10 in Focus
In works of documentary cinema, the proximity between subject and audience falls on any particular point within a broad spectrum. On one end are the types of historical documentaries you might find on themed cable channels, in which the viewer can be distanced from the subject matter by 200 years of time and "voice-of-God" narration. On the other end is the rarer cinema, in which not only the audience and subject, but also the filmmaker, crew, and the camera itself, share such a tight sphere of naked space and emotion that all of their souls are laid bare. It is a cinema in which the truth, as elusive and fragmented as it may become, is ultimately inescapable. This is Ruth Leitman's brand of cinema.
Leitman, who first came to SXSW in 1996 with Wildwood, New Jersey, returns to Austin for the world premiere of her latest documentary, Alma. An investigation of the relationship between a daughter (Margie) and her mentally ill mother (Alma) in the South, the film combines the emotional force of psychodrama with the twists, turns, and upturned secrets of a mystery novel.
It was Margie herself who initiated the project, approaching Leitman (they had already known each other for over a decade) with the idea of doing a documentary about her mother, about whom she had always loved to tell stories. The production was continuously encountering the unexpected, the parameters of the project ever-changing. For example, as Leitman explains, "It started as a piece about the past between Margie and her mother, but Alma's mental health forced us into the present."
Leitman spent three and a half years with the family, not only documenting but also sharing the intimate and at times unbearably painful process of discovery and emotional exploration between mother and daughter. During those years, the traditional barriers between chronicler and subject began to erode away. "I felt at times like I was part of their family," Leitman says, "that I was Margie's sister and Alma's mother." She sees this as the chief difference between documentary and fiction film. "It's what makes a movie like this so much harder than a narrative, where at the end of the day there is a space of relief when cast and crew can step out of character and go home to their `real lives.' In documentary, your story is real life."
The end result is a film that respects the integrity of its own methodology: There are no attempts of invented clarification inherent in a third-person narrator or "expert" witness; no forced designs of narrative closure; no masking of pain or pathos or humor. As Leitman puts it, "I want the viewer to sort out what is truth and fantasy, to define and redefine their opinions of what's going on, just as I experienced while filming it." It's an exploration by the audience, the filmmakers, and the subjects themselves of a kind you've never quite seen in a documentary before. - Jerry Johnson 3/13, Dobie 3, 7:30pm; 3/17, Dobie 3, 7pm; 3/19, Alamo, 7pm
It's one of the most long-awaited second acts in indie history - longer even than the four years that it took Tarantino to provide the answer to "How the hell do you follow Pulp Fiction?"
Andy Anderson's 1987 feature, Positive I.D., put the name of the University of Texas at Arlington teacher in the festival spotlight and caught the attention of major studios. Anderson, a writer and director, took the bait and tackled a succession of writing jobs with studios. The results were paychecks that took the edge off inflation and an opportunity to see and be seen.
But luck would have nothing to do with Anderson's screenwriting career. None of the scripts were produced. Only recently was he able to buy back one that had been optioned for a whole eight years. Worse, "Nobody wanted to think of me as a director."
On the evidence of Positive I.D., that's really dumb thinking. A scrappy, wry, funny, and bittersweet story of a bored housewife attempting to heal from a rape two years before the action begins, the film is a positive monument to the concept that Payback Is a Bitch. Shot on a budget of a few hundred thousand dollars, the film joins the company of other Texas-shot shoestring classics such as Last Night at the Alamo and Blood Simple. Just this week the movie began circulating again on the Independent Film Channel.
The question remains: Why, even with a fruitless quest of Hollywood in the interim, does it take 10 years to return with a feature film?
"First, after Positive I.D. I took an entire year off and did nothing," said Anderson, whose new film, Detention, world premieres at SXSW this week. Add that year to a few more writing unfilmed manuscripts and what once seemed a promising career begins to look like a dead end.
"That's why I decided three or four years ago I had to start making films for myself again. That's my only regret, that I didn't take the money from Positive I.D. and just make another movie."
