[15 March 2013]
Austin is all bright and beautiful now. The storm clouds that constantly threatened day-long misting at the beginning of the festival have cleared away. There was something glorious about walking the streets of Austin on Wednesday as I made my way from the convention center to the Alamo Ritz, where I was set to see another of my most-anticipated SXSW films, Coldwater. Despite the gorgeous weather outdoors, day six proved to be a bit of an emotional downer in the film department. There was unexpected bloody outrage, a strong dose of melancholy, and a final, tough dose of mind-numbing confusion.
Part One: That’s a Lot of Blood
Director Vincent Grashaw’s Coldwater is the story of a young man sent to a juvenile reform facility 25 miles from the nearest town. His mother sends him there to have him straightened out by a retired war colonel and his power-hungry band of counselors. These facilities really exist and have been at the center of controversy because they are not heavily regulated in any state. Such boot camps are also not used as a part of a court-imposed sentence resulting from a criminal case. No, parents send their children to them. I was expecting some tough scenes from this movie; I’m not blind as to what happens in these facilities. As Grashaw noted in his post-screening Q&A, no one actually knows how many kids have died in these reform facilities.
I just wasn’t expecting all of the scenes to be tough scenes. Grashaw slowly reveals the back story of Brad (P.J. Boudousqúe). A troubled young man, he has a hard time adjusting to the facility, the colonel in charge and the counselors. Colonel Frank Reichert (James C. Burns) is a sadistic leader enjoying uncontrolled power over a group of poorly adjusted and vulnerable boys. Even the toughest of them can’t stand up to him or to the counselors who make their daily lives miserable with long, dehydrating runs and verbal and physical attacks. Brad arrives at the facility with Jonas (Octavius J. Johnson), who ends up suffering greatly at the hands of Reichert and his counselors.
In the middle of the narrative, Grashaw alerts the audience that an entire year has passed with Brad in the facility. We now come to a different Brad; he works as a trustee for the colonel and is told that he has what it takes to become a counselor. We see him fighting to survive and stay clean until his old friend Gabriel (Chris Petrovski) shows up at the camp. Brad senses that his efforts to get Gabriel involved in drug dealing may have landed him here. We get the idea that he feels some compulsion to help Gabriel, but it’s not really clear how until much, much later in the film.
The horrors in Coldwater continue unchecked for the majority of the movie. It’s a very visceral experience, leaving the audience no room to hide from their own discomfort. As it comes to its surprising and staggering final scenes, we realize that we shouldn’t have been surprised at all about what type of people these brutal reform facilities produce. In that way, Grashaw has done a good job of making the point he wants to make about these reform camps. The film does seem slow at some points, but does a sufficient job of keeping audience attention so that we can make it to the end without too much fidgeting. A lot of viewers will feel uncomfortable with the level of violence in Coldwater, but Grashaw can’t really be faulted for trying to portray reform camps most people will have the pleasure of never seeing in some sort of realistic light.
Part Two: Forget the Fairytales
Saddened by the good but dreary Coldwater, I decided I’d move on to another of the documentaries I was so enthused about, Diario a Tres Voces. Translated into English as Three Voices, the film is an exploration of the relationships that three women of very different ages have with love. We meet Aldegunda, the 90-year-old great-aunt of the film’s director, Otilia Portillo Padua. We also meet a middle-aged divorcee, Nora, and a teenager, Monserat. The three women open up about their past relationships and what they think and feel about love.
One of the first things viewers notice is simple differences in attitude between the three generations of women. The contrast is sharpest between Nora, who reflects extensively on her marriage and how important her wedding was to her, and Monserat, who isn’t focused on the immediate possibility of marriage at all. Aldegunda is the most interesting of all the women—she was never married and speaks of the different men she loved as a young woman. She dwells in particular on the man who left her alone with a baby so that he could marry someone else. We can sense the melancholy that she still carries with her to this day.
Diario a Tres Voces
Though Three Voices does not directly explore attitudes about love in Mexican society in the past and present, it does work as a sort of archaeology that reveals social norms through the women’s experiences. We can see immense changes between Aldegunda’s time and Monserat’s time. But we can also see the ways in which love does not change. Unfortunately, many viewers will perceive the doc as being a dreary indictment of love. Perhaps it is, but I was more drawn to how the women involved survived through whatever heartache life brought them. In this film, there is no such thing as ‘I can’t live without you.’
Fairytale-like animation was scattered throughout and the film ended with the traditional saying colorin, colorado, este cuenta se ha acabadon, somewhat akin to ‘and they lived happily ever after’ or ‘and they are still living there today.’ These were nice touches that reminded us that love may not be like we see in the movies, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worthy of being a central component of our life story.
Part Three: An Art Cinema Problem
I was two films into the day and was already tired, but I decided I’d try out Carne de Perro (Dog Flesh), a film that won the New Director’s prize at Spain’s San Sebastian Film Festival. I had high expectations for this Chilean film directed by Fernando Guzzoni. The press materials for the film describe its main character, Alejandro (Alejandro Goic) as a former torturer whose grasp on reality is slipping away. I loved that idea. I couldn’t wait to see it.
And then I saw it. As I wondered the streets of Austin after Dog Flesh, I couldn’t help but think about how art cinema can go really, really wrong sometimes. Guzzoni’s feature-length debut was a disjointed, incoherent film that left the audience behind from the beginning. There are a lot of great shots in the film, but that’s all they are. They’re pretty pictures, but they’re not part of a striking film. They might as well be silent.
The biggest problem with Dog Flesh is that it makes an attempt at being enigmatic while setting itself firmly in a world of reality. I’m a big fan of those weird films that you never quite figure out, like pretty much everything David Lynch has ever done. But here, Guzzoni has missed the mark. He’s committed what author Kurt Vonnegut characterized as the worst thing a storyteller could do to his audience: He didn’t give us a character we could even remotely like. Others have described the film as an attempt to create a sympathy for the devil situation, but it doesn’t even do that.
Carne de Perro
Aside from two brief scenes in which Alejandro is watching a TV news report about Nazis in Chile, we get no sense of his past. We learn that he served in the military and can surmise that he might have done so under Pinochet’s regime. We also learn early on in the film that a friend of his who was also in the military has committed suicide. Pair this with Alejandro’s estranged wife and a daughter that he never sees, and his life is falling apart. Ta-da!
As I watched this line of thought unfolding, I couldn’t help but shake my head. There’s nothing original about it and Guzzoni does nothing original with it. He chooses to give his audience a main character who throws boiling water on his old dog and then repents all too late, allowing the dog to wallow in misery until it dies. It made me wish that Alejandro would get into a big, boiling vat and get the movie over with. Unfortunately, he didn’t. Dog Flesh went on and on, demanding that the audience pay attention to the director’s attempts at being clever.
Dog Flesh is a prime example of why so many people are turned off by art cinema. There are a wealth of great art movies out there, but they tend to get buried under slow, ugly fodder like this. Some critics like to say that today’s audiences aren’t patient enough to appreciate what art films offer. While there might be some truth to this, we also have to acknowledge that not all art films celebrated at big festivals are good.