SXSW 2017 Diary
On four highlights of this year's edition.
On the invitation of writers Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, another outstanding character actor, John Carroll Lynch, has made his directorial debut with Lucky, a sweet and unabashedly conventional sketch of a 90-year-old loner just now daring to gaze into the great void that awaits us all. Lynch repeats sequences of shots mapping the pattern of Lucky's daily routine in a small town at the edge of a desert—morning exercises, the day's crossword puzzle over coffee at the local diner, a walk to the store for another quart of milk, game shows in the afternoon, nightcaps with the regulars at the bar—so that the variations and disturbances alerting Lucky to imminent change will be as impossible to ignore as a clarion call from Gabriel's horn.
Supporting turns from Ron Livingston, Ed Begley Jr., Tom Skerritt, Beth Grant and James Darren are solid, the onscreen equivalent of comfort food, but many walking into Lucky will be anxious to see what David Lynch does with his turn. As in Partly Fiction, Lynch delivers more than his mere presence in support of an old friend. His Howard is so distraught over the escape of his pet tortoise, "President Roosevelt," that at one point he even breaks down in tears. Overall, Lucky is a modest contribution to the grand tradition of cinematic ruminations on the inevitable, but that said, I will admit that the moment in which Stanton spontaneously breaks into song at a fiesta had me welling up.
What others are saying. "Lynch’s directorial debut is a wisp of a movie, blowing across the screen like a tumbleweed, but it’s also the rare portrait of mortality that’s both fun and full of life," writes David Ehrlich at IndieWire. And from Joe Leydon in Variety: "Everything Harry Dean Stanton has done in his career, and his life, has brought him to his moment of triumph in Lucky, an unassumingly wonderful little film about nothing in particular and everything that’s important."
I worry that not enough noise was made during the festival about Mark Webber's remarkable Flesh and Blood. A hybrid of fiction and documentary, it is, formally, the least concerned with its hybridity of all the many recent works in the resurgent genre. If an argument were to be made that Webber should have gone with a straight-up documentary approach, I'd listen, but Webber's decision to erase his acting resume from the character he portrays, Mark, cleanly removes what would have been too great a distraction from his primary focus, a portrait of a tight trio, an all-American family united in a struggle to not merely survive but to thrive in the wake of two addict fathers, both now long gone.
The Mark of Flesh and Blood, having completed a five-year sentence—we know that his friends are grateful for his taking some rap or other, and no further details are necessary—returns from prison to the home run by his activist mother, Cheri Honkala, who promptly informs him that conditions in their Philadelphia neighborhood have tumbled even further as welfare and drugs are all that's propping up what remains of the inner city economy. Oh, and she's running for vice president. It takes Mark a moment to realize that she means Vice President of the United States—and indeed, Honkala, currently contesting the results of a tight race for Representative of Pennsylvania House District 197, was Jill Stein's running mate on the Green Party ticket in 2012.
Loose and baggy, Flesh and Blood rumbles toward mournful reconciliations and open but hopeful ends. At one point, Honkala tells her harrowing story of escaping Mark's abusive father to a lightweight camera held by the film's other breakout star, Mark's younger half-brother, Guillermo Santos. Brilliant, funny and hardly hampered by Asperger's, Guillermo is himself an aspiring documentarian who, perhaps only half-jokingly, declared at the post-screening Q&A, "SXSW 2020, here I come!" Looking forward already.
What others are saying. "Political outrage courses through the film," writes Sheri Linden in the Hollywood Reporter. "Without an ounce of self-congratulatory fanfare, Webber places front and center a range of people who are usually relegated to the margins—the strugglers who mainstream politicians like to invoke but rarely engage with. Those characters, and the filmmaker’s embrace of them, get under the skin in this slice-of-life feature. Rather than a plot-driven narrative, it’s a collection of keenly observed scenes, and the lack of hyped-up drama, intrigue or sentimentality is one of the strengths of the low-key but visually expressive movie." Dennis Harvey for Variety: "If, in the final analysis, this is an experiment that doesn’t quite gel, it’s still one that will be worth the risk taken for adventurous viewers." Conversations with Webber: Bryan Adams (WhereToWatch) and Kahron Spearman (Austin Chronicle).
I'm not a 35mm fetishist, but heavens, Gabe Klinger's Porto is lovely. Even before the first credit, the warm crackle of the soundtrack fading in is transporting. Then, the gorgeous grain—Porto was shot on 8mm, 16mm and 35m—the timeless, cobble-stoned streets of the historic center of Portugal's second largest city, white gulls slashing across overcast skies over tiled rooftops, the bustle, the cafés—Klinger, production designer Ricardo Preto and cinematographer Wyatt Garfield, who draws vibrant blues and greens seemingly from the shadows and sets nights aglow with the bronze of candles and streetlights, have revived a Europe we'd thought was known to us now only in the cinema of the mid-20th century.
