Film: Day Two, or, People Want To Eat This Family
Saturday at SxSW FIlm started on a much more promising note. It was still chilly, but the rain had largely dissipated; I had a large slate of promising movies to see; and, thanks to my patented "Fat Travis Bickle Goes Emo" fashion sense, all the single ladies of Austin would be in for a treat. After a nutritious breakfast of orange juice and gray-market pharmaceuticals, I was ready to face the morning -- until I got on the freeway. Apparently, a little-known bylaw of the Texas Department of Transportation calls for all major repairs to the only freeway running through town to be made during South By Southwest, which, in combination with a pair of accidents, meant that the entire I-35 was shut down for several miles. It took me about 2 hours to get as many blocks, and my whole viewing schedule, as it usually is by day 2, was thrown into disarray. But you didn't come here to see me bitch about traffic -- or, if you did, you are now presumably satisfied and can go read the Hater. You came to see my reviews of the day's movies. So here they are.
First on the slate was Creative Nonfiction, the feature film debut from Lena Dunham. The story involves a self-flattering college student who's involved in a quasi-platonic relationship with her male roommate, and is struggling to complete a screenplay which, for reasons of quirkiness and archaic hipsteris, she is composing on an old electric typewriter. If nothing else, Creative Nonfiction lives up to its title, as it mirrors the often-bewildering aesthetic of the 'fifth style' of writing which brought us such heavy-on-the-creative, light-on-the-nonfiction stories as A Million Little Pieces.
The film echoes, in its brief running time, the main plot and the story drawn from Duhham's frustrated screenplay, with events being mirrored from one to the other as she pursues the next level of her relationship with her roommate. Dunham is a recent college graduate, and Creative Nonfiction often plays like a sophomore project: her character is an awkward Mary Sue, the dialogue veers wildly between naturalistically affectless and calculatingly clever, and the whole film often plays like the work of someone who thinks she's the first person to have a good idea.
Creative Nonfiction isn't a disaster by any means. Dunham, who has done interesting web design work for Nerve, has a keen visual sensibility, and brings a solid grasp of composition and framing to the film, which is sometimes a joy to look at despite its low budget. It's unlikely that it'll get picked up for distribution without some major changes and a padded run-time, which is only likely to benefit its director, who needs to mature a bit until her storytelling abilities match her visual ones.
Andrew Bujalski's latest exercise in the arbitrary boundaries of mumblecore, Beeswax, was next up. Playing to a full house of enthusiastic supporters, it definitely had found its audience; locally filmed, locally produced and funded, and featuring lots of Texas locations, the movie can make anyone who isn't attuned to Bujalski's unique sensibilities feel like a heel. It's essentially an exercise in futility to describe the plot of his films, since they don't have anything resembling a traditional story arc, or a sense of revelation, epiphany, or resolution, but here goes: twin sisters Tilly and Maggie Hatcher live together and occasionally work together at a boutique clothing store. Tilly, confined to a wheelchair since childhood, is frustrated with the non-participation of her business partner, who may be thinking of suing her; Maggie drifts between unsatisfying jobs and on-again, off-again romance; and law student Alex Karpovsky shadows both their lives. The movie's press materials describe it as "a legal thriller for anyone who finds 'legal thriller' to be an oxymoron", though I'd say "a legal thriller for anyone who thinks legal thrillers don't have to be thrilling, or even interesting" would be a more accurate summation.
It's hard to pin down exactly why I don't like Bujalski's films, and Beeswax is no exception. He's got a solid hand as a director, and sets up shots that are effective even when they're not artistic. He's a terrific director of actors; Karpovsky is fantastic in his role, as are both the Hatcher sisters. Much is made of the 'natural', unschooled style of Bujalski's often-nonprofessional cast, but it takes a skilled filmmaker to capture their expressive faces and revealing body language, especially in movies where the dialogue is often minimalist. There are never any major dramatic or comedic moments in his films, but it's probably unfair to fault him for that, since that's not really what he's shooting for. He's going for everyday travails and the kind of minor laughs that come through in ordinary conversation, and he tends to get it, so who am I to say that his movies don't succeed on their own terms?
The problem is, those terms are incredibly uninteresting to me. I've often jokingly described Bujalski's films as "white people who have trouble stating their feelings", but that's pretty much what it boils down to. There's something to be said for movies that portray the minor struggles of daily existence, but if you're not tuned into the particular 'I'm sort of sad' vibe that he specializes in, you're just going to be bored. His characters aren't interesting enough to like, and they don't have enough personality to hate. It's just more of the same that you've seen in all his movies: people with no real responsibilties who are having difficulty relating to each other emotionally, so they spend much of the film being peevish. Nothing much happens from one scene to another, or one plot to another, and if the characters don't care that much about each other, why should we? Andrew Bujalski is obviously a talented director, and his casts are consistently excellent; I'd just love to see them make a movie that reaches a bit farther than themselves.
