You’d think exhaustion would dull the senses, but, as SXSW wears on, your critical faculties actually begin to sharpen—it’s only natural. As time passes, the real world fades away; home and family become distant memories. By day five, you have no family—only films.
Unfortunately, like family, movies can rub you the wrong way, and spending too much time together makes you a lot more likely to speak your mind. Speaking of which, remind us to send a thank-you card to Aunt Ina—her pictures were beautiful. Oh, and can someone get Fred Phelps and that cannibal kid the hell out of our house?
FALL FROM GRACE
Directed by K. Ryan Jones
Fall From Grace is steeped in subjects that seem more interesting than they actually are—mainly, the disturbing actions of an oppressive, violently homophobic ministry. In the film, director K. Ryan Jones turns what was originally intended as a student short on Fred Phelps—founder and lead brimstone pitcher of the Westboro Baptist Church, a ministry almost exclusively devoted to the persecution of gays and lesbians—into a full-length portrait of disturbing religious zeal. Not that it’s necessarily that difficult: the group’s most famous stunt was bringing “God Hates Fags” signs to the funeral of Matthew Shepherd, and they’ve gone on to visit others who lost their lives to AIDS.
Fall From Grace is filmed as well as it possibly could be. Though Jones gets unprecedented access to Phelps because of what he terms his “appearance of objectivity,” there’s nothing that access can do to illuminate a paranoid, compulsively fixated idiot. Phelps is impenetrable, not because there are so many layers to unlock, but because he’s like the demon demagogue bringing in the sheaves in Poltergeist II: creepy.
It’s all about Queers, Queers, Queers (too bad the Westboro church isn’t clever enough to write a good Motley Crue parody). That’s where his record skips; Phelps has no sense of history, no theological inquisitiveness, or even fireside yarns to explain why male (yes, it’s always images of male-to-male anal sex that adorn their colorful protest signs) homosexuality is God’s favorite love-to-hate sin. A lesser filmmaker might simply have given up after finding himself burdened with a subject so combatively ignorant and filled with such monotone rage (second verse, same as the first). But Jones adds as many layers as he possibly can, exploring the fact that Phelp’s congregation is little more than him, his kids, and their kids.
Jones spends a lot of time trying to get the children to open up about their father, their movement, and their church, but the Westboro Baptist philosophy turns out to be little more than scraps of memorized Bible verse and a litany of aggressive, violently condemning anti-homosexual catch phrases. (Phelps has a running clock on his website keeping track of the number of days Matthew Shepherd has supposedly spent in hell). They all seem robotic and glassy behind the eyes, as if they’re inhabited by their beliefs rather than embracing them. In especially skin-crawling moments, the children—some ages five or six at the most—spout hateful words that seem beyond their capability to understand.
Jones does manage to track down the only two of Phelps’ fifteen children (apparently God is really, really OK with straight sex) who have managed to break free from God’s Sodom Corps. In some of the most insightful moments of the film, you hear horrifying descriptions of ax-handle beatings, bloody lashings, and pretty much everything you’d expect from a Manson figure with a single-digit IQ.
Jones goes further in painting his unloving portrait, taking great pains to show how out-of-the-mainstream Phelps is, even in the conservative Christian community. In that sense, watching Sean Hannity dress down one of Phelps’ followers as one of the most hateful people he’s ever met brought a tiny smile to my face. The good news is that Phelps is not an embodiment of the American fundamentalist right, even if some of their shared ideas endanger gays and lesbians.
You can see the disconnect between Phelps and the Christian community clearly as Phelps’ theology evolves over the course of the film, becoming a kind of infantile egotism in which the creator of the universe connects every event to his “ministry.” Feeling he didn’t garner enough attention with his AIDS funeral protests, Phelps decides to move onto protesting the funerals of Americans that have died in Iraq (he seems to believe that God is killing our soldiers as retribution for our homo-loving ways).
It’s to Jones’ credit that he interjects many thoughtful Christians and scholars throughout the film to offer cogent, coherent critiques of Phelps’ “ideas,” but that also means lending too much credence to a figure who neither seeks nor deserves to be debated. For a first film, Jones keeps things crisp and grapples valiantly with the task of planting nuance in fallow ground. I can’t help but wonder if Phelps himself is a by-product of a media age with no sense of proportion. It’s obvious, to me at least, that our country’s freedoms include Phelps’ freedom to warp his entire existence around the fear of homosexuality. But with our fixation on outré phenomena, don’t we end up providing a platform for free speech as a reflexive good in and of itself, rather than promoting the ideas that make the world a better place to live in? I understand that’s not the way our cultural fascinations work, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for artists to begin by questioning what their (and their audience’s) fascinations should and shouldn’t be. (TS)
Fall from Grace - Trailer
Directed by Martin Weisz
Cannibalism, the love that dare not speak its name. For those who might not remember, this film is a Days of our Lives-style telling of the actual events surrounding the life of Arwin Miewes—a German cannibal who found a “willing” victim via the internet (though the ability of Bernd Juergen Brandes to consent is seriously up for debate).
It takes on lofty subject matter, but Grimm Love is not courageous. In fact, it’s childish. Weisz treats the subject like it’s a pot-for-every-lid story about two marginalized gay guys who made a love connection (I was expecting Air Supply’s “Two Less Lonely People in the World” to play when the credits scrolled). Not every subject that appears untouchable is that way because it contains some unexplored social truth that must be brought to the light of day. Even at the narrative level, the person who decides that they’d really get off on finding people who’d like to be butchered is only really interesting as a footnote in the annals of psychopathology.
When Grimm Love reaches for explanatory frameworks, it does damage both intellectually and aesthetically. It turns out that both men have experienced significant trauma related to their mothers. Brandes believes that his mother’s suicide is somehow connected to his penis, and as a result he’d like to have it bitten off and served for dinner. Miewes had a suffocating-depressive mother, a standard, misogynist explanation for male homosexuality that still resonates deeply within the sexism-homophobia matrix of contemporary argument. Vaginas: everything is their fault.
Somewhere in the bad-back framing of the film, Keri Russell (Felicity, nooooooo) plays a student investigating the story as part of her graduate work. When she finds actual video footage of Miewes’ cannibalism, she cries a lot and almost pukes, which I guess makes her character the stand-in for people watching the movie. When it’s not offering fumbling, reactionary psychoanalysis, the film works on a star-crossed lover’s subtext that’s plain indie-movie overreach. As they sit in a car in the rain, deciding whether or not to go get Jack Daniels and more cough syrup for anesthesia, the men at the story’s center gush about how lucky they are to have found each other. Thomas Kretschmann’s performance as the cannibal has all the ridiculousness of a romantic lead, especially when he’s explaining how his victim will become “one with him.” Yeah, not really: when you eat people they disappear into your digestive system. They certainly don’t get conference-room chairs in the “eaten people” room of your soul.
Finding the intimacy angles in this event is a degrading gesture. Miewes was a violent sexual predator whose fetish just happened to involve the flimsiest appearance of consent. Brandes was a deeply damaged person who probably could have benefited from serious, long-tem psychotherapy.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally comfortable exploring dark territory and asking difficult questions when I believe that probing might reveal something intelligent, or at least useful to making the world a better place. But I also know when to just say “Wow, that’s crazy” and call it a day. (TS)
Directed by Adam Rapp
Type is everywhere you look (even right here). It is an inescapable fact of life. Every ad, every logo, every email, every website—they all employ typefaces tailored to convey a specific message. Font faces incite passions and stir irreconcilable conflicts in even the iciest of Germanic designers. And when that font face is Helvetica, the glasses come off.
Tracing the history of its titular font—from origins in the ‘50s to ubiquity in the ‘60s and rejection in the ‘90s—Helvetica explores the ideological underpinnings of the world’s most infamous font. Initially hailed for its neutrality in the post-World War II age of modernism and idealism, the font came to represent an oppressive conformity that invoked a corporate authoritarianism, or even worse, a default that demonstrated bad taste. The rebellious “grunge period” of the ‘90s, epitomized by the riotous mix of fonts and images in Raygun magazine, refused the font’s uniformity and embraced a chaotic post-modern aesthetic. More recent designers are returning to Helvetica, but in fractured, tongue-in-cheek ways.
This history is told in beautiful HD by a range of designers whose work in typeface has pioneered modernism, post-modernism, and whatever phase we’re in now (I refuse to say post-post-modernism). From Mario Vignelli, who designed the signage on the New York Subway system using Helvetica to Raygun founder David Carson’s anti-Helvetica diatribes, a wide range of well-spoken and passionate designers expertly characterize the ideological and aesthetic history of one of the most ubiquitous fonts of our time. The alphabet has never been more fascinating. (AS)
Directed by Reginald Harkema
In Monkey Warfare, a former activist couple now retired from the revolution against war and globalization run out of weed. When Susan (Nadia Litz), a young waif who sells buds from her bicycle, enters their lives, her naive embrace of revolutionary rhetoric challenges their state of comfortable hiding, forcing the inactive progressives to take up with the undirected revolutionary.
