I haven’t seen as many movies the first couple days of South by Southwest because I spent a good portion of one day at the CNN town Hall for Democratic primary candidates. I can report that two of the three candidates acquitted themselves rather well. John Delaney, despite being somewhat uninspiring and not really having anyone there to back him (judging by crowd response), had good answers to most questions. He seemed to connect with the audience and wants to be president. I know everybody wants to be president when they run (especially if they declare a year earlier than everyone else) but John Delaney is good at appearing authent
This is very different than the second Town Hall candidateTulsi Gabbard, who never seemed to answer the actual question that was put to her and still has a rather unconvincing excuse for her time supporting her father’s gay-hatred agenda. As a transgender who faces bigotry daily, I need her to call out her father, as bigoted religious beliefs are no excuse to hold hatred in your heart. How can we really be sure where she stands unless she cuts these relics of the generation of intolerance off (as so many parents have cut off their LGBTQ children)? The loudest applause of the night was when someone put the question of her fanatical past to her.
Certainly, amongst the crowd I was sitting inside, the general consensus was the town hall debate trio had one true victor, and that was the final candidate, Pete Buttigieg. The mayor of South Bend consistently answered questions straight-on with firm policy ideas as well as injected humor throughout his hour. I especially loved his idea for ‘packing the supreme court.’ His rational approach called for 15 judges, but only 10 political appointments. The remaining five would be selected by unanimous consent by the current members. Other nuggets include abolishing the electoral college, calling Mike Pence the “Cheerleader for the Porn Star President,” and allowing Jake Tapper to highlight a disagreement between his husband and he about how best to pronounce his last name. He finished his hour by jumping off the stage and kissing his husband in the front row (let’s see Trump do that (the jumping part, no one wants to see him kiss anyone). Although it will be hard to convince the general public that the 37-year old Millennial is ready to lead the country, of this trifecta he certainly appeared both the most qualified and the most genuine.
I finished my night last night with the midnighter SNATCHERS, a horror comedy about a woman who wakes up one morning nine months pregnant despite only having sex one time and it being two days earlier. What comes out of her is some sort of alien creature, although we never quite understand what it is except that it comes from Mexico, playing into the current xenophobia of the country in a rather hilarious trope. The film is big on horror-gore but light on characters which allows forgettable fun that might achieve some sort of cult success on the genre Festival circuit but does not seem likely to have much prolonged life.
The drama JEZEBEL is a much more substantial character piece. Jezebel is the screen name taken by Tiffany when she embarks on a new career as a cam model. Living with her two sisters, brother and her sister’s boyfriend in the aftermath of her mother’s death, Tiffany has found it difficult to find her own place in the world. When she begins to take on the identity that she has assumed online, she begins to lose what was left of herself. The film is written and directed by Numa Perrier who plays Tiffany’s older sister, a phone sex operator. Their relationship is nuanced and skillfully performed by the actresses. If I have any complaint about the film – and it is a rather large one – it’s that the film ends basically without a third Act. Jezebel, now fully embracing her new identity, demands a raise at her job, dons thigh-high leather boots, and sets off to meet one of her best clients in person… and the film just ends. That’s a scene I want to see. In fact there are several strands of plot -such as Tiffany’s sexuality awakening or her sister’s creepy boyfriend – which are just left unresolved. I don’t mind a bit of fluidity at the end of a film but it just felt like I had watched 2/3’s of a film building up to something I was not given.
Moving on to docs another film that seems to set up an interesting premise and then not really go anywhere was SAKAWA, a peek inside a Ghanaian internet scam Factory. Seeing a side of Internet fraud that we rarely get, from the perspective of those conducting the swindle, the Belgian/Ghanaian documentary introduces us to characters at very different stages of their career. Posing online as women to try to dupe unsuspecting men to send them money for visas and plane fare, these men work the dating sites as a nine-to-five job, just to stay afloat. There is a great bit of sociological commentary here, as these men profit off the refuse of the electronic garbage abandoned in junkyards. That’s all great, but what’s lacking in the film is any progress. I felt like we watched any day in the life of these people – it could have been any day and the film could have stopped at any place and I would have gotten the same out of it as I did at the end. This is a film that has characters who do not change over the course of the time of the film and so I was left a little bored. Why wasn’t this film a short? With all the various European commissions that pour money into documentary films (yes I may be a little jealous) I just think it’s not too much to ask to have a story that fills the space of the running time.
