Articles

SXSW 2017
With Elijah Davidson on March 20, 2017

Every year, the Brehm Center brings a group of Fuller students to the South By Southwest (SXSW) Music festival. Barry Taylor and Nate Risdon lead the class on theology and popular music, and after a morning in a classroom, the students take to the streets to see as many concerts as they can. I tag along on this Immersion course to cover the Film portion of the festival (and I pop into a concert here or there too). You, too, can attend this class if you like, whether you are a student or not. More info can be found here.

The SXSW Film Festival doesn’t have the international profile of the Sundances, TIFFs, and Cannes of the world, but it has been a festival on the rise for the past decade or so. The tendency of festivals is to veer more commercial as they gain popularity, as the potential for filmmakers to sell their films to distributors used to be one of the main reasons the film festival circuit existed. The number of films sold became a way to measure the success of the festival. As distribution methods have diversified, gaining distribution has become less of a carrot for festivals to hold out to filmmakers. Now, festivals are able to veer back toward that other reasons they exists – to give filmmakers a chance to screen their films for large audiences and to encourage innovative filmmaking. SXSW has embraced and achieved those goals.

The other legs of the SXSW stool are the Interactive and Gaming Festivals. The Interactive Festival is devoted to technology and design, and that overall concern of SXSW bleeds over into the film festival as well. The Gaming shows up in SXSW’s expansive VR program, which I did not attend.

I love attending SXSW, because they make seeing films very easy. As press, they give me a Film Badge which grants me primary access to all Film events. They also give every badge holder two Express passes per day, allowing you to jump to the front of the line. Since I can only squeeze in four or five films per day, having two front-of-the-line passes solidifies your schedule in nice ways. There is very little wondering if you’re going to see what you want to see at SXSW. If you want to see it, you get to see it.

After three days at SXSW, I have seen eight feature films (technically nine, because I walked out of one, but I won’t be writing about it) – three documentaries, four fictional narrative films, and one film that straddles the line between the two categories. Here are brief reviews of each of them.

Fictional Narrative Films

Gemini

Gemini is a contemporary Noir-ish mystery about a your starlet’s personal assistant who searches the Hollywood hills for the truth behind a murder for which she has been falsely accused. Lola Kirke stars as the bubblegum shoe, and she’s backed up by a strong supporting cast of actors you’re excited to see show up in movies – Zoë Kravitz, John Cho, Greta Lee, James Ransone, and Nelson Franklin, primarily. These actors are all so good, you want more of them, but this is really Kirke’s film, and she carries it nicely. I like her. She has natural screen charisma, and I hope she continues to take interesting roles with good directors and continues to grow as an actor.

Gemini borrows the Noir genre’s tone and plot structure. It does this well. The ending is a little hackneyed, but with a few exceptions, the genre has never been great with endings. The existential angst which undergirds the genre tends to shepherd the stories toward meaninglessness instead of resolution. The best Noirs leave you feeling hollow in the end, as the characters feel. Gemini isn’t built on the same kind of nihilism, so it lacks the genre’s weight. It’s fun though, because the mystery is deftly handled.

The Relationtrip

The Relationtrip takes two anti-relationship singles on a weekend trip to the desert so they can enjoy a weekend far away from all the couples in their lives trying to fix them up with other singles. Of course, they begin to fall in love and have to work through their hang-ups together, most of those hang-ups have to do with their past relationships, a la Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

That sounds like a rather normal rom-com. The Relationtrip is not that. Rather than let the arc of the relationship play out at a typical pace, the film compresses everything into a single weekend, and it does this by introducing surreal elements to the narrative, including a puppet, which is the only surreal element I am going to spoil for you, since never knowing what’s going to happen next is part of the fun of this film. The Relationtrip is terrifically creative.

The two leads—co-writer/co-director Renée Felice Smith and Matt Bush—have great chemistry. They’re fun to watch, and they make you believe both their fast-forwarded love story and the strange ways that love manifests itself. Much of the credit here needs to go to the writing and directing here. Both are competent beyond what would be expected given the filmmakers’ ages. All the effects in this film are practical, including a remarkable time-lapsed, 360° shot at the film’s center. The narrative and its execution are constantly surprising. The film’s concept is so high it borders on contrived, and the framing of each image is so controlled I found myself feeling constrained at times, but I have to give it to these young filmmakers for just going for it and achieving what I think they meant to achieve. I go to festivals to see films like this.

Lucky

Lucky is a generous, hopeful, open and welcoming film about an atheist finding peace with his mortality. The atheist is a WWII veteran played by Harry Dean Stanton. As expected, he is perfect in the role. As we learned in a post-screening Q&A, this is in part because the filmmakers built the film around his philosophy of life. At large, we are used to atheistic manifestos being hostile toward the greater, faith-filled culture.

Lucky isn’t angry, and it isn’t insistent of its own vision or dismissive of the beliefs of others. It’s a gentle film that is true to Lucky’s philosophy and embracing of the faith of others. Considering this, Lucky, the character, might not be inclined to quote, "Blessed are the peacemakers," but I'm inclined to include him amongst their ranks for the ways the film featuring him seeks to appreciate all the ways people make peace with their own mortality. I also loved the film’s rhythm. It’s patient and perfectly doles out the humor and pathos. I heartily recommend the film.

The Big Sick

When it is released in theaters this summer, The Big Sick will be the latest product of comedy factory de Apatow. Judd didn’t write or direct this film—those credits go to writers Emily Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani and director Michael Showalter—but Apatow’s producing fingerprints are evident on this film that blends the personal with the fictional in a way that brings out greater truth in both. (Perhaps we should credit Gordon, Nanjiani, and Showalter for their deftness in avoiding the “inexplicable plot complications” that frequently plague Apatow productions’ third acts.” They threaten a few times but do not prevail on this otherwise intelligent narrative.)