Detention, all of which was shot within 30 miles of his home in the Fort Worth area, centers on a rather enigmatic loser (played by I.D. star John Davies) who takes a job as a substitute teacher in a school district that has come to resemble Fort Apache, the Bronx. The students are out of control, the school district has no money, the teachers are resigned to mere survival, and legal liabilities forestall any radical changes. The substitute, Bill Walmsley, is assigned six detention classes and becomes a "permanent" substitute - an oxymoronic occupation that likens him, as Anderson notes, to "military intelligence or jumbo shrimp."
Without giving too much away, Walmsley, in order to further his students' chances for completing their education, takes a cue not so much from Sidney Poitier's Mack Thackerey as Lee Ermey's Sgt. Hartman. The film's ad teaser speaks for itself: Goodbye Mr. Chips, Hello Midnight Express.
Why a film about unruly students? "As a teacher at UTA I see brilliant students who can't find their way to class or who can't finish anything, and you just want to shake them. But that's a little illegal," Anderson said.
As with Positive I.D., appearances in this film are only just that, and big surprises await at the end. "It's a lot more controversial and confrontational than Positive I.D.," the director said.
Of course. It's been 10 years and the world has changed. - Patrick Taggart
3/13, Dobie 3, 10pm; 3/16, Convention Center, 12pm; 3/19, Dobie 3, 7:45pm
Atom Egoyan Presents
With the Academy Awards only a couple of weeks off, the Oscar-nominated director of The Sweet Hereafter, Atom Egoyan, is even busier than usual. Thus, we were delighted when Egoyan took the time to speak with us about this unusual presentation of some of his short films and video works. SXSW Film and the Austin Film Society have assembled, sight unseen, a program of rarely seen shorts, some of which are probably making their American screen debuts. The descriptions below are all Egoyan's off-the-cuff comments about each one of these films. - Marjorie Baumgarten
Portrait of Arshile is a four-minute movie which is a letter to our son describing why he has his name, and why he's named after a person who changed his name. [The child is named for Arshile Gorky.] It was made for the BBC and it's a very personal letter. It's a letter that's meant for him to look at in about 15 years. It's in both languages. My wife [actress Arsinée Khanjian] speaks in Armenian and I speak in English. That was made in 1995.
Open House is a half-hour drama I did in 1982, which actually sort of sets the tone for a lot of the features that came afterwards. It's about a very dysfunctional family who use the ritual of selling their house as a way of getting comments from strangers about a lifestyle they have made for themselves. They have no intention to sell the house at all. It's just sort of a way of meeting people, and their son pretends to be a real estate agent and brings people in. It's a very, very odd and skewed bit of drama. But it's interesting for people in terms of later films like The Adjuster and certainly Exotica; it's a very interesting, early example of people ritualizing their experience and using that to fulfill psychological needs. It's really about role-playing. It's about this real estate agent bringing young couples in to look at these older people's house and you gradually realize the older people are in fact the real estate agent's parents, that the whole thing is just a pretense in order for the boy to... the father built the house himself and the boy records the comments of the young couple about the house and then plays them back to the father to help the father's self-esteem.
En Passant... I'm really happy with that movie. It was part of an anthology series for a feature that, as a whole, was a really terrible feature, and unfortunately, the shorts suffered as a result. I think it's kind of a light comedy... no, it's a light sort of look at a person arriving into a town, taking one of these walking tours where he listens to a recording of someone leading him through the town, and then realizing that this voice is the voice of a lover he once knew from this town coming back to haunt him. I'm quite pleased with that movie and I think it will be the American first screening in the States. That was made in 1992.
Sarabande is the latest thing I've done. (Oh, that's great you're showing that. I didn't know that.) Yo-Yo Ma asked a number of artists to collaborate with him on interpretations of the Bach Cello Suites. He asked dancers, choreographers, and then he asked me to do a drama based on the Bach Cello Suite #4 and that's what this is. It's about Yo-Yo coming to a town, giving a concert, but all the various people that he meets and circumstances around him at a concert, giving a master class, and... anyway, I'm really proud of it. I think people will really like it. After The Sweet Hereafter, it's kind of a return to the sensibility of the earlier films.
