SXSW Movie History

A festival is a filmgoer’s dream and nightmare. Hours on end, one film bleeds into the next, making connections one hadn’t imagined but also blurring useful distinctions — like the one between Saturday night and Sunday morning. And on Observer deadline after only one weekend of the Austin Chronicle’s annual weeklong South-by-Southwest extravaganza, all I can think of is that while I’m typing, I’m missing more movies. Consider what follows one writer’s very partial snapshot of SXSW 2000, with some obvious early highlights and much more yet to be seen.

If there’s an early theme to the millennial festival, it’s that this is the year of the documentary. The keynote film, given the Sunday-night-at-the-Paramount pride of place, is Paul Stekler and Daniel McCabe’s George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire, an epic political biography which makes most fictional films seem thin and lifeless by comparison. It’s unlikely that any narrative film on the schedule can approach the high emotion and historical reverberation of Wallace (at three absorbing, big-screen hours, doomed to the PBS ghetto of lecture-in-a-box: April 23 and 24). A handful of other current and revived documentaries highlight the week: D.A. Pennebaker’s young Bob Dylan explosion, Don’t Look Back; Anne Lewis’ elegy for the strip-mined Cumberlands, To Save the Land and People; Aiyana Eliot’s examination of the myth of her hard-travelin’, folk-singin’, self-mythologizin’ father, The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack; Pennebaker’s already classic deconstruction of the 1992 Clinton campaign, The War Room (one of four featured Pennebaker/Chris Hegedus films); Gregory Nava’s telescopic history of immigration, American Tapestry, and many others.

As George himself would certainly have wanted, George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire is a towering effort, more than a decade in the making, and as much a history of the times (centrally the fifties through the seventies) as the man. One should note at the outset that the film relies heavily and forthrightly on Dan Carter’s biography, The Politics of Rage, and Carter collaborated in the production. Using riveting historical footage as well as incisive contemporary interviews, it follows Wallace from his days as a politics-obsessed youth (as a boy, goes the family legend, he would introduce himself to strangers and announce, “If I can do anything for you, let me know”); through his early career as a once “liberal” circuit judge (who abruptly re-learns that racism is the bright, shining key to Southern politics) and his leap to the national stage as a far-right presidential candidate; to his near-assassination, spiritual conversion, decline, and death. Paul Stekler says he first got the idea for a Wallace film fifteen years ago, when he saw some old footage of Wallace “just leaping off the screen” unlike most drearier politicians. It’s true that Wallace had a dominating, soap-box presence that is mostly gone from our television-blanded politics. Wallace, who died in 1998, was too ill to be interviewed, but his ancient glowering visage powerfully frames the film.

It’s also true that villains make better copy. One of the most revealing moments in Wallace is just following the almost-successful 1972 assassination attempt by Arthur Bremer. After a sharply-rendered sequence on the shooting itself, Stekler and McCabe cut to the White House, where President Nixon and his feckless minions immediately begin plotting to frame the Democrats for the attack, specifically by planting pro-McGovern leaflets in Bremer’s Milwaukee apartment. They were foiled only because the F.B.I. arrived first and secured the premises. Had Oliver Stone scripted that conspiratorial passage, the howls of outrage from the right would be deafening (one can imagine the red-faced indignation of William Safire and George Will). Instead, as that episode confirms, among American politicians only the profoundly amoral, bottom-crawling Nixon was a match for the street-fighting, gutter-politics firebrand from Alabama.

For many viewers it may come as a revelation that Wallace began his career as moderately populist judge, known for his respectful courtroom treatment of African Americans (Negroes, in the polite term of the day). It’s worth remembering, however, that an establishment “liberal” in fifties Alabama was someone who didn’t consider lynching a first resort. The film returns several times to the aftermath of Wallace’s pivotal 1958 campaign for governor, when, defeated by an aggressively racist opponent, Wallace swore to a long-time aide that he would “never be outniggered again.” Given a choice between his own political ambition and even a modicum of social justice, the film confirms, Wallace didn’t hesitate. And he never looked back — until old, broken, and ill, he called his longtime enemies (even a still somewhat puzzled John Lewis, the freedom rider turned Congressman) and begged forgiveness for his sins. Many, of course — like the four black children murdered in a Birmingham church, in an atmosphere of vilely racist hysteria intentionally whipped up by Governor George Wallace — were long dead. For them (and their names are myriad) there would be no phone call, and from them, no absolution.

