Page Two: Love and Creation
An approach to the SXSW Film Festival
By Louis Black, Fri., March 7, 2008
There will also be three special SXSW daily Chronicle issues, Thursday-Saturday, March 13-15. And please don't forget the annual Austin Music Awards celebration at the Austin Music Hall, Wednesday, March 12!
Under the leadership of the amazing Matt Dentler, along with the SXSW Film team – Jarod Neece, Lya Guerra, Stephanie Noone, Charlie Sotelo, Hiliary Kerby, and many others who work with them – the SXSW Film Festival has become among the most prominent in the country. Our very large extended family came together about three decades back in three basic ways: as film students at the University of Texas, working for the Daily Texan, and/or hanging out at Raul's, Austin's punk and New Wave club. Despite varied backgrounds, in general we shared certain passions, film being one of the most prominent. SXSW Film was begun out of love for film but with limited expectations. Now Team Dentler has so raised the event to a level that earns it national respect and attention.
"The movies are a mother to me
There's nothing like a movie
To move me back to sanity
When I have gone insane"
– Loudon Wainwright III, "The Movies Are a Mother to Me"
"Film is a battleground. Love, hate, violence, action, death. ... In a word, emotion."
– Sam Fuller, leaned against a wall smoking a large cigar at a cocktail party in Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou
One of the best ways to navigate any film festival, including SXSW Film (and which works as well for SXSW Music), is to go to see movies and/or bands you don't know. It's not just taking a chance on the new and different: Often, larger lines can be avoided and getting in is easier. The pleasure of discovery in itself is great. Dogtown and Z-Boys, one of the best films I've seen at Sundance, was just such an accident. I went because I could get in, and it blew me away!
Following are some outstanding films playing the SXSW Film Festival that might not be as immediately prominent as others. This list is a celebration of conflict of interest: Prior to the Festival, I don't watch that many films; most of these were made by friends, are on topics I'm interested in, or were actually made with my involvement. If you want to rant, why bother reading any more? But I promise you, as much as anything can be promised when dealing with an area so completely defined by personal taste, that not one of these films will be any less than fascinating.
"The documentary that left the strongest impression is 'The Order of Myths,' Margaret Brown's examination of the history and present-day reality of the segregated worlds of Mardi Gras in Mobile, Ala. Handsomely shot and intelligently edited, with none of the maddening sloppiness that distorts too many nonfiction projects, the film explores the secret societies, the fancy-dress balls and the celebratory parades for a story that is at once very site-specific and seemingly simple and as big and richly complex as the United States itself."
– New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis, closing her wrap-up of Sundance 2008
The Order of Myths: This film by Margaret Brown is one of the best works on modern race relationships in the South that I've ever encountered. Having worked to produce Brown's last film, Townes Van Zandt: Be Here to Love Me, I am an assistant producer on this one. I had no creative involvement with the film itself. I'm recommending this film because it is so extraordinary, not because I'm on the production team; the reason for the latter is the former.
It wasn't until after college that I lived in the South. Nothing I had read, no movie watched or song listened to in any way had really prepared me for the experience. There were many surprises; completely unexpected was the nature and texture of modern, genteel race relations among blacks and whites. There is an enormous body of work on those relationships when they are at their worst – details of brutality, oppression, systemic legal segregation, the Klan, federal intervention, resistance, the struggle for civil rights, and violence, all accompanied by overblown, profoundly unhealthy basic misunderstandings and misconceptions on all sides. Remarkably undocumented are the very real, basically uneventful, day-to-day situations, personal relationships, interdependence, cooperation, castelike separation, and clearly distinguished social roles (in terms of both the structure and possibilities) of the modern South.
The Order of Myths is not a cinematic essay, nor is it a polemic on race or a document of good guys vs. bad guys. It goes much deeper and is far more comprehensive and thought-provoking. In the heyday of the civil rights movement, I knew many Northern whites who were active in protests. Few of them had any close black friends who were not political allies. In the South I discovered that it was the exception rather than the rule to meet a person of either race who did not have ongoing, comfortable relationships with members of the other race. This is not to argue for a utopian fantasy of Southern race relationships or ignore the very history and ongoing consequences of slavery and Jim Crow. It is to argue, however, that any kind of one- or two-dimensional take on Southern race relations does a disservice not only to all of those in the South but to anyone from elsewhere who digests such material as though it is factual and accurate.
