Film Days 1 and 2: Aged Wonders and Troubled Rebirths

At the risk of sacrilege, I’ve come to regard the South by Southwest Film Festival as a kind of religious experience. Not in the way that, say, triple fudge chocolate cake or front row seats to Sigur Ros might be thought of, but in a more structural sense. Let me explain: the festival, you see, is both an indivisible whole and a Trinity, comprised of the line, the film, and the schmooze. Each world is a unique phenomenon unto itself, and yet they cannot be separated from the greater, mysterious whole that is SXSW.

As in that other Trinity, one of these three is less tangible than the others. To belabor the metaphor, I’ll liken the schmooze to the Holy Spirit, that which moves through and in all things SXSW. But how do you know when you are in its presence? Is the stranger you meet in line for the bathroom telling you about his student film to make conversation, or is he trying to get you to write a plug? Is that woman loaning you a pen doing so out of the kindness of her heart, or is she trying to subliminally advertise her public relations firm, whose logo you’ve just wrapped your fingers around? Such are the mysteries of the festival, which keeps you, like a religious zealot scanning office building windows for traces of Jesus’ face, constantly on the look out for the self promotional spirit of the festival, the intangible, omnipresent schmooze that, at any moment, threatens personal visitation. There are some that might call this kind of wariness cynicism.

In the first world of the festival Trinity, though, standing in line for the opening film, A Prairie Home Companion, I feel pretty confident that the middle-aged woman in front of me is not trying to sell me anything. She seems more intent on informing me and anyone else in the general vicinity that she saw John C. Rielly at the airport once and that he’s really much better looking in person. I nod and smile, as, over her shoulder, grackles (imagine crows as juvenile delinquents) squawk in a tree and pepper a Toyota parked underneath with their offal. I contemplate the world of the line as a limbo state for festival goers, stuck waiting around for something, anything to happen. But now I’m mixing my religious tenets and, luckily, I don’t have enough time to flesh out the metaphor. The line starts to break up ahead of me and I file gratefully past the grackle tree, apologetically past the line of unfortunates who don’t possess a priority badge, and now purposefully toward the light, from one third of the festival Trinity to another: into the theater.

A Prairie Home Companion
Director: Robert Altman
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Garrison Keillor, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly, Maya Rudolph, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Robin Williams
9:15 PM, Friday March 10th – Paramount
4:30 PM, Saturday March 18th – Paramount

The Oscars provided the venue for the most recent homage paid to director Robert Altman, giving him an honorary award for his lifetime of achievement. In his acceptance speech, Altman noted with some chagrin that such recognition typically marked the end of a career, while — thanks to a heart transplant — he was still busily involved in several ongoing or upcoming projects. Among those he mentioned in his speech was A Prairie Home Companion, a cinematic interpretation of Garrison Keillor’s live public radio variety show. The results of Altman’s continued efforts were on display as the opening film of the festival, reflecting that, despite the new heart, his trademark consistency as a first class director remains unscathed.

The plot of the film is itself fairly minimal, but this will hardly disappoint those familiar with Keillor’s program. The film instead focuses almost entirely around a single broadcast of the show. This is to be APHC’s last installment, as we learn that the F. Scott Fitzgerald theater in St. Paul, Minnesota (where the taping takes place) has been sold to a Texas real estate mogul (played by Tommy Lee Jones), intent on replacing the building with a parking lot. With obsolescence hanging over their heads, the cast of the show (played by an Altmanian ensemble that includes Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, and the apparently “handsomer-in-real-life” John C. Reilly) approaches their final performance with a mixture of grief, nostalgia, resignation, and (particularly in the case of Keillor) studied indifference.

It is this kind of understated approach that, despite the luminaries that surround him, makes Keillor the real star of the show, both on screen and on the radio. His bone-dry humor holds the show together as the inexorable forces of progress seek to tear it apart. Whether he’s singing about swimming holes and sweethearts, reading ads for duct tape, or simply emceeing and playing the foil for other acts, Keillor, replete in his gray suit and red sneakers, approaches his task with all the dramatic flare of a man clipping his toenails. Such relentless restraint, however, only offsets the comic energy of the other players, and this juxtaposition is ultimately what makes both the radio show and the film work so well. It’s to Altman’s great credit that he chooses to emphasize the comic essence of the broadcast and its star as they normally function, rather than dress the film up with unneeded plot complications.

As a result, the film makes the powerful point that sometimes it’s the simpler things in life that are indeed the most important. In this era of shrinking attention spans, slick superficiality, and corporate sterilization brought on by the likes of Clear Channel, A Prairie Home Companion is a remarkable throwback to a bygone era in radio, an old time variety show that relies more on individual talent than on a million dollar ad campaign. Appropriately enough, in making such a pointed argument for the show Altman is also making an argument for his own continued relevance. Sometimes it’s the old, reliable stand-bys that we should look to for good art, not the flashy, next big thing.

My Country, My Country (Mawtini, Mawtini)
Director: Laura Poitras
11:15 AM, Saturday March 11th – Austin Convention Ctr
7:00 PM, Monday March 13th – Austin Convention Ctr
11:15 AM, Saturday March 18th – Austin Convention Ctr

This is what democracy looks like: a white pickup truck, its bed filled with brown sacks holding voting ballots, its cab filled with Australian private security contractors armed to the teeth, speeds desperately through the winding streets of Baghdad in a bid to minimize exposure to insurgent ambush or IEDs. At least, this is what Iraqi democracy looks like. Laura Poitras’s My Country, My Country examines the true face of the recent elections in Iraq, giving voice to the stories behind those wildly celebrated photographs of Iraqi citizens brandishing purple index fingers as a sign of their participation in national elections.

