Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Further Reflections

MARCH 30, 1998:  Included here are more reviews of films screened during the SXSW Film Festival 1998. Additional reviews can be found in last week's issue. The symbols (RP) and (WP) indicate regional and world premieres.


photograph by John Anderson

ALL THE RAGE

Dir/scr: Roland Tec; Prod: Catherine Burns & Roland Tec; DP: Gretchen Widmer; Ed: Jon Altschuler; Cast: Peter Bubriski, Jay Corcoran, John-Michael Lander, Jeff Miller, Paul Outlaw, Merle Perkins, David Vincent.

35mm, 103 min., 1997 (RP)

Here's a movie that revives a dreaded art-film convention - the one that places a shocking, unexpected ending behind a litany of perfectly timed and purposeful plot events. In the case of All the Rage, that means that Christopher - a slick, oversexed attorney - finally finds true love with book editor Stewart and - as foreshadowed - blows it all by having a fling with Stewart's roommate. He then has to pay for his sin by having a one-night stand and a potentially murderous situation with an obsessive psycho type whom he doesn't even realize he's had sex with before. This ending is a shame not so much because the viewer wants Stewart and Christopher to happily work out their relationship but because it zaps the viewer with a sterile, preachy aftertaste entirely befiting the stiff Boston setting of All the Rage, which Roland Tec adapted and directed from his stage play, A Better Boy. All actors sing with enthusiasm for their parts. Peter Bubriski tinges the role of Christopher Bedford with a hint of vulnerability beneath a steely exterior. - Claiborne Smith


ALMA

Dir: Ruth Leitman; Prod: Ruth Leitman, Margie Thorpe, Nancy Segler; Exec Prod: Peter Wentworth; DP: Mark Petersen, Ruth Leitman, Nancy Segler; Ed: Ann Husaini, Ruth Leitman, Darcy Bowman; Cast: Alma Thorpe, Margie Thorpe, James Thorpe.

16mm, 94 min., 1997 (WP)

Alma Thorpe, the subject of documentarian Ruth Leitman's Alma, suffers from mental illnesses that could be explained in a rather perfunctory manner by most any mental health professional. Fortunately for her audience, Leitman bypasses those facts for other, more rewarding insights, like Alma's unarticulated reliance upon her daughter Miss Margie, a staple of the Atlanta music scene, who ends up becoming the emotional and visual ballast of this complex, excellent documentary. At the film's beginning, after learning that her mother is once again mentally unstable to the point of hospitalization, Margie resolves to "leave my family to their own existence," a resolution that unravels by the film's end as Margie realizes, with no small amount of pain, that she can't leave her mother and once-abusive father to their own devices. Leitman is the filmmaker behind SXSW '96's Wildwood, New Jersey, which documents seaside New Jersey girls. Alma is the concatenation of many perceived, sometimes stereotypical, notions of Southern women. Thus, simply shooting the camera at Alma (and Margie) turns this documentary into a treatise on Southern girls, though "treatise" makes it seem as if hilarious moments do not arise amid all the pathos, moments that usually consist of Margie providing renditions of her mother's fantasies. Margie is Alma's producer and was present at SXSW screenings of the film, which made for a jarring union of the onscreen Margie and her role as the instigator of this documentary. Alma is a sad Southern specter, the damsel in distress who is also a forceful and manipulative woman, the type that fueled the imaginations of Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, and Truman Capote; Leitman no less poetically and eloquently mines the same territory. - Claiborne Smith


AMERICAN COWBOY

Dir/ed: Kyle Henry; Prod: Calvin N. Preece, Dan Delaney, Kyle Henry; DP: Helen Lee.

16mm, 52 min., 1997 (WP)

Gene Mikulenka stands at odd personal and societal crossroads - at 39 he's an engaged, aging, gay cowboy who knows his riding days are soon over. He stands at those crossroads haltingly, though, because in American Cowboy's opening, a bull bucks Gene in rodeo competition and then steps on him, breaking his right leg in two places, which is particularly unfortunate for someone who stresses that he's "not used to being still." Gene also makes it quite clear that he's not used to being filmed, which makes for its own drama on top of the drama behind his broken leg and his anxiety about asking his partner Stephen to marry him. Gene declares that there is "a personal and private side of yourself that you don't want to just reveal to the world," and he's forthright in making his feelings known. Gene's reluctance stems in part from the fact that he's not entirely out to his small-town, South Texas family. To demonstrate just how many obstructions he had to brook in order to capture Gene at ease, UT documentarian Kyle Henry steps inside the frame throughout the documentary as if to show the whole picture. The viewer is privy to shot set-ups, discussions between Kyle and Gene about what will and will not be filmed, and the film crew's bungled directions in following Gene to a New Mexico rodeo competition. More than one documentary has been stifled by this technique, but not American Cowboy. - Claiborne Smith




Johnathon Demme

photograph by John Anderson

ANTONE AND THE BLUES: A STORY OF OBSESSION

Dir: Robb Niles, Chip Ferruko; Prod: Robb Niles.

Video, 59 min., 1998 (WP)

Bottom line: Clifford Antone loves the blues. And this authorized biography serves up a litany of big names ready to tell you just that. The documentary chronicles the evolution of Antone's nightclub from a clothing store to the sanctuary for some of the country's most talented artists. Successfully, the film illuminates the rare integrity Antone has and his unique symbiotic relationship to the musician. And yet, there is something the film lacks. It's not so much the "Arrest? What arrest?" omission of the clubowner's recent legal troubles. And it's not that the piece is slow; pictures, footage, and endless interviews make it at least historically intriguing. The problem is that the film fails to capture or even show a glimmer of the passion of the blues itself. Where is the sultry slice of bohemia Guy Forsyth so aptly describes as a "late-night, drums-voodoo-sex ritual?" After a while, sober musicians inarticulately answering questions grows to be dull stuff. Niles and Ferruko should take a hint from Antone himself, who knows where the kernel of truth lies. Not in the words themselves - in the music, boys, the sweaty smile, the wordless screech of a guitar, the soul and truth buried in the music, the music, the blues. - Sarah Hepola


BABY, IT'S YOU

Dir/scr/prod: Anne Makepeace; DP: Uta Briesewitz; Ed: Jennifer Chinlund, Anne Makepeace.

16mm, 56 min., 1997 (RP)

When filmmaker Anne Makepeace and her husband Peter, a writer, decide to chronicle their attempts to conceive a child, they expose themselves and the audience to the brutal vagaries of fertility. So simple for some, so heartbreakingly difficult for others, the feat of conception is rife with all sorts of emotions: blame, hope, joy, futility, anger, and inequity. A pretty good arsenal for a movie. But, ultimately it is the weight of that arsenal that bogs this picture down. As Anne struggles with an increasingly remote prospect of conception, she also begins to look inward, past her aging procreative equipment to the demons that haunt her soul. An earlier, unwanted pregnancy is depicted in nightmarish visuals and accompanied by a chillingly matter-of-fact voiceover. Anne seeks delayed absolution for the abortion, and you sense that part of her believes that forgiveness would make her fertile again. She visits her brothers: one leading a solitary life tending goats in Appalachia, the other, a Manhattan yuppie planning to live part-time in Utah where he will become a part-time polygamist and father to a passel of children. She interviews aunts and uncles about her dysfunctional life and her parents' shortcomings. The camera makes us privy to the most intimate of discussions, and the effect is unsettling, like eavesdropping from behind a psychiatrist's couch. Interesting, even captivating, but do we really want to know this? In the long run, this is a film not so much about making a baby as it is about coping with the hand that's been dealt you. It could have as easily been titled, Baby, It's Me. - Hollis Chacona


BARBECUE... A LOVE STORY

Dir/scr: Stacy Kirk; Prod: Bob Millar; DP: Steve Cosens; Ed: Patti Henderson, Fredrik Thorsen; Cast: Peter Fleming, Babz Chula, Earl Pastko, Suzy Joachim, Deanna Milligan, William McDonald, Mary McDonald, Faustino Cachilapo.

