Sundance Without Snow
Sex and sports – are they not interchangeable? – drew hordes to Austin theaters during the South by Southwest Film Festival, March 12-20. “I believe that sex is good enough to die for,” declared Annabel Chong, who appeared live at a crowded Saturday night screening of SEX: The Annabel Chong Story. Chong, who was born Grace Quek in Singapore, could be called the Wilt Chamberlain of fornication, if the Stilt himself had not already retired the title. But for a brief period, as documented by SEX, Chong held the public record for concentrated copulation – 251 men in ten hours. The next night, Wadd: The Life & Times of John C. Holmes, documented the rise and demise of another prodigious porn star.
With eighty entries in nine days, SXSW encourages cinematic acrobats, viewers of steady gaze and sturdy butt. It is almost impossible to see everything in the festival and difficult to generalize about the shorts, longs, animations, live-actions, documentaries, and narratives chosen for screening at the annual event. And with Home Page, a record of Doug Block’s adventures in Web culture, the SXSW experience need never end. That film concludes with the e-mail addresses of Block himself (d-word.com) and the Internetters he meets along the way. No one but Rhett Butler ever succeeded in talking back to Scarlett O’Hara, but this is an interactive movie where anyone with a modem and moxy can prolong acquaintance with people on the screen.
One image that lingers on my mental monitor after many hours in the dark in Austin is that of figures in a ring – scrappers with gloves on their hands and blood on their noses. Two separate entries at SXSW, On the Ropes and In My Corner, set out to study the subculture of a New York boxing gym. The Bed Stuy Boxing Club, in Brooklyn, is the setting and subject for On the Ropes, while Ricki Stern hung out at the Bronxchester Boxing Club in the South Bronx in order to make In My Corner. With On the Ropes, directors Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen follow three local contenders, including a woman, Tyrene, as they train for battle and try, unsuccessfully, to stay out of trouble. The film also records the hopes and disappointments of their trainer, Harry, who offers his troubled protégés, and himself, grace through measured combat. Focusing on two younger boxers who attract the interest of famous trainer Luis Camacho and his disciple Angel, In My Corner studies the strained relations between talented, endangered adolescents and the middle-aged men who take them under their wing and into the ring.
A more epic take on the sporting life is offered by Aviva Kempner, in her study of a legendary first baseman from baseball’s heroic era. The Life & Times of Hank Greenberg recounts the eventful career of the famous Detroit slugger, who got an early boost by leading Beaumont to championship of the Texas League in 1932. Playing in the majors for the Tigers, Greenberg finished 1938 two home runs shy of Babe Ruth’s majestic sixty. When Alan Dershowitz tells the camera, “He might have been the single most important Jew to live in the 1930s,” the Harvard law professor might not be doing justice to Albert Einstein, Irving Berlin, and Leon Trotsky. But Dershowitz, Carl Levin, Dick Schaap, Walter Matthau, and others testify to how, during an era when anti-Semitism was overt and rampant, the hardy, handsome Greenberg offered anxious fellow Jews the possibility of achievement within American society. Yet, halting abruptly with Greenberg’s retirement in 1947, Kempner slights four more decades of a remarkable man’s life and times.
Another revealing nonfiction feature that is thirty minutes too short is The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords. Director Stanley Nelson traces the history of black newspapers, from the birth of Freedom’s Journal in 1827 until the death of Jim Crow in the 1960s, that is also a history of black America. Early in this century, more than five hundred newspapers were being published by and for African Americans, and the film focuses on several of them, including Robert Abbott’s Chicago Defender, Charlotta Spears Boss’s California Eagle, and Robert Vann’s Pittsburgh Courier. While mainstream publications were ignoring or maligning African Americans, the black press gave work to black writers and hope to black readers. Practicing advocacy journalism, as champion of a terrorized minority, it rivaled the churches in importance to its embattled community. With the triumph of civil rights, mainstream papers were covering and employing African Americans, and black newspapers, like black colleges, lost much of their raison d’être. Yet some persist, as does advocacy journalism in general, though Nelson puts his piece to bed before exploring the continuing, changing role of the black press.
