By Jacob Mertens.
At some point during the madness of Halloween—in which flying monkeys from Wizard of Oz gave pedicab rides, No-Face from Spirited Away handed out candy to strangers, and Sleeping Beauty staggered drunk through the streets—downtown Austin yielded to a strange confluence of cinema and life. It was a fitting end to the 20th Austin Film Festival, though most badge holders had left for the bars on 6th street by this point. For my part, I stayed to watch AFF’s closing night film All Cheerleaders Die, joined by a small band of misfits who did not care that the rest of the city was dressed up and getting sloshed around us. As the half-empty theater squealed in delight over the camp thrills of a self-aware horror film, it seemed to me as good a way to spend the evening as any. And as far as I’m concerned, that diminished audience was the best the filmmakers could have hoped to screen for. We had chosen the film as part of our holiday, it was a natural extension. I might even call the screening a confluence as well and get all the weight I can out of the word; not only a confluence of life and cinema though, but that of all film junkies gathering under one roof.
The AFF Conference and the Infinite Jest of Filmmaking
The Austin Film Festival is known first and foremost for their conference, for bringing relevant filmmakers and screenwriters together in a panel and pestering them for insight. There is an undeniable industry-based audience for this, typically screenwriters looking for ways to break through in the industry, and so a lot of the talks veer into the subject of making a career with film (whether that was the original topic of the panel or not). The festival also has roundtable events that feature rotating film careerists who sit and answer all the questions the uninitiated can think to ask in a given 20-30 minute timespan, and even have pitch meetings that essentially make a judged competition out of pitching a screenplay, like it was a dog show. The whole affair feels a little counter-intuitive at times, since many of those who have broken into the industry have done so by sheer happenstance, or by ignoring the very ‘sensible’ advice of their colleagues and working on instinct instead. Still, there are a few basic truths that seem to rise from the constant reconfiguration of a single question on success, and one of those is that being a filmmaker is hard.
In truth, I found it a bit of a revelation to see how preoccupied filmmakers were about the politics of finance. For some, it really got to the point where the conversation was driven by these considerations well over artistic intent, or more frequently by how a filmmaker’s artistry must be wed to the business of film. While I thought this trying at times, since I am well biased toward a conversation on creative inspiration, there was an honesty to these discussions that would be hard to match in a film press junket. Still, for me the true value of the conference was found in the telling of small, nuanced details of the filmmaking process, which gave context and clarity to a well-known films and filmakers. For example, writer-director Jeff Nichols answered a question about the names of his characters and recounted the story of naming the brothers in Shotgun Stories (2007) “Son,” “Boy,” and “Kid.” He initially named Michael Shannon’s character Son after a Blues singer (Son House I would assume), and apparently had the idea for the brothers afterward, curious about the kind of parents who would not even bother giving proper names to their children. As Nichols tells it, the only we he could see these names working is if no one ever made mention of their meaning in the film. Consequently, the viewers experience the neglect in Shotgun Stories as natural, almost second nature, and that decision allows them a dawning moment of apprehension.
The conversation with Nichols was certainly a highlight of the conference, along with his shared panel with filmmakers David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) and Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) regarding the current state of independent film, who all bantered with each other about how much weight they each lost during their first feature film and spoke on the encroaching age of the digital marketplace. Another highlight could be found with the Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master) moderated conversation with filmmaker Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs), in which the two essentially geeked out over each other’s films for an hour and a half. Following this discussion, the two met again to present a revitalized screening of Robert Downey Sr.’s utterly bizarre Greaser’s Palace (1972)—an absurd, surrealist retelling of the Gospel of Christ—though sadly Anderson and Demme did not dig much into the cheerful blasphemy of the project. Additionally, some of the best moments of the conference were spontaneous, as was the case in the “Deconstructing Alien” block in which actress Veronica Cartwright crashed the panel half-way through and hijacked the conversation with anecdotes from the set of Ridley Scott’s perennial masterpiece (apparently Cartwright, who played Lambert in the film, thought she was playing Ripley up until the first week of shooting).
Strangely though, my favorite conference block had little to do with film at all. Instead “The Heroine’s Journey” saw Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise) and Jenji Kohan (Orange is the New Black) reflect predominately on their careers as television writers. Even so, the conversation managed to be both funny and trenchant regarding the role of women in the entertainment industry and in society. Indeed, the two speakers found common ground immediately, creating a genuine rapport while answering questions about the difficulty of raising children while maintaining a career or how one balances the creative influence of a room of writers. Appropriately, while the conversation only occasionally touched on film, the rewarding and constant struggle of working in the industry remained at center stage.
