A Trip To The Nashville Film Festival
Long before I started spending Septembers in Toronto and Januarys in Park City, the only film festival I knew first-hand was Sinking Creek, an annual round-up of regional films and indies hosted in my hometown of Nashville. Back when I was in high school, in the late ‘80s, the Sinking Creek Film Festival was a modest affair—the kind of fest more likely to premiere a thoughtful short film about Appalachian folk music or soil conservation than anything by the lions of world cinema. By the time I’d graduated college and had come home to start my career, the event had expanded, changing its name first to the Nashville Independent Film Festival and now the Nashville Film Festival. And I saw some great movies there during my time in Nashville: Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies, Nicole Holofcener’s Lovely & Amazing, Takashi Miike’s Dead Or Alive and countless documentaries that have all-but-disappeared in the years since.
For the last few years, my NaFF experiences have been limited to watching a few screeners to write pre-fest capsule reviews for what used to be my primary outlet, the Nashville Scene. This year though I had an open weekend and some business to conduct in town anyway, so I drove up. Here’s a brief roundup of what I caught at the festival:
Art House (dir. Victor Fanucchi) … A great premise and a strong take on a subculture get undercut by a weak plot and undistinguished direction in this shaggy college comedy. The great premise? Reconceiving Animal House as a story about art students about to be thrown out of their rent-free campus commune by an unscrupulous fatcat. The strong take? The idea that these art students may actually be the talentless hard-partying freeloaders that the university administration believes them to be. The problem? Art House keeps drifting away from its surprisingly pungent satire of people who want to be arty without actually learning anything about art in order to get back to the story of the house’s earth mother (played by the inevitable Greta Gerwig) and the men who flock around her, all afraid to ask her out. Too much will-they-or-won’t-they? here, not enough scabrous comedy. … C
Bluebeard (dir. Catherine Breillat) … I run hot-and-cold on Breillat, but when she’s onto something (as she was primarily in Fat Girl and Sex Is Comedy), her movies have a nasty bite unlike any others’. Bluebeard is blessedly economical, taking only 80 minutes to tell parallel stories: one about the famous gynocidal lord, and one about two sisters (modeled after Breillat and her own sister) reading about the famous gynocidal lord. In the first story, Breillat toys with the romantic and the mundane, contrasting the romantic vision of medieval castles with the cold reality of what goes on inside. In the second story, she toys with the audience, getting us used to the two girls as puckish commentators before unexpectedly revealing that they have a plot of their own. If nothing else, Bluebeard leaves audiences with a lot to talk about, in regards to sibling rivalry, marital contracts, and the cruelty of narrative. … A- (See also Sam Adams’ review of the theatrical release.)
Cropsey (dir. Joshua Zeman & Barbara Brancaccio) … Continuing what’s been a welcome trend lately toward documentaries with strong, surprising narratives, this expertly paced and assembled doc uses the trial of an accused kidnapper as a window into the culture of Staten Island and the decades-old story of a real-life boogeyman who abducted handicapped children in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Zeman and Brancaccio add a personal touch (without overdoing it) as they knock on doors and wander the grounds of an abandoned mental hospital, talking about the rumors of a secret society of homeless devil-worshippers who live in a network of tunnels under the surrounding woods. Cropsey’s video quality is poor, and Zeman and Brancaccio over-emphasize their main theme—that Staten Island has always been a dumping ground for waste and a community that welcomes scapegoats—but it’s effectively creepy, and the lack of physical evidence in the story’s central court case raises disturbing questions about how much presumption and anxiety determines justice. … B+
Dogtooth (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) … I don’t even know where to begin with this disturbing (but entertaining) Greek drama, about a mother and father who’ve kept their now-grown kids locked into their sprawling estate for their entire lives. Writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos doesn’t go the expected route with this premise; he introduces elements of creeping anarchy into the story right from the start, and makes the parents less overprotective fusspots and more deranged sociopaths, who don’t just shield their kids from the outside world but actively mess with their heads. (Example: the parents give the kids the wrong definitions of words, almost as a way of controlling their understanding of the world outside the gates.) I wish Lanthimos had more on his mind than how the children deal with their sexuality, but I can’t deny that as a meditation on how parents try to program their kids, Dogtooth is witty, smart and shocking. … A- (See also Mike D’Angelo’s Cannes review and Scott Tobias’ Toronto review and Leonard Pierce’s SXSW review.)