It’s abundantly clear the filmmakers despise George Wallace’s politics (and they’ve said as much often in comments about the film), but there’s a troublesome sense in which Wallace, in its historical sweep and attention to the man’s every private crisis and every canny public gesture, inevitably exalts him, as films tend to do. J.L. Chestnut, a black Alabama civil rights lawyer and an obviously generous man, speaks of the “tragedy” of George Wallace, the tragedy of a man of “great talent, great skill, great charm,” but “all focused in the wrong directions, in the pursuit of power for the wrong reasons.” But George Wallace was too small for tragedy, even as metaphor. It’s arguable, by contrast, that Lyndon Johnson was a truly tragic figure, since his downfall grew directly out of his doing, at terrible human cost, what he clearly believed was right. As this film makes clear, Wallace’s political career was founded upon the conscious choice to do what he clearly knew was evil — to achieve power at the direct and brutal expense of his country’s weakest and most defenseless citizens. We need to try to understand that choice (as this film honestly tries to do), but we cannot ever honor it, and thereby dishonor its victims.

In his presidential campaigns, Wallace became the consummate confidence man, ringing the changes on the respectable code words for racial hatred — states’ rights, law and order, private property, forced busing, welfare — and was always answered by a waving sea of Confederate battle flags. It’s no accident that the flags are still waving, in this presidential year. We have yet to exorcise our most persistent (and most politically useful) national demon, one certainly not first conjured or put to rest by George Wallace. I strongly recommend this film, and with it an extraordinary essay, “The Least of These,” by Paul Stekler’s U.T.-Austin colleague, Horace Newcomb, published in the March 10 Austin Chronicle. Newcomb’s wise memoir of those terrible years fully comprehends they are not over:

George Wallace was — and there is clear irony here — the black hole of American racism, sucking to himself the contamination, the dread of difference on which the nation has structured itself. This defilement was the source of his power and energy. He plastered over a fundamental fault in our cultural foundation with a malevolent and vicious claim of patriotism. And for a short time he was the emblem, the spectacle making clear that the corruption in which he trafficked was not “Southern” at all, but was an American vein so wide and deep it still debases those who would mine it. That we have traveled so short a distance from where he stood is, for me, evidence of his true legacy.

At the other end of the sixties’ cultural spectrum was Abbie Hoffman, the manic bundle of rebellious energy who is the subject of Steal This Movie!, a fictional version of Abbie’s irrepressible and too short life. Undeniably a noble effort, directed by Robert Greenwald from a script by Bruce Graham (Hoffman’s longtime pro bono defense lawyer, Gerry Lefcourt, gets a producer’s credit), this is a film in trouble. Framed by the hoary device of a journalist (the leaden Kevin Corrigan) re-discovering Hoffman’s life story, the film is rushed and confusing, there are distracting loops in the chronology, and apparently for dramatic reasons a preposterous attempt to give Hoffman sole credit for exposing the F.B.I.’s notorious COINTELPRO assault on dissent and civil liberties. From the festival program notes it appears that the film has already been re-edited at least once, and since everything about it, including the line readings, is rough-cut, the film’s success or failure rests on its two established stars, Vincent D’Onofrio as Abbie and Janeane Garofalo as his long-suffering wife Anita.

D’Onofrio, of wide range and looming presence, might have seemed a sure bet, but he never captures Abbie’s wiry, anarchic energy nor his explosive cultural politics. In Graham’s tendentious screenplay, nobody talks, they make speeches, and although there is an apologetic reference to Abbie’s going-underground nose-job, his facial appearance never changes — he always looks like Barry Freed (Abbie’s underground persona), clean-living environmental organizer. For the current youth audience this film is explicitly aimed at (it closes with a courtroom call to rebellion that makes Abbie sound like a long-haired Mr. Smith Comes to Long Island), what little confounded history here will likely be incomprehensible. Garofalo is even more problematic. Having made a career of playing post-eighties cynicism, her Anita is a revolutionary drunkard’s dream: worshipful, available, undemanding, maternal, protective, stoic. One keeps expecting Garofalo to turn to the camera and mutter, “Do you believe this shit?” Nope.

As with the stars, everything else seems a beat off: messy seventies interiors without individual character, courtroom scenes like Judge Judy stage sets, demos that appear pointless and aimless, and where only the cops seem to have a purpose. The Vietnam war is ever-present, sort of — it’s on the ubiquitous TVs that never turn off, but otherwise, it might as well be East Timor. Abbie has a stilted heart-to-heart with a black soldier defending the Pentagon, and leaves him a snack — that’s what passes for organizing in Steal This Movie! Abbie Hoffman was a heroic, obnoxious, inventive, manic-depressive, bullying, self-aggrandizing, arrogant, fearless, condescending, maddening spirit of the sixties, very difficult to capture in life or on film. It’s small disgrace that he’s not captured here.