35mm, 97 min., 1997 (RP)

Shakespeare was wrong when he said that music was the food of love. But, to be fair, barbecue hadn't been invented in Renaissance England. There's just something about meat slow-grilling, rubbed in spices and bathed in sauce, served with a nice, cold iced tea that gets juices other than the salivary flowing. Especially for Lucky, the slow-speaking Texan with a sweet spot for good barbecue. Unfortunately, Lucky is a barbecue savant, talented at licking his fingers but falls short in just about any other useful category, particularly when it involves women. Texas-born director-screenwriter Stacy Kirk loves Lucky and has carefully crafted a slow, sweet film that celebrates Lucky's talent with meat and never flinching from his heartache while spinning in sub-plots that heat up the coals in this savory pit. But the film, like a good all-you-can-eat special, satisfies and, if you're careful, leaves you just this side of stuffed.

Unfortunately, the preceding short, Matthew Harrison's "Bystander From Hell," is a lousy appetizer for this wonderful repast. "Bystander" is like being trapped on a street with your Uncle Louie and forced to listen to his stories, including the ones that could get him arrested, until the traffic light changes and you can escape. - Adrienne Martini


BARBIE NATION: AN UNAUTHORIZED TOUR

Dir/prod: Susan Stern; Assoc Prod: Trish Harrington; Ed: Elizabeth Finlayson.

Video, 53 min., 1997 (WP)

"Cuba 15," Elizabeth Schub's touching and unnerving short about a Cubana's quinceañera, is the perfect warm-up to Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour. Both deal with the passions of young girls who dream of being adults with real breasts and hips. Both walk that careful edge of showing the world of the subjects without over-editorializing about the worth of their obsessions. And both deal with sexuality, the playful seductions of a girl learning to be a woman and the plastic perfections of a grown-up doll. But, at some point, the similarities end and Barbie Nation takes a deeper look into all things that come with miniature accessories, whether they be homemade S&M Barbies or the scary Barbie conventions where doll designer and Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler is treated like the Pontiff. While this documentary is loosely about Handler's journey through Barbieland and her obsessions with all things mammary, director-producer Susan Stern uncovers more grist for the Barbie-mill with unauthorized versions of the perky blonde that would make any toy exec blush. But there is something essentially American about Stern's discoveries, and her film shows volumes about our country's needs for fantasy and role-play. - Adrienne Martini


BURN

Dir/ed: Scott Storm; Scr: Dylan Kussman; Prod: David Hayter, Anthony Miller; Exec Prod: Bryan Singer, Adam Duritz, Steve Jensen; DP: Peter Blue Rieveschl; Cast: Randall Slavin, David Hayter, Andrea Roth, Alfonso Freeman, Karen Rosa.

35mm, 97 min., 1997 (RP)

A nearly empty Hollywood apartment, writing scrawled on the azure walls. In it, a solitary chair and a desk with a typewriter and a neatly arranged stack of paper, an offering to an unappreciative muse. The occupant, naked, unkempt, smoking nervously, crouches in the center of the floor, as if the walls were his prison and his jailer due any moment. The jailer, though, is blithely unaware of his role, and when he shows up is unprepared for the prisoner's reaction. Tom is a glib, self-centered fellow whom the muse has favored. Having just finished his novel (on a pentium processor computer, no doubt), Tom returns to California and his old pal Ben, a writer whose manual typewriter has cobwebs between the keys. The two haven't seen each other in a long time, and Tom, having forgotten, or never having acknowledged, the rift between them, is eager for his friend to read (and admire) his manuscript. Admiration, of course, is not what awaits Tom, for Ben, endlessly adrift in that blue apartment has had nothing to do but bank the embers of his resentment. Burn is very nearly an interesting character study, a minute examination of self-awareness, creativity, anger, and friendship, of catalysts, both perceived and unrecognized. It's a tight, confined wordplay, staged entirely within a single room, its emptiness amplifying each word. That being so, each word, each movement should be feeding our anticipation, drawing us in. But Burn falls just short. Neither the script nor the actors are quite strong enough. We bob at the edge, continuously caught, then released by the waves, the emotional current never quite strong enough to draw us all the way in. - Hollis Chacona


BURY ME IN KERN COUNTY

Dir/scr: Julien Nitzberg; Prod: Hayley Marcus, Rachel Frazin; DP: Kelly Evans, Warren Yeager; Ed: Charlie Webber; Cast: Mary Sheridan, Judson Mills, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Johnny Strong, Thom Rachford, Sandra Tucker, Victor Raider-Wexler, Geraldine Allen.

Video, 89 min., 1998 (WP)

Another in a long, tired line of "black comedies about white trash" - it's telling when a film at its world premiere already smells ripe enough for syndication. The story is structured like an episodic "best of" of the genre: a young woman and her boyfriend get busted for drugs in front of a national television audience when the police raid their house with a Cops-style film crew in tow. She then must struggle to raise enough money for her beau's bail and keep from losing custody rights of her daughter - all under the sneers and leers of the white trash family members around her. It's not surprising that this won the runner-up award at SXSW over the other "white trash" entry, the elegantly formal and sublimely nuanced Barbecue... A Love Story. Kern County is an easier read: sensationalist plot devices, over-the-top performances, and a laughs-at-all-expense tone. It's infused with a rapid-fire energy, but white trash is an all-too-easy target, and there is a fine but strict line between satire and rube-like condescension. Kern County falls squarely on the side of the latter. - Jerry Johnson


CENTRAL STANDARD TIME

Dir/scr/prod: Scott Large, James Murray; DP: Brett Reynolds; Ed: Po Kutchins, Brian Hicks, Scott Large; Cast: Jason Andrews, Eddie Daniels, Bill Wise.

35mm, 82 min., 1997 (RP)

Conspiracy theorizing is fashionable stuff these days: It's been effectively utilized as either outlandish improbability turned wonderfully dry humor (Gerry Daloney's "Hey pal, did I overhear you say you've got a friend that's missing?" character in Slacker) or substantiated fact (Waco: The Rules of Engagement). The combination of the two, though, in Scott Large's and James Murray's Central Standard Time results in a boorishly taxing and longwinded rant. The film's cast of twentysomething militia characters treat the most incredible of international governmental arrangements as fact and then spew them out without the slightest hint of self-deprecation for their collective inability to see that the simplest explanation might be the best. So instead of dialogue, the result is more of a drawn-out collection of diatribes, and they are the toughest kind of diatribes to sit through because, well, the joke isn't funny anymore. Throw in gratuitous gun usage and some sexuality (in fact, Eddie Daniels' innate lustiness is the most interesting thing on screen from about minute five to minute 25) with a thin narrative that erupts with a predictable apocalyptic flair and the project is complete. And that's really the weakness of Central Standard Time, not that its subject matter is based on fashion and fashion is inherently transitory, but that it's just not a remotely interesting story. - Michael Bertin


CIRCUS REDICKULESS

Dir/prod/dp: Phillip Glau; Ed: Phillip Glau, Grover Babcock.