Steven Prince, a fast-talking Long Islander, can tell stories. He was the friend and roommate of a hungry young director named Martin Scorsese in the late 1960s, and when he fell in with Scorsese's circle of risk-taking young filmmakers in the following decade, people liked his stories enough that Scorsese decided to make a movie that was nothing but Prince in high (and high is definitely the word) racontuer mode. He invited Prince over to his apartment, turned the camera on, and for the next fifteen hours, let him do what he did best. The result, American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince, was released in conjunction with Scorsese's Italian-American, a similarly themed documentary about the director's parents. Unfortunately, American Boy (filmed around the same time as Taxi Driver, in which Prince turned in a memorable performance as freewheeling gun dealer "Easy Andy") saw sporadic release, and for many decades, it kicked around in various quasi-legal forms, usually only viewable in a legitimate way at the occasional film festival. That didn't stop it from becoming a cultural touchstone amongst other directors: Quentin Tarantino lifted one of Prince's stories wholesale for the scene in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta uses a needle filled with adrenaline to revive a zonked-out Uma Thurman (many people call it a rip-off, but Prince charitably describes it as a "compliment"), and Richard Linklater, who befriended Prince in his years in Texas, incorporated another of his stories into Waking Life.
Prince got out of the movie business in 1980, having burned out on drugs and high-stress living following the completion of Scorsese's Taxi Driver; he eventually became a contractor in L.A. (Of course, Prince being Prince, there's more to the story than that; the first place he moved to when he tried to break free of the circle of decadence that was his Hollywood social life was the infamous Wonderland House, which became famous as the site of some grisly murders involving porn star John Holmes and a drug heist gone wrong.) But he didn't disappear completely, and he spent the subsequent 30 years doing what he did best: collecting stories. Director Tommy Pallotta looked him up soon after moving to Los Angeles, and tried to replicate Scorsese's compelling experiment: aided by Linklater and editor Josh Cramer, he once again sat Prince in front of a camera and got him to tell stories for several hours. The result isn't quite as raw or edgy, because Prince is a very different man than he was in 1977, but he still can weave a yarn like nobody's business.
The main problem with American Prince is Pallotta's hyperactive camera work, all wandering focus and unnecessary close-ups. Instead of sticking with Scorsese's measured, controlled focus, Pallotta makes the mistake many documentarians do when faced with subject matter that boils down to a series of talking heads: he thinks the solution is to have the camera hop all over the place in what needs to me nothing more than a master shot of a man talking in a hotel room. But the camerawork is secondary to Prince's unparalleled ability to hypnotize an audience with his stories, and that comes through in spades. He was present at one of the most dynamic periods in film history, and while he claims not to miss the movie biz at all, he accumulated enough stories during that time to entertain audiences for a generation. Any opportunity to get him in front of a camera should be taken.
The last screening of the night -- and well-attended it was, too -- was the documentary Best Worst Movie. Writer/director Michael Stephenson takes a look at Troll 2, an ultra-low-budget horror flick thrown together in 1989 by a hack Italian director and a well-meaning but largely hapless cast. It so happens that Stephenson was part of that cast: at 11 years old, he was the child star of Troll 2, which has gone on -- by dint of its low budget, terrible acting, bizarre dialogue and completely incomprehensible plot -- to become a cult phenomenon, widely beloved despite the fact that it is frankly terrible. Stephenson sets out to gather together the people he worked with on the film, and come to terms with how Troll 2 has been transformed from something they were all embarrassed to admit they had anything to do with to something that is a source of some pride, albeit in an incredibly perverse way.
Best Worst Movie is exactly the sort of move that it's really easy to fuck up. With a cultural phenomenon as loopy as Troll 2, it often becomes evident that there's nothing you can say about it that serves as a substitute for simply seeing the movie. Stephenson is in a unique position, by dint of having actually been a part of it, to explain the meaning and effect of Troll 2 in the age of irony, and every time it seems like it will veer off in the wrong direction by becoming too maudlin, too snarky, or too feel-goody, he wisely changes the tone, keeping the documentary as fascinating as the film that spawned it. Part of what makes it such a raging success is that the cast is so appealing: Alabama dentist George Hardy anchors the film, and his genuine enjoyment of (and bafflement by) the attention he gets for having turned in a memorably cruddy performance in a grade-Z horror movie 18 years ago shows what a sincere and likable guy he is, and why he's such a hit with cult audiences. Co-star Connie Young vacillates between genuine humor about the unpolished acting job she turned in as a teenager, and expressing sincere dread at the fact that it's probably cost her a lot of work as a legitimate actor later in life. The rest of the cast are appealingly down-to-earth about their part in Troll 2, and most seem authentically happy about their lot in life, but they're also clearly bouyed with good feeling when they encounter hooting, enthusiastic crowds at screenings and festivals.
Director Claudio Fragasso comes off as something of the heavy in Best Worst Movie, albeit in a light-hearted way, with his inability to accept that he made a lousy movie and his constant berating of the actors (or "dogs", as he calls them) for their inability to make anything of his bizarre directions and incomprehensible bellowing. But he does seem to appreciate the fact that he's made something that, for whatever reason, makes a lot of people happy, and he's dead on the money when he says that being credited for making the worst movie of all time is not too far off, in terms of praise, from making the best movie of all time. The overall tone of Best Worst Movie is infectiously fun, energetic, and crazily enthusiastic, as is the case with all good cult films. It's almost an artistic answer to the Hollywood truism that nobody ever sets out to make a bad movie, and as funny and absurd as it often is, it serves the rather noble purpose of reminding us that there are real people behind the actors and crew of every movie ever made..