Which brings us back, more or less, to documentaries, which at least have to try to hew to the truth as they see it. Among the best in the first few days was Grass, Canadian director Ron Mann’s mordant history of marijuana laws, brimming with revelatory archival footage and punctuated with lively animation (provided in part by Texan Gilbert Shelton, father of the unforgettable Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers) and an entire anthology of marijuana music (many jazz classics like Cab Calloway’s “Reefer Man,” and sweetly foggy sixties anthems like John Prine’s “Illegal Smile”). Mann is obviously a bear for research, and some of the most revealing passages are outtakes from long-lost TV news shows, as cops practice denouncing the demon weed or announcing their latest exaggerated bust. By far the self-appointed villain is Harry J. Anslinger, the Treasury Department’s first drug czar and one of those supremely blockheaded and thuggish bureaucrats so often handsomely rewarded in U.S. institutional crime-fighting. Anslinger, like J. Edgar Hoover, built a lucrative career on terrorizing politicians and the public with grandiose criminal fantasies, and even left a legacy of inflammatory filmstrips for the implacable Mann to dig out, polish up, and turn into an entertaining public education.

If there were any cultural justice, Grass would be distributed free to public school systems as an intelligent and amusing counterweight to the mounds of dishonest propaganda still frightening schoolchildren, generated by Anslinger’s successors, the likes of DARE and other police-administrative boondoggles. (The self-effacing Mann is comical on that subject as well: he says he can testify from personal experience that watching reams of anti-drug movies definitely drives one to drugs.) Instead, Mann will be lucky to get his film into general distribution outside college towns, and he notes that as a potential source of “pro-drug propaganda,” he has to be wary of running into visa trouble with a censorious U.S. State Department. That’s life under the New Democratic consensus. In case viewers have forgotten, the bad guys are winning the culture war: more marijuana smokers are being thrown into jail now than at any time in our history. See this film, and spread the word.

Back to festivalia: what else might survive these miles of acetate? Borderland, a short comic family narrative (call it a promising study for a fictional feature) by Sidney Brammer, a producer/director with long family and personal attachments to this publication, recounts a Cen-Tex family reunion of sorts, at a family funeral in Pharr, in Hidalgo County. The premise is Southern shopworn, and the still budget-constricted film (much of which takes place in the car on the drive through South Texas) sometimes feels claustrophobic, but there are some fine funny moments and a generation-leaping sense of the distance from Old Texas to New. Brammer’s deep connections in the Austin talent pool and her sense of the town’s cultural history predates the latest wave of Silicon-City tourism, and it shows on screen, even in this abbreviated form. We wish the film great fortune.

By contrast, the great fortune displayed in one of the festival’s high-profile premiers, Peter Greenaway’s 8 1/2 Women, is only evidence that pretension comes in many colors. Greenaway’s film is a nominal homage to Fellini’s 8 1/2, and he makes the mistake of directly importing a few moments of that film into this one. The only effect is to make one wish, instantly and longingly, one were watching the Fellini movie. As always in Greenaway’s directorially self-absorbed epics, the settings and the people are unspeakably gorgeous, and they engage in endless and endlessly boring desultory exchanges about nothing in particular, interrupted by moments of casual brutality and the director’s ham-handed, bullhorn reminders to his stupefied audience, “Hey, you’re watching a Movie! Made by Me!” My own breaking point came about an hour in, when an affectless, naked woman in traction and a plastic body-cast (otherwise we couldn’t see her tasteful nipples) began sensitively recalling her pet pig. If you like Peter Greenaway movies, you’ll love 8 1/2 Women. Take an enemy.

Also of note: the Pennebaker/Hegedus retrospective, in which a film like The War Room, eight years later, now seems to reveal even more about its leading protagonists, George Stephanopoulous and James Carville. Carville obviously believes he is fighting the good and glorious shit-kickin’ fight, while his spin-sensitive colleague increasingly understands he’s in an apprentice league of show business. And Pennebaker and Hegedus’ Moon Over Broadway, about Carol Burnett’s semi-triumphant Broadway debut, amusingly reveals the inner politics of show business. Anne Lewis’ To Save the Land and People is a stately recollection of the shattered limbs of the Cumberland mountains, in eastern Kentucky. One after another blunt and fearless native Kentuckian explains unblinkingly how together they fought money and power, and how money and power won. On a more victorious (and frankly more fun) note, Julia Query’s Live Nude Girls UNITE! chronicles explicitly and heroically the organizing drive of the nude dancers in San Francisco’s Lusty Lady Club. The combination of the dancers’ indefatigable, no-nonsense, pragmatic militance, Query’s novic
but impeccable timing (she’s a comedian and writer who must also “come out” as a stripper to her physician mother as the film proceeds), and the undeniably erotic frisson, make the film as sprightly a documentary as you will see in a very long time. Plus, the women beat the bastards — they win. I have no idea where they can actually show this film when it’s finally released this fall, but it’s an inspiration worthy of Lysistrata: No justice, no piece.

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Published at 12:00 am CST