Blogging SXSW ::Running the Gamut, from Serious to Raunch
I clung to deluded optimism, but I pretty much knew that going to see Diego Luna's biopic, "Cesar Chavez," would mean that I wouldn't be in line in time to catch Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" with an extended Q/A with the director.
So be it. I love Anderson's quirkfests, and I also have a silly sort of sentimental feeling about his films in Austin because the first film I saw in the cinema upon moving to this town was his last one, "Moonrise Kingdom." Still, I couldn't bring myself to pass up the chance to see Luna bouncing around on maniacally on the stage before paying tribute to a veritable 20th century hero of proper leftists and working class folks.
I figured I should know a little something more about the life and times of a man who has thoroughfares named after him in two cities close to my heart - Austin and San Francisco. Luna’s well-balanced drama shows a flawed man who, despite having to make tough choices between commitments to family and to the movement to protect the farm workers of California and sometimes letting down his offspring, was an invaluable leader that managed to achieve some justice and dignity for numerous laborers in this country.
He fasted; he insisted on non-violence in the face of ugly confrontations with farm owners; he reluctantly let his wife go to prison; he went to Europe when the successfully boycotted grapes were shipped overseas so that the company would have a profit. The film never becomes a boring polemic because he is played to be a struggling man.
Rosario Dawson, who stars as a key figure in the movement, was there whooping in the aisles upon her arrival in the theater. In retrospect, I should have stayed for the Q/A after, but I felt compelled to rush out to queue for the Wes Anderson film. Upon realizing that was a lost cause, I wandered down dirty Sixth (the strip of bars where the pre-moderation masses of UT students go for their raucous nights out) to catch "Wetlands" at the Alamo Ritz. Only knowing it as "the film about a naughty German girl who is scratching her butt in the promotional poster," I easily got a seat a prepared myself to switch modes from inspirational to defiantly raunchy.
Oh, but nothing could have prepared me for that shameless series of gross-out bodily malfunctions. I cringed through bleeding hemorrhoids, jizz falling on spinach pizza, rats in vomit-filled toilets, and numerous other juvenile tricks, while eating my queso and hoping I didn’t get sick. The protagonist, you see, is a feisty teen who has vowed to experiment with having as dirty a vagina as possible because of her mother’s inordinate attention to hygiene while raising her. I give the film props for its punk spirit and creative defiance, yet with such an insubstantial narrative, it amounts to little more than a tribute to raunchy humor and to defying convention in any insipid manner possible. Good for a laugh but pretty damn daft.
The silliness extended into the midnight screening I stuck around for. "Stage Fright" may be a fun ride if you are the right audience for it, but I found myself turned off by the silliness of the characters and the turns of plot. The premise is promising: a cook at an elite summer drama camp for grade schoolers breaks the rules to audition for a part of their production. She also happens to be the daughter of an actress, played by a plastic-looking Minnie Driver, who was murdered behind stage several years back. Prepare for some silly gay jokes, as a couple of effeminate young men are running the show, and for some silly competitiveness and pettiness melded into silly musical numbers. It has its joys, just don’t expect anything particularly original or creatively unsettling.
After all that juvenilia I was ready to return to serious subject matter the next day. On Tuesdays, I volunteer with refugees at the Center for Survivors of Torture, and I left in time to attend a screening of "Evaporating Borders," a film by a Cypriot immigrant (escaping the Balkan War) who relocated to New York about the complicated situation for refugees in the Greek side of Cyprus. It’s good to be thematic.
Iva Radivojevic’s documentary in five chapters is admirable for the way that it seamlessly travels between poetic reflection and cinema verite. It’s a rather personal film, and we hear her thoughts and a few relevant facts as we gaze out at the sea and shoreline; then we are thrust into the hectic reality at the refugee reception center as well as the passionate ambivalence of the local population. At one point, she focuses her cameras on a fascist group chanting for the deportation of all immigrants.
The titular subject of the next documentary I saw, "Mateo," was a special kind of immigrant. Mateo has pop aspirations in LA, but his thievery habits landed him in jail, where he learned Spanish and mariachi. In LA he lives out an uninspired routine of playing for music, but during his extended visits to Cuba he is vibrant - a respected member of the music-making community, even if he is criticized for his indefatigable pursuit of Cuban women. Mateo makes for an interesting subject because he is mostly a loner, and his journey is mired by failures and frustrations. Even if he is a bit prickly, it is easy to fall into admiration of his music skills and his immersion in another culture. I’ve long been a sucker for the visuals of Havana, and this was a very atypical sort of story playing out in the Cuban capital.
Que Caramba es la Vida
And if that’s not enough mariachi, there is famed German director Doris Dorrie’s tribute to the brave female mariachis (femariachis) of Mexico City, "Que Caramba es la Vida." This one is actually the more enjoyable view of the two. Her film really brings alive the costuming and the sounds of this musical art performed on the streets, in plazas, at fiestas, and in graveyards. We learn a bit about the nature of this tradition by observing, and we also get a real sense of how difficult it is to be a wife and mother who is a mariachi on the weekends. We see women who are tired from the juggling of responsibilities, but also proud and grateful to have this gift and opportunity, as well as the proud nostalgia of a group of retired mariachis who were the first such group to make it big and travel around Latin America bringing songs.