African Americans might have been lepers to white society, but those suffering from Hansen’s disease have needed no additional metaphor to accentuate their ostracism. In Secret People, John Anderson uncovers a hidden history of hygienic apartheid in the United States, the federal quarantine of leprosy. From 1921 to 1957, hundreds of patients diagnosed with the disease were involuntarily confined to facilities in Carville, Louisiana, though leprosy is not contagious and researchers even failed in efforts to infect themselves with the dreaded affliction. But even more distressing than the condition itself, suggests Anderson, is the stigma attached to it. Through interviews with former patients and staff, Secret People offers a vivid sense of what life was like in the nation’s last leper colony. As soon as they were sequestered in Carville, citizens lost their rights, and, lest they be contaminated, infants were even wrenched from their mothers. Nevertheless, the residents of Carville developed their own culture, and it was appealing enough that in 1957, when habitation at the institution became voluntary, more than two hundred inmates chose to stay. Leper colonies might never have been necessary or useful, but effective treatment now makes segregated places like Carville as indispensable as colored drinking fountains. The Louisiana hospital closed its doors in 1998, and Secret People concludes with the end to one human blight.
An end to all film is the subject of another documentary screened at SXSW. In contrast to live performances, we tend to think of celluloid as permanent and as the most enduring record of life throughout the twentieth century. Yet Mark McLaughlin’s Keepers of the Frame is a reminder of how fragile and transient the medium really is. About 90 percent of silent films and 50 percent of talkies made before 1950 have vanished, victims of indifference and physical disintegration. Even “safety” stock, developed to replace unstable nitrate, deteriorates. Keepers of the Frame celebrates those (like dotty John Harvey, who transformed his house into a Cinerama theater) dedicated to the preservation of the frail and precious art that it itself exemplifies.
The nonfiction titles at SXSW seemed to me much the most impressive offerings and, because least likely to be available later in the local multiplex, most in need of screening at a festival. But though Abilene, the first feature directed by Joe Camp III, never gets closer than forty-three miles to the town of its title, it approaches important truths of the human heart. Wounded during World War II, Hotis Brown (Ernest Borgnine), a cantankerous old farmer in West Texas, never recovered from the shock of learning that the woman he loved had married his own brother. That brother suffers a stroke at the beginning of the film, and Hotis (whose driver’s license has been confiscated for his own safety) undertakes a journey, by riding mower, to the house where his beloved Emmeline (Kim Hunter) has lived half a century without him. Abilene ably captures the rhythms and patterns of its rural landscape and some of the verities of grief, despair, and love.
Abilene is not the city in La Ciudad, set in a metropolis so vast that when an immigrant from Puebla steps out of the apartment of a new-found love he is unable to find his way back to her. David Riker (whose success at learning Spanish to make this film recalls John Sayles’ linguistic feat with Men with Guns), places four plaintive tales of lost Latin Americans in a barely recognizable New York City, defamiliarizing the old Big Apple as a huge pit. Black-and-white photography evokes the vacancy of sweatshops, job lines, and empty lots.
Despite its title, Macbeth in Manhattan is worlds away from La Ciudad. Like Vanya on 42nd Street, Looking for Richard, and, especially, A Midwinter’s Tale (Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 comedy about a performance of Hamlet), it is another film about a theatrical production, one in which the lives of the actors, consumed by jealousy, ambition, and resentment, parallel the plot of Shakespeare’s cursed play. Director Greg Lombardo has created a genial romp through Scottish tragedy.
It is difficult to discuss The Eden Myth, a film dependent on grotesque shocks in its plot, without spoiling the experience for unsuspecting viewers. An imperious patriarch announces to his children that two days hence one of his three sons will wed a woman he has not yet met. And the son acquiesces. Mark Edlitz’s first film, The Eden Myth adapts biblical and classical motifs to the story of a family whose strict tradition is to re/de-generate itself through sibling incest. Shot on the estate that was the model for Jay Gatsby’s residence, this cinematic prank just had to have its American premiere at the 1999 edition of South by Southwest, since it, too, makes sport of sex.
Steve Kellman briefly held the record of 251 films seen in ten days or less. He writes on film for the Observer and the San Antonio Current.