The 12th Indie Memphis Film Festival begins this week with more than 150 films — features, documentaries, short films, local films, etc. — screening over eight days, primarily at Studio on the Square. On these pages we preview the festival's opening-night films — the documentary Shooting Robert King and the feature That Evening Sun— as well as perhaps the festival's busiest visitor, Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg. We also put the spotlight on a few other highly anticipated screenings.
In addition to the films mentioned here, the festival boasts a couple of potentially spectacular special screenings: The three-man Alloy Orchestra will perform live Monday night, accompanying the screening of relatively new prints of two classic silent films (Buster Keaton's The General and the influential Russian film Man With a Movie Camera). And Overton Park will welcome the return of an old tradition as Elvis Presley's "'68 Comeback" special, the Memphis Music at SXSW documentary, and the Coen brothers' cult favorite The Big Lebowski will screen — for free! — at the Levitt Shell Friday night.>
You can see the full festival schedule in the special pullout elsewhere in this issue. For more Flyer coverage, see memphisflyer.com throughout the festival.
"Mumblecore" Grows Up: The evolution of Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg.
There are roughly 150 films screening over the course of eight days at this week's 12th annual Indie Memphis Film Festival, and it seems like Joe Swanberg is involved in most of them.
The Chicago filmmaker's most recent film, Alexander the Last, which screens Friday, October 9th, at 7:45 p.m., is one of the festival's most high-profile features, and Swanberg also will conduct a free workshop, "Amateur Hour with Joe Swanberg," about working with nonprofessional actors (1 p.m., Sunday, October 11th, at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art).
But Swanberg's presence doesn't end with those two events. He also plays a part in four other works screening at the festival: He was the director of photography for Memphis filmmaker Kentucker Audley's upcoming feature Open Five, which will premiere its trailer at Indie Memphis (3:45 p.m., Friday, October 9th). He co-stars (alongside Alexander the Last cast member Justin Rice) in The Mountain, the River, and the Road (5:45 p.m., Friday, October 9th). He was a producer on his wife Kris Swanberg's debut feature, It Was Great, But I Was Ready To Come Home (noon, Saturday, October 10th). And he was a crew member on Dallas filmmaker (and Alexander the Last and Open Five crew member) David Lowery's St. Nick (2:45 p.m., Sunday, October 11th).
Swanberg, via such features as Kissing on the Mouth and Hannah Takes the Stairs (the latter the only previous film of his to screen in Memphis), is one of the leading names in the quasi-movement that was memorably but perhaps unfortunately dubbed "mumblecore."
A Village Voice critic proffered a less snappy but more descriptive shorthand for a body of films that has united like-minded indie filmmakers from around the country: "postgraduate naturalism." These films have taken a vertité approach to the travails of white, urban twentysomethings, often musicians or artists, most of them haphazardly employed.
Whatever you call it, the scene is real, linking filmmakers around the country not only working in a similar style but often collaborating on each other's films, among them Swanberg, Boston's Andrew Bujalski, Seattle's Lynn Shelton, and Memphis' Audley.
"I would say festivals are the key ingredient there," Swanberg says of this geographically fractured coterie. "But it's also one of the things we're seeing as a result of the Internet, which is that your friend group can be constructed on the basis of the people you really like — who have similar interests or filmmaking styles — and not just the people who live close to you."
These films differ from earlier youth-based film scenes in part for their utter lack of pop-culture references.
"I think that's an extension of getting into movies in the '90s when [indie films] were more like a student paper about your favorite movies," Swanberg says. "I think we all came up on those movies, and they seemed cool at the time. But it got old to watch like the 50th movie that references the [same] Tarantino shot. I think everybody got sick of that stuff, so I think all of us independently had a reaction to go completely in the opposite direction. Nobody's trying to prove that they're cool, which I think a lot of those other movies with all those pop-culture references were doing."
With Alexander the Last, however, Swanberg seems to be evolving past postgraduate naturalism in both form and content. The film focuses on a young married couple — a stage actress, Alex (Jess Weixler), and a touring musician (Justin Rice). While her husband is on tour, Alex develops a crush on her co-star in a new play she's working on, deflecting him toward her single sister to contain her own temptation.
Visually, the film is more ambitious and consciously artful than Swanberg's previous films or others in its scene, with some showy and effective crosscutting between a theatrical sex scene and a real one and a poetically sardonic closing shot.