The AFF Film Lineup and the Ties That Bind
Good cinema can be exalted in many ways, but perhaps the greatest strength of the medium lies in its ability to display the strength of emotional bonds, that which brings people together. In Alexander Payne’s latest Nebraska, the film follows the dour Grant family, in which patriarch Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a booze-addled man in the winter of his life, becomes convinced he has won a million dollars from a Mega Sweepstakes marketing campaign. The rub is that he has to travel from Montana to Nebraska to claim his prize and he does not drive. He begins his expedition on foot, not wanting to burden anyone with his quest, only to be flagged down by a squad car as he treks across the interstate. After being released back into the custody of his family, Woody convinces his son David (Will Forte) to call in sick for work and drive to Nebraska, so that Woody can collect his winnings. David, knowing well the contest is a sham, agrees if only to spend time with his long-distant father and to enable his excitement—a rare state of mind for the increasingly senile man.
Payne has made a strong career in crafting understated character studies and Nebraska finds the director in great form once more. The story remains darkly amusing without abandoning sentiment, while Woody’s pursuit perfectly embodies a man’s last grasp at a great life—he barely has a plan for the money besides buying a new truck and an air compressor, but glows when people congratulate him on his newfound wealth. This distinction offers a shrewd indictment on how status can define a man without holding much meaning, while Woody’s alcoholism gains a steeled edge with his perceived inadequacies. However, as the film progresses, Woody thaws a little and opens up to his son. He even gains some agency in the story as his convictions are ultimately shared by his immediate family, not only by David but with a wife and older son who meet the two halfway through their trip, in the town Woody grew up in. If not for them, Woody would be lost at the end of his journey: disillusioned, penniless, and without a friend. As it stands, Woody’s meek life is redeemed through a family who loves each begrudgingly, but loves all the same.
In Darren Paul Fisher’s OXV: The Manual, the question of love finds itself overshadowed at times by philosophical quandaries on free will and destiny. The film sets the stage with a Science Fiction premise in which individuals are assessed and categorized by their own unique frequencies. By the film’s logic, high frequency means a greater affinity with the world, a kind of yin for serendipity that is sadly matched by a decreased ability to experience emotions. Appropriately, this paradox finds its opposite in those with low frequencies, who tend toward ill fortune but display a great warmth of feeling. Once the basic rules of OXV are established, the film follows a relationship between Marie (Eleanor Wyld) and Zak (Daniel Fraser), who each represent the highest and lowest possible frequencies respectively, and as such can only remain in close proximity for more than a minute before their clashing wavelengths wreak havoc on the world around them.
As teenagers, Marie meets with Zak in a series of 60-second rendezvous meant as a kind of scientific experiment, which Zak misinterprets as genuine affection. Naturally, Zak falls in love with Marie and as an adult he sets his sights on changing their destiny. Fisher’s film creates a delicate balance between giving the audience enough to follow the story but not so much that it ruins the mystery, though at times the closing act does explain away the plot a little more than needed. Still, OXV: The Manual remains a compelling love story throughout, which shows a fondness for existentialism and affirms the bonds made in life in spite of the intrusive hands of fate.
The bonds of family might have been pushed to their limits in Jason Reitman’s Labor Day, had the director taken more chances with his source material. Instead, Reitman’s latest, involving a mother and son who take in an escaped convict over Labor Day weekend, feels far too removed from peril and angst to warrant a deeper appreciation. The mother, Adele (Kate Winslet), raises her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) while grappling with depression and anxiety, which is only worsened when wounded convict Frank (Josh Brolin) forces himself into their home. However, whatever fleeting worry Adele may have that Frank will treat them ill soon evaporates, and the two begin a short-lived love affair that spans the weekend. The elements for a captivating story are certainly here for the taking: Adele might be fearful of Frank but is also drawn to his darkness, bends to his acts of kindness but feels guilt because doing so might compromise her son’s safety; meanwhile, Henry must make sense of Frank as both a threat and a nurturing presence, conflicted by the strangeness of his mother’s growing attachment and the notion of Frank becoming part of his fractured family. If these emotions are felt by the characters, they remain superficial concerns at best, and thus Reitman sweeps past his story’s intriguing potential in favor of depicting a saccharine romance that lacks depth.
The same could not be said of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis. In this film, the titular folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) recoils from cloying sentiment, a natural enemy to his art. Even so, Llewyn finds himself at the mercy of strained friendships, as he crashes on coaches and bums for rides in order to sustain himself as a musician. Llewyn stands at the brink of collapse, sings of a sorrow unheeded, and constantly pushes others away. And he practically guarantees that his music will not be understood by those close to him, because he cannot muster a warmth of spirit outside the confines of a folk song. But his life is not without those who love him, despite his fractious nature and stubborn will. And while tense relationships threaten to cast him adrift, they just barely hold through the film, like a wavering note held for a moment too long.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.