Do It Again (dir. Robert Patton-Spruill) … Boston Globe arts reporter/blogger Geoff Edgers shakes off the gloom of his fast-approaching 40th birthday and the decay of his profession by embarking on a mission to reunite the classic line-up of The Kinks, at least for the purposes of a documentary. Robert Patton-Spruill’s documentary about the quest looks spectacular and has been thoughtfully put together, but Edgers comes off so self-absorbed that his story suffers. He keeps pitching his film to potential interview subjects by saying it’s “not your typical rock-doc,” and he’s right, it’s not. Edgers and Patton-Spruill provide only a rudimentary outline of The Kinks’ story, and though they land some major interviews—Paul Weller, Sting, Robyn Hitchcock, Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey and more—they largely keep the Kinks-talk to a minimum so that Edgers can drag out his guitar and badger his musical heroes into playing a duet with him. He’s not annoying exactly, but he has overestimated the extent to which the audience for this documentary has come to see him, and not the famous people he meets. Still, the vintage Kinks footage is exciting, and the doc does have a strong narrative thread, enlivened with insights about aging, reliving past glories, and why it’s so hard to keep a band together. … B-
Don’t Quit Your Daydream (dir. Clark Stiles & Nathan Khyber) … Last year, aging alt-rock duo The Good Listeners spent a month traveling across the country in an RV, stopping in 12 cities to collaborate with local musicians on a new album. Don’t Quit Your Daydream documents the trip and the music, and deals—a little too self-seriously, to be honest—with the impulse that drives people to want to make music, either for a living or for a hobby. The band’s music is good—it’s semi-psychedelic dream-pop with lovely melodies—but the documentary’s unfocused, introducing new people every few minutes while staying at a frustrating distance from nearly all of them. … C+
Hipsters (dir. Valeriy Todorovskiy) … It’s not what you think; this Russian musical follows a group of teenagers in the ‘50s who meet in secret clubs to dance to swing music and wear colorful clothes, in defiance of the drab socialist state. The music sounds more like the ‘90s swing revival than authentic swing, and the story of young people rebelling is hardly fresh, but Hipsters is energetic and colorful, and filled with fascinating details of how commie-kids managed to skirt the system. … B
Saturday Night (dir. James Franco) … Actor James Franco isn’t a good enough filmmaker to give this behind-the-scenes look at an episode of Saturday Night Live the visual snap or deeper insight that it needs, but he has what a lot of other filmmakers would kill for: access. Perhaps because he’s in the showbiz club, the cast and support staff of SNL (with a couple of so-glaring-it’s-distracting exceptions) talk openly about the stress and compromises of putting on a 90-minute live comedy/variety show in a week. Saturday Night covers the whole week—the opening pitch meeting, the all-night writing sessions, the table read, the rehearsals and the show itself—and more than anything the documentary captures how hard it is to keep an idea fresh and funny after so much refining and repetition. What seems hysterical at 4 a.m. in a writer’s office and kills at the table read might be completely dead by the time it gets to dress rehearsal three days later. … B
The Sound Of Insects: Record Of A Mummy (dir. Peter Liechti) … Here’s an odd one. Based on the true case of a unnamed corpse found in the woods, starved to death, The Sound Of Insects tries to explicate a suicide by combining bleary close-up nature footage and readings from Japanese author Shimada Masahiko’s book Until I Am a Mummy, an ersatz diary of a starving man. Peter Liechti’s avant-garde approach to documentary is undeniably haunting, and there’s some sick fascination in hearing blow-by-blow descriptions of how a person dies from starvation. But because the descriptions are fictional, they lose some of their sting, and while Liechti sometimes illustrates the words fairly closely, just as often he goes a more impressionistic route, cutting together images that could well have come from other, unrelated projects. In short: some good ideas here, but the execution is lax. … C+
3 Acts Of Murder (dir. Rowan Woods) … Over the course of his nearly two-decade-long career as a film and TV director, Rowan Woods has shown a rare knack for digging into the complicated motivations and emotions that attend any criminal endeavor. 3 Acts Of Murder reaches back a ways in Australian history, recounting the strange case of The Murchison Murders, a string of odd crimes committed in the outback in the early ‘30s by an associate of novice mystery novelist Arthur Upfield, relying on methods described in Upfield’s as-yet-unpublished first novel. The story builds too slowly and lacks a certain visual panache, but Robert Menzies gives a riveting performance as Upfield, a man who’s better with puzzles than people, and who's deeply troubled by the idea that his words— meant to be a benign pastime—might inspire real evil. … B
Today’s Special (dir. David Kaplan) … Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi stars in a loose adaptation of his own 1998 one-man show Sakina’s Restaurant, about a fussy, passionless fine-dining sous-chef who takes over his immigrant father’s failing Indian restaurant when the old man has a heart attack. Mandvi is a likable actor and his exploration of the different levels of the New York culinary world is well-observed, but in the process of conversion from a monologue to a full-on feature film, Today’s Special loses a lot of Mandvi’s original slant and becomes a more generic “rediscovering your roots” indie dramedy. … C
Vegetarian (dir. Lim Woo-Seong) … Part [SAFE], part Bartleby The Scrivener, part Henry & June, this low-boil Korean drama follows a woman who wakes up one day and rejects all meat, as a prelude to retreating further and further into asceticism. No one in her family understands her except for her brother-in-law, and artist who considered his work stale and derivative until he became entranced by the eroticism of this woman’s choice. Vegetarian is an up-and-down affair, with some striking, sensual imagery alternating with dreary pretentiousness. It aims for the fevered intensity and weirdness of Kim Ki-Duk, but it’s a shade too wan. … B-
