During Days 1 and 2 of the SXSW film festival, PopMatters dives head-first into the darkest depths of the human psyche, only to emerge cold and bleary-eyed several hours later, and with a few great movies to show for it.
Ah, the human condition. Nothing better than sympathetic crack-ups, horny adolescents, possibly mad musicians, and hugely famous journalists to dramatize it. During Days 1 and 2 of the film festival, PopMatters' Justin Follin dives head-first into the darkest depths of the human psyche, only to emerge cold and bleary-eyed several hours later, and with a few great movies under his belt.
Directed by David and Nathan Zellner
The mind-devouring effects of personal isolation have breast-fed the film world with enough material for decades of voyeuristic peeks into the spiraling descent of an average Joe’s crack-up. Loneliness is a timeless theme, a fundamental building block of that enigma we call “the human condition.” And as long as someone films it, we’ll watch it, won’t we?
Goliath jumps right into this canon of desolation flicks with a hand-held HD cam and a mustachioed protagonist whose mild fetish for really bizarre porn seems oddly casual. It’s a perfect recipe for a Taxi Driver jaunt into hallucinogenic madness -- lonely guy, messy divorce, job demotion, missing cat. Except, where the art-house director might turn New York City into a blur of dream-like lights, or Paris into a tone poem of the psyche’s cold brutality, filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner use Austin’s dry quirk to underline the nature of their protagonist’s singular mind in this strange character piece that somehow toes the line between Travis Bickle’s breakdown and a day-in-the-life look at that pushover dude from Office Space.
The guy in question (played by director David Zellner) is identified only as “Bitch-tits,” the handle given to him by his factory co-workers. Bitch-tits’ wife has left him for another guy, he does weird things with cigarettes and condoms, and he loves Goliath, his cat who just doesn’t show up one day. That’s all at the start of the film. We spend the rest of it watching him fall progressively further apart while searching for Goliath, finalizing his divorce, and getting repeatedly ass-kicked by life.
And it’s funny -- sometimes. The Zellners’ extremely arid wit establishes a comedic element that effectively transitions from an initial tone of “we are all laughing together at the bumbling foibles of this loveable loser” to “Jesus, that’s messed up, why is the guy at the back of the theater laughing?” Where shots held just a smidge too long add humorous awkwardness to early scenes of Bitch-tits’ plight, that same timing turns from funny to the kind of horrifying that makes a lawn mower’s breakdown seem comparable to the earth splitting in two. In one particularly effective moment, we see the full process of the man and his ex-wife signing divorce papers in an uncut, real-time, no-camera-movement display of skin-crawling discomfort. Somehow, the ridiculous boredom of two people signing papers goes from funny to God-I-never-want-to-get-divorced with the simple choice of no editing.
Overall, Goliath is an entertaining narrative featuring a character whose only arc is a plummet straight down to the bottom. Both Zellners offer great performances, and, with the exception of some odd sound design imbalances, some forgivable problems with suspension of disbelief, and a couple of cut-worthy scenes using weak actors who don’t hold their weight, the film works. Goliath demonstrates the potential of low-budget Austin filmmaking to address a universal theme without neglecting the town’s unofficial anthem of Keeping It Weird.
Directed by Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough
Since I was a small child flipping over my parents’ Rockers soundtrack on their JVC belt-driven turntable, I have been enamored by the Rasta. The dreadlocks and the ganja, the I-and-I connection with the Most High, the transformation of our harsh Germanic language into a rhythmic river of accented syllables and soft vowels so musical we need subtitles to understand it... yes, films about the Rastafari make me swoon like a college freshman studying art history in Florence. With The Upsetter, NYU grads Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough certainly deliver a kind enough nugget of the Rastaman culture to keep me happy.
In the first part of this examination of the life of Jamaican music pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry, the filmmakers explore the man’s impact on the island’s music with a delicious gusto that follows the sound’s evolution from ska to reggae to dub. A self-proclaimed “prophet” who has compared himself to Marcus Garvey and Moses, Perry is undoubtedly one of the masterminds behind the creative musical movement and energy that has become synonymous with Rastafarian culture. His production work helped turn Bob Marley from a dance-hall performer into a legend, and reggae from a Caribbean side-note into a world-wide phenomenon.
Slow-mo footage of the lanky Perry working behind the boards posits him as a shaman channeling his sound engineering from the heavens, turning his studio into a musical instrument of its own. As the film progresses, however, it takes a pointed turn from ethno-musicological dig with a bad-ass soundtrack into a biopic of a man whose creativity, spirituality, and ambition touch the delicate fold between art and insanity. Clips of a shirtless Scratch free-styling religious mantras in front of a sign that might have been written by a schizophrenic beg the question “Is there a difference between creativity and mental illness?” Adding weight to the madness side is the filmmakers’ choice to tell the story only with voice-over narration and interviews with Perry himself. This strategy creates the eerie sensation that Perry is, in fact, isolated in a world where the only voices are his own and that of the omniscient in the sky.