3/17, Union, 5:30pm
Walt Curtis: The Peckerneck Poet
Better-known for his award-winning animation, New Yorker Bill Plympton traveled through Oregon with 16mm camera and Hi-8 video in tow to record the life and times of outrageous backwoods poet Walt Curtis. Certainly, "outrageous" is the right word here: Curtis, a grizzled, balding, homosexual poet with a penchant for street-theatre antics, is a sight to see as he capers gleefully in the face of conservative neighbors, lawmen, and strangers. As a poet, he seems stuck on images of juvenilia to get his points across (this is one of the few films I've seen in a while to use the phrase "pee-pee" more than once), but there's no denying some of his work is viscerally affecting.
"I ran into Walt Curtis in mid '75," says Plympton, "back when he was the star of the Portland Poetry Festival. He was already a legend even back then - his readings were so entertaining that people would be rolling on the floor because it was so outrageous."
Among other arresting images, Plympton's film has Curtis reciting his "Peckertree Country." Curtis rhapsodizes about the loss of old-growth pines to the Pacific Northwest's insatiable logging industry while flanked by a pair of shirtless, hardbody lumberjacks; at other times he just babbles in a free-flowing, word-association style that owes more than a little to the likes of Joyce and Ginsberg. Still, he is a character unto himself, a celibate (eight years) gay man who takes the filmmakers skinnydipping amid the scenic splendor of the Oregon forests and then eagerly discusses his mission to single-handedly reform Christianity, all the time speaking endlessly, unstoppably, about whatever seems to enter his mind at the moment.
Curtis is not only a poet but also a writer (Gus Van Sant's Mala Noche) and an artist (Curtis' paintings and pen-and-ink drawings echo his voice, awash in scatological images and vibrant colors). He's a renaissance man for the post-apocalypse generation, all fire and brimstone and goofy, nonsensical proverbs.
Plympton, for his part, keeps resolutely off-camera most of the time, preferring instead to catch Curtis in his whacked-out element, be it the Clackamas County Fair and a run-in with an irate and personally offended police officer, or tooling around town in his battered van, checking out the sights and sounds of hometown Portland (interestingly, both filmmaker and subject attended the same Oregon high school, although four years apart).
"I always had felt that Gus Van Sant would make a film about him," recalls Plympton, "because they were much closer than I was. But then, Gus became very famous and went on to bigger productions so I felt it was up to me to make a film about Walt. He just cried out to be filmed."
Above and beyond the call of the weird, Walt Curtis: The Peckerneck Poet is a sometimes hilarious, sometimes bracing look at one of the last true American nutcase poets. It's a little slice of ether in a world of hot air. - Marc Savlov
3/15, Dobie 2, 7:30pm; 3/18, Dobie 2, 4:45pm; 3/21, Dobie 2, 1:30pm
Olympia Miraflores (former Austinite Carmen Nogales) is a popular and successful Mexican soap opera star. Yet her obsession in life is to compete in the Olympics as a javelin thrower. In order to make her dream come true, she runs across the border to Laredo, away from her seedy and abrasive manager Ed (Hal Hartley regular Damian Young) and into the back seat of the auto of Coach (Jason Andrews), a slovenly, 34-year-old, live-at-home deadbeat. Olympia's passion inspires Coach to rise to the occasion and become her trainer; from library books he learns the techniques of coaching and javelin-throwing, but from Olympia he learns how to take charge of his life.