"I think it's a more deliberate film, and certainly my attitude toward camerawork has changed a lot or progressed over the course of making these movies," Swanberg says. "It's not hung-up on naturalism or realism."
Rather than clinging dogmatically to the mumblecore style, Swanberg is eager to let his work evolve.
"I feel like right now I'm still moving from that small-scale, naturalism place. I'm trying to get to some new place now where I can have a little bit more breathing room," he says. — Chris Herrington
Shooting the Messenger: Memphis war photographer Robert King, on the other side of the camera.
Most people would do anything to avoid the carnage of war, but most people aren't wired like Robert King, the subject of Shooting Robert King, a darkly comic documentary about a green kid from Memphis whose shocking images of combat in Sarajevo, Chechnya, Rwanda, and Iraq have bloodied up the pages of Time, Newsweek, and various other national and international publications. These days, King, the 40-year-old son of Vance Willey and Ardent Records co-founder John King, is most likely to be found at one of the Memphis farmers' markets selling the heirloom tomatoes he raises. But he's just making ends meet and logging as much family time as he can while raising the money he needs to get back to the American front in Afghanistan, where he plans to share living quarters and expenses with two freelance photographers.
"I figured it up one time, and I'd have to cover something like 60 things a month," King says, explaining why he'd rather sell tomatoes than work as a freelance photographer in Memphis while waiting to get back overseas.
The centered family man sipping lattes at a downtown coffee shop and complaining about a lack of journalistic opportunity in his hometown isn't the scruffy Forrest Gump-like figure who shows up in Sarajevo at the beginning of the documentary, determined to win a Pulitzer without any real sense of what's going on. More seasoned journalists openly mock him. Even Richard Parry and Vaughan Smith, the British filmmakers behind Shooting Robert King, seem to go out of their way to establish their subject as a dim and delusional figure headed for an early grave from a mental collapse. King's candid admission that he's always believed he was put on earth to "deliver a message about human suffering" seems uncomfortably messianic. Even after he gets wise and starts delivering one extraordinary photograph after another, the young man's fondness for booze, women, and drugs threatens to take him down, infusing most of the film with the kind of edge-of-your-seat tension usually reserved for potboilers.
"When I went to Sarajevo, it was the beginning of the digital age," King says in his own defense. "Now people get on a plane with their laptops, and by the time they arrive at their destination, they're experts." Besides, he'd never intended to be a front-line photographer. He wanted to live with and shoot the people who lived and worked in Sarajevo. He wanted to tell everyday stories. "Because that's important too," he says. But in 1993 there was no immediate market for those kinds of pictures, so he adapted.
"There's this saying, 'If it bleeds, it leads,'" King explains, showing that even in middle age, he's as cynical as ever.
By the time King got to Iraq he was a well-established professional. He knew all the players, and he knew the game. Only, in Iraq, the game was completely different. In every other circumstance he'd lived closely with the locals. "In Iraq, nobody wanted us there," King says. And in Iraq the only thing worse for journalists than being embedded with the troops was to not be embedded. In an attempt to get the kind of photographs he wanted, King disembedded, only to be kidnapped in Fallujah.
"These guys were wearing suicide vests and everything," King says. The kidnappers told King about family members who'd died as a result of American bombing and demanded one good reason why they shouldn't kill him immediately. No matter how hard he wracked his brain for an answer, he couldn't give them one. Fortunately for King, he was able to escape, disproving — for the moment anyway — a theory proposed by a fellow photographer shortly after King's arrival in Bosnia 15 years ago. "I don't mean this in a bad way at all," the more-seasoned photographer said, "but I'm not sure you've got the aura of luck that the war photographers I know of have."
"There's no question that I've been lucky," says a thankful King, who is now happily married and has a 6-year-old son. — Chris Davis
Shooting Robert King screens at 7:15 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. Thursday, October 8th. Indie Memphis will host an opening reception of the first-ever exhibition of King's photographs, 5-7 p.m. on Wednesday, October 7th, at Marshall Arts.
Old Man and the Farm: Hal Holbrook shines in That Evening Sun.