16mm, 88 min., 1997 (WP)

This chronicle of a self-described punk rock circus' calamitous cross-country tour is a kissin' cousin to such mockumentaries as This Is Spinal Tap and Waiting for Guffman, with one crucial distinction: It's all true! In 1995, an ambitious young huckster named Chicken John really did pack 17 quote-unquote performers into two rapidly disintegrating vans and hit the road, presenting a low-rent carnival show - one veteran of the tour christened it "Cirque du So-Lame" - in clubs, youth centers, and, hell's bells, anywhere they could (in Austin, that ended up being a trash recycling center). The result was a protracted parade of disasters every bit as hilarious as the ones cooked up for mockumentaries, but with an extra comic edge by virtue of it having actually happened. Filmmaker Glau captures the tour's implosion in riotous detail; every other frame seems to be another catastrophe - an automotive breakdown, a gig that doesn't happen, a gig that does but draws fewer than a dozen people - with the circus' Olympian ineptitude made even more hysterical by acerbic remembrances from tour survivors and Glau's own cinematic punctuation marks. It's a tale true to the troupe's name: ridiculous, a real tour de farce. - Robert Faires


CONCEIVING ADA

Dir: Lynn Hershman Leeson; Scr: Lynn Hershman Leeson, Eileen Jones; Prod: Henry S. Rosenthal, Lynn Hershman Leeson; DP: Hiro Narita, Bill Zarchy; Ed: Robert Dalva; Cast: Tilda Swinton, Timothy Leary, Karen Black, Francesca Faridany, John O'Keefe, J.D. Wolfe, John Perry Barlow, Owen Murphy.

35mm, 85 min., 1997 (RP)

There are so many movies that use parallel lives as devices to explore the past-present continuum that it's upsetting when one like Conceiving Ada, which boasts the incendiary intelligence of British actress Tilda Swinton as Byron's daughter Lady Ada Byron Lovelace, doesn't do more than set up the fact that there are similarities in the lives of two women, Emmy, a present-day MIT computer genius, and Ada, a 19th-century mathematical genius. Emmy uses her computer to actually enter Ada's life; by entering an idea like "conception" or a specific date, Emmy makes it possible for that moment to unravel like a movie clip on her computer screen. When she wants to go a step further and communicate with Ada, her boyfriend, the father of their unborn child, becomes frustrated with Emmy's tireless vision and lack of attention to her pregnancy, which upon doctor's orders necessitates rest. The two lives are not seamlessly dovetailed, which makes for a fragmented narrative in which we learn not enough about Ada and spend too much time with Emmy. Her breakthrough in devising computerized time travel and her subsequent ability to speak with her idol - to tell Ada that she thinks she can help her out of her miserable, dying existence - are high points in the film. - Claiborne Smith


COST OF LIVING

Dir: Stan Schofield; Scr: Steve Schmidt, Ed Schmidt; Prod: Stan Schofield, Susan Horn-Toffler, Paula Cohen, Doug McCulloch; DP: Larry Fong; Cast: Edie Falco, Andrew Lowery, James Villemaire, Bill Sage, Amy Horne, Caitlin Clarke.

35mm, 104 min., 1997 (RP)

Cost of Living belongs to the interesting offshoot of film noir that dispenses with the familiar plot device of the criminal caper and devotes its full attention to the moral and philosophical conflicts which have always been the genre's most intriguing feature. Schofield's story focuses on a rugged individualist named Billie (Falco, in a masterful, richly authentic acting turn) forced into the uncomfortable position of asking for help when menacing figures from her past corner her in a Gulf Coast fishing town. Despite minor flaws such as an annoyingly derivative performance by Villemaire as a blue-collar stud who becomes Billie's antagonist/lust object, this is a smart, evocative movie that compares surprisingly well with the works of modern noir innovators such as John Dahl and Steven Soderbergh. The key to Schofield's success is an approach to this filmmaking style that proceeds from a deep understanding of its complex, wised-up worldview, not just a desire to soak up its hip cachet. The hard existential questions raised by good noir storytelling are intelligently explored (especially, in this case, the terrible implications of complete freedom) and resolved with a lingering hint of mystery that avoids tying the ends up too neatly. Cost of Living is an impressive performance by a director with a true, unfakeable vision and the artistry to bring it fully realized to the screen. - Russell Smith


DANCER, TEXAS POP. 81

Dir/scr: Tim McCanlies; Prod: Chase Foster, Peter White, Dana Shaffer, Michael Burns, Leanna Creel; DP: Andrew Dintenfass; Ed: Rob Korbin; Cast: Breckin Meyer, Peter Facinelli, Eddie Mills, Ethan Embry, Ashley Johnson, Alexandra Holden, Eddie Jones, Lucy Jacobson.

35mm, 99 min., 1997 (WP)

A winsome sweetness marks writer-director Tim McCanlies' debut feature Dancer, Texas Pop. 81, a sweetness made all the more dear for the film's agile sidestepping of any tendency toward cloying sentimentality or trite homilies. Dancer, Texas bursts with fresh attitude and a genuine love of its characters and location. The story zeroes in on four West Texas small-town boys whose childhood vow to leave on the first bus out of Dancer following their high school graduation, has now reached the "put-up or shut-up" stage. The events are compressed into the span of one weekend as each character struggles to make his peace with the conflicting desires of breaking free and staying put. Although the conflicts are the universal dilemmas of young adulthood, McCanlies also imbues his movie with the distinctive color of regional specificity. Modern life in a small Texas town hasn't been depicted with this much soulful passion since The Last Picture Show. In the film's four leads, McCanlies also finds effective communicators of the brave uncertainty that's required in order for young adults to consciously leap into the rest of their lives. It's possible to trace Dancer, Texas' lineage to a such films as American Graffiti and Diner, yet what these films have in common is greater than mere subject matter - what they share is an abiding love and respect for their characters. The local colors of Dancer, Texas are painted with a vivid American palette. - Marjorie Baumgarten


DEAD MAN'S CURVE

Dir/scr: Dan Rosen; Prod: Michael Amato, Ted Schipper, Jeremy Lew, Alain Siritzky, Pierre Kalfon, Michael Chambat, Ian Jessel; DP: Joey Forsyte; Ed: Glenn Garland; Cast: Matthew Lillard, Michael Vartan, Randall Batinkoff, Keri Russell, Tamara Craig Thomas, Anthony Griffin, Bo Dietle, Dana Delany.

35mm, 90 min., 1997 (RP)

Take the kooky coeds of Rosen's last screenplay The Last Supper, add Scream's mordant sensibility (and its bad boy Matthew Lillard) and you have Dead Man's Curve, an amusing yet wholly derivative tongue-in-cheek thriller. The premise revolves around the rumor that if your college roommate kills himself, you receive a 4.0 for the semester. So when Harvard hopefuls Tim (Lillard) and Chris (Vartan) find their grades slumping, the only way out seems to be setting up roomie Rand (Batinkoff) for his last fall. Of course, it's never that easy, as our heroes (?) soon find out. Rosen, taking a cue from recent teen thrillers, is playing for laughs here. And he does give us many yuck-yucks at his characters' expense, like when a psychiatrist played by Dana Delaney unironically lists signs of suicidal behavior: listening to Suzanne Vega, watching Scandinavian films. What Rosen doesn't give us, however, is much credit for having a brain. And by the film's improbable ending, my disbelief was so suspended it actually hung itself. The absurdity of the scenario coupled with the skewed assessment of today's job market ("It's either an MBA from Harvard or you're flipping burgers") makes for a slick film that could fly, but ends up dead on arrival. - Sarah Hepola


DEAR JESSE

Dir/scr: Tim Kirkman; Prod: Mary Beth Mann; Exec Prod: Gill Holland; DP: Norwood Cheek, Ashley McKinney; Ed: Joe Klotz.