In contrast, documentary WHY CAN’T I BE ME AROUND YOU follows a character for 8 years of her life. Rusty Tidenberg is a drag racer, a motorcycle enthusiast, an artcar craftsmen, a trailer park super and a trans woman. She came out at age 53 and promptly lost her relationship with her father/boss at the trailer park as well as his wife who didn’t want the neighbors to see him going out in female clothes. Rusty is an uncompromising woman who has decided to live her life in a way that makes her happy no matter what other complications it creates. Through interviews with her friends we see Rusty hasn’t really changed at all, it’s just people’s understanding of Rusty that has, a problem transgender people face throughout the world. It may be that this film hit a little close to home for me, but I couldn’t stop myself from crying as Rusty discussed how alone she feels at times. There’s also a refreshing impermanence to Rusty’s own understanding of her own pronouns, something I have struggled to explain to people who are not transgender. When Rusty starts the film, she doesn’t seem to care what pronoun you use as long as you don’t refer to her as sir. By the end she’s come to a new understanding of herself. I was also really fascinated by the relationship between the filmmaker Harrod Blank and Rusty, as their chance meeting led to the film being made. It’s not a perfect film by any means – there are a series of interviews with other genderqueer art car designers that don’t really seem connected to Rusty’s story (I might have tried to take Rusty to meet these fellow tinkerers). The filmmaker is also unable to get either the father or the ex-wife in an interview. That perspective would really help widen the world that Rusty is inhabiting. In a conversation I had with the filmmaker at a party, he said that he became the enemy with these two, but I think what happened is these people ended up looking far more opposed to Rusty’s choices than they currently are. Still, WHY CAN’T I BE ME AROUND YOU is a truthful documentary of someone who is transitioning in life, and just looking to find their place.
Coming full circle to job choices of millennials, the best film I’ve seen so is the Canadian comedic thriller RUN THIS TOWN about the millennial trying to break the mayor-Rob-Ford-doing-crack story, as well as two millennials trapped working as assistants in Ford’s office. The film invokes the style of the ’70s, or at least Ocean’s-11-era-Soderbergh with a little bit of the banter of the great ’90s talk films of Kevin Smith and Ed Burns. Layer on top of that an inside look into the traumatic unraveling of a mayor who was an outsider and ran his campaign and then his office as a “Regular Joe” (sound familiar) and you have a fascinating film. Other than Rob Ford, characters are composite. That doesn’t make the film feel any less true. In fact, there is an utter genuineness about the plight of the millennial, voiced in a way that I’ve rarely seen articulated. To writer-director Ricky Tollman, the Millennial entering the workforce is someone who wants to work hard and doesn’t think that they should have things handed to them, but also that they deserve to have the opportunity to work hard – they shouldn’t be left out just because they are young. In the end, the actual details of the Rob Ford case are less important than those who touch it. There’s also a really fantastic explanation and perspective of what can only be called white male privilege. If I wanted to come up with one criticism of the film, it’s that there is one character experience that is almost completely absent in the film, and that is the African-Canadian who is the conduit to the videotape of Rob Ford smoking crack. His experience is probably quite different than the other three main characters in the film (from arguably lower middle class to upper class background) and although the lack of attention does say something in and of itself, it also sort of belies an inherent bias on the part of the filmmaking team. Mostly it is a missed opportunity. That said, this is still the strongest film I’ve seen yet at South by and the one I think deserves a wider audience.
More reviews to come.