Although the wry and offbeat film is titled Olympia (and there's much that's startlingly bold and original about the sight of this candy-coated Mexican soap star turned single-minded Amazonian spear thrower), the film is not Olympia's story alone. Coach's personal transformation is the story's real turning point. Even writer-director Robert Byington admits, "I understand less about Olympia than Ed and Coach." As clarification he offers that "the part was written for Carmen, and I had a lot of ideas about the part based on her. I've talked to a lot of people who, having seen the film, make a case for her being the center of the film, and I wouldn't necessarily disagree with that, but I do feel like both Ed and Olympia are written for Coach rather than the other way around.
"One nice way a co-writer, Bill Stott (a University of Texas professor), articulated it was by saying that `the men in Olympia want from her in ways she does not want from them.' And that's one of the conflicts of this movie. I think that's where a lot of the strength in her character is perceived by viewers who see her as a `feminist' figure."
As to the question of "why a javelin?", the director lucidly explains that "the whole javelin-thrower thing comes from a couple of ideas that specifically appealed to me while writing the script. One was not knowing how to do something that you're doing. And there's a parallel for making a film. Rather than making a film about making a film (which I don't want to see or make), I got interested in the idea of someone who was not self-aware setting off to do something that he did not know how to do."
Byington was fortunate when it came to casting Olympia. The role of Olympia was written with Nogales in mind, but then he also managed to snag his dream choices to play the male leads. For the role of Coach, the dedicated Andrews (who also stars in another SXSW Festival film, Central Standard Time) added 25 pounds to his frame to acquire just the right patina of the film's lazy loser. Byington knew he had found his Coach when he first saw a 10-minute clip of Andrews' star turn in Rhythm Thief at the IFFM in New York a few years back. "It was like love at first sight," the director comments. "Same thing with Damian," Byington continues. "I'd seen him in Simple Men and Amateur and thought he was as literally Ed as anyone I could have gotten. He was my first choice of anybody."
Olympia, which garnered the coveted closing-night slot at January's Slamdance Film Festival, demonstrates real talent for breaking away from the pack. - Marjorie Baumgarten
3/13, Paramount, 9:30pm; 3/17, Dobie 2, 7:15pm
Houston filmmaker Greg Carter got the inspiration for his Fifth Ward from living in the Houston neighborhood as a child. After returning from college, he volunteered to work with at-risk kids and teach them filmmaking skills, eventually forming the Fifth Ward Young Filmmakers project. After spending time with the kids and getting glimpses into their personal lives, the elements for his story began naturally to fall into place. Fifth Ward eschews a conventional storyline in favor of several separate stories that weave together and eventually converge. There's college-bound James and his romance with Haan, daughter of a neighborhood Asian store owner ( a romance frowned on by both ethnic groups). Rayray, James' older brother, was slain in a Fifth Ward drug robbery and answered to crime underlord Bam; Rayray and James' uncle Earl tries to serve as mentor and role model to James and younger brother Lil' T. James' best friend Rip however, finds it hard to stay on the straight and narrow and gets in too deep with Bam and his crowd. It's a story of people striving to forge a better life despite the adversities of Fifth Ward living, a hard look at all the elements (good and bad) that go into relationships, neighborhoods, and communities.
Carter studied at Texas A&M and Rice, switching from engineering to drama in midstream; both disciplines served him well in the seat-of-the-pants world of independent filmmaking. He considers himself fortunate to have studied under Pulitzer-winning black playwright Charles Gordone, but eventually found the world of writing for the stage too confining and decided to make the switch over to screen. He sees a major problem in the current Hollywood mindset of over-reliance on focus groups, market research, demographics, etc., often to the detriment of honest storytelling. It's a problem especially visited on the world of black filmmaking; Carter wants to avoid having Fifth Ward lumped in with all the other "hood" films and sees black filmmakers as being too readily pigeonholed by audiences and the film industry alike. That's compounded by critics who, grasping for a handy frame of reference, use such phrases as "the next Mario Van Peebles" or "the next John Singleton," but hardly ever "the next Robert Aldrich" or "the next Don Siegel."