Westbound (dir. Jim Rivett) … Not to be confused with the classic Budd Boetticher western, this elegiac documentary looks at the life and art of Adolph Vandertie, the self-styled “Grand Duke Of The Hobos,” whose elaborate wood-carvings helped lift him out of a life of poverty and hard drinking. Shot in grainy sepia, Westbound is rife with fascinating details about obscure folk art forms, and though Rivett overuses the bluesy soundtrack, Vandertie’s story and his body of work are compelling enough to fill the movie’s 77 minutes nicely. … B
And here’s a brief rundown of movies seen at earlier festivals:
The Complete Works Of Jamie Travis (dir. Jamie Travis) … Since 2003, 30-year-old Canadian filmmaker Jamie Travis has completed two short film trilogies: “The Saddest Children In The World,” a set of curious, beautiful stories about kids who get unwanted glimpses at the horrors of adulthood; and “Patterns,” about the mysterious relationship between a man and a woman. Rich with metaphorical resonance and visual splendor, Travis’ shorts swing from melodrama to suspense to musical theater, with a mix of poignancy and dry wit. When Travis finally makes a feature, it’ll undoubtedly be one of the cinematic events of the year. Until then, these shorts will more than suffice. … A-
Cleanflix (dir. Andrew James & Joshua Ligairi) … Documentarians James and Ligairi look beyond the headlines to consider the thorny ethical and aesthetic questions raised when of a group of Mormon retailers decided to sell “sanitized” versions of big Hollywood movies. The news at the time was all about The Directors Guild Of America suing, and the Cleanflixers’ response that since they paid for every movie they altered, they could do whatever they wanted with them. But the story runs even deeper, especially when James and Ligairi meet a businessman rumored to be involved with illegal duplication, fraud and sexual indiscretion. Cleanflix can be a little one-note at times, but it’s fascinating whenever it explores the daily difficulties the devoutly religious have trying to maintain purity while participating in mainstream American culture. Avoiding R-rated movies may not preclude an R-rated life. … B+
Cyrus (dir. Jay & Mark Duplass) … I keep rooting for the Duplass brothers, but they keep letting me down. Both The Puffy Chair and Baghead start off with such promise—with strong characters, a good germ of a plot, and a few terrific scenes—but then they peter out long before the end. Their third feature Cyrus is much the same, only with name stars in the leading roles instead of the Duplasses and their friends. John C. Reilly plays an irresponsible, depressed loser whose life starts to look up when he meets sweet, sexy Marisa Tomei. The only problem is that Tomei lives with her son, Jonah Hill, who has no job, doesn’t go to school, and who talks to people with earnest tones and an almost imperceptible sarcastic smirk. Reilly and Hill battle for Tomei’s heart, through a series of passive-aggressive moves and counter-moves that plays a lot like Step Brothers, but without the jokes. I liked a lot of the character-defining detail in Cyrus—like when Reilly tries to choose between the big box of condoms or the small box before his big date with Tomei—and I like the idea of a naturalistic comedy about what happens when people prop up their weak friends and relatives for far too long. But once again with the Duplasses, there’s just not enough of anything: not enough funny lines, not enough variation of mood, not enough plot. … C
I Am Love (dir. Luca Guadagnino) … This sprawling family drama stars Tilda Swinton as the fashionable Russian wife of a powerful Milanese businessman; she speaks fluent Italian, but communicates on an earthier level when she falls for a young chef with a passion for simplicity. I Am Love is profoundly sensual, relishing the elegance of old world estates, the textures of lovingly prepared food, and the blur of naked bodies writhing against each other. But the story loses focus whenever Guadagnino turns the camera away from Swinton, and his characters all have a formal stiffness to their dialogue that works against his attempt to convey a dizzying, terrifying sense of profound change. … C+
As for the festival as a whole, NaFF remains as accessible and well-run as I'd remembered it. Screenings were easy to get into, with minimal lines or herding, and the slate of films was reasonably strong, especially given that it’s tough for festivals that fall between Sundance and Cannes to get access to all the films they’d like to show. My one major complaint is that the digital projection was occasionally shoddy; more like a big, fuzzy TV image than something properly cinematic. This wasn’t the case with all the movies, but one shorts program in particular was so cruddy-looking that I left after about 10 minutes.
Still, there’s something restorative about a regional festival, especially in contrast to more pressure-packed affairs like Sundance and Toronto. A few years back, I attended a panel at SWSW where Film Threat’s Chris Gore predicted that regional festivals were going to become the new arthouse circuit, giving film fans living away from big cities a chance to see the documentaries, Amerindies and foreign films that are never going to be distributed in their neck of the woods. Gore made that claim back when the arthouse boom of the ‘90s still had some momentum, but in the years immediately after he was proved right. The difference now is that remote cineastes now have other options too, like Netflix, the internet, and on-demand cable services. So the local fests aren’t just for movies anymore; they’re also a chance to socialize, and to think about film away from the hype that can make the major fests feel more like filling out a checklist than making discoveries.
Some movie buffs avoid their local film festivals because they’re crowded with B-list stars debuting straight-to-video fare and micro-budget indies likely never to be seen again. I can understand ducking the former, but I’d say that the latter is one of the main reasons to go to a regional fest. If you’re seriously interested in film, you won’t get everything you can out of the medium if you just watch what everyone else watches.