Film Day 2: Paying with Plastic and Playing an Invisible Guitar

Terry Sawyer

It's time to cut up your Visa and play 'Barracuda' on a guitar built by the engineers of Wonder Woman's jet.

In the hopes that I might glimpse the used-car sales schmooze portion of SXSW, I attended my first after-party, for the film, Air Guitar Nation. More than witness the kind of networking that I myself cannot accomplish without injury, I wanted to see random volunteers from the festival get onstage and do embarrassing imaginary fret renditions of Motley Crue. I always figured these events to be the kind where one would be loath to commit an act of unprofessional exposure, though I'm beginning to suspect that SXSW respects the Vegas motto of "What happens in Austin, stays in Austin." I can't say I had much fun at the party, since no matter where I stood, I kept lining up in the sights of one particularly wet-brained alcoholic who insisted that he knew me, kept calling me his "bro", and desperately needed me to verbally agree that everything was "fucking awesome". (Now imagine that phrase sprayed.)

It seems like one of the conceits of SXSW writing is the celebrity sighting. In my coverage a few years ago, I couldn't help but write about witnessing Matt Pinfield threaten someone with bodily harm. But I'm more interested in why anyone would care about such things, unless it's that celebrity's irrational cache in our culture is such that merely standing next to it is like seeing Jesus' foreskin under glass in person. Celebrities simply have better jobs. That said, I haven't seen anyone to speak of, though I hear rumors that the haggard, party-dented face of Andy Dick can be spotted wandering around.

At the after-party, the people in the documentary, having accumulated their own halo of ephemeral fame, milled about and since we had just seem them on the larger-than-life movie screen, everyone pointed them out as they passed, and the brave went in for a closer look. But I'm afraid, dear reader, I will never have celebrity tales to give you. Well, one year I stood in line behind Jason Lee at a Tex-Mex restaurant and stared at his ass for five minutes. But with this many artists, critics, and musicians in town, it makes more sense to look for hot ass in general and not break yourself trying to drink a Miller Lite next to the inexplicably anointed.

Maxed Out
Director: James D. Scurlock

4:00 PM, Saturday March 11th - Paramount
4:15 PM, Tuesday March 14th - Paramount
11:00 AM, Friday March 17th - Paramount

I'm not the first person to speculate that documentaries and the Internet are the last refuges for sustained, political argument. Bill Clinton's presidency elevated the cage-match banter of cable pundits into a primary source of information for many, thus beginning a distinctly ideological new age in journalism. In retrospect, that era seems a utopian fantasy. The pace of our fractured attention span has become so comically accelerated that we burn through scandals like absent WMDs and Katrina's "unexpected" levee breech at the rate that most crack whore's finish off $5 of rock. That's just one of the reasons that the carefully crafted argument of Maxed Out is such a thorough treasure.

We've already seen liberalism's response to being shut out of the allegedly liberal media in form of such documentaries as Fahrenheit 9/11 and Outfoxed. Although I laud the galvanizing intent of both films, neither pretend to try to speak outside of their own highly partisan assumptions. However Maxed Out could be just the documentary that reaches across the deep political divide to discuss something that nearly every American can grasp: the endless cycle of being buried in debt.

Director James D. Scurlock, who worked on George Bush Sr.'s campaign and was voted most conservative classmate by his fellow students at the Wharton School of Finance, is not someone who could be easily caricatured as a lefty agitator who just hates capitalism. But Maxed Out takes a scathing look inside the world of credit card companies and the ways in which they push their services on the people they know are least likely to be able to afford them. It's also a critical look at the crazed underpinnings of our consumer economy, where a woman like Beth Naef, the Vegas real-estate agent who opens the film, can talk without irony about buying a home she can't afford, dismissing the apparent insanity with this insight: "If you look like you make money, I guess eventually you will."

Maxed Out takes a bottom-up approach to telling this story, acquainting us with several people and their credit horror tales and then embedding those stories into a macro-level portrait of the industry's incestuous entanglement with the political establishment. (MBNA was George W. Bush's number-one campaign contributor.) Perhaps the most wrenching segments come from Janne O'Donnell and Trisha Johnson, two parents turned unlikely activists, whose children committed suicide in college after getting extended credit with no way to pay for it, which led to an insane debt spiral. That people develop fatal moral shame about debt is astounding in its own right when you consider that two-thirds of what most people end up owing to creditors stems not from the principal but from extravagant fees and gouging interest.