One of the vicissitudes of independent filmmaking that the makers of Fifth Ward experienced turned out to be a blessing in disguise: the "continuity thieves." Most of the shooting was done inside two houses in the neighborhood; on the second day of shooting, about half of the furniture, stereo equipment, etc. had been stolen from one house. The news coverage that resulted brought unexpected free publicity and notoriety to the production, eventually snowballing into community support and an offer of a soundtrack. But hey... that's independent film. - Jerry Renshaw
3/18, Dobie 2, 7pm; 3/21, Dobie 2, 10pm
Barbecue...a Love Story
So how is it possible that Barbecue... a Love Story, as sympathetic, dead-on, and passionate a portrait of a Texan culture as any ever put on film, was made in Canada with an all-Canadian cast? "There had to be a Texas heart thumping somewhere in this production," I told myself while watching the film. It wasn't until later that I found out a Texan was the heart of the production.
Writer-director Stacy Kirk grew up a self-described "oil field brat," moving with her West Texas-based parents around the globe as demanded by her father's job in the petrol industry. Something of that rambling spirit must have stayed with her, because she's been on the move ever since. After graduating from TCU in Ft. Worth, Kirk moved to New York where she studied photography at the School of Visual Arts (this training shines through in her filmmaking - Barbecue is remarkable for its sense of visual composition). After a stint in L.A. she took a few years to learn the ins and outs of fishing in Wyoming before heading to Vancouver, where she attended an eight-month "boot camp" film school. The absence of an overcrowded stable of writers and directors that existed in places like L.A. and New York, as well as the desire to develop for herself a working film community, made the Canadian city a fitting place to call home and shoot her debut feature.
Kirk got the idea for Barbecue, the story of an exterminator in a Texas trailer park and his not-always-healthy desire for slow-cooked meat and sweet women, after attending a Southern Culture on the Skids show full of songs about the stuff of trailer parks and fried chicken. "It was a world I knew well already," says Kirk, "but it wasn't until the concert that I was reminded of all the gem-like elements it contains." Whereas most movies use Texas cultures as either cheap targets of condescending humor or exploitative sources of violence and seediness, Barbecue concerns itself with the wholeness of the subject. "I wanted to take this "white trash" culture that's almost always rendered imperfectly and incompletely," says Kirk, "and raise the level of its humanity."
Despite filming in Canada in the middle of October (where it rained for 14 out of 16 days of shooting and the average temperature was below 40), Kirk pulled off a believably sultry Texas atmosphere. But it's the completely on-the-mark Texas accents that her all-Canadian cast pull off that are truly remarkable. "The key is that the sing-song quality of Texas-speak has as much to do with word order as it does with accenting syllables," she explains. "In most movies, even when the actors get the accents right, they're getting the language wrong." While in production, Kirk sent the script to childhood friend and Austin musician Darden Smith, who composed the score without seeing the film. His music blends perfectly with the Texana on the screen.
"I chose SXSW and Texas for the American premiere of Barbecue because I felt here was the audience that would not only appreciate the film, but understand it." Kirk says. It's for her faithful and passionate portrait of our state that we should welcome her back with open arms - that, and because, despite her years away, she still retains a little bit of our accent, too. - Jerry Johnson
3/13, Alamo, 7:15pm; 3/17, Dobie 3, 4pm; 3/20, Convention Center, 9:30pm
Chicago Cab, the feature-length directorial debut of Mary Cybulski and John Tintori, chronicles the journey of one Chicago cabbie (there's a shocker) through a disturbing and unpleasant yet quasi-comical series of fares on the day of the winter solstice. Rather than an establishing a single narrative flow, the film uses the riders' episodes in miniature - botched drug runs, a near-birth experience, a god-fearing family, a disgustingly lonely old lady, and a couple of New Yorkers - to explore and make light of some basic human themes such as racial issues, fear, hatred, but most predominantly, human sexuality.