The Big Sick is the based-on-a-true-story romantic comedy about a young Pakistani man (Nanjiani) whose relationship with his white girlfriend, Emily, (a winning Zoe Kazan) hazards his relationship with his family who expects him to marry a Pakistani woman. It’s an already complicated cross-cultural romance pushed to the limits by a life or death situation when Emily becomes ill, prompting Kumail to spend time with her parents in the hospital while they wait for her to get better, hopefully. The Big Sick is tightly written and intelligent in the way it includes cross-cultural complications in the story without simplifying any of them. The film isn’t afraid of irresolution. It is honest about the challenges they face (primarily between Kumail and his parents) and optimistic that reconciliation is possible in the future of its characters as the maintain relationship with each other. The Big Sick is an excellent comedy, the kind that deserves to show up on top ten lists at the end of the year.

Documentary Films

Let There Be Light

Titular Biblical reference notwithstanding, I added this to my SXSW shortlist because of writer/director Mila Aung-Thwin's previous producing work on Last Train Home, a remarkable documentary about Chinese workers shuttling back and forth between the city where they work and the village where they live. Naturally, this film lacks that film's elegiac tone—this is a doc about hopeful scientists not struggling Chinese peasants, after all—but it also lacks that film's elegance. Mila Aung-Thwin didn't direct that former film, so I probably shouldn't measure this one against it, but the production probably shouldn't mention Last Train Home in their marketing materials either. These are very different films.

Let There Be Light crosses the globe cataloging the ways humanity is trying to achieve nuclear fusion. We see both multi-national projects (ITER) and scientists trying to create little suns in their literal garages. The film advocates for the need for further funding of these projects, because of the great potential of fusion to satisfy humanity’s energy needs in an ecologically responsible way.

I hate it when docs end on contrived moments, when they reach for a positive note when there isn't one in reality. Doing so belies a lack of conviction on the part of the filmmakers that their subject itself is worth attention without that stereotypical resolution, and it implies a lack of trust on the part of the filmmakers in the audience to "buy in" to the doc's message if they don't feel uplifted as they leave the theater. Docs only need to have narrative arcs if they naturally occur in the material. Otherwise, you're making propaganda, and I'm going to reject it whether I agree with its message or not. Let There Be Light ends on one of those kinds of moments, and it soured me on this otherwise fascinating film.

Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo

In a thousand years, if humans are still around, if they talk about anything that has happened in this era of history, they'll talk about the first time we, humanity, stepped onto a non-earth surface. They'll talk about Apollo. They’ll talk about Neil Armstrong. Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo makes the case they they ought to be talking about those roomfuls of scientists on the ground who sent the astronauts to the moon. The film is composed of present day interviews with the still surviving members of the Apollo program and archival footage of them at work. It’s a straight forward documentary, but a competent one, and it’s absolutely worth your time. You’ll learn something, and enjoy doing it. If, like me, you find the co-joined work of many people attempting to achieve something grand deeply moving, or if, like me, you appreciate it when behind-the-scenes people get due applause, you might cry a little too.

The Cloud Forest

The Cloud Forest chronicles roughly three years in the lives of a group of farmers in one of Mexico’s few remaining cloud forests, so named because of the near-constant, low-laying clouds that provide the forests with most of their moisture. They farm and live traditionally, but their kids learn about modern farming techniques and ecologically sound ways of implementing them in school. The farmers worry about their way of life dying if their kids move away.

The documentary is equal parts poetic and prosaic. Director Mónica Álvarez Franco spends as much time resting on the teeming liveliness of the forest’s flora and fauna as she does showing the rhythms of farm life and talking with the farmers about what the lifestyle and place means to them. This appreciation for both in incarnated in the man who owns the land the community farms. His family is wealthy, and he is trying to figure out a way to protect the land and the way of life it provides for many generations. He thinks he wants to give the land to the farmers and turn it all into a co-operative agricultural venture so that the land can never be sold by one of his progeny. His struggle is noble. We need more wealthy people like him.

Docu-Fiction Hybrid - Flesh and Blood

Flesh and Blood defies categorization. Ostensibly, it’s a recreated narrative about writer/director Mark Webber’s experience of getting out of prison and reintegrating into his family’s life in Philadelphia. The scenes are staged, mostly, but the actors are all playing themselves, and they interact extemporaneously. They’re not acting. They’re not even improvising. They’re just interacting with each other as they normally would. In a few cases, the people involved haven’t interacted with each other in many, many years, and they are reuniting on camera. And yet, Flesh and Blood always feels like a fictional film and not a documentary. It’s an odd duck.

The character and narrative material of the film is concerned with poverty, drug abuse, mental health, violence, and parent-child relationships. The formal conceit of the film constantly makes you question the differences between constructed and actual reality. I’m not sure the two really gel, but I’m not sure they need to either. The one never lets you disregard the other. You can’t slough off the difficult socio-economic realities on narrative manipulation, but you can’t say these problems are merely particular to the people involved either, because the “movie movie” feel makes their struggles symbolic and universal. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Conclusion

SXSW continues to impress me as a festival interested primarily in experimentation in all four quadrants of its program - Music, Interactive, Gaming, and Film. This is natural to music, technology, and design, and it’s invigorating to see it expressed in film as well. As with most experiments, the fail some of the time, but the process of further experimentation is what’s important. As long as SXSW keeps reaching toward the new and innovative, it’ll remain a festival worth attending. Who knows that the future may bring?

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