Plenty of narrative features were screened at the South By Southwest Film Festival March 10-18 in Austin. Among the anticipated features were Robert Altman's fictionalized take on Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion radio show and the revenge fantasy V for Vendetta with Natalie Portman. I preferred American Dreamz, a satire on US pop culture with Hugh Grant and Dennis Quaid, and Live Free or Die, an indy film about a wannabe outlaw in small-town New Hampshire.
But the real action in this fest that promotes independent media was in the documentary section, where the success of Michael Moore's documentaries has spawned a host of worthy imitators. Moore showed that a relatively modest investment can produce a powerful movie as well as a chance at a lucrative return (witness last year's March of the Penguins, which earned more than $107 million in box office and video rentals, second only to Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, which earned $120 million after its 2004 release).
My top documentary picks from the week of screenings (see also sxsw.com):
Oil Crash examines our dependence on oil and what a future with dwindling oil reserves will look like. Oil Crash is full of experts and statistics on "peak oil," the theory that production hit its maximum level a few years ago and is now on a slow but inexorable decline that threatens our standard of living as long as fossil fuel is the lifeblood of the world economy. Journalists Basil Gelpke and Ray McCormack also look at alternative energy sources, from biomass and nuclear energy to solar power.
In Maxed Out, James Scurlock documents the pimps of debt -- the credit card industry -- as well as their victims, from the students who are addicted to easy credit when they enter college to the families who are lured into buying homes and appliances they can't afford, and even nursing home residents whose names are on credit card mailing lists. It follows two moms who pushed for some regulation of the credit industry after their college-student children committed suicide in despair of paying their credit-card debt. Their pleas were drowned out on Capitol Hill by the minions of Citibank and MBNA, of course.
Al Franken: God Spoke captures the humor as well as the political purpose of the veteran comic as he helps get Air America Radio started and covers the 2004 presidential campaign. Directors Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob worked on the Oscar-nominated The War Room, which followed Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. In this film they start with Franken's 2003 confrontation with Bill O'Reilly over his book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, which provoked thin-skinned O'Reilly, one of the subjects of the book, into pushing Fox News into suing Franken. That provides priceless publicity for Franken's book. He is crushed by John Kerry's loss, but picks himself up and starts talking about running against Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., in 2008 for the seat once held by his friend, Paul Wellstone.
Before the Music Dies examines changes in the music industry brought on by digital technology and the consolidation of radio stations under a few corporate owners. But while syndication has resulted in formula-controlled playlists at many of the leading stations across the nation, keeping off the air artists that lack major-label backing, director Andrew Shapter looks at the ways lesser-known musicians as well as established artists who sign with music-friendly independent labels that take advantage of Internet distribution even as the major labels malign unregulated file-sharing.
Shadow Company examines the boom times for private security contractors, which is what mercenaries call themselves nowadays. Nick Bicanic and Jason Bourque directed this film, which notes that the US government pays for private military firms to do jobs that the US doesn't have enough regular soldiers to handle. The 20,000 soldiers of fortune in Iraq are more than the combined forces of all the nations in the US-led coalition except for the US military itself. The film takes a balanced look at the growing role of private military firms in modern warfare, and includes the point of view of the security contractors who defend their work in places such as Sierra Leone in Africa, where 150 mercenaries were brought in to subdue a brutal rebel army in 1995 after the government's militia failed. "We cleared the whole country in 18 months," recalls Cobus Claasens, a former major in the South African military.
A/K/A. Tommy Chong tells how the legendary stoner, half of the Cheech and Chong comedy duet, was targeted by federal prosecutors in 2003 for selling water pipes across state lines. Josh Gilbert follows Chong's travails after the feds spent more than $2 million to trap Chong. Prosecutors cited Chong's career "glamorizing" drugs and mocking narcs (although neither Cheech nor Chong ever struck me as glamor boys). But while other defendants got probation, Chong was the only first offender who got nine months in a federal prison, perhaps because of his quip during the trial that his bongs were the only weapons of mass destruction the government found. Puritan Attorney Gen. John Ashcroft tried to send a message to the nation's stoners, but he also created a martyr with a new sense of political purpose. "People ask me what prison was like," Chong says. "I tell them 'You'll find out, soon enough.'"
In Fired, after actress Annabelle Gurwitch is fired by Woody Allen, she gets friends to talk about their experiences in being fired. To her relief, she finds that nearly everyone she knows has been fired from some sort of job, and are able to laugh about it -- usually after they get their next job. Her friend, comedian Judy Gold, notes, "Pain, plus time, equals comedy." Gurwitch collects "fired" stories and looks at what it means to be "downsized," "canned" "let go" and otherwise set adrift in the global economy. The cast includes Tim Allen, David Cross, Andy Dick, Illeana Douglas, Jeff Garlin, Anne Meara, Bob Odenkirk, Jeffrey Ross, Harry Shearer and Fred Willard as well as Robert Reich and Ben Stein, of all people, blaming greedy corporations.
Other highlights: Jonathan Demme in Neil Young: Heart of Gold captures the songwriter's latest manifestation with the simplicity of a master. Jam explores love, obsession and betrayal of one man's dream to revive roller derby in the late 1990s. My Country, My Country follows events in Iraq in the months before the 2005 national elections, from the point of view of a physician in Baghdad who agrees to run for political office when his Sunni neighbors distrust the US sponsors of the election. The Life of Reilly distills Charles Nelson Reilly's one-man show into a touching and often hilarious reminiscence of a "flamboyant" actor who won a Tony in 1962 and was nominated for four Emmy awards but is best known for his participation in game shows in the 1970s and '80s. In Nobelity, Turk Pipkin talks with nine Nobel laureates about issues such as war, disease, poverty, energy, terror and the environment. The movie has been dismissed as being earnest, but you either tackle the issues or you lay down and let them run over you.
Another highlight for indy film connosseiurs was a restored version of Eagle Pennell's The Whole Shootin' Match, a 1978 tale of two down-on-their-luck good ol' boys looking for a get-rich-quick scheme. After Pennell, whose genius was wasted in drink, lost the film's negatives and all known prints were damaged, a clean print found in the archives of a German TV station was restored with a soundtrack from the original production recordings. It should be released as a DVD later this year.