Page Two: Knocked Out, Loaded
On the limits of imagination, the brilliance of ACL Fest, and the purifying power of 'The Hottest State'
Get so clumsy
That I drop things
And people laugh"
– Phoebe Snow, "Either or Both"
Often I think this paper's detractors, who often send letters or post comments to express their unlimited contempt for what we do, miss the point. First and foremost, such slings and arrows make for great reading, attracting readers to this very source of intellectual pollution. But it is even more than that: Preparing a new issue of the Chronicle each week is so much fun, fascinating even when at its most difficult. Here, it is never the same old thing week in and week out; it is an ever-changing challenge. The greater community of people responsible for the Chronicle, South by Southwest, and many other things in which we are involved is interesting, surprising, engaged, and committed. They are people who blend energy with creativity to make another force that has long driven me forward, through both the darkness and the light. There is often even joy in the day-to-day of our work. This hardly lessens the responsibilities one bears; it actually increases them. When you are working at something you care about, working every day at jobs that are important to you and make meaning in your life, you have to be even more careful and work much harder than when you are just chasing a paycheck.
If living well is the best revenge – well, some of you should save your harsh and hostile words, because even before you start, you've been trumped. Overlooking years of my being personally ridiculed, derided, and insulted, my favorite recent post asserted that the negativity against me doesn't exist and that I've just made it up to glorify myself. Evidently, I'm such a sad case that I actually haven't been maligned in print very much, because I'm not that significant.
In a way, this scenario bears some of the same characteristics as a subgenre of the stories among the hundreds submitted each year for our Short Story Contest. In these stories, the author (invariably male) writes about masturbating, often to a stunning neighbor seen through a window. These stories are fiction; they need not be autobiographical or confessional. Their writers are in complete control of the story they are telling and the world they are creating. It is just as easy to write about getting laid as it is to write about masturbating. The strange limitation is probably because we are often told to write about what we know.
In this situation, I'm such a sorry excuse for whatever it is that I'm such a sorry excuse for that in order to promote myself, I invent a vicious and vocal antipathy on the part of some readers toward myself. Since I'm the smallest pebble rather than a solid stone thrown into still water, I cause almost no ripples at all. Odd, then, that if I'm creating a fictionalized response, I would detail a significant, though nonexistent, hostility rather than fantasizing a chorus of approval, a sea of fans, documenting appreciation and enthusiasm even if there isn't any.
Last week I wanted to write about my awe at the superb job C3 Presents does putting on the Austin City Limits Music Festival. I'm not really referring to the music; standing in the hot sun with thousands of people is something I've never found entertaining. It's the logistics of the operation I find so impressive. I find my entertainment in admiring the brilliance of the infrastructure, the attention to detail, and the clear concern about the audience's access to entertainment and overall traffic flow. In Austin the prevailing attitude can often be summed up in the statement, "If you can't offer up a bushel of criticisms, well then why don't you just shut up?" To compliment any body or organization is to invite the scolding comments of correction that insist on the preponderance of inconveniences and stupidities that the writer has somehow idiotically missed. With ACL, I take that chance. Given an audience that large, in a venue so necessarily complex, with numerous and diverse acts featured, there are bound to be those who feel underserved. The complaints, then, are inevitable, but one can hope that they will at least be brief.
Every year of its existence but one, I've visited ACL Fest. Without a doubt, I've heard some great music in the process, but being involved in producing events, I mostly go to admire the structure, staff performances, and overall execution.
Years ago, my friends Maggie Renzi and John Sayles came to town for a car trip to West Texas. When they arrived, I excitedly exclaimed to John, " ... and we can visit my friend Robert Rodriguez's set, where he is shooting his new movie, Desperado, in Acuña, Mexico!"
Dryly, John looked at me, saying, "Louis, when butchers go on vacation, they don't visit butcher shops."
Oddly, I've come to realize that I do.
