By Jacob Mertens.
I keep trying to think of a breezy anecdote to encapsulate my experience at SXSW this year, but I’m realizing it would be something of a lie. The festival, as great as it was (with perhaps the strongest overall line-up I’ve seen in my several years attending the event), was also tempered by tragedy. Six days in at SXSW, with film winding down and the music festival in full swing, a man evaded a police officer that attempted to pull him over on suspicion of drunk-driving. In his haste to escape, he drove the wrong way on a one-way street, then crashed through a barricade and mowed down a crowd outside a music venue in downtown Austin (video evidence reportedly shows him accelerating into the crowd). Two people were killed instantly and five others were seriously injured and taken to the hospital. Since then, two more have died from their injuries. The man’s blood alcohol content was later revealed to be .114, well past the legal limit of .08, and news has since broke that he had a warrant out for his arrest for kidnapping—a result of some vague custody battle over his daughter. Of course, all of this is just looking for sense in the details and realistically there’s none to be found. It’s an inexplicable loss, and I find myself still shaken by it several weeks later.
The night of the accident, I was waiting at a bus stop to go back to my room for the night. I struck up a conversation with a woman sitting next to me, and as we’re talking she surreptitiously pours whiskey into a Styrofoam cup. She tells me it’s the only way she can deal with the madness of SXSW. She’s blond, reasonably attractive, but I can see signs of her age by the wrinkles at her eyes—not to mention there’s something about her voice that makes me feel tired. For the past four years I’ve visited Austin for this festival, and typically what stands out is an inherent frenetic energy. And yet, after I learned of the crash that following morning, it was like the wind had died out from the streets for a moment and everything was still. For whatever reason, I thought about that woman and her fatigue, swirling whiskey into her soft drink with a straw. I had to acknowledge that there was a whole other world that lied outside of this event, and it’s a world that can at times steal the fire right out of you. Still, the festival resumed without interruption, the wheels kept spinning, and I was thankful for it. After all, what is art if not a refuge? In a dark theater, reality slips away and another world manifests in front of our eyes. If film is to be dismissed as an escape, then so be it. Sometimes an escape is what’s needed, sometimes that escape acts as a salve for exhaustion and heartache. In truth, cinema will likely offer little consolation to those who lost their loved ones, in all likelihood it would be a matter for time alone. For the rest of the masses though, let them huddle beneath the glow of a projector and feel that spirited warmth.
From Unusual Origins
As mentioned above, SXSW had a particularly strong lineup this year. However, the film that left the greatest mark on the festival might have been Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, by virtue of its bizarre origins alone. Over the course of twelve years, Linklater filmed the story of a young boy growing into adulthood, and so his actors actually age with the film. As Linklater later admitted in a Q&A, the project was impractical on several levels. For one, actors cannot be legally obligated to participate in a movie that lasts more than seven years, so Linklater had to have faith that everyone would see the project through. Furthermore, when you cast a six-year-old in the main role of a film that will follow him into college, you have to trust that he will grow into his performance (by no means a guarantee, no matter how carefully you cast the part). Fortunately for Linklater and company, Ellar Coltrane does just that in his role as Mason. The film’s weakness actually lies in the first thirty or forty minutes, in which Coltrane struggles to find a natural stride in his role. However, as he matures so does his performance, and by the film’s end he feels utterly convincing as the character. The storyline involves the give and take of a broken home, drifts between estranged parents Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), and ultimately examines how the past forms us. By the end, the film delicately articulates young love and the fear and exhilaration of an unknown future, and places Boyhood as a worthy follow-up to Linklater’s Before Midnight (2013).
With another film steeped in a peculiar production history, Veronica Mars, audiences find a cult favorite television show resurrected into a feature film, thanks to a fan-funded Kickstarter campaign. The series had followed the precocious teenage private eye Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell), and was canceled after three seasons only to gather a loyal following in the post-show DVD era. Nearly a decade after the show began, its creator Rob Thomas started an online fundraiser to get a film incarnation of the junior sleuth off the ground. The unprecedented success of this fundraiser, along with the recent success of Zach Braff’s Kickstarter-led and Sundance premiering Wish I Was Here (2014), has caused endless speculation about the future of crowdsourced film financing. In my mind though, a more fascinating discussion would involve what kind of a film comes from a largely fan-funded production. In the case of Veronica Mars, it’s a minor success at best. The film play genially enough, but it never shakes the feeling of being a sound episode of television stretched into an hour and seven minutes. And speaking as a modest fan of the show myself (or of the first season, anyway), the film never fully justifies the need for its return. Admittedly, the inner conflict of Veronica Mars as thrill-seeker, who stands to throw away a promising law career just to slum it as a private eye again, feels true to the character and works well with the audience’s inter-textual knowledge of the series. However, there are far too many knowing asides in the film, like a troubadour playing the show’s theme on his guitar, and the show’s old romance between Veronica and spoiled-angry-rich kid with a heart of gold Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) feels terribly played out at this point. All said, nostalgia acts as the catalyst for this final chapter in the Veronica Mars saga, but most fans will probably just be glad for the chance to revisit these characters anyway, compelling cinema be damned.
