South by Southwest 2003: A Field Journal: Of Hippies, Mummies, and Boys in the Closet

Today’s report by Tobias Peterson

Noon approached. A late-arriving group half-jogged, half-walked, tote bags and badges trailing behind them, toward Austin’s mammoth Convention Center, a recently built labyrinth of meeting halls, registration booths, and mini-arenas that doubles as festival registration headquarters as well as a screening showcase. On tap was the latest in a long line of documentaries to screen at the festival, The Weather Underground, which held company with such accomplished SXSW alumni as The Target Shoots First, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, and this year’s Oscar nominated Spellbound.

Since few make it into major release status, and with little or no shelf space at local video stores, documentaries are typically well attended at SXSW, as viewers flock to films they may not get another chance to see. In a very broad sense, The Weather Underground — chronicling the activities of a clandestine band of militant leftists in the US from 1970-1980 — can be seen as representative of documentaries as a whole: the work of a little-known group of individuals committed to obscurity by their artistic or political leanings. The film itself, however, doesn’t really have time for such grandiose symbolism, focusing instead on the conflicted evolution of the anti-war movement that began in the 1960s and reached a fever pitch before it was consumed by its own militancy and, ultimately, rendered irrelevant by the progress of history.

The Weather Underground

Frequently, to look back at the peace movement during the 1960s is to do so with rose-colored glasses. Flower children dance in the fields and push daisies into the rifle barrels of nervous teenage soldiers, while Vietnam grunts stare grim-faced back at the camera as cigarettes dangle from their lips. These images are certainly part of the story, but they are instantly recognizable, almost visual cliches, with little of no thought given to the actual conditions both at home and abroad at the time.

With footage that’s at once shocking and compelling, The Weather Underground contextualizes the peace movement in a way that brings the immediacy and urgency of the struggle to the fore. The film traces the evolution of the titular group of peace activists (who, in turn, took their name from the Bob Dylan lyric, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”) as they splinter from the non-violent national collective, Students for a Democratic Society, in favor of more militant opposition to the war. The Weathermen (as they were first called) engage in riots, bombings, and robberies in organized resistance against the government. Though FBI investigations force the group underground (hence the title), they manage to continue their campaign into the 1980s.

Despite their radical actions, the film initially makes it hard to disagree with the group, offering up footage of the war that’s at once horrifying and effective. The headless corpse of a naked woman is shown being dragged through a field by a US G.I. Another scene is taken from a M.A.S.H. unit, where a wounded soldier’s leg spurts blood in streaming jets onto the operating table. In addition to these bloody scenes, the film also includes filmed footage leading up to the moment captured in a famous black and white photograph, showing the execution of a North Vietnamese prisoner as he is shot point blank in the temple. The film depicts the prisoner as he is led up to his executioner by armed guards, cameramen and lookers on encircling the scene. The moment of his execution is then slowed painfully down, as he is shot and falls instantly, blood arcing out of his head and pooling beneath him.

The Weathermen’s slogan was “Bring the War Home,” and scenes like this truly accomplish that for the film’s audience. But The Weather Underground is far from an apology for the string of bombings, robberies, riots and other activities the group undertook in the years between 1970 and 1980. In recent interviews with members of the group, most relate that they are conflicted about the violent tactics they embraced. Though they took precautions to avoid violence — the only people to die in Weathermen operations were three of their own group, killed when a bomb they were making went off — the film shows that their actions only marginalized their message, scaring the mainstream off rather than attracting members to its cause.

Although they may not have succeeded in bringing about wholesale revolution, the group did manage to elude the FBI until long after the war in Vietnam War ended. Eventually the members turn themselves in one by one, risking legal sanctions as they opt for a life above ground. No one went to jail, however, for their actual involvement in the Weather Underground (a few members did for non-Weathermen related activities) because, the film relates, the methods the FBI used to discourage their behavior (among other things, dangling suspects out of windows) were as illegal as the bombings and robberies committed by the group.

In the end, then, there is no clear winner in the Weathermen’s saga. While the Vietnam War eventually ended, many of the other causes championed by the group (racial and gender equality, redistribution of wealth, a purer form of democracy) continue to be struggles in progress. As protests once again swell in the nation’s streets, The Weather Underground offers both encouragement to fight the good fight and caution to avoid similar mistakes brought about by violent resistance.

The Nature of Nicholas

While The Weather Underground shows that the personal is political, The Nature of Nicholas addresses politics on an extraordinarily personal level. The film relates the story of a young boy growing up in rural Canada during what appears to be the 1950s. Living alone with his fretful mother, twelve-year-old Nicholas (played by Jeff Sutton) spends his time in a ramshackle shed in the backyard, dissecting beetles under a magnifying glass while wearing a surgical mask and gloves.

Nicholas doesn’t sound like your typical coming of age movie, it isn’t. The action centers on the title character’s crush on his friend, Bobby (David Turnbull). As Bobby begins to show interest in girls, Nicholas’ frustration and confusion mounts, building until one day, in the secrecy of his shed, he impulsive kisses Bobby.

