The Gauntlet

So I’m some 48 hours late posting for the end of the end of this year’s SXSW film festival, but I can’t leave well enough alone. I’ll try to be brief, and round up the last few things I wanted to write about at more length, but, well, you know, I got too carried away actually watching movies and meeting filmmakers. Dentler, this is your fault. Put together a more lackluster festival next year, and maybe I’ll be able write more about it in real time…

The Whole Shootin’ Match: Early in the festival, Mark Rance of Watchmaker Films, tells me that Eagle Pennell’s first feature threw down a gauntlet for other young filmmakers in 1978 and that he hopes his company’s restoration (which is stunning) can do the same once again today. Following the Paramount screening I run into Kris Williams (Hannah Takes the Stairs), Aaron Hillis and Jennifer Loeber (Fish Kill Flea), and Aaron Katz (Quiet City) separately, and each rhapsodizes with me about the film’s warmth and humor and ease with character. Personally, I’m struck by the distinctively regional voice at work, and wonder whether it is possible in a time of Starbucks to discover or conjure such an acute sense of place out of our placelessness and do it in such an engaging dialect. Well, then, I guess that’s the gauntlet, isn’t it?

Frownland: The regional dialect of Ronald Bronstein’s discomfiting super-16mm feature possesses a nerve-wracking precision for expressing incoherence, and as one might expect from the title, the region here is less a state than a state of mind. This is a risky, uneasy film that fits no current (or past) indie vogue that I can think of. As much as it unsurprisingly rejects the evergreen quirky-but-edgy mode, it also eschews the gutter laughs, easy misanthropy and fashionable darkness of the indie guignol. It offers the solace of neither hugs nor hopelessness, nor does it dazzle with the shallow difficulties of brain-teasing, nonlinear puzzle plotting, or Rube Goldberg interconnectedness, while leaving it up to the audience to figure out how and why, if not whether, to sympathize with its characters. But what is it? Almost 3 days later, words still fail me, so forgive my retreat into irresponsible glibness; I can only hope to blurb it as something like "Lodge Kerrigan’s Napolean Dynamite." This is the kind of film that’s nearly as brave to schedule at a festival as it is to make, and I hope its Special Jury Prize encourages Mr. Dentler and his programming team to keep the risks coming.

“South by Joe Swanberg”: credit belongs to Bryan Poyser for the coinage. Joe was everywhere, this year’s “it boy” and I think skeptics (which I am obviously and flagrantly not) can be forgiven their Swanberg fatigue. But I hope we can forgive some excess exuberance as well. In the bigger picture, he’s the first filmmaker in some time who has been or could be so consistently championed by the festival, and his style is very much at the center of a broader aesthetic that is shaping the SXSW rep and identity, helping to make it something other than the first big festival after Sundance with great parties. Did he need a prize? I tend to think his witty trailers and the embrace of Hannah Takes the Stairs, not to mention his friendly and professional connections to so many other films, were prize enough. But I’m glad to see an award named for Eagle Pennell established, and I very much hope in the future to see it go to artists who not only deserve it, but who need the attention it can bring to the gauntlets they throw down.

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End of the Fest, SXSW, Frownland, The Whole Shootin' Match, Eagle Pennell, Ronald Bronstein, Bryan Poyser, Joe Swanberg, Matt Dentler

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