Maybe it's because, even though I've written about and reviewed films for years, my endless uncertainty as to what is tactile reality and what is a contrived moving image has never changed. Watching a movie, I am in the movie; writing about it later is a very different activity. Not reviewing movies is liberating in that it allows you to sink deep into your own peculiarities, interests, and passions without later having to translate one's most personal reactions into a more constructed and accessible analysis.
The other night, I went to the Austin Film Society's screening of Ethan Hawke's The Hottest State, his second directorial effort. I didn't expect much. Actors' movies often don't really work, and when they do, their obsession is clearly about the actorly, not the cinematic. I had enjoyed Hawke's first feature, Chelsea Walls, but was in no way knocked out by it. The Hottest State had already accrued negative word of mouth and bad reviews (witness the paper you hold in your hand). I figured it would be an experience that was more like sitting through an academic lecture then melding with film.
I was knocked out by the movie. Please, do not take this as a stirring assault on shared critical opinion. This was such an intense and personal experience that I don't even want to tread near those analytic waters.
In my world, the first 15 minutes were perfect. Not perfect as in a nice job by a friend of a friend or a surprising achievement by an actor directing but in the most visceral way: The pleasures of the viewing experience were more sensual and physical than intellectual. There is voiceover, which I love – though I know many find such a device aesthetically flawed in that it is inherently noncinematic, a literary device to move the story forward. There was foreshadowing, but it was more a hint of how this ship might sail through the fog rather than a clearly ominous or too easy setup. There were moving shots of the desert taken from cars, a personal pleasure, along with moving shots of forests from cars and very long, deep-focus takes in black and white.
The film is about a young man's journey through love. Mark Webber plays the young man with just the right amount of intermittent, insane intensity. There is, of course, the woman he loves, as well as many finely realized characters and many beautifully realized atmospheric moments.
Watching the movie, I found myself coming face-to-face with my own first love, what happened and who I was through it, in a way I never have before. By the end of that time, I had suppressed my feelings almost completely, while over the years I had basically forgotten the intensity of those terrible storms of emotional longing – the horrible, amputated feeling of wanting so desperately and intensely someone you know is gone from your life. Understanding that the very madness of these passions guarantees this failure, as much as any emotional conviction of the one so loved.
More than anything, this is why I go to movies. Sure, I'm a huge fan of stupid comedies and action films with high body counts. Beautifully rendered adult meditations on emotional complexity absolutely feed my soul (Richard Linklater's Before Sunset is easily the most powerful of these). Although they used to be a regular staple of my moviegoing experience, after my son was born, I stayed away from any kind of horror film, as well as any that chronicle the rain-forest-dense angst of adolescence. Now I rarely watch predictable, heavy dramas about the inevitable failures of life (think Mystic River) and have lost most of the interest in serious dramas that once drove my passion for film. Getting through life, day by day, year by year, is tough enough; I find no ritual cleansing or empathetic flushing out of clogged emotional systems by dealing with them in a third-person, mythologized narrative.
The Hottest State took me exactly where I didn't want to go and hadn't been in so long that concern over going there was not even on my radar. "The love that loves to love the love that loves," as Van Morrison put it: a time of such devastating storms and unrelenting earthquakes that in retrospect you are not sure what you were feeling. Was it a truly emotional desperation over the failure of love? Was it driven more by a somewhat artificial desire for the experience of romantic integrity? Was it a screaming cry against deeply held, unchangeable convictions that one's fate is the complete horror of being alone and stuck inside oneself, with no chance of attaining satisfaction, true love, and intimacy?
I haven't stood on the street corner with that guy for decades. If asked, I would have made it clear that if I never were with him again, it would be too soon.
But now, walking by myself at the end of the evening, it was more interesting than painful. Instead of destroying foundations and ruining bearings, as I would have expected, it brought about near-nostalgic remembrances. This wasn't in spite of or coincidental to the film but because of the intended emotional intensity of The Hottest State.