Film Days 6 and 7

Dreams for Insomniacs

by Tobias Peterson

20 March 2006


You can feel the change in the air. Walking out of a late screening and into an Austin night positively aglow with a buzzing, pale neon. You’ve learned by now to interpret these signs intuitively, as one might interpret a chill in the wind. After all, what’s really hiding beneath this new meteorology is a change of seasons; the film fest giving way to the music portion of South by Southwest. It’s a transformation not entirely unlike the clean breeze of spring giving way to the sultrier tones of summer. Above your head, drumbeats from a few blocks over echo, booming off office building windows, tolling the arrival of thousands of bands and countless other scenes of frenzied madness to take place around the city in the coming days.

At this point, with the theaters emptying out and the bars filling up, it might seem like an apt opportunity to sum up the SXSW 2006 film festival, perhaps to put it all into some kind of context or lend it cultural importance. I’ll leave that issue, however, for the industry pundits to spin. After 15 films in seven days, this reviewer is happy to hand over the reigns to the musicians and their critics. I’ll be content to shove in my earplugs and get some sleep, celluloid images dancing in my head.


Director: JT Petty
Cast: Carol Clover, Debbie D, Erik Marcizak, Fred Vogel, Bill Zebub
11:59 PM, Friday March 10th - Alamo S. Lamar 1
11:59 PM, Tuesday March 14th - Alamo Downtown
7:15 PM, Wednesday March 15th - Alamo Downtown

“I think we’re all a little off”. With this, B movie “scream queen” Debbie D neatly sums up the inhabitants of the world of underground horror. It’s a point that S&Man (pronounced “Sandman”) director JT Petty seems to agree with, though he’s interested in a much broader definition of “we” than simply the directors, actors, and aficionados of this darkly violent genre of filmmaking. The film explores the psychological underpinnings of an attraction to the macabre that’s prevalent in a wide sampling of humanity, ranging from theatergoers who watch mainstream horror flicks like Saw, Hostel, or anything with Tim Allen in it, to the people making and buying so-called “faux snuff” films that simulate torture and killing.

It’s the latter group that Petty, a horror director himself, spends most of the film with, attempting to tease out specifically just where the attraction lies in filming or watching someone being bloodied on camera. Through interviews with actors, academics, psychologists, and filmmakers, S&Man hints at explanations. One professor’s theory is that we’re all either masochists or sadists identifying with either victim or violator. But it fails to fully articulate an easy answer. Instead, the film’s focus comes to rest on one of the creepiest subjects of its interviews; a chubby, affable guy named Eric who has produced an underground series of “fake” snuff flicks. The documentary takes its title from Eric’s series of films, which, as he proudly shows off, consist of him following and stalking the victims (all women) before breaking into their apartments, practicing voodoo with some of their stolen effects, and then kidnapping, torturing, and killing them. All of this happens through a first person point of view on a home video camera.

At first, Petty’s film attempts to use Eric as a case study for its larger investigations. But, as S&Man progresses, Eric becomes increasingly elusive (refusing to explain why these women agree to go along with his filming) and we’re meant to question just how much of his fake films are really fake. The unsettling scenario that emerges is more than simply disturbing; it’s also a great way for the film to underscore its main project, which is questioning our own relationship to horror and violence. Where do we draw the line between entertainment and violent perversion, and who determines what is what? What are the ramifications of this type of fixation? Certainly these are important questions to ponder as we wade through a never-ending flood of horrific images coming back from Iraq and other parts of the world (all of which, we should remember, had to be recorded by somebody). Perhaps too, the impetus for this dynamic is worth considering the next time we find ourselves in a long line of rubbernecking traffic slowed by an accident ahead, stuck behind those inevitable drivers who are struggling to get a closer glimpse of the roadside carnage.


Director: Chris Bradley & Kyle Labrache
Cast: Annabelle Gurwitch, Tim Allen, David Cross, Andy Dick, Illeana Douglas, Jeff Garlin, Anne Meara, Bob Odenkirk, Robert Reich, Jeffrey Ross, Harry Shearer, Fred Willard
4:30 PM, Sunday March 12th - Austin Convention Ctr
9:30 PM, Wednesday March 15th - Austin Convention Ctr
9:00 PM, Saturday March 18th - Alamo Downtown

Sacked, axed, dumped, booted, downsized, outsourced, let go, sent packin’, cut loose, and shitcanned. The wide variety of terms we’ve come to associate with losing a job reflects that, for many, being fired is a common enough occurrence. For actress Annabelle Gurwitch, however, her experience was traumatic enough to inspire a film about the emotional difficulties that confronted her when such an event occured. Of course, Gurwitch wasn’t just fired from any run of the mill job; it was Woody Allen himself who let her go, telling her (she repeats again and again) that she looked “retarded” in a play he was directing. Devastated but undaunted, the plucky Gurwitch decided to make lemons out of lemonade. In fact, she developed an entire cottage industry from her experience. Fired! is a film, a book, as well as a play, that looks to bring together funny stories of people being canned in an ostensible effort at group therapy for the downsized. By laughing at our miseries, the reasoning goes, we can collectively overcome them. At least, that’s what Gurwitch seems to have done.