Unlike the first films mentioned, Brian Knappenberger’s The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz builds its story around the real life tragic figure of Aaron Swartz (hacker savant, activist, and co-founder of the website Reddit), who committed suicide while facing imprisonment for hacking the academic database JSTOR. In this instance, what makes the origins of the film unusual is how his crime, which was seemingly without any malicious intent, provoked the government’s disproportionate wrath in the first place. In the film, Knappenberger makes a damning case that the Obama administration’s hair trigger response to Aaron’s illegal hack had less to do with the man’s actions and more to do with putting the fear of God into a perceived community of dangerous hackers. Through the government’s use of an outdated and woefully inept Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, Aaron was treated as a hardened criminal and faced 35 years in prison and millions of dollars in fines. During his lengthy trial, JSTOR even released a public statement saying they had not wished to prosecute Aaron and only wanted to retrieve their stolen files, but to no avail. Before a decision on the case was made, Aaron—who had become increasingly despondent and certain of his conviction—took his life. Through Knappenberger’s careful construction of events, The Internet’s Own Boy offers a moving portrait of Aaron, whose brilliance is clearly evident and whose flaws are sensitively divulged, and shows the significance of his loss as an activist, a tech-based innovator, and simply a caring person. Perhaps just as importantly though, following up Knappenberger’s previous film We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, the director continues to offer a nuanced look at a loosely-knit activist hacking community that the government seems to have designated as the new Red Scare. In a rapidly changing cultural landscape, in which those steeped in technology since youth stand to leave the old guard behind, the director’s films offer timely and vital testimonies for the internet’s own vox populi.
Taking the Long Way Around
Among the many themes that influenced this year’s narrative films, the wanderlust of searchers and dreamers held sway at SXSW. The UK-based Frank, directed by Lenny Abrahamson, offers perhaps the most elegant example, though this reading is not immediately apparent. The film follows rubbish pianist and songwriter Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who somehow finds himself filling in on keyboard for a quasi-experimental pop band whose lead singer, Frank (Michael Fassbender), lives his entire life beneath a giant fake head (a microphone and amplifier are built into the plaster). Jon has little creative talent but becomes a functional replacement for the band’s former member and soon joins the eclectic musicians on the road and in-studio. However, while the film is largely grounded with Jon’s simplistic observations, the true pulse of the story lies with Frank, whose pursuit for musical purity stands in direct conflict with a need to be adored. At Jon’s behest, Frank takes his band to America in a quest for fame at the SXSW music festival (naturally). Once there, he grows increasingly unhinged and manic, confused by Jon’s naïve confidence and his own insecure doubts. Consequently, he estranges himself from his band and strips his music of its beauty, offering his soul for base appeal and not managing even that. However, failure has a curious way of righting the character’s course, and slowly after this collapse Frank comes back to himself. Fueled by a fascinating performance by Fassbender, who delivers the majority of his lines beneath a deadpan mask (at some point, he actually starts to verbalize his expressions), the film takes on a poignant edge, helped by the man’s sincere desire to create something lasting and the vulnerability of his music. For Jon’s part, he exits film at the moment that Frank’s band reunites behind him—performing a haunting, improvised song that carries through to the credits—resolving his own delusional pursuit in the process. After all, the audience may spend most of their time with Jon, but Frank was never meant to be his movie.
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, directed by David Zellner, also focuses on a somewhat delusional protagonist, though with a far more bizarre ambition. In this quietly understated film, Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) obsesses over an old VHS of Fargo (1996), in which she sees a character bury a handbag full of money in the frozen snowscape of Minnesota. Led on by the film’s opening caption of faux authenticity (i.e. “This is a true story. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”), Kumiko reads the film as a legacy and seeks to travel to America and find this treasure. David Zellner co-wrote the film with his brother Nathan, and through their efforts Kumiko’s dream is contrasted elegantly by an unfulfilled life in which her esteem diminishes with age and woeful marriage prospects. Faced with the news that her job will soon be taken over by a young, nubile woman, she steals the company credit card and flies to America in search of the lost cache of Fargo. Once in the states, the language barrier prevents Kumiko from learning the truth of her futile search, and so she embarks into the blustery winter of the Mid-West with only a thin red sweeter to shield her from the cold. Despite the overwhelming odds stacked against her, not the least of which is the distinction between fiction and reality, Kumiko remains undaunted and plunges ahead: the eternal wanderer out to fulfill her destiny.