16mm, 82 min., 1997 (RP)

A gay man from North Carolina. A dissonance in that phrase, as if it's a contradiction in terms to be homosexual and come from the state so strongly identified with National Homophobe Jesse Helms, leads Tim Kirkman to take an extended leave from his comfortably outed life in New York City and return home, camera in hand. He's seeking a way to reconcile who he is and where he comes from, but his path to self-revelation is through his opposite, the gay-hating, gay-baiting Helms. Kirkman goes on a tour of the state, exploring Helms' background and talking to North Carolinians of diverse political persuasions about the senator and their experiences with him, politically and personally. There's a bit of a dodge in Kirkman's approach; in shifting the focus almost exclusively to Helms, the filmmaker also removes himself from close scrutiny, leaving us with holes in his history and not a few questions about what all contributed to his self-imposed exile in New York. Still, the calm, reasoned air with which Kirkman investigates his subject gives this profile of an incendiary figure an extraordinary compassion and commendable humanity. - Robert Faires




Atom Egoyan

photograph by John Anderson



DETENTION

Dir/scr: Andy Anderson; Prod: Robert Castaldo, K.C. Irick; DP: Gary Watson; Ed: Robert Castaldo; Cast: John Davies, Marsha Dietlein, Susana Gibb, Meason Wiley, Rebecca Sanabria, Brandy Little, Jonathan Brent, Kirk Kelley-Khan.

35mm, 123 min., 1998 (WP)

If you think the only fate worse than death is to be shut up with an insurance salesman for an extended period of time, you obviously haven't seen Detention, (or been forced to listen to Toni Basil's "Mickey" on a loudly played, continuous loop recording). This is a funny, scary, and seriously provocative movie about behavior modification, learning, and the state of education in our society. Bill Walmsley is a mild-mannered fellow with a circus, a Master of Education degree, and a V.A. hospital all in his background. At first encounter, he is in his apartment, surrounded by circus memorabilia, somewhat disoriented and inordinately disturbed by a pounding on his door. He grasps the first straw that comes by, a telephone offer of a job as a permanently temporary (or temporarily permanent) detention-hall teacher in a senior high school (another clue to the state of Walmsley's mind, as this is not your ideal re-entry situation). Students who openly taunt him, knowing he has no recourse, teachers who have long since given up trying to teach, and a principal concerned only with keeping students alive and lawsuits at bay are all part of Walmsley's initiation at the ominously named Donner High. Still, Mr. Walmsley maintains his quiet, rational behavior until, inevitably, something has to give. Exactly who gives what, however, is open to interpretation. Must the spirit be subdued so that the mind may absorb the theory of Keynesian economics? Can cooperation exist only between conformists? Does the end justify the means? Detention is textured with wacky, funhouse visuals and an offbeat, savage humor that belie the dogma of the dialogue and the tidy nicety of the puff-piece ending. I came out of Detention feeling as though I'd spent two hours standing on tilted floors and looking at wavy mirrors. - Hollis Chacona


DIVINE TRASH

Dir: Steve Yeager; Prod: Cindy Miller, Steve Yeager.

35mm, 105 min., 1997 (RP)

In Steve Yeager's Divine Trash, John Waters says he went to NYU's film school for "about five minutes," and since his class was studying Potemkin and not Olga's House of Shame, which he knew he could learn much more, he quit NYU and convinced his father to give him the money set aside for John's education and invest it in his burgeoning film career instead. It would make it a tidy summation to say that the rest is film history, but to do so would bypass the hilarious and trashily fascinating details that emerge in Divine Trash. It seems a bit ill-befitting and solemn to document someone like Waters in talking-head format, but then Yeager's subject is not just Waters but underground cinema in general, so topics range from the influential cinematic avatars of trash to interviews with Divine's mother to outbursts from Mary Avara, the last film censor in America. Mink Stole recollects conditions on the sets of Female Trouble and Pink Flamingos and the Egg Lady is captured commenting on her bit of eerie Flamingos glory. Of course, the obligatory film critics are present, but in Divine Trash, they're there in part to reveal what a shrewd businessman and marketeer Waters is as they recall the flyers and updates about screenings they constantly received from him in his early career. The previously unreleased footage of the making of Pink Flamingos documents that amid the frenetic atmosphere on the set, Waters' love for trashy, do-it-yourself filmmaking has always been the core of his success. - Claiborne Smith


EXPERIMENTAL SHORTS 1

The program began with two pieces by Greg Sax. 27 is a promising, if somewhat derivative, take on the cultural forces at work in the development of a boy that places him in the world of a 1950s-style TV commercial. The promise is fulfilled with 28, which Sax made three years later. The boy is now a young man and his budding (homo)sexuality is explored in relation to the vegetation around him: trees in a forest, cut flowers in a vase, supermarket broccoli on a chopping block. It's a stunning study of texture and sound that, for all of its structuralist qualities, succeeds in evoking the emotional force of discovered passion. The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase by Joshua Oppenheimer fails to break any new ground, covering territory thoroughly mined by other filmmakers, particularly Bruce Connor and Craig Baldwin. Mixing appropriated footage with pseudo-documentary interviews of various right-wing wackos, it sets out to explore the historical and cultural factors that lead a woman to fry her baby in the microwave oven. There are some truly haunting moments, but overall it reflects more of the easy humor of a Saturday Night Live sketch than of the innovative concerns of experimental cinema. The final film, Eric Henry's Wood Technology in the Design of Structures, cloaks itself in the guise of those old high school science documentaries to analyze that special kind of human who likes to eat wood. A pleasant enough piece, but ultimately disappointing because, due to the absence of any formal variation, it made me feel like I was watching one of those old high school documentaries. - Jerry Johnson


THE FARMHOUSE

Dir: Marcus Spiegel; Scr: Marcus Spiegel & Randy Watson; Prod: Elaine Frontain Bryant, Callum Greene; Assoc Prod: Michael Capiraso; Exec Prod: Fred Berner; DP: Horacio Marquinez; Ed: Daniel J. Rosen; Cast: Leo Burmester, Blythe Danner, Kurt Deutsch, Katherine Kendall, Keith Reddin, Jennifer Chambers, Guy Ale, David Spoltore.

35mm, 100 min., 1998 (WP)

Adapting stage plays to the screen is a problematic task for even the most experienced filmmakers. The respective natural rhythms of cinema and theatre are at complete odds with one another, and it takes considerable skill to bring the two to a reconcilable plane. That is why it should come as no surprise that The Farmhouse, based on the play of the same title, feels like one long scream, literally, against the artificial cinematic constraints imposed upon it. The plot offers ample enough opportunity for screaming. Set on a family farm in rural Kansas, a mentally disturbed mother shoots and kills her daughter, leaving the questionably sane father and grown son to try to cover up the murder, thus tipping the scales of the already unbalanced family even further. All of these emotions and pathos are put through the ringer via long monologues stacked up against each other from beginning to end. While this dénouement-less structure can work on the stage, it feels like a shrill, single-note train whistle when applied to the more sensitive properties of the film medium. The acting is adequate and the storytelling attempt is an honest one, but what is left at the end is a former play that's still a play that should have been left on the stage. - Jerry Johnson


FIFTH WARD

Dir/Prod: Greg Carter; DP: John Darbonne; Cast: Kory Washington, Donna Wilkerson, Thomas Miles, Thomas Webb, Creepa, Junie Hoang, Lee Carter, JaCorrey Lovelady, Louis Gusemano, Steve Green.