While intriguing, this latter half of the film does suffer from some extended edits that might have benefited from another cut. It becomes unclear whether the filmmakers themselves see Perry as an eccentric genius or an unstable manic-depressive. And perhaps that’s the point. Regardless, the soundtrack Scratch has created remains absolutely transcendent throughout, a landmark monument to his connection with the Most High -- that link where sanity drops away and only music makes sense.
Directed by Alex Gibney
I won’t try it. I won’t go gonzo with this review, comparing those popcorn eaters in the third row with a savage pack of dogs devouring mouthfuls of pop propaganda. I won’t subvert this review into a whirlwind exposé of the disastrous tragedy of American consumerism. Let’s face it: there’s nothing less gonzo than sitting in a posh Austin movie house reviewing a pre-packaged film about a guy who jumped into his myths rather than sit back and describe them. No gonzo here. I’m just a writer writing about a movie about a writer. But, damn, could that writer write.
In a highly stylized profile about infamous reporter and counter-culture icon Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo presents an intoxicating portrait of a man who turned journalism into a rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. We follow his life and career from his early days as a freelance reporter, through his breakthrough work chronicling his immersion into the Hell’s Angels, and onward into his sponge-like absorption of all things chemically mind-altering, not to mention his fear, his loathing, and his paranoid obsessions with the fairy tales of American politics. The man was crazy, weird, brilliant, and, above all, fascinating.
But his writing: wow. The film’s strength is Thompson’s work. As we listen to Johnny Depp’s recitations of passages directly from the writer’s extensive catalog of manuscripts, it becomes clear that the best biographer of Hunter S. Thompson was Hunter S. Thompson. He writes his observations, opinions, and half-truths with such a sensitive ear that he turns into poetry even the demons that are the White House suits. We learn that he typed and re-typed the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald just to understand the music of the writing. There’s no doubt that others have done the same with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Interviews with such notables as Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan, Jimmy Buffet, and George McGovern pepper the meat of Depp’s narration with anecdotal admiration of the man, and clips of the Duke doing pretty much anything are like eye-magnets for an adventurous spirit. His campaign to become sheriff of Aspen offers the most enthralling source footage for the film, capturing the man at his most idealistic and charismatic.
But dramatic re-enactments (unnecessarily America’s Most Wanted-like) suggest a substantive lack in Thompson’s life. While his writing stands apart as some of the greatest our country has seen, his self-absorption and his demonizing, mythologizing coverage of everyone he encounters suggest that this larger-than-life character was so lost in the fable that he’d lost touch with the reality around him. Toward the film’s end, scenes of a celebrity-filled funeral after his suicide and the monument he had designed for himself seem simultaneously grand and empty.
As a writer, it’s easy to idolize a man who became his own literary hero. But, as Gonzo takes pains to point out, it seems that Thompson, whether intentionally or not, sacrificed genuine human relationships for the sake of a better story.
Directed by Gabriel Fleming
The idea that sexual identity is a stable and binaristic category is still hanging around within previous generations’ attitudes. But for Generation Y and its descendants, sexual identity is not just a gray area in a world of black and white; it’s an electromagnetic spectrum of grayscale that slathers the laws of physical attraction with a palette of boys, girls, and any imaginable combination of the two.
Filmmaker Gabriel Fleming takes a shot at entering this blurry territory with The Lost Coast, which follows three twenty-something high school friends (and a tag-along newcomer) through a Halloween party in the “we shake identities like earthquakes” city of San Francisco. The night’s events are outlined with an email written by average guy Jasper to his overseas fiancé (read aloud in the film), and it quickly becomes evident that Jasper and now out best friend Mark did a little more than play soccer together back in senior year. The rest of the film explores the emotional ménage a trois among Jasper, Mark, and Lily -- Mark’s high school girlfriend before the closet door got thrown wide open.
Such a vague and (in some circles) controversial subject matter is the sort of fertile ground absolutely ripe for the lens of the camera. It’s delicate, it’s relevant, and it’s important. In The Lost Coast, however, Fleming turns the subtle nuance of personal attraction into a crisis-mode soap opera where every glance and touch becomes an over-the-top insinuation to the audience that repression is happening somewhere here, but where?
There’s a lot of wrestling, too. The guys can’t keep their hands off each other and keep throwing each other to the ground. While the power struggle created by unrequited love and confusing seduction is dramatized to strong effect, the overt displays of male bonding seem to dismiss the delicacy of that rich, fine line between friendship and sexual affection. It’s just too obvious here, too black and white. In some ways, the story gets sacrificed for the intention to scream to the world that there is more than just gay and straight.
Still, some wonderful performances and spectacular shots of Northern California lend credence to this ambitious attempt. And Fleming’s ambition should be applauded. With The Lost Coast, he tackles head-on an issue that many acknowledge but few are willing to address. He’s charting the right frontiers; with more attention to the story and less of a need to make a point, his future efforts might help make the new map.