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SXSW2007: Film: Movies 3/12 - 3/14

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The 12th was the last full day post SXSW Interactive so Lauren and I decided to camp finish off the conference with two movies ( sorry MediaTemple after-party ).

After having our brain matter crammed full of AJAX and Typography and XML and Design it was time for us to catch a much more passive form of entertainment.

See: Scott Walker: My SXSW Legacy

Confessions of a Superhero

A feature length documentary that chronicles the lives of three mortal men and one woman who make their living working as superhero characters on Hollywood Boulevard. This deeply personal look into their daily routines reveals their hardships and triumphs as they pursue and achieve their own kind of fame. The Hulk sold his Super Nintendo for a bus ticket to LA; Wonder Woman was a mid western homecoming queen; Batman struggles with his anger, while Superman’s psyche is consumed by the Man of Steel. Although the Walk of Fame is right beneath their feet, their own paths to stardom prove to be long, hard climbs. CONFESSIONS OF A SUPERHERO explores the fascination, obsession and allure of fame through the eyes of some very unique people struggling to make it in Tinseltown.

SXSW

The next day was our first full day of movies…

Orphans

Orphans was one of the most promoted films around SXSWi, so Lauren and I naturally felt it was worth our time ( poor logic ). In the darkened space of the Austin convention center we watched this slow moving train wreck of emotions slowly ride out its inevitable glacial disaster.

Two somewhat estranged sisters, orphaned by the death of their parents in their early adulthood, agree to meet to celebrate the eldest sister’s birthday at the family’s old house upstate New York. Sonia, the schoolmarm in the country, is visited by her younger, more mercurial sister, Rosie: a hip, struggling art type whose primary occupation seems to be writing on an electric typewriter, making ends meet by cleaning up galleries, smoking, and popping pills.

They meet at the train station and the slow finger-in-wound back and forth between the two culminates in a lot of self-medication, a bit of over-medication, frustration, silence, slow burn Annette Benning in American Beauty freakout, and ennui.

Lauren and I both left thinking it was an interesting perspective, but we weren’t sold on the matter. It was very nice that the director, Ry Russo-Young attended for Q&A; as did both the luminously beautiful James Katharine Flynn ( Sonia ) and the late Lily Wheelwright ( Rosie )

Silver Jew

I love the band The Silver Jews. David Berman is a very talented poet and wordsmith and his lyrics are haunting, surreal, impressionistic, menacing, and peaceful. It so much helps that he delivers them with a Tennesseean’s lilt.

I remember the first time the drummer for The Black Lipstick played the Jews' masterwork “The Natural Bridge” for me. I was struck, I had listened to Pavement and MMMMmmeeetttaaalllll, the VU, Liz Phair, and Matador records enough to be pretty savvy, but I had heard nothing like Berman’s plaintive lines of mystery.

Oh Dallas, you shine with an evil eye….

“Dallas”

Man was not the first man / though the Bible tells us so / there was another who came before him / whose name we do not know. / He dwelt in the garden / but he had no mouth or eyes. / One day Adam came upon him / and he died beneath those skies

“Pet Politics”

Needless to say, I was excited to hear about Berman’s trip to Israel where he re-connected with his Jewishness ( he had been non-practicing for a great many years ).

I was a bit disappointed. It wasn’t a stunning “this is an independent band playing shows”, although there was good footage. It was more like some home-made travel movies intercut with some home-made concert footage.

On the other hand, it was interesting to see people do exactly what most people do when they travel. They buy trinkets, they haggle, they eat, they look for bottled water, and they make up silly games, have silly discussions as they travel in a strage land. I found this angle very compelling.

The gem moment is when Berman visits the wailing wall and has a very emotional reconnection with the Jewish elements of his childhood that he had been disconnected from for many years. This was one of the most striking 5 minutes I’ve ever seen on the screen.

Blindsight

This movie was very special and I’m very thankful that SXSW brought it to us. Now here’s a synopsis you won’t read every day….