Taking a darker turn, Andy Laden’s Sequoia involves a woman dying of cancer who travels to the Sequoia National Park intent on taking her life. Riley (Aly Michalka), whose Stage III osteosarcoma has left her with little hope for remission, films her last days on earth and narrates to her family in morbid, mocking asides. However, on a bus she meets Ogden (Dustin Milligan) and soon begins a fleeting and untimely romance that brightens an otherwise mournful story. Sequoia benefits from a strong lead performance by Michalka and the natural beauty of the scenery, but still struggles to find balance throughout. In particular, Laden spends far too much time with Riley’s family, who learns of Riley’s impending suicide and embarks on a sluggish road trip to Sequoia in order to save the dying girl. The power dynamic between Riley’s separated parents never offers meaningful insight; instead, they bicker just to bicker and while it may be realistic it doesn’t make for great storytelling. The film’s doomed romance offers more promise though, and through these characters Laden creates a modestly moving story of an impractical affair. Riley tells Ogden of her plan, and he reluctantly agrees to stay with her so she will not have to die alone. Together then, they weave through the forest on a winding nature path in search of a pleasant (last) view. As Riley and Ogden traipse beneath the towering redwoods of Sequoia, whose time on earth measure in the centuries, their lives might as well pass in the blink of an eye anyway. In face of such enduring beauty a single life gets put into perspective, and perhaps that’s why Riley chose this place to die to begin with. At the end of her life, it cannot hurt to know that something so graceful and calm will outlast her.
The Artist as King
Finally, a film festival would not be complete without the exalting of artists themselves. Appropriately, one of the most sought after screenings at the festival was from the accomplished auteur Wes Anderson: The Grand Budapest Hotel. The film was actually in limited release when the screening took place, but festival-goers still lined up at the theater hours beforehand, eager to sit in on an extended Q&A with the filmmaker. I must say that Grand Budapest itself is possibly the most precisely constructed film I have ever seen, putting even the likes of Stanley Kubrick to shame. The film is not stylized for effect alone though. Instead, Anderson uses this heightened attention to form and style as a way to reinforce the themes of a character placed out of time, whose adherence to the niceties of polite society cause him to stand out as, in a line borrowed from the film, a “faint glimmer of civilization […] in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.” Monsieur Gustave, played with an impeccable balance of dignity and irreverence by Ralph Fiennes, steadies an otherwise dizzying film full of murder, intrigue, chase scenes, and shootouts with a composed grace. And while the film itself still remains beholden to its lively pace, these brief asides are the film’s greatest strength, for it is here that Gustave’s stubborn nobility offers striking contrast to the fitful action. As for the Q&A that followed Grand Budapest, it was something of a mixed bag. Richard Linklater, who had just shown Boyhood days earlier, moderated the event and the two directors seemed to default into discussing each other’s careers, which was great except for that the conversation would spin out into digressions, leaving specific insights into this film relatively scant. Still, hearing two filmmakers at the top of their form comment on each other’s work is a unique experience in its own right.
In contrast to the overt style of Wes Anderson, Neil Berkeley’s documentary Harmontown places the artist directly in front of the camera. The film follows comedian Dan Harmon, known best for his television writing and his contentious off-air personality, on a podcast tour across the country. Notably, Berkeley does not flinch from candor and depicts the man as an unflattering cross of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On the one hand, Harmon is an intelligent and gifted comic with a down to earth charm to his humor. On the other, he is a frequently rude, lazy, egotistical, self-destructive drunk. Harmontown‘s portrayal seems to be a product of Harmon’s own obsession with honesty, which makes for his greatest strength as a comedian, and for the most part elevates this film from the standard comedy tour format. Harmontown manages to be funny and insightful, often at the same time, and takes detours that like-minded films would never consider, exploring Harmon’s flaws and insecurities amidst excerpts from live shows. With that said, the documentary does occasionally drift into conversations between Harmon and his girlfriend that would belong better in a therapy session. This gives the impression that the director exploits the genuine conflict in their relationship for compelling material, which feels a bit tawdry at first. However, when Harmon goes into explicit detail about a fight they had during one of his podcast events, he effectively makes their personal life fair game. With this admission, the film’s attention to their issues better highlights Harmon’s compulsion for disclosure, giving nuance to already complicated study of a bedraggled cynic with a small but loyal following.
As a note to end things on, it would be difficult to discuss the artist at SXSW 2014 without mentioning Jim Jarmusch and his brilliant feature Only Lovers Left Alive. In an effort not to reiterate the points made in my review of the film, I would rather highlight something Tilda Swinton said in a Q&A following the screening. In lieu of Jarmusch answering questions (he sadly could not attend the festival), Swinton spoke both for herself and the director. Amidst her own reflections on the film’s interpretations of vampiric myth, she mentioned that Only Lovers came as a sort of response to the death of Jarmusch’s father, as he tried to find ways to motivate himself as an artist and move forward. Typically, I do not believe in using personal information about an artist’s life as an integral part of how a film should be read. I am of a similar mind as Roland Barthes, who in his influential essay The Death of the Author wrote that “the unity of a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination” and that the destination lies with the reader¹. In this case though, Jarmusch’s personal history cannot help but offer a compelling point of reflection for a film driven by a character’s need to find purpose in his unnaturally old age. The fact that love renews him and strengthens his resolve makes for a beautiful film, certainly, but it is also a powerful answer to a question posed by grief: why go on? Art may be a refuge, but as always love is what is needed above all else.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.