Despite this being Cybulski and Tintori's first feature, the two, who also happen to be husband and wife, have been working together for years, writing and directing shorts and what Cybulski calls "art films... museum-kind of films." And that slightly atypical film background proved to be an asset in tackling Chicago Cab - a movie in which the beginning, middle, and end are determined only by the progression of the sun across the sky, not by an actual series of events.
Says Cybulski: "The weird little movies we used to make, the shorts, they are non-narrative and very impressionistic. So that really prepared us for this. We really didn't need that [narrative structure]. I think a lot people who come from more traditional storytelling, they would find that a little more unnerving, but we were really comfortable because we have worked in all kinds of styles."
Chicago Cab, which features Paul Dillon as the hack, as well as appearances from John Cusack, Julianne Moore, Gillian Anderson, Laurie Metcalf, and Michael Ironside, is based on a long-running Windy City fringe play called Hellcab, written by Will Kern, who also did the adaptation. And Kern's stark and almost out-of-pocket sense of humor is, for the directors, what really drives (unavoidable pun) the story.
Cybulski explains, "The humor that it is, is really horrible and really funny at the same time. It has that kind of blend, and that's what gets it past the narrative; because there are so many different flavors rolled in together, that makes it satisfying."
The blend of tones "was really appealing to us," elaborates husband Tintori. "We tried to keep that in the directing of it - you just don't know where it's going. There are many ways to have done this that would have fallen into many stereotypes or clichés, but it doesn't at all."
The film does not fall into convention, but that's part of what makes Chicago Cab kind of a wild card. There are several ways to take it. Cybulski claims that reactions to the film have been largely uniform: "It plays wonderfully. It always plays great. It's angry and funny and irreverent; and it's kind of bawdy and bold. Even people who don't really know quite what to do with it businesswise always have a good time watching it: `Well I don't know how we can market this movie, but I really liked it.'" - Michael Bertin
3/14, Paramount, 4pm; 3/17, Alamo, 7pm; 3/20, Union, 6:30pm
Twenty-five years have passed since John Waters gathered his merry band of Baltimore friends and filmed Pink Flamingos, the outre comic melodrama about the filthiest people alive (with its gross pinnacle being the ingestion of a live dog turd by the 300-pound, drag queen/star Divine). The hilarious and notorious film went on to become a midnight bonanza, a cult classic which stands as one of the watershed movies in the canon of American alternative cinema. Divine Trash documents not only the filming of Pink Flamingos but also the interdependent evolution of the careers of John Waters and Divine, and furthermore provides some context by which to understand these cultural phenomena as subsets within the colorful history of independent filmmaking.
Steve Yeager, the director of Divine Trash, is uniquely positioned to document the whole phenomenon. He was there at the beginning, back before Baltimore could boast its milieu as the filmmaking petri dish for such original and geographically devoted homeboys as John Waters and Barry Levinson. Yeager, who still lives in Baltimore, where he teaches and continues to work in film says, "John and I have been friends for 30-some years. I play a role of a reporter in Pink Flamingos. That's why I was around all the times that I was, participated in the rehearsal process, and really knew what was going on with John and his people. John and I met at a hippie bar [described in Divine Trash as Baltimore's decades-old beacon for weirdos, beatniks, and heads]; we were buying dope from the same dealer."
Indeed, Divine Trash reveals to us the young, long-haired John Waters, well before he morphed into a dapper icon of weirdo cinema on late-night TV talk shows. Through on-camera interviews with Waters, various of his filmmaking cohorts, and knowledgeable commentators, we come to understand the formative elements that shaped the director's career. We learn such things as how Waters was obsessed with filmmaking since he received his first camera at the age of 16; how as a toddler he cajoled his parents into taking him to junkyards to ogle mangled car wrecks; how as a teenager he sat on a high hill by his house and watched gory Herschell Gordon Lewis movies at the drive-in through binoculars; and how as a young adult he'd drop speed and take the train up to New York to watch three films a day. "I think John knew what he wanted to be when he was 12 years old," comments Yeager. "How incredible is that?"