Video, 100 min., 1997 (RP)

Rule number one for first-time filmmakers: Don't screen your film until it's absolutely ready to be seen by the public. There's no surer kiss of death, and though you may be the proud papa of your cinematic labor of love, to the rest of us it's still a grainy, squawking fetus. Despite Fifth Ward's ambitious style and noble, socially conscious storyline, the film - which was screened on a video projector from a not-quite-final Avid edit - is a messy mix of bad lighting, muddy sound, and thudding hip hop that sounds like it was recorded in a closet. Plot-wise, Fifth Ward follows James Kennedy, a young high-school graduate whose brother Ray Ray has just been murdered in a drug-related killing during the film's opening minutes. Now it's up to James to either follow his homies as they gather guns and plan a retaliatory shooting, or straighten up and get the hell out of the hood while he still has his circulatory system intact. A little bit Boyz N the Hood, a little bit Houston geography lesson, and a lot of gangsta polemics, Fifth Ward is fairly tedious stuff that not only looks like it needs a few more weeks of post, but also fails to spark the imagination in any noticeable way. Obviously, Carter rushed to make it into the festival circuit, and the end result seems just as hurried and stillborn as you might expect. - Marc Savlov


FIVE WIVES, THREE SECRETARIES AND ME

Dir/scr/dp: Tessa Blake; Prod: Jason Lyon.

35mm, 80 min., 1997 (RP)

This film is a fascinating, intensely personal glimpse into the life, loves, and highfalutin' shenanigans of Houston oil lawyer Thomas Blake, who just happens to be the filmmaker's dear old dad. Despite its title, the film is as much about Tessa's life and formative years as it is her father's. Throughout the film, she captures rare glimpses into her aged father's monied, to-the-manor-born lifestyle, as well as a portrait of his irascible, inborn racist tendencies (exasperated to the breaking point when Tessa returns from college to announce that her new beau is black), and the surrounding members of her very extended family, including several of Thomas Blake's ex-wives who now make it a habit to dine together whenever possible. It's as much a sociology lesson as a personal memoir, revealing that Houston's landed gentry is just as wacky as the rest of us always thought, though Blake's father remains a bit of an enigma, to his daughter as well as the audience. Thoroughly engaging, Blake's lengthy documentary footage and interviews with her dad (and just about everyone who ever knew him) are like sparring matches between two friendly boxers - she's just as eager to explain herself and her motivations as he is, though not nearly as cagey. It's a rare invitation to see how the other half lives, and not surprisingly, it turns out to be pretty much like the rest of us, albeit with a greater cash flow. - Marc Savlov


GOD SAID "HA!"

Dir/scr/cast: Julia Sweeney; Prod: Rana Joy Glickman; Ed: Fabienne Rawley, Julia Sweeney.

35mm, 86 min., 1997 (WP)

"The feel-good cervical cancer movie of the year!" That's how I'd sum up this concert film in my "let's mock Joel Siegel" mode, but actually, it's not too far off the mark. Saturday Night Live alumna Sweeney (It's Pat!) provides a first-person account of the traumatic year when she battled cervical cancer even as her brother Mike was fighting brain cancer, and the humor and compassion with which she spins the tale strokes our funny bone and stirs something warm inside. The movie captures on celluloid the solo stage show that Sweeney performed to acclaim, and like many a film version of a theatrical production, it suffers somewhat in the translation. There's that odd sense of being separated from the performer, who is clearly doing the show for a live audience, and that awkward issue of what to do with the camera so the film won't look stagy but won't constantly call attention to itself. Sweeney the director doesn't help matters with some curious choices, but whenever she settles on Sweeney the actor we're disarmed by her self-deprecating wit and decency and love for her family. She makes her cancer year a triumph of humor and humanness. - Robert Faires


THE JEW IN THE LOTUS

Dir: Laurel Chiten; Prod: Laurel Chiten, Lucia Small; Scr: Rodger Kamenetz; DP: Peter Wiehl; Ed: William Anderson.

16mm, 60 min., 1998 (WP)

A rare congress of two different cultures provides the catalyst for one man's personal and spiritual redemption. When writer Rodger Kamenetz was invited to join a delegation of Jews meeting with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, he was deep in personal crisis, having suffered the loss of a child and serious professional rejection. He accepted the invitation, and it changed his life. As the Dalai Lama and rabbis of various Jewish traditions talked, Kamenetz awakened to a larger, more profound existence - a cosmos in which angels of Tibet and Judaism were conversing - and he saw his place in it. He wrote a book about the meeting and became a popular speaker on the subject, as well as an advocate for the liberation of Tibet. Chiten uses little footage of the meeting itself, but in interviews with the participants and images of Indian and Tibetan life, she vividly portrays Kamenetz's state of mind: his isolation and depression, his immersion in what at first seems an alien culture, and his growing awareness of the bonds between the Tibetan Buddhists and the American Jews. She achieves a portrait of transformation that shifts the universe for its viewers, too, and touches our hearts.

Showing with the film was "Looking for Sly," named "Best Documentary Short" at the SXSW Film Awards. The film follows an Armenian sculptor whose resemblance to Sylvester Stallone leads him to a career as a celebrity impersonator in Moscow, then to Hollywood, where he dreams of meeting the Rambo man himself. It's a new spin on the old Tinseltown cliché of the small-town kid with stars in his eyes who heads to Hollywood to make it big. When that kid is from Armenia, it makes us realize just how far the Dream Factory reaches and how its images can twist our minds. Directors Kia Simon, Eve Conant, and Jonathan Crosby portray their subject's unlikely odyssey without judgment or ridicule, giving us a portrait of a thoughtful, gentle spirit realizing an American Dream. - Robert Faires


THE LEAFBLOWER

Dir/prod/scr/dp/ed: Dominic DeJoseph; Cast: Jon Hyrns, Marco Giudice, Charles Langley, Jeanne Foss, Silverman, Paul Yates.

16mm, 70 min., 1997 (WP)

Dominic DeJoseph's The Leafblower is a piece of pure Dadaism in black and white; and the ambling oeuvre (it was shot without a script) is as coreless as it is colorless. Emotively akin to Institute Benjamenta and Tetsuo: The Iron Man, The Leafblower very plainly follows a leafblower (Jon Hearns). That's it. And it's what the leafblower does - namely not much of anything, or anything meaningful at least - that makes watching him such a relentlessly tedious experience. The truly lamentable aspect of The Leafblower is that the outset, the film does establish the potential to explore some interesting themes, among them (and in direct concord with Tetsuo: The Iron Man) the convergence of man and machine (even when swimming the leafblower does not separate from his mechanical apparatus) or the obsessive way people take to ultimately pointless tasks (early in the film the leafblower is clearing a lot of garbage in preparation for an alien landing never to occur). Instead, the few promising moments quickly dovetail into a series of painfully aimless scenes. The leafblower lays down by a pool for a nap. The leafblower talks to someone in a bubble-wrap shirt. The leafblower wanders down a beach. The leafblower refuels his vehicle. Maybe in some meta-symbolic fashion DeJoseph was making a point along the lines of: "Look how wasteful of resources this film is, like the leafblower himself." Maybe not. - Michael Bertin


LETTERS NOT ABOUT LOVE

Dir/prod/scr/ed: Jacki Ochs; Assoc Prod: Marie Cieri, Alexey Adashevsky; Voices: Lili Taylor, Victor Nord.

