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Thursday, Mar 19, 2009
Photos: James Edward Crittendon

Joe Pug’s making some waves right now in singer-songwriter circles with soaring, confessional fare like “I Do My Father’s Drugs”. Live, his mix of Dylanesque singing, John Prine-style finger-picking, and Springsteen-like guitar movements, made for an interesting folk performance. The room was a little echoey, despite being full of people downing free beer, but Pug held his own, maintaining the forcefulness that makes his debut EP such a strong listen.


 


 


Tagged as: joe pug, sxsw
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Thursday, Mar 19, 2009
Photos: James Edward Crittendon

I’m always a little suspicious of any songwriter with a “wounded bird” persona, but it’s part of the territory in the world of singer-songwriters, many of whom are truly wearing their hearts on their sleeves and exorcising their demons. So it was definitely endearing when Furman, who seemed like a skittish rabbit when talking to the crowd, defended the sincerity of all of the bands playing SXSW and declared, “This is our band and we’re the best band here”. Under the shadows of the lone sycamore tree that shades the Creekside Lounge deck, Furman and his band, the Harpoons, offered an infectious blend of sensitive singer-songwriting with straightforward Modern Lovers-style punk pop.


 


 


Tagged as: ezra furman, sxsw
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Thursday, Mar 19, 2009
Photos: James Edward Crittendon

Mufreesboro, Tennessee’s Glossary are a favorite band amongst the alt-country community, and it’s easy to see why: They write good songs and they can raise a ruckus on par with the Drive-by Truckers. Playing a set consisting entirely of new songs, Glossary came across as more fluid and more melodic than they ever appear on disc—especially when it came to the guitar interplay. With luck, the upcoming new record will finally reflect this. For this day show, Glossary were solid, but didn’t display much of the abandon for which they’re known.


 


 


Tagged as: glossary, sxsw
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Wednesday, Mar 18, 2009
Director: Noah Hutton; Runtime: 70 minutes

I admire the documentarian with the light touch. In fact, with Crude Independence, I was expecting something along the lines of King Corn, where two college kids begin with a blood test and end up creating a documentary about the dehumanization of massive agribusiness. They built the story from the ground up, never condescending to their subjects and never using the power of the filmmaker to project intentions, ill or otherwise. But Crude Independence has virtually no touch at all, which ends up leaving it in the awkward position of seeming to advocate rather simplistic solutions to the complex issues involved in global energy policy. Sometimes poorly executed objectivity can lead to clumsily unintentional propaganda.


Crude Independence roughly traces the impact of the discovery of a huge shale oil deposition in the tiny North Dakotan village of Stanley. It’s these interviews where a judicious nudge would made the movie much more bearable: The townspeople discuss the impact in terms of the influx of roughnecks, sudden wealth, and the uneasiness of having financial security that rests on an industry notorious for boom-and-bust cycles and the economic wasteland left in their wake. But the conversations ramble interminably, rarely shedding insight upon anything other than small town life is really boring; so boring that the most interesting story in the film is told by a teenager who claims to have seen an extra-terrestrial in her boyfriend’s car. It quickly becomes one of the world’s most tedious Chamber of Commerce videos ever made. The roughneck segments meant to explain the nuts and bolts of the day-to-day life of their jobs falter because they’re wasted, shouting over one another and in the state of “I love you/I hate you” drunkenness. They make no sense and sound like raging idiots. While Noah Hutton’s long rambling tours through the town’s past give some sense of something somewhere having been lost; the viewer is certainly not compelled to play Mad Libs with the director. Is this industry destroying this town? Are small towns only transiently productive and possibly obsolete as permanent communities? I’m not offering a point of view, simply suggesting that there’s ton of material to work with here.


A group of roughnecks at a local bar

A group of roughnecks at a local bar



Only the segments in the county clerk’s office offer some of the meatier segments by explaining the difference between owning land and owning the mineral rights. Apparently, if you don’t own the mineral rights, a company can buy them, put an oil rig on your land, and decide what to offer you for the destruction of your property. At some point, the Sheriff notes that the industry with its huge trucks and massive traffic increase have destroyed the city’s roads. Well, maybe we can get an elected official on the screen to talk about the possibility of the company bearing a proportionate burden of its infrastructural damage. That’s why stories built from the ground like this can be so compelling and informative, because you can build out policy implications from the circumstances of the people you observe. If this is just supposed to be a portrait of a small town, it’s a bleak one with little more than blackouts, cheap motels, and a horizon blotted with cold, churning oil drills. When there is neither structure nor purpose in a documentary, the viewer is left in a floundering guessing game: Half projection, half dice roll. 


