[14 March 2006]
This is my first time attending the film portion of SXSW. It’s a much quieter affair, several orders of magnitude smaller than the music festival. The veins of downtown streets, while thick with regular weekend drunks, still coursed in a manageable flow. That’s a far cry from the music festival, where the klieg lights of film crews, cops, and tens of thousands of visitors make the entire town look like one of those parties in high school where word of mouth went too far. There is no spectacle aspect to the film fest, in part, I’m sure, for geographic reasons. Most of the music festival takes places on several contiguous blocks of downtown bar space whereas the films get peppered throughout an area that covers the antipodes of the city. Consequently, there are few congregating clots of people except in the hellish lines. I admit the music badge has spoiled me in terms of getting into where I wanted to go quickly. There’s no theater to empty or clean, so music goers can get right into the bar as long as there’s space. On my first night of film, to guarantee my seat, I had to wait in line for both films for an hour plus. For a person like me, with severe ADD, this is like having someone tell you that you’re going to have to spend the next week with a chatty elderly person who tells long stories badly.
The crowds also seem both more diverse and dressed down; there’s no indie fashion runway to seeing movies. Perhaps that’s because a silent, darkened room with faces oriented away from one another is not conducive to the “being seen” scene. I try to travel mostly on foot during SXSW since it’s one of the few times of the year I break away from my harried pace to get a pair of fresh eyes for Austin’s beauty. Because of the heat, I travel with a concealed Speedstick (wholly legal), so that I can be kind to strangers trapped in the dark with me.
It’s easy to see why there is no Lester Bangs of film criticism. There’s a stately reserve to watching movies in a festival setting. With notable exceptions, people fall silent as the houselights dim, laugh on cue, and politely applaud at the end even if they will later take the film out to the woodshed. The atmosphere is one of contemplative absorption, the perfect place for introverts and one of the few settings where you don’t have to worry about people thinking you’re socially broken for being by yourself. This is not to say that the enjoyment level is any lower than the music festival, it’s just that we honor films with our undivided attention while we tend to honor the Rock Gods with wild displays of movement, howls of pleasure, and decadent substance abuse that may or may not end in a stranger’s rustled sheets. Of course, it might be interesting to reverse the two, but I don’t imagine I would last long among the cinephiles if I stumbled around during screening grabbing people’s collars and saying “No, listen. Are you lishening?” I know for a fact PopMatters does not want me to be their answer to Tom Green.
Small Town Gay Bar is one of those movies whose emotional core supersedes its flaws, but just barely. Malcolm Ingram’s homey documentary covers the colorful community that surrounds a couple of gay bars in Shannon and Meridian, Mississippi. Some of the funniest people I know came from circumstances both brutal and tragic, and the joy of watching Small Town Gay Bar comes from meeting and getting to know the group of people who coalesce in these oases of acceptance and tolerance. Jim Bishop (aka Alicia Stone) emerges as the unflappable star of the documentary: veterinarian by day, glamorous drag queen by night. With his pack of pure bred lap dogs, his lover, and his joyous “fuck off” rejection of the brimstone world around him, he’s the courageous anchor that keeps the film’s pace from getting either too sentimental or too monochromatically depressing.
While the film certainly captured the lion’s share of my heart, the cold technocrat in my brain couldn’t help but notice a few rickety moments in its construction. Ingram wants to do too much in the span of eighty minutes to be entirely successful. We follow the lives of the customers of Rumors and Crossroads, only to cut to random sequences that offer thumbnail histories of other gay bars, briefly presented and abandoned. When Ingram presents us with the brutal torture and murder of a Scotty Weaver, a gay teenager from Bay Minette, Alabama, one has to pay exacting attention to notice that Weaver isn’t a patron of the bars we’ve been talking about and doesn’t know anyone we’ve seen thus far in the film. It’s borderline sleight of hand, though Ingram clearly wanted us to understand that life in the Bible Belt as a gay person can come with deadly consequences. If the film wanted to analyze the prevalence of violence and homophobia, it might have helped to give us some sort of statistical overlay or talk about why such an overlay would be difficult to obtain. Even better, why not stick to the communities already meticulously drawn in the film’s beginning? The segment that involved members of the American Family Association gathering license plate numbers outside of Rumors to be read on the radio the following morning was creepy, invasive, and startling in its own right. It had the benefit of being directly connected to the lives of the characters Ingram spends so much time acquainting us with.
When Ingram inserts a painfully extended interview with the violent and psychotic Reverend Fred Phelps (who protested at Weaver’s funeral), we’re off on another segue way detailing the gruesome practice and history of Phelp’s ministry and followers. At some point, the viewer has to at least logically admit that the film omits a significant level of local middle ground. After all, though these communities clearly seethe with homophobia, it’s also the case that a gay subculture thrives without facing a firing squad every night at last call. The intimacy of the main characters’ lives and the more globalized message simply do not graft together well. It is, after all, called Small Town Gay Bar, not Being Gay In Conservative America. It’s not that the first isn’t simply a subset of the second, but Ingram clearly bobbles the transition between the two.
