SXSW Remainders: Documentaries About Ventriloquism, Stardom, Mardi Gras and Garbage

by |
03/20/2012 1:00 PM |

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Do you still want to read about SXSW, even though hip people are no longer tweeting about drinking free booze and seeing Santigold? I submit that you should, for at least a little longer, since I saw several more interesting movies than I managed to write about at the time. First up, four documentaries: the directors of both Her Master’s Voice and Paul Williams Still Alive use their films to get out from under the legacy of an artistic idol, while Tchoupitoulas and Trash Dance enlist minority subjects to expand their perspective.

In the hour-long Her Master’s Voice, British ventriloquist Nina Conti, facing down career crisis, spends some time with the doc-ready Fascinating Americana Subculture to be found at an annual ventriloquism convention held at an Olde English-themed Kentucky motel—“fucking depressing,” per her ever-present monkey puppet, demonstrating a freeing alter-ego in keeping with the shyly earnest types and their plain-sight Mr. Hydes Conti interviews.

The monkey hand puppet makes a weird tweak on documentary form: Conti acts as her own interrogator, narrating with prompts from monkey, as she recalls her relationship with Ken Campbell, the British theatre legend who got her started on ventriloquism, and who upon his death bequeathed her all his old ventriloquism material, including several puppets: a likeness, a bulldog, a crow, and Gertrude Stein.

Vent Haven, in Kentucky, is a home for retired ventriloquist’s dummies, and it’s there that Conti hopes to cathartically drop off at least one of Campbell’s dummies; the shots of silent dummies seated row after row in folding chairs, horror or comedy in different contexts, suggest something melancholy about the lives of objects now bereft of those who animated them; ventriloquism becomes an appropriate, never-not-sorta-silly point of entry to mourn the things left unsaid.

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In Paul Williams Still Alive, meanwhile, director Stephen Kessler approaches “my friend from the television,” the diminutive “Rainy Days and Mondays” songwriter and recovering TV personality, to make a film about his fame and its lingering fallout. They bond over squid, but the sobered-up but still prickly Williams is on the defensive, both watchful of his legacy and protective of his time: a recurring scene in the film, usually accompanied by the filmmaker’s self-flaying voiceover, is Williams banning Kessler from his hotel room, in Vegas or the Philippines or San Francisco. Kessler’s need for acceptance perhaps mirrors his subject’s early-life drive, seen in the backstory doled out throughout their interactions (“To be different is difficult,” Williams formulates while reflecting on his time in the spotlight “To be special is addicting”), but I can’t help imagine an alternate version composed entirely from the storage locker’s worth of VHS tapes Williams leaves Kessler. The clips of 70s and 80s B-list culture tell their own story of the American fame machine: the giddy highs of coked-up talk show appearances, Carson’s spit-takes and studio-audience applause at sitcom cameos and Muppet Show hosting gigs; the demeaning Circus of the Stars clips and ever-lowering billing on ever-more obscure talk shows; the glimpses of studio system stars on the way down; and the even sadder trash-culture arcs glimpsed in the clips of Karen Carpenter and Robert Blake as Baretta.

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In Tchoupitoulas, the filmmakers Bill and Turner Ross accompany three African-American boys (and their dog) as they take the Algiers ferry over to Canal Street for Mardi Gras, and sticking with them from magic hour to neon-lit night to foggy morning-after, with diversions for montages of blues and burlesque performances inside the clubs; the boys make do with wonderment and street musicians, fire-eaters, and lovely ladies on balconies. One plays the recorder, and gets a flute lesson from a white lady dressed in skimpy angel wings and white makeup—in one of his occasional voiceovers, he’d already spoken dreamily about an “angel flute” playing in “perfect harmony,” and in general it seems at first as if the Ross brothers are using the boys as unnecessarily wide-eyed surrogates for an unfocused expressionism that’s content to be merely “vibrant.” But their perspective crystallizes into something much sharper in a sequence, late in the film, when they break into a decrepit old riverboat for some urban spelunking (one is freaked out, one wanders up to the tarnished brass bar and orders two margaritas from the ghostly bartender). Though the boys conclude that “we saw some pretty amazing things,” they’re also seen to be consistently on the outside looking in, even on the wrong side of the glass even outside a pizza parlor, and the riverboat interlude suggests something like their reward: an unclaimed space, after a night of demonstrating not just their fascination but also their marginalization, shut out of everything cool because they’re too young (and why else, potentially?).

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Trash Dance was directed by Andrew Garrison, a UT film school professor who, we were informed in an introduction, teaches a class called “East Side Stories,” in which students go out into the wider community to develop projects. His film is a document of a dance performance, after a fashion: Allison Orr, a choreographer who develops performances by professional groups, spends months immersed with the Austin sanitation department, riding along on routes and earning trust by buying doughnuts, with the eventual goal of producing a dance piece inspired and performed by their work.

Much of the film consists of garbagemen and —women doin’ work: empting cans, scraping dead cats off the road, and working in waves to pick up all the hedonistic rubbish left over on downtown Austin’s 6th Street after a typical evening. (For this scene alone the film would have been a great SXSW pick.) The film gets mileage out of their proletarian wit and wisdom—“Treat it like you’re being paid to do it”—their one-liners and skepticism giving way to a committed performance, including choreographed truck routes and harmonica solos, in front of an enthusiastic multiracial crowd braving the rain. Most affecting is the “crane solo,” from the bulky-item pickup truck, an organic urban dance a la NY Export: Opus Jazz, and a camera-choreographed ballet mechanique a la Convento. The triumphal arc, about Orr’s choreography finding an unexpectedly lofty articulation of her subjects’ blue-collar pride in a job well done, is occasionally short on the details of her own work (the running time is a PBS-friendly hour, maybe a little less), but the mutual solidarity between the arts and the service industry is a very worthwhile subject for a crowd-pleaser.