SXSW Film 2009: Documentaries
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The casual, celebratory South by Southwest festival has come to a close. My colleague Tim Basham and I have been posting reactions to films throughout the fest, and to help wrap this burrito I'm going to recap the films I saw, starting with the documentaries and moving to narrative features in the next post.
Favorites at the top.
45365: This lovely, well-organized slice of small town life is as strong an aural montage as it is a visual one. Walking silently among the residents of Sidney, Ohio, population 20,211, filmmaker Bill Ross offers us recordings of church congregations singing, radio DJs working the airwaves, teens talking to boyfriends on telephones, and coaches pumping up football players in locker rooms. And he shows us fairgoers enjoying a summer evening, trick-or-treaters parading in costume, family members squabbling in automobiles, hunters firing from duck blinds, and teens huddling behind TP'd bushes as a car passes. It's a certain brand of Americana revealed through collage, with no overarching story, just little threads woven neatly through the whole thing.
In the last few years, a number of American narrative filmmakers have embarked on what A.O. Scott called "neo-neo realism" or what Manohla Dargis called "new American realism" or what I called "emotional realism" in the current issue of Paste. But here's a pair of documentary filmmakers whose style harkens back to the early days of direct cinema, to Michel Brault's Snowshoers (Les Raquetteurs) and Robert Drew's Primary. It's the new American direct cinema, you could say, pronounced NAD-ck. Using the zip code's digits as markers for the film's five segments seems a little arbitrary, but 45365 is a welcome, observant view of America anyway, whether it's a mirror of your life or a peek into a foreign world. For me it's a little of both.
Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be The Same: A provocation and an enigma. The most curious thing about this portrait is that it captures the chaotic working methods of conceptual artist Brock Enright in a style that's diametrically opposed to the subject's. Enright video tapes people chewing logs in the forest like rabid animals, but the documentarian frames this quite literal shit into the kind of crisp compositions more often seen in narrative films. What if Degas had painted petulant artists spitting at hotel sconces instead of, say, ballerinas? The resulting documentary raises all kinds of age-old questions about what's real and what's acted, what's promotional and what's investigative — is Enright faking these histrionics for the camera? — as well as a few ancillary questions about art and journalism. But the film doesn't take that tack, never answering questions of veracity. It also doesn't put Enright on the couch to ask why he'd want to act like this in front of a documentary camera (or make people think he had). Cinematographer-turned-director Jody Lee Lipes seems to have interests that lie elsewhere, in the aesthetic divergence of his own work from Enright's.
Enright bickers with his girlfriend about money and attention, he begs his gallery patron for more funds, and he absurdly involves his representative from the gallery in his video project only to slash her tires, preventing her from leaving his chaotic forest. (Note the way he brings his girlfriend, her family, and his patrons directly into his web and yet never looks into the camera. This spider spins two kinds of silk.) Don't even ask what his girlfriend's family thinks of him; he may be naked and smeared with white makeup, but he's using their house and property and asking to enter their kitchen for fluids.
Within and around the artist's cauldron, Lipes demonstrates an almost Zen-like cinematic control. Twice he seems to lapse into musical montage only to pop out a moment later to reveal that the music is actually performed on camera by Enright. Another time he zooms slowly away from the vocal person in the foreground into the quiet headspace of someone in an adjacent room, fading the ambient noise from the soundtrack in sync with the zoom. It's the judicious use of these basic elements, the zoom, the fade, the music, that make this a remarkably assured debut. (Lipes also shot Antonio Campos' film Afterschool, which played at SXSW. I'll write more about it shortly.) Curiously, Lipes never offers a judgment or even a coherent picture of Enright's completed work, and he seems unconcerned with whether it was any sort of commercial or critical success. This total immersion in the process and subsequent disinterest in the product makes the film resemble Pedro Costa's documentary about experimental filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? Costa spends most of the film in the duo's editing suite, and he ends his film with a sublime and prescient shot of Huillet ascending a staircase, leaving Straub below in the lobby of a movie theatre; she died a short time later. Lipes ends his film with the opposite, a birth, and while I can't tell what he thinks of Enright (Costa clearly adored Straub and Huillet), I'm intrigued by the calm aesthetic shape that he applies to a disordered world whose creativity — if that's what it is — is born of destruction. Lipes has an eye for clean lines and a pulse for hypnotic pacing even if he doesn't yet demonstrate a knack for revealing details.
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In brief, here are the other documentaries I saw at SXSW this year: