Tuesday, March 15, 2011

SXSW Film: Inside Jokes and Cults

Posted by on Tue, Mar 15, 2011 at 3:28 PM

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The State Theater, one of the new venues for this year, is a renovated old moviehouse next to the 1,200-seat Paramount; it’s got a lovely, classic lobby with sweeping stairs up, and a slightly antiseptic interior, with the screen set back behind a deep stage.

It’s here I see The Catechism Cataclysm. The film is one fearsomely thought-out inside joke, from director Todd Rohal (who, gesturing to the two rows of empty seats at the front of the auditorium, thanks “Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Hampton’s first-graders” for coming, and reveals his mumblecore bona fides—“I’ve spent time in Joe Swanberg’s bedroom”—before the Q&A, moderated by Austin’s own Andrew Bujalski), who previously made the regional-Dada sketch The Guatemalan Handshake. The film is a wild, forceful mix of the dumb and inexplicable, beginning with metal-as-fuck opening credits and frequent laff cuts to a earnest, chinless priest Father Billy (Steve Little, of Eastbound and Down, whose producers, including mumblecore godfather David Gordon Green, helped bring the film into existence), who once wrote a metal song called “The Eleventh Commandment” (“thou shalt rock”) and who gets drunk off half a beer (and then pretends to be a woman, and that the beer can is his penis). On an ill-fated canoe trip with depressed high school idol Robbie (producer Robert Longstreet), Father Billy understands God’s way, per Rohal, of “kicking you in the nuts again and again.” The works in mysterious ways, with shaggy-dog stories told throughout (they’re inserted as short films), the appearance of a couple of matching Japanese girls called Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, and strange, irrevocable doglegs (as well as poop jokes). Rohal says he “wrote it as a comedy-drama, shot it as a comedy, and edited it as a horror film.”)

Turkey Bowl, the first film by Kyle Smith (but not the Kyle Smith who wrote Love Monkey and is Rupert Murdoch’s man in the Post film section), is just over an hour of ten people playing touch football. A group of late-twentysomething or early-thirtysomething friends (and a couple of nonwhite ringers) get back together for their annual Thanksgiving-reunion game (in August).

Tensions rarely feel forced, and the cast is balanced as well as the football action is choreographed). And it’s funny (each actor gets to call out a snap count in character; my favorite is the guy who says “Eric Roberts! Eric Roberts! Hike!”), within a very familiar demographic. It’s a charming, well-executed exercise in self-contained group dynamics (and, as a friend observed, formally rigorous, as the end credits reveal).

*

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Kumaré is the film that was guerilla-marketed, or possibly guru-marketed, to the Source Code line on Friday night. It comes pullquoted by “Larry Charles, director of Borat and Religulous,” but its relationship to its dupes is much more complicated—big-hearted, even—and the questions it raises about documentary ethics are phrased more explicitly by guilt-ridden director Vikram Gandhi. Gandhi, an Indian-American from New Jersey, grows out hair and heard and sets out to make a stunt film in which he poses as an Apu-accented spiritual leader, but his point about the ego and emptiness of self-proclaimed guides is complicated as the credulous New Age types who become his followers begin to reveal confidences, and draw out his conflicted virtue as he helps them help themselves (even while revealing a gift for caricature). The skippily constructed film relies too much on voice-over and montage and too little on extended interaction—making it, perhaps, primarily a document of the spiritual growth of the director himself.

*

Sunday night brings my first straight-up dud of the festival—which I don’t even mind, it keeps the bell curve from going too far out of whack in a weekend full of reasonably exciting discoveries. But Charlie Casanova, an Irish film in the narrative competition, plays like a douchier Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, with the titular Irish paper tiger declaring war on the nation’s track-suited underclass, and testing fate by playing Nietzschean card games with his friends and their wives.

The stylized, speechifying dialogue gets lost in the accents a bit—the film’s gallery of grotesques may play better, more definitively parodic, in Ireland. But the steel-rinsed color scheme, trip-hop pacing, and Emmett J. Scanlan’s lead performance, dynamic in several different registers, blies a film nearly self-impressed as its subject.

Tomorrow: Ready-made cult films and the latest projects from SXSW microcelebrities.

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