Set against the breathtaking backdrop of the Himalayas, BLINDSIGHT follows the gripping adventure of six Tibetan teenagers who set out to climb the 23,000-foot Lhakpa Ri on the north side of Mount Everest. The dangerous journey soon becomes a seemingly impossible challenge – made all the more remarkable by the fact that the teenagers are blind.

SXSW

Let’s just take a moment to appreciate that synopsis again.

Holy whibble!

The movie starts out showing a climbing ladder stretched out across a chasm on Mt. Everest. Across the chasm walks the first blind man to scale Mt. Everest, Erik Weihenmayer. As the camera pans out you see the winds buffet the LADDER he’s using as a bridge. A cut, and you see Eric triumphant, the first sightless man to scale Everest.

This story is presented in Tibet by Sabriye Tenberken, a blind German woman who, unaided, landed in Beijing, traveled by horse to Tibet, and started the first school for the blind in Tibet. Tibet, for it’s Tibetan Buddhism cultural artifact export, has a very ignorant attitude toward blindness, regarding it as a karmic punishment for having done great wrong in a previous life.

Looking at the smiles and love in the hearts of these kids, you’d be very hard pressed to find a trace of evil in them at all, despite having been cursed, mocked, insulted, ridiculed, shooed away, for the mere fact of having been born blind ( shocking that, in a malnourished country and all ).

Sabriye shares the story of Eric with the kids at her school and Eric and a team of expert climbers comes to Tibet and teaches a collection of blind children to climb mountains. Ultimately they decide to tackle Lahkpa Ri, the little cousin of Everest, slightly to its side.

So you get all the drama of an Everest climbing movie: oxygen headaches, cold, frostbite, etc. and a whole new level of terror as you see the kids avoid cliffs and ridges by using, essentially, ruggedized walking canes.

If you’re not feeling inspired and a bit selfish at this point you’re probably not alive.

Against the narrative of the ascentt, we cut back to the kids' lives in their villages:

  • One recounts the day his Chinese parents sold him in the market
  • Another girl helps her family work the wheat with iron-age technology
  • A son sits and listens to his mother explain her disappointment that such a bright boy would be blind. She praises his handsomeness and his intelligence, but then explains that a fire demon cursed him and now he is defective.

Yeah, I know.

So against cultural weight and physical challenge these kids bravely attempt a summit against Sabriye’s ( rightly ) protective instincts and Eric’s ambitious drive to lead them to the summit of Lahkpa Ri.

A winner.

Fall From Grace

This was a fortuitous accident. After the bathroom break of “Blindsight” we ran into the director, K. Ryan Jones, presenting flyers for this film.

You know those yahoos who hold up the “God sent us 9/11 for Fags” and “Fags cause God’s judgment” signs from Kansas? Well this is a movie about them and their undeniably magnetic leader Fred Phelps.

The first documentary to explore the hate-filled world of Rev. Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, KS. The group has spent the last fifteen years protesting America’s lax attitude toward homosexuality, and has most recently targeted military funerals as a venue to preach. This documentary features interviews with Rev. Phelps and other church members, its dissenters, ministers and theologians, and members of the church that have since left it behind.

SXSW

A documentary that I think works best because it doesn’t work its point. Jones merely points the camera, narrates facts, and lets the Phelps clan speak for itself. The word “fag” is uttered with stunning frequency as the Phelpses explain that God’s judgment for American laxity is IEDs in Iraq.

Yeah, I know.

Something that struck me, and something that I asked Jones about, was Phelps' gaze, his magnetic preacher / dictator energy. That close and in HDCam you can sense the charismatic and rhetorical power of this individual. I wondered how he felt having to stare through a view finder into Phelps' icy blue eyes ( a gaze, as a preacher, he’s learned never to waver ) and hear those explosive and inflammatory ideas.

Jones admitted discomfort, aware at the animal level of how his psychology was in the influence of a man of cult-leader psychic power. Jones said this was his senior project for his film degree. We can expect good things.

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