By the time we get to the long-winded extreme makeover of the formerly condemned Crossroads bar which was bought by former patrons after being shut down by local law enforcement, we’ve already topped off in “feel good” declarations about the crucial role these establishments play in gay communities choked off from camaraderie or greater institutional support. Ingram plays dueling banjos with your heartstrings when a pluck or two would suffice. The final sequence involves a nearly endless series of succinct appreciations from the patrons of the re-opened Crossroads. Each one would serve as a poignant closer, but the repetition of several people expressing the same beautiful sentiments of community and defiant identity amounts to a numbing, lingering goodbye that made me want to shout, “I get it already.”
Still, the deficiencies did not spoil my appreciation for this portrait of pluck, especially with the resilient and often bitingly funny people who populate this film. I easily forget in my cosmopolitan comfort, that there are gays and lesbians who can’t so much as hold hands in public for fear of ending up decapitated and set on fire (like Scotty Weaver). I’m seriously considering starting some kind of humanitarian airlift for gays and lesbians trapped in Mississippi and Alabama. But then I realize that misses the point of the film entirely. What I should do is take a road trip to make a toast and buy everyone a stiff round.
Kirby Dick’s prankster exposure of the shadowy machinations of the MPAA ratings board (the group of parents employed by the film industry who determine the ratings for movies) is one of the most intellectually engaging films I’ve ever seen. He starts with a history of Hollywood’s attempts to avoid government entanglement through self-policing (first with the Hays codes). But as we wind our way to the present, Kirby Dick begins his mission to hire a private investigator and find out the names, and sometimes the back story, of this group shrouded in secrecy.
While it’s certainly entertaining to watch the private investigator figure out the rater’s identities, dig through their garbage, and follow them on their lunch hour, the film’s deeper pleasures come listening to actors and directors who have been shackled with an NC-17 theorize about the convoluted motives and attitudes behind the censure. Movies that are rated NC-17 face severe advertising and distribution hurdles that directly and dramatically affect their ability to make money. Directors Allison Anders (Gas, Food, Lodging) and Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry) both ponder the sexist and homophobic undertones to the MPAA, in particular its consistent discomfort with women’s orgasms (which usually lead to NC-17). Dick marshals an amazing array of clips to illustrate the ways in which the MPAA imposes this arcane brand of sexual politics into the ratings system. Nude heterosexual scenes receive R-ratings, while less explicit homosexual ones get NC-17. Graphic missionary position scenes pass muster, while all non-traditional sex positions send the committee into NC-17 paroxysms. It’s as if the unspoken line between R and NC-17 comes from the MPAA’s questionable interpretations of Leviticus.
Of course the problem is not that there’s a ratings system to determine the age appropriateness of films. The issue is that this board has no standards, no accountability, and it operates in invisibility with a stunning level of arbitrariness. The ratings board may or may not give specific reasons or motives behind its cuts or, as in the case for John Waters, it may declare the movie’s “overall content” an NC-17, which means basically that the director can do nothing but eat it. There is an appeals board, but it operates on similar kangaroo court standards and does not allow you to use other MPAA-rated films to defend your own. Dick demonstrates this most cheekily by recording the process of getting this documentary rated. The irony, of course, is that filmmakers would actually be better off with government censorship rather than an insulated industry Star Chamber, because at least the government’s ratings system would be subject to constitutional scrutiny.
The real genius of This Film Is Not Yet Rated is that it manages so many concentric levels of critique. It defends artistic integrity and examines the collusion between the military and Hollywood in making consistently pro-war movies. It talks about the infantalization of American sexual mores and then shifts into the hypocrisy that dictates you can kill as many human beings as you want and still get a PG-13 rating as long as you don’t show blood. Violence is just fine as long as it doesn’t come with real world consequences. Dick psychoanalyzes the bizarre decisions of the MPAA while also casting doubt on the way that this studio-operated system judges independent films. (hint: much more harshly). This documentary shatters the illusion that Hollywood is somehow some deeply progressive institution, given how few companies dominate the media empire and how frequently Hollywood has sacrificed artistic freedom for mass appeal. That he can spin this entire web of implication from a farcical hunt for MPAA members though the streets of L.A. is testament to his formidable gifts as a filmmaker. This Film Is Not Yet Rated manages to work at a breathtaking number of levels. Dick’s intricate hand in connecting ideas manages to make a film about the secret film ratings board into a comic meditation on our culture’s sexual immaturity, militarism, and submission to the fungal spread of corporate authoritarianism.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/sawyer-060314/