Here’s where it gets tricky, though. The first half of the film is spent interviewing now successful actors (Jeff Garlin, Anne Meara, Harry Shearer, and others) and getting them to relive their worst firing moments on camera for our amusement. Comedienne Judy Gold sharply points out, however, that comedy is really just tragedy plus time. When Fired! moves from established Hollywood celebrities to laid off auto workers in Michigan, the jokes aren’t funny, anymore. These folks are fighting for their livelihoods, not angling for a good review in a play. Gurwitch (we assume) is trying to make some larger point about the growing instability of the American workforce, the threat of outsourcing, and the evil that CEOs do when they bankrupt their companies, but those topics are pretty hard to laugh at.

Essentially, the film tries to yoke two completely different worlds together under the same set of rules. The difference is that somebody who gets fired from a white collar entertainment gig (after all, when’s the last time method acting was offered at a technical institute?) can always fall back on blue collar work (see your nearest model/actress/waitress). What are people who are laid off from their blue collar jobs supposed to do? Get their famous friends together and make a movie? That Gurwitch misses this crucial distinction makes Fired! an exercise in naiveté at best, social insensitivity at worst, and her attempts at humor begin to fall increasingly flat. The unemployment line, after all, can be a tough crowd.


Slam Planet: War of the Words
Director: Mike Henry & Kyle Fuller
Cast: Christopher Lee, Andy Buck, Tony Jackson,Zell Miller III, Da’Shade Moonbeam, Celena Glenn, Rachel McKibbens, George McKibbens, Anis Mojgani, Taylor Mali
10:30 PM, Sunday March 12th - Alamo S. Lamar 2
12:00 PM, Thursday March 16th - Alamo S. Lamar 2
1:30 PM, Saturday March 18th - Alamo S. Lamar 1

Is it art or sport? Detractors of slam poetry have long argued that the form is a bastardized stepchild of “serious” work done by “true” artists, putting all the emphasis on elaborate performance rather than on the words themselves. Slam Planet: War of the Words , however, has a counter argument in mind. Following two teams of slam poets, one from Austin and one from New York City, as they prepare for the National Poetry Slam, the film chronicles the earnestness and sincerity of the performers and the richness of the community that they participate in.

Slam, for the uninitiated, is a form of spoken word performance that emphasizes audience interaction with the poet. Judges are selected at random from the crowd to assess the effectiveness of each poem on a scale of 1 to 10. As such, slam is about more than poetry; it’s about competition. Many of the poets interviewed for the film are quick to dismiss this aspect of the practice, insisting instead on the importance of emotional intensity and communication with the audience. It’s hard to see this, though, when poets divvy up into competing teams, proclaiming the need to “punch these muthafuckas in the neck”. And, structurally, Slam Planet is set up exactly like a typical sports film, showing the teams separately preparing for the big competition and then following them into the heat of battle, words and tears flowing freely.

But something funny happened along my way to dismissing this film (and slam as a whole). The film shows that the competitions, as contrived as they might be, allow for the expression of palpable sensitivity and genuine human feeling. And while there are those who admit on camera that getting “choked up” is a good strategy for raising scores, it’s hard to be cynical about a stepfather’s frayed rant about his son’s custody battle, or a teacher’s proud homage to his deaf students. As an MFA student in poetry, I’ve sat in many a workshop that’s poo-poo’ed slam as inferior to the likes of Whitman, Stevens, or Auden. Slam Planet, however, captures the art of these words and reminds us that more poetry in the world, of any kind, is always a good thing.


Director: Turk Pipkin
Cast: Desmond Tutu, Steve Weinberg, Rick Smalley, Harold Varmus, Jody Williams, Ahmed Zewail, Wangari Maathai, Sir Joseph Rotblat, Amartya Sen, Turk Pipkin
7:30 PM, Thursday March 16th - Paramount

Go to your stereo, put on Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”, and crank up the volume. Now pull out a stack of National Geographic magazines and flip slowly through them, taking in the all the difficulties and mystery that exist on this crazy little planet. Congratulations, you’ve just remade the experience of Nobelity , a vague, if earnest, documentary that sets out to tackle all the world’s problems in an hour and a half.

The idea of director Turk Pipkin is a promising one. He spent a year traveling the world, filming his conversations with Nobel prizewinners in an effort to better understand the many threats (lack of energy, war, famine, etc.) that face the planet today. It’s in the execution of the project, however, that disappoints. Pipkin tells us that his children inspired his quest, and that he’s concerned about what kind of world they’ll grow up in. It’s clear, though, that Pipkin is really the star of this show. Rather than letting the more than capable interviewees speak for themselves (they have, after all, won Nobel prizes for Pete’s sake), Pipkin insists on including himself in the frame of his interviews. By the end of the film, it’s clear that Turk’s in no danger of winning a Nobel himself anytime soon. His comments stem from the “aw, shucks” variety, which may be helpful in communicating a layman’s perspective, but is distracting when statements like “I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I found it anyway” are meant to convey some kind of deeper meaning to the audience.

It’s precisely this kind of vagueness that’s most troubling about the film. What can be done to solve the many crises facing our planet? What lessons can we learn from these great minds? Love. Love is the answer, Pipkin decides. After a year of traveling around the world and dozens of conversations with some of the greatest minds alive, Pipkin’s conclusions are far from a revelation. (The Beatles, I think, delivered some similar findings a few decades back. And a fellow named Jesus said a few things about the importance of love a bit longer ago.) Of course, this is not to discount the sincerity of Nobelity‘s project, nor the importance of investigating the many serious problems facing the planet. It’s something, however, that’s been done — without much success, I might add — many times before. Perhaps this film will spawn a global revolution of love. I sincerely hope it does. Until then, however, it’s better suited for a 7th grade social studies classroom than an activist’s handbook. The children, lest we forget, are our future.

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