Indeed, during the Q&A, Klinger rattled off the names of dozens of filmmakers whose work had been on his mind, but the title that popped up more than once was The Mother and the Whore—and Françoise Lebrun, one of Jean-Pierre Léaud's two lovers in Jean Eustache's landmark 1973 feature, turns up here to discuss love's quandaries with her troubled daughter, Mati (Lucie Lucas), still struggling, years on, with the repercussions of a brief but intense affair with Jake (the late Anton Yelchin, to whom Porto is now dedicated).
The title that co-screenwriter Larry Gross dropped in Austin was Hiroshima mon amour, the 1959 film in which, as Alain Resnais once said himself, "time is shattered." When Porto flashes back to the one long, fateful night in which Jake and Mati fall hard for each other, the aspect ratio widens to a past more vivid than the present, but also a past we eventually learn is not to be trusted. Each recollection reveals an aspect of Jake or Mati that recasts all we thought we knew. Is Jake a stalker, or has he been double-crossed? How free is Mati to act on her true desires, if, in fact, they might be known to her or anyone else? All we can know is that, however often clips from that night reemerge, it's gone.
What others are saying. "Originally conceived for Athens, the banking collapse forced a transfer of location across the Mediterranean," notes the Austin Chronicle's Richard Whittaker. "Honestly, that's to the film's benefit. A sun-drenched Greek romance would have less emotional heft than the drizzling, grey-flecked timelessness and signature ceramics of the ancient Atlantic coastal city. Cinematographer Wyatt Garfield captures its weather-worn resilience and beauty without dropping into postcard cliches."
Last year, Carson Lund noted in a dispatch from Zurich to the House Next Door that "Klinger's cine-literacy is well known to those familiar with his writing and programming, but what's special about Porto, especially as a debut narrative feature, is the relative internalization of its influences, which feel secondary to its larger grappling with a timeless emotional enigma: namely, infatuation, and the question of how such a mighty force can also be so fleeting." Notebook editor Daniel Kasman interviewed Klinger last September and Variety's Dave McNary reports that Kino Lorber has picked up North American rights.
One of the finest opening credit sequences I've seen in a long while sets up Gemini as an homage to the Los Angeles-set neo-noirs of the 80s, a hunch confirmed by director Aaron Katz in the Q&A that followed the premiere. Lola Kirke, one of the delights of a guiltless pleasure of mine, Mozart in the Jungle, takes the lead as Jill LeBeau, personal assistant to a Heather, namely Heather Anderson (Zoë Kravitz), movie star, paparazzi magnet and social media dynamo. Motives are established. A gun is introduced. It goes off.
As a prime suspect, Jill is left with little choice other than to investigate and solve the crime herself. She proves to be about as resourceful as you'd expect a Hollywood personal assistant would be—she knows the town, where to hide, who to get in touch with and how—but at the same time, she is, endearingly, no Sherlock. Katz, who also wrote Gemini, keeps the clock ticking but also rarely passes up on an opportunity to gently poke generic conventions for a laugh. Kirke's game, but special mention has to go as well to Nelson Franklin for his amusing turn as a frustrated screenwriter.
Katz, who came up with a group of filmmakers who more or less made SXSW their lab in mid-2010s—Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg and Ry Russo-Young among them—kept one foot in that milieu (to avoid the use of another m-word) while taking his first step towards genre with the 2010 mystery Cold Weather. Having moved to Los Angeles from Portland a few years ago, he's not only gone all in this time, he's also clearly fallen for the city. Gemini offers not only a winning night out at the movies but also a tour of the widely divergent architectural styles jutting up against each other downtown and strewn across those surrounding rolling hills.
What others are saying. The Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney admires—and I have to agree—the "richly textured nighttime scenes captured by cinematographer Andrew Reed's sinuous camera with splashes of neon color and pools of burnished low-light glow amid the inky blackness. Keegan DeWitt's electro-jazzy score adds to the unsettling effect." For Variety's Peter Debruge, Kirke is "an actress who—like Mistress America co-star Greta Gerwig—doesn’t seem like an actress at all. She has an uncanny way of just being on screen, which is the perfect state for her character."
More from Jason Bailey (Flavorwire), David D'Arcy (Screen), Eric Kohn (IndieWire, A-), Rodrigo Perez (Playlist, A-) and Christopher Llewellyn Reed (Hammer to Nail). Sean L. Malin talks with Katz for the Austin Chronicle and Variety's Dave McNary reports that Neon has taken US rights.