Fort Tilden, directed by Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers
The Great Invisible, directed by Margaret Brown
Festival awards are funny things. One wants someone with some qualifications as jurors, but rarely do those juror's tastes align with the buzz I hear from the non-reserved seats.
Nearly everyone I spoke to in lines at SXSW who saw Fort Tilden pretty much hated it, so of course it won the Grand Jury prize in the Narrative Feature category. The Great Invisible, which won the Grand Jury prize in the Documentary Feature category, was sponsored by the Austin Film Society and received production funds from Tribeca, ITVS, The Sundance Institute, and Cinereach. I didn't think it was the best documentary, but I certainly wasn't too surprised it won given its pedigree.
But first, the Narrative Feature winner.
Fort Tilden is an alleged comedy about two millenials trying to get to the beach so that they can (definitely and possibly) hook up with a pair of guys they met at a party the evening before. Co-director Sarah-Violet Bliss prefaced her remarks by conceding she was "technically generation Y," but she admitted many of the incidents in the film were culled from friends. Her partner Charles Rogers said that "our own issues ended up working their way into the film."
What then is a millennial? According to the film, it is someone with no visible means of support who will pay $200 (of her father's money) for a barrel on the street but won't walk out of a store and lose her place in line while someone is stealing her bicycle. A millennial is someone who doggedly pursues sex or drugs, but needs to call her parents for instructions when she can't find a cab. and who leaves stray kittens in trash cans because they are too much trouble to lug around all day. Fort Tilden is the perfect film for those who think they could really get behind HBO's Girls if only the characters were more narcissistic, self-pitying, and lewd.
I wasn't a fan, but then I am a Baby Boomer. Isn't each generation supposed to think the next is bratty and useless? What I don't get about the millenials is the amount of self-loathing that permeates their portraits. Anger I might get. Each generation inherits a world messed up by its predecessors.
But the only thing pampered princess Harper (Bridey Elliot) seems mad at her father for is that he hasn't figured out some way to support her and make her self-sufficient at the same time. Sidekick Allie (Clare McNulty) channels her rage toward a Peace Corps supervisor who has the audacity to keep texting her about the meeting she blew off to go to the beach.
I understand, at least intellectually, that the preemptive snark of characters such as Harper are meant as feeble protection against a world that can be overbearing. But when it is directed so cruelly and so relentlessly on those who try to "get [their] life moving" by putting shoulder to the wheel and pushing, it comes across as pure spite. A prolonged scene where both the girls go topless is meant, I guess, to show how little self-respect they have . . . in case you haven't figured that out already.
About the only award I would give these two is "Characters I Would Most Like to See Get Cat Scratch Fever."
The Great Invisible is a somewhat different case. It's not a bad movie; it's just not as good as DamNation or Beginning With the End. An attempt, as Brown said, to chronicle "the human cost" of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the documentary starts promising with some tremendously effective footage of oil gushing underwater and balls of fire pluming into the air. Pretty soon we are shadowing a food pantry volunteer, listening to people complain about how they haven't received relief fund money, and sitting in on Congressional hearings.
I was disappointed with the film for two reasons. In a panel discussion and again at the Q&A, Brown insisted the film was an attempt to get Americans to see how interconnected we all were with big oil. I am not sure I buy the premise that if we drink out of a plastic cup or drive to a screening that we have "never" thought about how our energy consumption drives the need for cheap oil. Boycotting BP may not be the answer—or even feasible—but the film's rush to show how everyone is complicit comes across like a weak moral equivalence argument, and it is fatalistic to boot. We are told in the film that we had a moment in time where we could have done something. But what that something was is never hinted at—and we missed our window of opportunity anyway.
When asked why she did not include information in the film about health problems to residents caused by dispersants, Brown said that such effects, like the leak's environmental impact, might not be seen immediately, were hard to measure, and couldn't be separated from "a billion other things to with poverty."
That quote points to my second concern about the film. It's not really possible to examine any disaster in isolation, is it? Questions about energy consumption lead to questions about oversight, trade, revenue, taxes, tort reform, science literacy, education, you name it. The film keeps pumping out new angles like the well keeps pumping out oil, with containment in the artistic realm proving equally elusive.
It's worth repeating: The Great Invisible is not a bad film. It is an effective synthesis of a big story. It should be a particularly helpful starting point for the uninitiated, a group that grows as any event, however traumatic, recedes into the past. But Deepwater Horizon is not distant enough in the past for me to be fully satisfied with summary.
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 of1More Film Blog.