16mm, 60 min., 1997 (WP)

This year's SXSW award winner for Best Documentary is an anomaly in its genre: no talking heads, no expert witnesses, no specific item to be addressed or mystery to be uncovered; in fact, the filmmaker Jacki Ochs never even asks a question of anyone. The piece is structured around the five-year correspondence between two noted poets, American Lyn Hejinian and Ukrainian Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. The only thing Ochs asked of the poets at the beginning was that they reflect upon a decided-upon word ("books," "poverty," "violence," etc.) in each of their letters. She then used lines from their letters (read by actors Lili Taylor and Victor Nord) as a voiceover for footage she shot around America and the former Soviet Union. The result is a rare embrace of the political and the personal - a politics of intimacy. While the first letters come across as somewhat awkward and pretentious (as if each poet was trying to impress or outdo the other with flowery imagery and social insight), the latter ones grow in stature to the extent that they acknowledge, dance with, and revolve around each other. These may be letters not about love, but they do represent a love affair of words, and this is the root of the film's intoxicating appeal. Ochs' underlying images are rarely heavy-handed, but give new insight and meaning to the spoken words. It is a true and literal fusion of cinema and poetry. - Jerry Johnson


LITTLE SHOTS OF HAPPINESS

Dir/dp: Todd Verow; Scr: James Dwyer, Todd Verow; Prod: Lisa Correia, Todd Verow; Exec Prod: L. Diane Fortier, Robert Jason; Ed: Jarod Dubrino; Cast: Bonnie Dickenson, Todd Verow, Linda Eknoian, Rita Gavelis, PJ Marino; Castalia Jason, Leanne Whitney, William Dwyer.

16mm, 85 min., 1997 (RP)

If you believe her husband, Frances Collins used to be "an agoraphobic freak." But Frances has decided to change all that. In the film's first few minutes, she has begun her descent into a gritty life of drinking, smoking, and screwing. These little "shots" of happiness become a daily ritual, an escape from her drab telemarketing position where her dimwitted coworkers never catch on to her angel-like secret identity. But soon we witness the often brutal repercussions of Frances' seemingly weightless liberation, and our heroine must pay the price for her debauched escapades. Writer/director/producer Verow's script manages some moments of sheer delight, and Bonnie Dickenson is downright adorable in her loopy abandon. But at some point, Verow is unable to resolve, or even keep pace with, the capers he sets in motion. By the film's end, the narrative has too many frayed ends to weave together, and the hurried conclusion is at best two hands thrown up in frustration. It's a dull disappointment for a film that glimmers with so much else. - Sarah Hepola


LOVE & FATE

Dir/scr/prod: Kenneth Jones; Assoc Prod: Carmen Jones; DP: Richard Strain; Ed: Clay Walker; Cast: Maura Gale, Larry Robinson, John Black, Eunice Saunders, Phillip Smith, Verna Safran, Phillip Wilson, Greg Shumann.

35mm, 89 min., 1997 (RP)

Love & Fate takes place in a backwoods, pastoral South whose edenic setting unfortunately refuses to rub off on the rest of the film. Better Minds Home of Rest, the film's central locale, is a cozy place, the kind of mental institution in which Claudia lovingly passes out pills and willingly tells her boss she can work a double shift if needed, which is odd since she's actually a patient and not the nurse she believes she is. Her status as such causes problems for her blossoming relationship with Isaiah, who reluctantly places his aging father at Better Minds, his father's hallucinations the result of being unable to save Isaiah's sister from drowning. Isaiah is virulently opposed to "crazy people" and the idea that his father might be one. Since for all of their courtship Isaiah doesn't know that Claudia is a patient, he is understandably upset at having to take her back to "work" by 9pm each night and at having to conduct the majority of their relationship in front of the other six patients. There's an evident, tight bond among the cast, but even that doesn't produce convincing acting from the majority of the actors. This mars the wonderful ideas that are lurking but just don't surface in Love & Fate, an unreservedly sappy first feature from writer, director, and producer Kenneth Jones. - Claiborne Smith


MEN CRY BULLETS

Dir/scr: Tamara Hernandez; Prod: Harry Ralston, Tamara Hernandez, Jessica Rains; Exec Prod: Bob Sturm, Harry Ralston, Tamara Hernandez; DP: Michael Grady; Ed: Garth Grinde & Scott Balcerek; Cast: Steven Nelson, Honey Lauren, Jeri Ryan, Harry Ralston, Michael Mangiamele, Sabrina Bertaccini, Bob Sherer, Simara Richler.

35mm, 111 min., 1998 (WP)

What kind of men cry bullets? Tamara Hernandez's edgy Men Cry Bullets, which won the narrative feature competition at this year's SXSW Film Festival, isn't concerned with that question. That's partly because the man in this film, Billy, is busy being chased by bullets. Billy enters the film on shaky ground as a budding, ersatz drag queen, though he seems certain to become a quick study in that esteemed discipline before he happens to meet Gloria (Honey Lauren), a full-throttle bitchy sexpot who at 33 still lives at home. Gloria is an insecure, needy woman whose loyalty and exquisite shame for her actions instill ready emotional involvement from the viewer. Gloria's boyfriend, the "paperboy," kisses Billy during a drag performance, which swiftly positions him as the unenviable object of Gloria's rage; naturally, Gloria and Billy consequently fall in love; then, of course, Gloria's vapid country cousin Lydia visits, throwing a blond wrench into the chemistry between Gloria and Billy. Analyzed as such, the plot events seem laughably unreal, but since the finest element among many in Men Cry Bullets is its mercurial tragicomedy, all is believable, if wildly dramatic. Though Jeri Ryan as Lydia pushes the Southern accent a bit too far, the actors are intensely engaging and the film's vibrant palette of colors is cleanly and beautifully shot, which helps make the over-the-top storyline digestible. - Claiborne Smith


MR. VINCENT

Dir/ed: Robert Celestino; Scr: Robert Celestino, John Mollica; Prod: Phil Katzman; DP: Dick Fisher; Cast: Frank John Hughes, Lisa LoCicero.

35 mm, 90 min., 1997 (RP)

The moody Mr. Vincent unflinchingly examines the scary dynamic of a relationship that goes very, very bad: One minute she's the love of his life, the next he's hitting her while shouting vile obscenities. Newly separated from his wife, struggling to make it as a musician, and disenchanted with his teaching job, the film's eponymous character is Jekyll-and-Hyde in his unseemly transformations that, objectively speaking, don't make much sense. But then, of course, what rational explanation can ever be given for this kind of compulsive, obsessive, and violent conduct? Mr. Vincent is hard to watch at times, but only because you find yourself embarrassed to witness someone act so pathetically. (And for anyone who has lost his or her grasp on rationality in a relationship, even for a moment, there may a glimmer of disconcerting recognition.) The film does leave some loose ends dangling, particularly with respect to Mr. Vincent's relationship with one of his students, and there's a distracting continuity problem toward its end that may leave you scratching your forehead. All in all, an excursion to the dark side of the human psyche that, despite its faults, is not easy to shake. - Steve Davis


THE NEW GODS

Dir/scr: James Boyd; Prod: Peter Baxter & James Boyd; DP: Robert Stanger; Ed: Robert Meyer Burnett & Adam Pertofsky; Cast: Bryan Taylor, Ron Wolf, Elizabeth Newman, Parker Lee, Doug Burch, Chris Carlyle, Drew Johnson, Dallas Riley.

35mm, 97 min., 1997 (RP)

The New Gods is a poor man's Good Will Hunting, in which a young, once-in-a-generation mind (this time, he's a poet) is torn between his loyalty to the dead-end stomping ground of his youth and the future of far-flung fame and fortune that his talent promises. But The New Gods is missing out on the one element that made van Sant's film work: If you're already asking the audience to suspend its disbelief by making your protagonist the "best [fill in the blank] in the world" (especially when you can't prove it on screen - the film offers almost no examples of his poetry), then you had better take it to the hilt and make the whole affair sexy as hell, too. Unfortunately, the bland poet-protagonist bears no semblance to a hero, or even an anti-hero, and so the straw myth that the filmmaker has so precariously invited us into has no sustaining force - it topples around our heads before we've even begun. Add to this mix such weakly melodramatic elements as a sadistic law enforcement officer and a best friend up on a murder rap, and it becomes apparent that the film itself didn't trust the myth at the heart of its own story, either. - Jerry Johnson




Robyn Hitchcock
photograph by John Anderson

NOT A LOVE SONG

Dir/scr: Jan Ralske; Prod: Gudrun Ruzickova-Steiner; DP: Hans Fromm; Ed: Alida Babel, Jan Ralske; Cast: Anna Thalbach, Lars Rudolph, Matthias Freihof.