Finally, don't trust me; read Manohla Dargis' quote above.
The Black List: Elvis Mitchell, the finest and smartest of interviewers, talks to 20 African-Americans who are prominent in a variety of fields about their lives and achievements. The story is very much about being black in modern America, but it also proves to be a series of fascinating portraits of people. In many ways, though not directly, The Order of Myths and this film complement each other.
Dreams With Sharp Teeth: Even taking into account how many awards Harlan Ellison has won and how many honors he has received, I've always thought if he were just a little less talented, Ellison might be even more famous. Because he is so good at so many things and beyond prolific, his output tends to normalize itself. There is so much greatness there that it lessens the shining.
This documentary on Ellison captures much of the man and his story. One of the great short-story writers of modern times, he has written titles ("I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream") that are better than anything in lesser writers' entire output. Simply bringing up "A Boy and His Dog" invokes too much material to cover here. The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat, his collections of his television criticism, are sharp, knowledgeable, observant, politically and socially critical; there is no way not to find this work brilliant, even though I disagree with some of his primary aesthetic assumptions about television. It doesn't matter whether or not you agree with him, because, as with the very best critics, he forces his readers to think. It is not an overstatement to point out that Ellison's cultural criticism was a major influence on many media critics who followed.
Ellison was an early and important supporter of cyber-punk. Its direct ancestry can be traced to Dangerous Visions, an anthology of groundbreaking science fiction he edited (followed by two other Vision anthologies). Dangerous Visions influenced – and continues to influence – the whole science-fiction field. Though the book is bedecked with great stories, much of its genius lies in Ellison's introductions, which, as with his TV criticism, influenced a couple of generations of writers – by no means limited to those who wrote science fiction.
Ellison's output makes "prolific" seem a slacker term and includes more than 1,000 short stories, as well as screenplays, creative consultation on the science-fiction TV series The Twilight Zone (1980s version) and Babylon 5, literary and media criticism, TV scripts, comic books, speeches, political activities, and who knows what else. As important in ways is the fully engaged and romantic life he's led, not to mention many strong opinions that he has never been shy about sharing. A biographical film focused solely on Ellison's life couldn't contain but a fraction of it, but when you begin to consider him as a cultural force or contemplate his influences, it becomes overwhelming.
This film is terrific. There is a lot about Ellison in it – but, more importantly, there's a lot of Ellison in it, the latter helping to illuminate the former.
I admit it is snarky and sophomoric to have the organizing conceit of this piece be how he is unappreciated, as appreciated as he is, but I just can't shake the feeling.
The Toe Tactic: When I read the script for The Toe Tactic, I found myself being taken to someplace wonderful, mysterious, and totally unique. I tried to be of some small help in getting the film made, mostly because I really wanted to see it. In a pedestrian way, without realizing it, I was hoping that filming would shrink the script into a much more familiar narrative. Instead, if anything, filmmaker Emily Hubley added more layers to the film. This isn't hippie, self-indulgent nonsense or a work that you can't help but think no one has less of an idea what it is about than the filmmaker. On the contrary, it is fresh film that plays with texture and narrative layering, marrying dreaming, memory, and reality into a different space entirely. Filled with completely individualized characters, the wonderful cast turns in consistently strong performances. The Toe Tactic, the story of a woman and her father, is about love – the dream of love, the imagination of love – and creation – creating art, reality, the past, our future, what is in front of us, as well as what is behind us.
Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry: Legendary tattoo artist Sailor Jerry is widely regarded as one of the first to introduce Asian and Eastern influences into American tattooing. Here at the Chronicle, there is a special and deep affection for Sailor Jerry, because one of the people he taught to tattoo, nurtured, and mentored was Michael Malone (aka Rollo Banks). Banks took over the legendary China Sea Tattoo shop in Honolulu after Jerry's death. Sailor Jerry was a fascinating character, and in this documentary, his life and adventures are related by many of the best tattoo artists. A true pirate adventurer, he lived by his own rules, talent, and outrage, running with an equally crazed crew. It wasn't until seeing this film that I realized he had been a character in a Dennis the Menace comic strip. The film is loaded with stories, tattoo lore, and a lot of great body art.
To those who feel that even for me this column has gone too far into the self-serving, I want to point out that not only do I not gain anything if you go to these films but that if you do and don't like them, I lose as well.