at others angry and defensive to the point of paranoia. It seems clear that the kid who roamed around Aberdeen banging a bass drum and singing Beatles songs, and who embraced gay identity in high school (even though he was straight), had a marvelous capacity for self-invention. But he also seems to be a permanently wounded, aggrieved personality, unable to let go of past injuries large and small, driven onward by an unhappy nexus of pain and desire.

No single film or book can dispel the cloud of enigma surrounding Kurt Cobain, but simply sitting in the dark and hearing him talk to you for 90 minutes, while the dreary gray-green beauty of his home state moves through your eyeballs and into your brain, goes a pretty long way. You can't make it through "Kurt Cobain: About a Son" without concluding that this tremendously talented young man (he'd have turned 40 this spring) was battling suicidal depression his entire life.

It's almost a wonder that Scott Walker didn't shoot himself. The subject of Stephen Kijak's absorbing film "Scott Walker: 30 Century Man," another SXSW premiere, is an Ohio native with a distinctive baritone voice who became a major British pop star in the '60s as one-third of the singing Walker Brothers. They weren't brothers and weren't named Walker; in fact, they were pretty much that era's version of a boy band. Their biggest hit was "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore," which remains a staple of oldies radio. But it's Walker's later story that gets weird.

When the band broke up, Walker was first a popular solo artist, blending brassy British orchestral pop with Jacques Brel material and elements of art music -- and then a massively unpopular one. He has spent the last 30 years largely in seclusion, emerging roughly once a decade to release another album of experimental sonic material so far outside the mainstream as to be uncategorizable. He long ago left anything you could really call pop music behind, except as a source for instrumentation and a kind of flavor ingredient, but calling him a classical or avant-garde artist isn't entirely right either.

Walker borrows ideas from surrealism, existentialism and World War II history; his lyrics and song titles refer to Bergman films, weapons systems, disputes in Marxist theory. Or they seem to; as Walker explains to Kijak, his songs actually use those real-world labels to refer to a dark, hermetic personal universe. On his most recent album, "The Drift" (2006), Walker's instrumentation includes an inverted garbage can, a slab of short ribs and various bits of industrial machinery. His gorgeous baritone, already stressed by time (he's 64), is deliberately strained to the edge of listenability.

If it's difficult to explain how Noel Scott Engel (Walker's real name), who sang with Fabian on '50s TV, could have morphed into this deliberately obscurantist icon, it's a lot easier to identify musicians Walker has influenced. A pile of them appear in the film, from David Bowie (who serves as executive producer) to Brian Eno, Damon Albarn, Jarvis Cocker, Thom Yorke, Marc Almond, Alison Goldfrapp and almost anybody else, it seems, in the more ambitious realms of British pop. Fans of Bowie and Eno's '70s collaborations, in particular, will suddenly identify a major source of Eno's walls of sound and Bowie's musique-concrète lyrics.

Personally, I've always found Walker's dense and challenging soundscapes easier to appreciate on an intellectual level than to listen to. But during his interviews with Kijak during the recording of his 2006 album "The Drift," Walker comes off as a charming, unpretentious fellow as well as one of the few authentic geniuses in a realm of pompous idiots. Like the best music documentaries, "Scott Walker: 30 Century Man" blends grace and mystery. It should delight longtime Walker fans and introduce him to new ones.

Most of the visiting movie-biz types, including yours truly, are sadly packing our bags as SXSW's movie wing winds down and the even larger music conference gets rolling. (Both the Cobain and Walker films will play several more times for those crowds.) One last film I'm delighted I caught before leaving town was Laura Dunn's documentary "The Unforeseen," which premiered at Sundance -- it's produced by Robert Redford -- but had its homecoming here. It's a beautiful, soulful work about real estate development and sprawl, focused on Austin's beloved Barton Springs, and if you think that's impossible you haven't seen it.

Dunn never pretends to be a neutral party (no one has yet made a documentary that's pro-sprawl, as far as I know) but she presents developer Gary Bradley, a perennial villain to the Austin left, as a human being with admirable drive and complicated motivations. Most of Dunn's interviewees and sources -- including Willie Nelson, poet Wendell Berry, the late Ann Richards and Redford himself -- come down on the other side, of course, and the governing mood is of both anger and lamentation. But "The Unforeseen" is much more than a plucky local movie about issues that matter only in this delightful, self-obsessed collegiate boomtown.

Battles over development can be found in every American county, and probably in every other jurisdiction in the world, and they all involve real, complicated human beings on all sides. Another of Dunn's producers is Terrence Malick, and his poetic pictorial sensibility seems to permeate the piece. In fact, "The Unforeseen" is less an issue-driven documentary than a pure visual and sensual experience that seeks to capture the mystery of the American landscape, both paved and wild. Its themes aren't easy to summarize and its questions defy easy answers.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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