35mm, 86 min., 1997 (RP)

Plenty of lip service is paid to the ideal of moviemaking that arises organically from character and setting as opposed to contrived concept, but films that actually follow this path are so rare as to be startling when they're encountered. This oddly compelling little slice of comic absurdity from native Texan Ralske patiently seduces you into its tale of a sardonic drifter named Bruno (Rudolph) who stumbles onto the warped, Albee-esque world of a dysfunctional couple who plan to open a bistro in a tiny German backwater town. Rudolph has a startlingly expressive face (think Tab Hunter as drawn by Dick Tracy cartoonist Chester Gould) that adds wordless ironic commentary to Ralske's understated dialogue. Thalbach is equally memorable as Luise, the pugnacious entrepreneur with whom Bruno forms a disastrous alliance. In truth, not a hell of a lot happens in Ralske's determinedly low-keyed, black-and-white film. The local burghers - symbolically no doubt - seem to spend half their time pissing away the beer they swill from dawn to dusk, and many events seem inconsequential, arbitrary, or both. Yet even as the characters spin their wheels futilely in pursuit of their hazy dreams, Ralske's sure sense of the tiny but crucial details of character and circumstance that bring even the most minimal story to life makes the experience not only watchable but rewarding. - Russell Smith


THE PIGEON EGG STRATEGY

Dir/scr/prod/ed: Max Makowski; DP: Gavin Liew; Cast: Rachel Jacobs, Anthony Di Maria, Anthony Michael Jones, Anthony Grasso, Daniel Milder, Kevin Colbert, Bruce Walker, Ron Van Praag.

16mm, 84 min., 1997 (RP)

For a film that wears its Saussure on its sleeve, this experimental romp into semiotics and semantics (it is equal parts Monty Python, Seinfeld, and faux Godard) ambles along with surprising ease. The mere excuse of a plot, which involves a couple on the run from bumbling mobsters, offers a comfortably familiar if not specifically recognizable backdrop (it was shot in Hong Kong by a Chinese crew with an American cast) for the film's chief concern: lacing the characters' incessant chatter with doublespeak, non-sequiturs, double-entendres, wordplay, and anything else to showcase the ever-elusive and shifting nature of oral language. Sounds like Philosophy 101, I know, but lucky for us the filmmaker apparently studied his Howard Hawks, too - the wit and repartee of 1930s screwball comedy pulls us through what could have potentially been a ponderous exercise. And except for the severe misstep of the film's climax (an obligatory shoot-out scene that is clumsily staged and offers absolutely nothing new to the film in particular or the shoot-out cliché in general), the film proves there's no reason semiotics can't be a breezy walk in the park. - Jerry Johnson


REMEMBERING SEX

Dir/scr: Julie A. Lynch; Prod: Gill Holland, Nadia Leonelli, Julie A. Lynch, Eilhys England; Assoc Prod: Ken Greenblatt & Kevin Chinoy; DP: Enrique Chediak; Ed: Brian Kates; Cast: Christine Harnos, Brooke Smith, Bill Sage, Amy Ryan, David Marshall Grant, Tom Gilroy.

35mm, 89 min., 1998 (WP)

To be honest, I'm still not sure what the title has to do with the movie. A better suggestion: Josie Drinks, Fucks, and Paints in New York City. Certainly a more honest label for the content of this okay but troubling first film by director-screenwriter Julie Lynch. Christine Harnos gives a courageous, no-holds-barred performance as Josie, the alcoholic painter who continually gives herself away like a door prize, free to whomever is left standing at the end of the night. Her friends are no help. Jennifer also seems to have vodka for blood and can't resist a gay guy. Elaine is a staunch, frigid conservative who never can get a date. And Josie keeps violently shoving away the one guy who seems to give two shits about stopping her spiral into true insanity, a dance with death that only stops after the revelation of a "secret truth" that throws the whole film into the land of telenovelas and after-school specials. But Lynch's film reeks of well-placed intentions that get muddled in a script that hides from the very same honesty it wants to reveal as it throws out contrived explanations and recriminations that do not match the stark, naked promises made by the dark shots and stripped performances. - Adrienne Martini


RENO FINDS HER MOM

Dir: Lydia Dean Pilcher; Scr: Reno; Animation: Janie Geiser; Prod: Lydia Dean Pilcher, Reno, Tina DiFeliciantonio; Exec Prod: Jane Wagner, Lily Tomlin, Paula Mazur; DP: Trish Govoni; Ed: Jane Wagner; Cast: Reno, Mary Tyler Moore, Lily Tomlin.

16mm, 89 min., 1997 (WP)

The title says it all. Comedian Reno is on a search to find her birth mother and drags cameras into the quest. Reno, with her trademark blonde hair and black roots, is advised by an acquaintance shrink that she can't figure out who she really is unless she discovers where she came from - a piece of therapy that convinces this charmingly abrasive performer that the only roots she really has are entwined around the woman who gave her up, not the mother who raised her. While it is disturbing to watch Reno dismiss her parents in search of a more exotic heritage, the trappings of which she wears like a new-found hat, it is also scary to watch the hell she has to go through to uncover information that should be readily available and hysterical to watch the almost constantly talking Reno crack wise about the tediousness and frustrations of her search. But it is her birth mother who poses the most potent question of all: Does Reno really need to close this issue or does she just need to be the star of a film?

Reno Finds Her Mom was paired with "Two or Three Things But Nothing For Sure," a touching short directed by two of Reno's producers, Tina DiFeliciantonio and Jane Wagner, and based on the life and work of Dorothy Allison (Bastard Out of Carolina). The film uses soft, selective focus to illustrate a gripping monologue by Allison about her harrowing childhood. - Adrienne Martini


SCRAPPLE

Dir: Christopher Hanson; Scr: Geoffrey Hanson, Christopher Hanson, George Plamondon; Prod: Geoffrey Hanson, George Plamondon; Co-Prod: Craig McNeil, Carey Williams; Assoc Prod: Robert Bigelow, J. Gary Kosinski, Louis Marx III, Scott Zenko; DP: Robert F. Smith, Ed: Adam Lichtenstein; Cast: Geoffrey Hanson, Ryan Massey, Buck Simmonds, Bunzy Bunworth.