The influences on Waters' filmmaking are many - he absorbed everything from classic European art films to Hollywood studio productions, New York underground movies to grindhouse quickies. His shrewd marketing sensibilities were honed early on, as was his habit of working continually with the same cluster of friends and associates. Chief among them was Divine, aka Glenn Milstead, who is now deceased. Yeager clearly sees the film as "an homage to Divine. I knew Glenn very well. He was a terrific character actor, and he would, as evidenced in John's films, jump in a freezing river and try to swim it. Divine would do anything for John because he believed in him."
Insight is provided by such diverse interviewees as Waters' parents (who provided Yeager with fascinating home movie relics, saying "Here, don't tell John"); underground film stalwarts Jonas Mekas, George and Mike Kuchar, and Ken Jacobs; above-ground fringe filmmakers Paul Morrissey, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Jim Jarmusch, and Steve Buscemi; Waters associates Mink Stole and Mary Vivian Pierce; and indie film observers John Pierson and J. Hoberman.
Divine Trash was awarded the documentary Filmmakers Trophy at January's Sundance Film Festival. It's the award chosen by other directors, a testament to Divine Trash's ability to ignite a passionate contagion for the practice of independent filmmaking. - Marjorie Baumgarten
3/13, Union, 10:00pm; 3/16, Dobie 3, 2pm; 3/20, Alamo, 7pm
I've always thought American culture could be divided into two distinct groups: those who pledged fraternities in college, and those who didn't. Those who pledged would be "brothers" for life, and those who abstained would forever wonder what the big deal was all about. Now the truth can be told, the secrets revealed, and the awful, disturbingly gang-like ethos of the modern American Fraternity is finally revealed in Todd Phillips' and Andrew Gurland's disturbing documentary.
An early quote from friendly sorority sister perfectly sums up the Greek experience: "Find the people that you enjoy getting fucked up with the most. That's what you want to be a part of." The bitter if unsurprising truth of Frat House is that fraternity life is just as crazed as you thought it was.
"Andrew and I had always been fans of Eighties comedies; we've always loved films like Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds," says Phillips. "We had heard stories about fraternities and their rituals and stuff, and we felt it would be cool to make a film that combined that comedy and some of the darker aspects that we hear about."
Amazingly, Philips and Gurland pull off what no one else has ever managed: They get inside the party politics and toga monstrosities within fraternity houses. Although a note at the beginning of the doc is careful to mention that the film is a composite of more than one college fraternity, they manage to distill the sweaty, epithet-laden, whites-of-the-eyes hell that makes up pledging, rush, and hell night. Ingratiating themselves into the tentative good graces of one fraternity, they are eventually run off under threats of extreme physical violence. Once the brotherhood realizes they're likely to be portrayed in a less-than-flattering light, they retaliate by trashing the filmmakers' van and literally forcing them out of town.
Unwilling to let their film die a quiet death, Philips and Gurland take things to the next level by actually enrolling in another frat that promises to allow the two to go through hazing from Step One. It's a mixed blessing, as Andrew ends up hospitalized with severe stomach problems, leaving Todd to finish out the process with only his cameraman and sound guy in tow.
So why join in the first place? As one fraternity brother (or, as you learn to think of them, "sucker") says, it's the only place in civilian society you can in effect wield the power of a god. That and the "free alcohol and pussy."
"I think some people are sort of missing the point of the film," Phillips comments. "The film was not made to stir up the frats, it's not a revenge film about these two losers who were never accepted, it's not that. Really, I think the film is as much about fraternities as it is about our journey as filmmakers. It's as much about the journey as it is the destination."
Knowing what he knows now, would Philips enroll in a fraternity if he were back in college today? "In a heartbeat," he says. "Okay, I'm kind of fooling around, but at the same time I can't say that I would also go out and warn people against it. We never wanted to make the film to be the last word on fraternities." - Marc Savlov
3/14, Alamo, 7:45pm; 3/16, Alamo, 10pm; 3/20, Alamo, 4pm