July 4th in Stanley, North Dakota

July 4th in Stanley, North Dakota


At some point, the film simply needs someone with a historical perspective, someone who can shed light on this economic process of narrow minded development that does little to benefit the long-term communities that it upends, guts, and abandons. The closest to any kind of above ground perspective comes from Byron Dorgan (Democratic Senator) who says we should drill, drill, drill and that he hopes that the town will be prepared for the potential for a bust. He hopes? He’s a legislator, isn’t there something he can do to make sure that companies try to build healthy post-boom economies in the places that they temporarily occupy. Noah Hutton seems more in love with images of industry and blurry highway shots set to guitar solos than he does with the actual issue that he tangents through. That’s the trouble with having a story told in rambling yarns by people who might be good in nature, but have absolutely no idea about the amount of oil they’re producing or how it may or may not offset our dependence on “troubled” regions. You end up having the default position of the few articulate people in the documentary talking about the absolute need for unregulated drilling, the greatness of Bush’s energy policy, and the fact that some of the Stanley residents have been able to build towering Japanese waterfalls in their living rooms with fat oil checks. That’s entirely too shoddy a treatment for such a pressing, complicated issue and does no favor of the people of Stanley to deny them a bird’s eye view with a side of hope.


 


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Wednesday, Mar 18, 2009
Director: The Deagol Brothers; Cast: Eric Lehning, Cody DeVos, Leah High, Brett Miller, Shellie Marie Shartzer, Tia Shearer, Jordan Lehning, Josh Duensing; Runtime: 105 minutes

Make-Out is one of those movies where you peg the pitch within the first five minutes. This is Garden State with a zombie in it (complete with shambolic indie rock conspicuously framing far too many scenes). That seems to be a common denominator amongst films where the elements of the story are impressionistic or easily orphaned; they seem like premises before they were stories. Make-Out feels like it has styles and mimicked depth, but in the end it’s really for nothing, since the climax is just another scene, the last merciful domino to fall into place. Where the story lures you in (a mysterious death, the concentric aftershocks of grief), it mostly leaves them behind for a case study in circles of friends and family who have sexual interests in one another. It might gall the movie makers to hear this, but I kept thinking of Friends, a show I never watched, because it seemed to be about people I didn’t care about who mix-and-matched their fleeting emotional attachments to entertain themselves.


This is really a film about perverse objects of obsessive love, a subject much better mined by movies like Love Object and Elvis and Annabelle. Make-Out lacks emotional excavation. While one brother is chasing after someone who is of course in love with someone who will never love her back, the other brother proms up the zombie girl and feeds her birthday cake in a scene that embarrassingly steals from both Hannibal and Happy Birthday To Me. It’s obvious he’s projected a fairly impervious fantasy about the poor zombie, who he seems to know little about, but loves freshening up her lipstick and feeding her fresh rat heads.


As far as zombie’s go, Wendy is comparatively inanimate. Even a couple of well-fed dogs barely rouse her to a hobble and she can’t even eat her own birthday cake. If there were any emotional investment to be had in this movie, this might be an unsettling, painful, and poignant place to start. How do we let go? In fact, I admire the premise that a huge number of people would simply try to normalize the resurrection of a loved one, even a flesh eating one, because the power of grief can decimate the rational. But the normalization goes too far, to a point of blasé that makes you instinctively ask why no one who finds a friend thought to be dead, tied up and convulsing uncontrollably, would call the hospital?


Of course even the most ridiculous premise can be sold with a character. An audience can forgive a generously leaking plot, if they can find someone to invest in, root for, someone even to hate. Make-Out is completely rotten with Xanax-barred emotion, where every character sounds like they accessing memorized narcissistic platitudes about their feelings, but they don’t really seem to have feelings. There’s a ridiculous sub-plot on the secrets of making a grieving girl fall in love with and have sex with you that’s just one more out-of-place element jockeying for an overall tone. That’s why it feels so much like a sales pitch. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s got cute indie people talking past each other, a beautiful corpse and a soundtrack for people who use depression the way children use binkies and blankets. 


Did I mention the little boy, molded after a Stand By Me character, who voice-overs the entire movie with paltry narrative gloss on the snail trailing plot shards? The viewer doesn’t need the additional distancing of the omniscient narrator who begins as a crucial character and then, like so much of the movie, gets thrown away to follow some other half-formed mood or anemic repartee. Does anyone care how this girl died? It’s slightly suggested that she died because one of the characters may or may not have a dark, sadistic sexual interest in her, but why doesn’t the director care? Why is it more important to have a scene where the prelude to a kiss is, “Let’s get awesome.”


This could have easily been enjoyably farcical and ultimately creepy in the way that people don’t really how truly dehumanizing idolizing love can be. This film needed something other than a series of marketing takes. The writing never salvages the restless remains of the story. If Hal Hartley used to be detachment for people who had lived too much; Make-Out is just lazy ennui, a movie with the momentum of sleep and the conscience of a bored sociopath who likes Gossip Girl.


 


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