35mm, 93 min., 1997 (RP)

A drug-dealing, pig-lovin', bell-bottom-clad tour de farce from first-time director Christopher Hanson, Scrapple so faithfully recreates the Seventies era of peace, love, and terrifically bad hair in Telluride, Colorado that you're likely to get a contact high and doze off before the final reel unspools. Geoffrey Hanson plays Al, a low-rent, low-maintenance kind of guy who just wants to sell his shipment of Nepalese drugs to fund his dream of moving to a country home in neighboring Ajax, ostensibly to care for a sick brother. Along for the ride is a porcine mascot/confidant named Scrapple. Spam lovers may recoil in fear at naming a pet pig after the foul breakfast concoction made of the "unusable" bits of leftover bacon-scrapings, but the feisty porker is at the heart of the story, though he's still not as cute as Babe. The Hansons are whizzes at double-dipping this Seventies flavor fest; the film keenly recreates an era many of us would just like to forget already, but Scrapple is less than the sum of its dazed and confused parts. It moves at such a leisurely, stoned pace and by the time the seriocomic ending rolls around, you've already forgotten what all the fuss was about. It's cinematic creeper weed, and it leaves you pondering that eternal question: "What the hell?" - Marc Savlov


SHORTS 2

Always a mixed bag, this second program of short films came across as a particularly strong blend of comedy, drama, and adenoidal student filmmaking sponsored by Martin Scorsese. "God Says So," by Marjorie Kaye, focuses on a pair of young sisters who antagonize each other when "God" calls one day, with disastrous results for the younger sibling's china doll. Kaye's cinematography in the seven-minute piece is excellent, full of rich, dark wood tones, but little else. Victor Fanucchi and Matt Nix's "Chekov's Gun" is a fourth-wall breaking exercise in theatrical dramatics, as the mythic "gun in the first act" appears and drives three roommates up the wall with possibilities. Philip Pelletier's "New Testament" looks to be straight out of a recent SNL sketch, with Jesus Christ hawking New Testament-brand alcoholic spritzers - water into wind indeed. "La Leçon," from NYU alumnus Craig Marsden, gets the unofficial Scorsese award. At 36 minutes, it's the longest short here, and also the one with the most emotional resonance, as a young, white French tutor and his black, female student perform an emotional pas de deux that leaves them both disappointed. Beautiful, sharp, black-and-white camerawork highlights a pair of excellent performances, though the overall story seems a bit contrived. UT Professor Richard Lewis' National Geographic documentary "The Snow Monkeys of Texas" was clearly the audience favorite, eliciting hoots, moans, and muffled cries of "I want one!" as a displaced group of Japanese Macacs gamboled around their adopted Dilley, Texas turf. Ending the program on a low note (a really low note) was Maria Bowen's "What's Up?", a lighthearted look at - I kid you not - vomiting, as a number of talking-head interviewees attest to their most, uh, interesting experiences with abdominal overflow, from party calamities to seafaring projectile expulsions. What's up, Chuck? My lunch, man, my lunch. - Marc Savlov


SHORTS 3

Six filmmakers closed down the 1998 SXSW Film Festival with a heterogeneous collection of shorts encompassing everything from chilling parlor psychodrama to over-the-top comic parody. The former style was represented by Scott E. Elder's "Hebe Kills Jarry," a creepy, though rather affectless two-man play about a consensual murder pact between two exquisitely polite young Englishmen. Perhaps "Hebe" would have fared better in a setting of more compatible films. Despite their stylistic variations, most of the other shorts featured markedly higher energy levels and, with the exception of Lawrence Silberstein's clever and engaging mistaken-identity yarn, "Flower," a certain parodic broadness. Gray Miller's "Hellzapoppin'," a sort of Kalifornia for the AARP set featuring septuagenarians as serial killers, was often hilarious, if a bit overlong for its one-joke concept. "Culture" by Will Speck and Josh Gordon achieved the effect of psychological horror with its comic conceit of a Bartleby-like elderly secretary who wields career-wrecking power over a long line of self-important bosses. The full-blown surrealism of Dina Waxman's "Anton, Mailman" benefited immeasurably from the outlandish performance of Nina Hellman as a sexy madwoman who rocks the world of a nerdly mail carrier. Sean Presant's program-opening "Suburban Monogamy" risked being one example too many of the somewhat overdone 1950s Documentary Parody genre, but carried the day with superior writing and eerily authentic design flourishes. - Russell Smith


SLAMNATION

Dir/prod/ed: Paul Devlin; Prod: Paul Devlin, Tom Poole; DP: John Anderson.

Austin is no stranger to the phenomenon of poetry slams - that curious hybrid of onomatopoeia and Olympic competition - and indeed our city is represented in Devlin's documentary about the National Poetry Slam, alongside competing teams from Providence, RI; Berwyn, Il; and New York City; among others. Egos and wits rub shoulders and occasionally collide on the road to the finals in Portland, Oregon, although famed New Yorker Saul Williams keeps insisting that "It's not about the competition, it's about the poetry." Yeah, right. Devlin, who's better known for his ESPN2 extreme-sports coverage, frames the slams in a similar style, focusing on the most visually eclectic (we assume) of the entries, whether it's the Austin team's group action, featuring all four team members hollering out a hilarious paean to the cathode ray tube or similar outbursts from Providence, their chief competitors. It's an interesting mix, and Devlin's film captures the muted fury of competing poets like wasps in a mason jar: Leaves of Grass this ain't. Still, SlamNation feels a bit overlong, with minute detail given to the methods, practice, and explanation of the history (beginning at Chicago's Green Mill Jazz Club) of poetry slams. That aside, Devlin nicely captures the frenetic, poetry-as-warfare pace; it's fierce, hilarious, brooding stuff, with nary a red rose or blue violet in sight. - Marc Savlov


TOMORROW NIGHT

Dir/Prod/Scr: Louis C.K.; DP: Paul Keostner; Ed: Doug Abel; Cast: Chuck Sklar, Martha Greenhouse, J.B. Smoove, Rick Shapiro, Heather Morgan, Greg Hahn.

35 mm, 87 min., 1998 (RP)

Bizarre and perverse, Tomorrow Night tells the deliciously improbable story of Charles, a joyless photo-shop manager who has all the charm and good looks of Eugene Levy during the Ghostbuster years. Sensing the emptiness of his life, Charles is drawn toward the lonely Florence, a lovable elderly woman whose penchant for tidiness leads him to propose a marriage of convenience, despite their age difference of some 30 years. If you can imagine, things get stranger from there. Shot in black-and-white, the film maintains the choppiness and at times even the sound of old nickelodeons, a nuance that makes this grotesque world even creepier. The real treat of Tomorrow Night, though, is the delightfulness of the performances, which range from just short of certifiable to Chuck Sklar's unshakable deadpan. Vivid, unforgettable characters leap into the story at every turn, characters like the freaky, funky mailman (Smoove) or ludicrous love bunny Lola Vagina (Morgan). Together they weave a most enjoyable jaunt into an off-kilter universe, so wild and nonsensical, so bittersweet and beautiful that it might just be our own. - Sarah Hepola


WALT CURTIS: THE PECKERNECK POET

Dir: Bill Plympton, Walt Curtis; Prod: Bill Plympton; Ed: Anthony Arcidi.

Video, 64 min., 1997 (RP)

After 64 minutes of watching self-described "jerk-off poet therapist" Walt Curtis in animator-turned-documentarian Bill Plympton's Walt Curtis: The Peckerneck Poet, you may agree with this rhyme an Oregon cowboy tosses Curtis' way: "Roses are red/Violets are blue/Assholes like you/Belong in a zoo." But if you don't agree, it's most likely because the wild, frenetic poet's irreverence and verve are, in fact, really admirable. Of special difficulty for this documentary, however, is Curtis' undeniable status as a poet-entertainer; that latter avocation is played to the hilt, much to the detriment of a fuller glimpse into Curtis. Curtis never seems "off," as if he's a little child all too aware that he's having a movie made about himself. No sources provide insight into Curtis, no friends or family are captured on-camera verbalizing what it means for Curtis to shout his poetry instead of read it gently. Maybe that's Plympton's point, though - that Curtis is such an in-your-face, full-bodied poet that he occupies all the available space around himself. If so, his antics aren't worth 64 minutes. Neither worth 27 minutes is Wayne Freedman, the smug, uninterestingly frustrated feature reporter behind "Wayne Freedman's Notebook," a short screened Plympton's film. - Claiborne Smith


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