What a good many Americans did not likely see is those same Iraqis shoving their dyed finger deep into their pockets as they hurried home in abject fear of being targeted by militants. One scene in the film shows a young woman drawing her dyed finger across her throat, darkly anticipating the violent retribution she’s now subject to as a marked voter. This scene is indicative of the grim reality that the film contemplates, detailing the complications and impediments to the much-ballyhooed cause for the US invasion. What emerges in the film’s document is a threadbare and tenuous system of government for which billions of dollars have been spent and more than a hundred thousand lives lost. Focusing on the stoic figure of Dr. Riyadh, a Sunni who works in a free clinic and runs for election as a local representative, My Country, My Country illuminates the both the continuing hardships of daily life in Baghdad, as well as the near impossibility of holding an election in a country divided by sectarian animosity and the omnipresent threat of violence.

As the film progresses, Dr. Riyadh is worn slowly down by the innumerable hardships that confront him at every turn. His clinic is alternately a medical facility and a political salon, as patients seek him out for help for medical assistance as well as their own personal difficulties. (One destitute woman’s husband has left her to join Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, while a fellow physician comes to beg for money to pay the ransom for his kidnapped son.) The film also records the collective grievances and suffering of the Iraqis. The bloody purge of Falluja (whose graphic human cost is shown on Al Jazeera and other news stations in ways not dared by the US media) acts as a catalyst for Iraqi protests, as resentment of the US occupation intensifies and Riyadh’s Sunni political party withdraws from the national election. Despite his best efforts, the doctor is left a candidate without an active party, a man without standing in a country that seems to be slowly unraveling around him.

Despite a negligible turnout by Sunni voters, the elections are eventually carried out under the protection of an overwhelming security presence. The job of guarding the elections, it’s revealed, has been outsourced to private companies in an effort to remove the American imprint on the Iraqi elections. The film ably demonstrates, however, that it is far too late for the US to win back any hearts or minds. Instead, Iraqis like Dr. Riyadh are shown to be more preoccupied with the pressing concerns of survival in an environment where gunfire and explosions are a daily occurrence, where citizens face threats by both American troops and insurgents, and where a flimsy mask of democracy barely conceals the underlying reality of violent anarchy that makes the everyday lives of Iraqis a hell on Earth.

Live Free or Die
Director: Andy Robin & Gregg Kavet
Cast: Aaron Stanford, Paul Schneider, Zooey Deschanel, Michael Rapaport, Judah Friedlander, Kevin Dunn, Ebon Moss-Bacharach
1:30 PM, Saturday March 11th – Paramount
11:00 AM, Monday March 13th – Alamo Downtown
7:00 PM, Friday March 17th – Alamo Downtown

New Hampshire’s John “Rugged” Rudgate (Aaron Stanford) redefines the term “small time hood”. His crimes include stealing bar codes off Gordon’s gin bottles to claim rebates, and fencing stolen trucking school certificates. Scarface, he’s not. And yet it’s his burning desire to achieve criminal immortality that drives the plot of Live Free or Die, a goofy caper flick whose acting and writing are enough to survive the timeworn premise of the down and out criminal schemer whose ambitious grasp exceeds his extraordinarily limited reach.

Enlisting the help of his “challenged” friend Lagrand (played perfectly by Paul Schneider), Rugged sets out to build his criminal empire and wreak revenge on all who oppose him. His first victim: a local tough who’s insulted Rugged one too many times. In order to prove himself a capable thug, Rugged hatches a diabolical scheme known as a “well job,” whereby he and Lagrand sneak into the tough’s back yard and attempt to dump brake fluid into the well holding his drinking water. For Rugged, this will cement his reputation as a hardened criminal, a man not to be fucked with, the Clyde Darrow of New Hampshire. For Lagrand, poisoning a stranger makes for a nice break from working for his controlling sister at the U-Lock storage facility.

After hours in the dark, pounding away at the well cap with everything from a crow bar to a cinder block to their bare hands, the bumbling pair finally manages to commit the deed. Little do they know, however, that their victim has already been fatally poisoned by a batch of bad clams. Convinced that they are the ones responsible for his death, Rugged and Lagrand jump on a pair of mopeds and take off on the lamb, pedaling through the New Hampshire backwoods with all the criminal sophistication of a modern day Laurel and Hardy (though perhaps not quite as smart).

The film’s comic dynamic focuses on the Stanford and Schneider’s on-screen interaction, as their characters both vie to convince the other that they are not what the world thinks them to be. Lagrand tries to pass himself off as a hip sophisticate, though his brain seems as thick as the granite for which his state is named. He spends most of his time flipping his hair from his eyes and staring blankly at the world around him. For his part, Rugged plays up his hardened, gangsta edge, despite his utter lack of street smarts or any identifiable sign of backbone. Despite his best efforts, he just can’t bring himself to be a “man of action”. In this sense, Live Free or Die is more about the drive for self-invention, the need to become the person we know we can never be. Eventually, for all his comic ineptitude, the film shows us that Rugged does achieve the kind of mythic outlaw status he was after all along, albeit accidentally through a baroque series of coincidences. Still, a legend, the film reminds us, is a legend —– the actual facts of the case, by definition, have very little to do with it.