Thursday, March 13, 2008


I’ve just experienced my second day at the SXSW film festival in beautiful, sunny Austin (and really, the weather and foliage here are fantastic, although, according to filmmaker David Zellner (via The Austin Chronicle), “South by Southwest takes place during the best time of year, which gives visitors an interesting misconception that Austin’s always really pleasant and wonderful to live in. Sure, the weather is perfect today, but in two months, it’s going to be hell. But they won’t ever experience that.”

David, together with his brother, Nathan, have been crafting distinctive independent cinema since 1996, but I first became aware of them at a terrible parasite film festival called 30th Parallel that leeched onto the back of the 1997 SXSW fest, analogous to the Slamdance/Sundance arrangement, but much shoddier (and short-lived, since 30th Parallel barely made it through its first and only installment).

I know about the 30th Parallel Fest, because it featured the Texas premiere of my own indie film, Apocalypse Bop. The whole misbegotten affair kicked off with a reception in the back room of some hotel notable for a sad tray of vegetables and the absence of any members of the 30th Parallel staff to greet us. This led to some awkward bonding among the invited filmmakers as we all stood around, confused, waiting for some information about what we were supposed to do. Then, eventually, we all left.

Because just about every movie theater, auditorium and/or other screening venue in Austin was booked for SXSW, 30th Parallel mostly screened its selections in the back rooms of bars, which wasn’t a terrible idea in theory. Unfortunately, the Zellner Brothers had the misfortune of premiering their surrealist mime masterpiece Plastic Utopia on “Melrose Monday” at some 6th Street dive, meaning that many of the 30th Parallel films screened that evening were drowned out by blaring Melrose Place-themed trivia questions from the front of the bar.

Additionally, the 30th Parallel projectors were seeming World War II-era relics that kept jamming and breaking down every few minutes...and, even when they worked, they often caused the projected films to stutter, blur and, occasionally, melt.

And yet, it is to the Zellner Brothers’ credit that, despite all the hellacious distractions, I not only sat through the entire, tortured screening of Plastic Utopia, but came away considering it one of the most brilliantly deranged independent films I’ve ever seen, a surrealistic cult classic that, sadly, has never inspired nearly the cult it deserves.

Yet, while not cult figures on the level of, say, John Waters, Kevin Smith or Jim Jones, the Zellners have slowly built a small, devoted following, in Austin and elsewhere, despite their tiny budgets and occasional peculiar experiments like 2001’s Frontier, a faux foreign film in a fake foreign language (Bulbovian) starring an older, puffier Wiley Wiggins (of Dazed and Confused fame).

Recently, the Zellners have devoted themselves to dry, absurdist short subjects which highlight the pair’s strengths: unexpected, offbeat writing and visuals combined with their own very likeable recurring screen personas: David, the excitable, put-upon cynic and Nathan, the mellower zen weirdo.

The shorts (available for viewing at opened the door to the influential Sundance Film Festival, which recently premiered their latest feature film, Goliath, once again starring David and Nathan, with cameos by Wiggins and mumblecore poster boy Andrew Bujalski.

The film, in terms of tone and subject matter, plays like the bastard child of Little Children and Year of the Dog. Goliath, the titular tiger-striped tabby owned by David Zellner’s protagonist, goes missing and his recently divorced owner goes more than a little insane, eventually scapegoating a neighborhood sex offender (played by Nathan) as the source of his troubles.

The film plays out in a deadpan naturalistic style that left me yearning for a little more of Plastic Utopia’s antic narrative drive and visual invention, yet nevertheless hooked me with its own peculiar rhythms, dry wit, occasional slapstick, Asian porno drumming (yeah, you heard me) and its sometimes harrowing depiction of the hazards of love and pet ownership...without giving too much away, I’ll just note here that if you’re a tender-hearted pet lover, this may not be the movie for you.

Yet, despite its occasional grim moments, Goliath is a Disney Holiday on Ice compared to the equally low-budget Wellness, which snagged the SXSW Grand Jury Award on Tuesday and may be the least sexy movie ever made. The cinéma-vérité squirmer (written and directed by Jake Mahaffy) follows a homely, middle-aged salesman (a visceral performance by Jeff Clark) from one ugly, snowy, low-rent hovel to another as he deludes himself and his white trash customers about an obvious Ponzi scheme involving a vague, almost certainly fictional “international” pharmaceutical brand called “Wellness.” Clark’s growing psychic and financial desperation as his character, Thomas, blindly adheres to the poisonous false promises of his odious “business unit manager” (and, by extension, capitalism itself) would be unbearable if not for the humanity and bleak humor of the protagonist and the sense that, no matter how bad your life may seem at times, at least you’re not any of the characters in this movie.

Finally, my Wednesday movie-going wrapped up with a screening of the big-studio adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Choke, which I’m told is daring and provocative and, apparently, beloved by hipsters. The theater was filled with big studio Men in Black armed with night vision goggles and whatnot to prevent any pirating of their upcoming release...odd, considering the much more likeable and successful Knocked Up got screened at last year’s festival without nearly so much off-putting, paranoid nonsense.

Anyway, Choke tells the story of sex addict Sam Rockwell and his sex addict friends (including Joel Grey?!!?!?) and their struggles with sex addiction, which is apparently a terrible problem in Los Angeles and, uh, probably other places...although, to be fair, I’m guessing it’s more of a problem for sex addicts who don’t get to screw around with gorgeous starlets like Kelly Macdonald and Bijou Phillips. Rockwell’s character also likes to pretend he’s choking in restaurants, because the attention it brings him makes up for the love he was denied by his wacky, now Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother (played by recent bad-mom specialist Anjelica Huston). Ho-hum. Not a bad movie exactly – there’s some funny bits involving a colonial theme park and, of course, plenty of nudity – but I left the theater wondering how many better movies Jake Mahaffy and the Zellner Brothers could have made with the millions they spent on this utterly disposable studio offering.

And now...brunch.



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