The remainder of the film focuses on Nicholas’ guilt and anxiety about his feelings for Bobby (as his friend recoils from his affection), and his struggle to reconcile his desire with what’s expected of him (girlfriends, parties, and games of spin the bottle). Although this conflict itself seems straightforward enough, The Nature of Nicholas‘s expression of its protagonist’s dilemma is anything but conventional.

As Nicholas frets, the specter of his absent father (Tom McCamus) begins to haunt his life. Appearing in his Canadian military outfit, his father “possesses” people around Nicholas, using them as intermediaries through which to express his displeasure with Nicholas’ behavior. The film shows his father using scissors to burrow into the backs of other characters, using them as puppets to warn his son about the dangers of his actions, and retracting his blood-soaked hands once the message is delivered. The person/puppet snaps back to normal, wondering why Nicholas is staring at them so intently.

In an equally bizarre turn, Nicholas one day finds a very sick Bobby walking in the fields near Nicholas’ house. He brings Bobby back to his shed, where Bobby undergoes a degenerative transformation into a decaying, zombified catatonic. His skin flakes off, his nails yellow and grow, his hair falls out, and green, fiendish fangs fill his mouth. Undeterred, Nicholas brings Bobby scraps of food, comic books, and even braids his hair in a futile effort to cure his sick friend. Meanwhile, a healthy version of Bobby appears at Nicholas’ house and tries to convince Nicholas to hand the zombie Bobby over, so that he can kill his sick other self and bury it in his past.

Though surreal, the metaphors set forward by the film are fairly simplistic. When Nicholas hides zombie Bobby under his bed to keep the secret from his mother, the symbol of his sexuality becomes literally a monster under his bed. Nicholas’ affection, in turn, becomes something twisted and evil, while the ever-lurking father provides a consistent, intimidating reminder that his sexuality is a terrible aberration. Once The Nature of Nicholas has established these conceits, however, the film refuses to move forward, choosing instead to linger over its surreal constructions with scene after scene of Nicholas and zombie-Bobby or Nicholas and the bloody puppeteer his father represents.

Combined with a near total lack of score and a staccato, halted dialogue, Nicholas‘s bizarre, yet repetitive, encounters make the film extraordinarily difficult to watch. While the film should be applauded for its daring subject matter, its delivery is as flat as the broad Canadian prairie that provides the film’s backdrop.

Bubba Ho-Tep

Just as The Nature of Nicholas pushes the limits of reality, so does Bubba Ho-Tep, the latest film by Phantasm and Beastmasterdirector Don Coscarelli. While Nicholas uses surrealism as a metaphoric means to an end, though, Bubba Ho-Tep is a gleeful celebration of the bizarre, as its plot summary will attest.

After trading lives with an Elvis impersonator, the real Elvis Presley (played by B movie great, Bruce Campbell of Evil Dead II fame) undertakes a low-profile existence impersonating himself at local fairs and carnivals. After a disastrous fall during a show, Elvis, now old and gray, finds himself confined to a nursing home in Mud Creek, Texas. Though he angrily asserts his rock ‘n’ roll royalty, no one believes him except Jack (Ossie Davis), a fellow patient at the home who is equally convinced that he is President John F. Kennedy. When it’s pointed out to Jack that he’s black, he shoots back, “That’s how smart they are!”

The two must team up — Elvis in a walker, Jack in a motorized wheelchair — to fight an evil presence stalking the residents of the nursing home. An Egyptian mummy, the pair finds out, has been accidentally set free in the area, and now must feed on the souls of the living to continue its existence. With fiery red eyes and dusty cowboy boots, Bubba Ho-Tep stalks the halls of the Mud Creek retirement home, sucking the souls from the orifices of sleeping victims.

Bubba Ho-Tep combines the behind-the-screen talents of Coscarelli with the onscreen presence of Campbell to create a super B movie, a fast paced farce that’s as ridiculous as it is hilarious. When Elvis kills an evil scarab beetle by stabbing it with his dinner fork, the camera zooms in for his warning to all would be evil-doers: “Never, but never, fuck with the King!”

In a Q & A after the screening, Coscarelli, along with Joe Lansdale, who wrote the short story upon which the film was based, revealed their shared vision for refashioning the King’s ignominious end. No one as cool as Elvis, the pair related, could go out on a toilet as it was reported. Though Elvis languishes in the nursing home at the film’s beginning, he’s dropkicking evil with vim and vigor by the end. Nothing short of saving the world from a murderous cowboy-mummy will befit the last moments of the greatest entertainer to ever live.

The revisionist shenanigans of Bubba Ho-Tep are celebrations both of Elvis and of filmmaking in general. As independents focus on distribution deals and industry types look to pad their bottom line, it’s easy to lose focus of the original creative energy that drives every cinematic project. It took a mummy-busting Elvis to remind those in attendance that films can still be simple, idiotic fun.