This week is the South By Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival, and we're lucky enough to have updates from the festival every day. You can read the first here, the second here, thethird here, and the fourth here.
DamNation, directed by Travis Rummel and Ben Knight
The Possibilities are Endless, directed by Edward Lovelace and James Hall
Housebound, directed by Gerard Johnstone
Beyond Clueless, directed by Charlie Lyne
After Monday, film screenings continue at SXSW, but the festival's focus definitely turns to music. I spent the day at "satellite" locations—theaters not in the downtown loop, often featuring niche films for slightly smaller audiences.
Not surprisingly, the quality varies a little. Two strong documentaries started the day on a high note, but the evening sessions were big disappointments.
Did you know there are over 75,000 dams over three feet high in the United States? I didn't, until I screened DamNation, an educational and provocative documentary about the history of dams and their environmental impact.
At first the film looks like it might turn into a standard taking sides/issue film, with proponents of dams touting the wonders of hydroelectric power and critics lamenting their effect on wildlife. Gradually, however, the film follows (and advocates) the rising movement to remove obsolete or inefficient dams. It makes a strong case that doing so is a public good, preserving the renewal of wildlife while having a minimal impact on energy creation. The film argues that energy created by the Condit Dam could be replaced by as little as three windmills.
Issue documentaries often forget that film is a visual medium, but this one doesn't. Ben Knight's photography is stunning. He told the audience his background is in still photography, and he tried to approach each shot of the film as though it were a still photo. Nature shots are to photography what sonnets are to poetry—so ubiquitous it takes an extremely skilled craftsman to breathe new life into a tired form.
Also, most environmental films are downers, infected by the apocalyptic despair of An Inconvenient Truth or Surviving Progress. But DamNation chronicles some successes in removing dams, shows the remarkable resiliency of salmon species, and evidences the miraculous (I use the term deliberately) ability of nature to be renewed if given "half a chance."
Humans are also resilient. Witness Edwyn Collins, a musician whose stroke robbed him of memories and language. Able only to say "the possibilities are endless" and "Grace Maxwell" (the name of his wife) after his stroke, Collins experienced a cocoon of isolation that the film The Possibilities Are Endless represents experimentally.
Gradually, through his wife's ministration and the miraculous power of music to stir his heart and spur his imagination, Collins was able to regain much of what he assumed had been lost forever. As much a testament to Grace's faithfulness as Edwyn's talent, The Possibilities Are Endless gives new life to the reminder that love is patient. After the screening, Edwyn and Grace played a song for the audience. She still strums the guitar for him since his motor skills are not fully recovered, but his voice is clear, haunting, and beautiful.
SXSW is definitely skewed towards a younger demographic. That demographic likes its horror films, and for the first hour or so of Housebound, I thought I might be able to share the audience's delight in a creepy ghost story without the gory sensibilities that saturates American horror porn.
By the end of the only seemingly interminable last act, however, we have blood spurts, exploding heads, and lots of stabbing. The strangest part of the evening was when New Zealand director Gerard Johnstone revealed that the film was originally made as part of a competition but reshot because only the end—the part I hated and found most generic—was worth keeping. It was disappointing to know that the back story really was a throwaway that was constructed as an afterthought for no purpose but to lead into the well-choreographed slasher mayhem.
For fans of the genre, Johnstone referenced The People Under the Stairs as a primary inspiration. If you are a fan of Wes Craven's work, you might like this homage. If you are not, be sure to note the title and mark your calendar so that you can miss the big-budget American remake that will no doubt follow two years from now.
Of all the films I've seen so far, Beyond Clueless is the one best described as festival filler. Allegedly an examination of the depiction of high schools in film, it veers away from the academic halls to touch on a number of films that are simply about teenagers, with little to say about the school experience.
That's too broad a subject, and any work that lumps together films as disparate as 13 Going on 30, Bubble Boy, Idle Hands, and Final Destination desperately needs to go back to high school itself to relearn the difference between topic and thesis. Learning the difference between summary and analysis would also help. There are chapter titles that allegedly tie the films together thematically, but section headings are a poor substitute for genuine transitions. After a couple minutes of plot summary we get such bon mots as "sex changes everything" and a reminder that non-conformists don't fit into (and hence threaten) hierarchical structures.
Speaking of sex, there is a lot of it, usually in montage form.
There's plenty of good cultural analysis of film to be found these days. Mark Cousins's A Story of Children and Film is a better documentary about cinematic representations of youth. Epstein and Friedman's documentary of Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet is still the definitive exploration of how films disseminate cultural attitudes about sexuality.
And of course, Sophie Fiennes has collaborated with Slavoj Zizek in The Pervert's Guide to Cinema and The Pervert's Guide to Ideology. Compare Zizek's riff on the meaning of autonomous body parts to Beyond Clueless's chapter on Idle Hands for an example of psychoanalytic criticism done well, and then superficially. (The latter tells us only that cutting off body parts is symbolic castration.) Or better yet, listen to Zizek talk about John Carpeneter's They Live! as a critique of the brainwashing power of consumerism, and then try getting all the way through Beyond Cluelesss's similar exposition of . . . Josie and the Pussycats.
Beyond Clueless does one thing very well, albeit unintentionally. Just as watching clip after clip in succession in Miss Representation was more effective at communicating the ubiquity of demeaning portrayals of women than any single example could be, so too did watching the montages here hammer home how little we think of our teenagers. We paint caricatures and call them mirrors, and then we wonder why they don't look to us for hope and guidance. Thank goodness I saw Beginning With The End before I saw Beyond Clueless, or the latter might just have driven me to despair.
Kenneth R. Morefield is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I & II, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.