When Scurlock turns the camera on debt collectors Robert Johnson and Chris Winkler, you see how much the industry preys on such feelings of embarrassment and crushing levels of personal responsibility. Both men look and talk like coke-fueled brokers, reveling in stories about calling people's neighbors in order to get a message about their debt to them (which is legal) or harassing family members in order to create a situation where their desire for privacy has them pressuring the debtor (also legal). These are just a few low-life practices of credit cared companies and their cronies that Maxed Out reveals. Others include letting a mentally disabled person sign for a loan, in squiggled block letters, and the case of Providian, a credit card company eventually fined for its practice of holding payments several days in order to assess late fees and raise interest rates.

Elizabeth Warren, a professor at Harvard Law School, provides much of the documentary's best analysis. She talks of meeting with credit card companies to explain that the increase in bankruptcy filings directly correlates to their profiling practices. If they simply refrain from extending credit to the poorest consumers, there will be fewer bankruptcies. It probably won't surprise you to find out that they don't care and make most of their profits trolling the economic margins looking for people willing to scrape together minimum payments until the day they die.

Maxed Out succeeds in breathing life into abstractions, creating a powerful narrative without straying into polemical territory. We begin to see the predatory nature of the institutions that lobbied hard for the passage of bankruptcy "reform" with a bill written solely in their economic interests without their having to answer so much as a single question in Congress. It complicates suspiciously simple notions of personal responsibility by showing how American culture connects personal worth to consumerism only to imprison the impoverished in a system of credit that's structurally similar to the debt treadmill of sharecropping. It's reasoned but deeply emotional, a consistently compelling cockeyed look at George Bush's "ownership society", a phrase that I now suspect means that one day most of us will be "owned" by Citibank.

Air Guitar Nation
Director: Alexandra Lipsitz
6:30 PM, Sunday March 12th - Alamo S. Lamar 1
1:45 PM, Tuesday March 14th - Austin Convention Ctr
9:45 PM, Thursday March 16th - Austin Convention Ctr

I'll admit that my primary motivation for seeing Air Guitar Nation was that I was one more political documentary away from running into the streets with Molotov cocktails. This is the movie that will mostly likely graduate from SXSW to become a full-fledged phenomenon in its own right. I say that not without a bit of sadness, because by the time some Fox executive turns this into the next reality-television hit, no doubt some of the magic of this film will be lost in diarrhea digestive cycle of American fads.

Air Guitar Nation follows two American air guitarists on their journey to become the first American representatives in the international air-guitar championship in Oulu, Finland. If for some reason you're confused, the film is in fact about a competition designed to judge what most of us do casually in our living rooms when no one is around and we've taken to the imaginary stage in front of sold-out crowds in our minds. David "C-Diddy" Jung, dressed like a whorish ninja with a breastplate made from a Hello Kitty backpack, dazzles the crowds in the New York and Los Angeles satellite competitions to become the official American representative. But Air Guitar Nation also features a good-natured Mozart-Salieri between C-Diddy and Dan "Bjorn Turoque" Crane, who comes in second place in New York but is flown out to reclaim his title in Los Angles by Carson Daly and then raises money to try again in Scandinavia. Both men merge seamlessly into their air-guitar personas, distilled versions of bravado that are equal parts WWF and latest Brit band on the block. These consuming alter egos make sense when you consider that air guitar is essentially a stripped-down display of rock theatricality. Air Guitar Nation crashes around on the kinetic punch of the performances, full of domination, arrogance, and volcanic sleaze.

When C-Diddy gets to Finland and makes his way to the air-guitar camp, he realizes that air guitar is taken quite seriously by the people who started the contest. They talk without the slightest hint of sarcasm about how if you're holding an air guitar, you can't be holding a gun. In my mind, I heard every Texan in the audience ask why you couldn't use your gun to play your air guitar. Jackyl, after all, built a song around the sound of a chainsaw. But this sincerity, in part, gives the movie an unpredictable level of heart and soul as the viewer watches how the American contingent is embraced, particularly when viewed through the lens of U.S.'s currently debased standing in international politics. Air Guitar Nation also acts as an indirect case study of the artificial and arbitrary nature of celebrity. After winning the regional competition in New York, C-Diddy enters the L.A. club to hushed whispers of "There he is, that's C-Diddy". The process by which these obviously satirical personas turned into bona fide celebrities by virtue of being stuck on stage in front of a camera was fascinating. The formula for fame is almost mathematical, with blanks that can be filled in with absolutely anything. That an international competition can be built around private impersonations and approximations of musicianship makes this seem especially apparent. None of this, mind you, robs the movie of one ounce of its energy or passion.

Not since seeing Rocky and maybe E.T. have I been in a movie theater so completely thrown into a narrative. I can't bring myself to spoil a single second of the tension, tears and triumph for you, so you'll have to see it for yourself to get the full-on "airness" of it all. Or just wait a year and you can try out in a Cincinnati mall in front of Simon Cowell and Fred Durst, only to be told you're too fat or gay to really become America's air-guitar idol.

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