The apathy and normalcy that has set into the lives of the once-passionate revolutionary couple is painted with familiar realism. Dan (Don McKellar) and Linda (Tracy Wright) occupy a dim house filled with trash-picked items. Their well-worn affections, disguised bitterness, and bored security paint a couple that’s been together for far too long. Dan and Linda’s reactions to Susan’s fresh youth are nuanced, as are their clashes with the suburban middle-class life they could never live. There is a refreshing lack of pretense about the film, and the characters’ complexities are rendered subtly as their relationships develop organically.
This patient character drama is peppered with allusions and explanations of alternative history and revolutionary music. Whereas this technique could be didactic, the film manages to avoid moralizing by using the flashy graphic style of radical poster art, album art, and film techniques within the narrative flow. With its soundtrack of revolutionary music from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and beyond, Monkey Warfare is well worth watching, both for a brush-up on history for your inner radical and for its gentle depictions of love, apathy, and revolution. (AS)
THE NEXT TIM DAY
Directed by Ben Steinbauer
Austin’s young filmmakers don’t confine themselves to the official venues of the South by Southwest Film Festival. They expand into coffeehouses and other screening spaces, paralleling the international crowds at the Convention Center and at the Paramount with their own local crowds at spaces like Studio 501. About 200 people attended a screening of local shorts there, which included the recently reviewed Recently Deceased.
Another film of note, The Next Tim Day is a documentary about a man from the self-proclaimed ‘hood in Galveston, Texas. Tim Day grew up in poverty and has spent time in prison. Now, he’s made it his personal mission to document life in the ghetto and present it as widely as he can. He shoots his show, “Hood News,” on a handicam, sells the DVDs outside of Houston clubs, and attends every film event he can to promote his work.
We watch as, at a UT Austin discussion with Robert Rodriguez, he presents the eminent filmmaker with his own version of Rodriguez’s “10 minute Film School.” At Sundance, he brings up “Hood News” during a panel with Robert Redford. At the BET music awards, he convinces O. J. Simpson, Shaquille O’Neal, and other stars to pose for photos with his DVD.
The sheer persistence of the film’s subject is awe-inspiring. Day engages viewers with his indefatigable optimism and his street wisdom, but we are left to assume that he does the same in “Hood News” itself. We see clips of the show but never completely get its premise. Although we hear about its impact from some of Day’s friends and neighbors, the social role that “Hood News” plays for his community is never fully explored. Yet Day’s passion shines through some of the omissions of the film, and when he dreams aloud about a creating a full-length feature, you can’t help but dream with him. (AS)
The Next Tim Day - Trailer
STEAL A PENCIL FOR ME
Directed by Michele Ohayon
I’m not a big fan of Holocaust movies (not that anyone is necessarily), but this film about lovers who survived the Holocaust and are now celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary attracted my attention for two reasons. First, when I asked fellow festival attendees which films had made an impression on them, several mentioned it. Second, it’s Dutch. I’m Dutch, so it’s my patriotic duty to view films about my little-documented country, and to expand my knowledge of my own history.
So, I saw Steal a Pencil for Me, and it did not disappoint. The spirited reminiscences of the elderly couple and their warm relationships with each other and with their children are contrasted with the horrors and deprivations of the concentration camps. Ina and Jack tell their story with character, humor, frankness, and courage, as do their other surviving family members. It’s the story of the daily life of Jews during World War II, and the measures taken to create some semblance of normalcy after the German invasion remind us of the simple bravery involved in living under unbelievable conditions. As their lives in the concentration camps reach new lows, the couple’s love manages to survive, even as the animalistic and selfish tendencies of starvation start to take over. When Jack tells of a time he withheld a piece of bread from a sick child, the guilt of survival overtakes him, and he sheds tears.
This is not an atypical tale in the field of films about surviving the horrors of history. But, the characters are warm and frank about everything from their most shameful moments in the Holocaust to their current sex lives. And the love the couple continues to share is clearly tinged with an eternal gratitude for surviving the worst of times. (AS)