It's been a good year for movies about old white Southern dudes dealing with end-of-life issues. First up was Goodbye Solo, the marvelous North Carolina-set film by Ramin Bahrani that starred Memphis native Red West as a man bent on ending his life on his own terms. Now we have That Evening Sun, another good one, made near Knoxville by Scott Teems and starring Hal Holbrook as a man who escapes a nursing home so that he can return to his homestead and live out his days in the place of his choosing.
The problem for Abner Meecham (Holbrook) is that, when he gets back to his farm, he finds out that his son has rented the property to the no-good Choat family. Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon) readily reflects back Abner's dislike; Lonzo's wife Ludie (Carrie Preston) tries to play peacemaker but sees the opportunity her family has to rise above their family name; and their daughter Pamela (Mia Wasikowska, about to be famous in the titular role in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland) is curious about this surly elderly gent who has invaded their lives.
Denied entry into his own home, Meecham's plight literalizes the dispossession of advancing age. Meecham says, "The road ahead ain't long and it ain't winding. It's short and straight as a goddamned poisoned arrow. But it's all I got." So Meecham takes up residence in the farm's tenant house, a small sharecroppers' cabin practically in the shadow of the big farmhouse.
The film is based on the William Gay short story "I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down," the title of which comes from the Jimmie Rodgers song "Blue Yodel No. 3." The song makes a number of appearances in the film, covered by the Drive-By Truckers, that band's Patterson Hood, and Holbrook himself.
That Evening Sun deploys the look of mildly Southern Gothic still photos at times, many of them involving Holbrook, who cuts a fine jib and is perfectly suited to the task. "[Holbrook] is the consummate professional," Teems says. "Hal has been acting twice as long as I've been alive. I realized pretty early on that I wasn't going to teach him anything. My job was to trust him and get out of the way.
"Working with an actor like him, you can put the camera on him and [capture his] life and history immediately," Teems continues. "It goes hand-in-hand with the way I like to shoot, which is quite reserved. I can just sit back and watch and observe character."
There's also the crucial casting of Dixie Carter as Abner's deceased wife Ellen, who's only seen in flashback and never speaks a word. She haunts this film, and the memory audiences have of Holbrook and Carter's marriage freights the film with extra meaning. — GA
That Evening Sun screens Thursday, October 8th, at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.
This year's Indie Memphis slate doesn't boast a high-profile feature screening from a previous "hometowner" winner (excepting a work-in-progress preview from Kentucker Audley), but there's still plenty of local action in the mix.
A resurgent Live From Memphis is at the center of four big screenings: their annual and always popular Music Video Showcase (7:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 10th); the debut of a new slate of their Flipside Memphis short docs on local culture (5:30 p.m., Friday, Oct. 9th); the latest edition of their Li'l Film Fest (5:30 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 11th, at the Brooks Museum of art); and a Best of Li'l Film Fest compilation screening (9 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 14th).
In addition to Audley's unofficial screening (3:45 p.m., Friday, Oct. 9th), local filmmakers Corduroy Wednesday will screen their web series The Conversion (8:45 p.m. and 9:15 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 13th). Screening alongside The Conversion is Chasing Daylight, a making-of doc about Old School Pictures' upcoming vampire drama Daylight Fades. Another work-in-progress offering a sneak preview is David Harris' Memphis-shot web-based horror series Savage County (3:15 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 10th, at the Brooks Museum of Art), produced via Craig Brewer's BR2 Productions. Look for more info on other local screenings at memphisflyer.com throughout the festival. — CH
In one scene from Sebastian Gutierrez's film Women in Trouble (9:15 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 14th), Elektra Luxx, a porn star played by Carla Gugino, boasts that her affordably priced and anatomically correct rubber vaginas (which vibrate, squirt, and come in three designer colors) have outpaced the competition to become the best-selling "celebrity vaginas" in the world. It's the kind of entirely plausible, utterly weird dialogue that might form the basis for a Robyn Hitchcock song. That's why it's so appropriate that Hitchcock, the surrealist, sex-obsessed rocker who began his career as a witty art-punk in 1976 fronting for the Soft Boys, wrote and recorded the soundtrack for Gutierrez's film. And if Women in Trouble leaves you hungry for more Hitchcock, you've got two chances: the concert film Robyn Hitchcock: I Often Dream of Trains (9 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 13th) and the man himself. Hitchcock is closing the festival with an intimate acoustic set in one of the Studio on the Square theaters (7 p.m., Thursday, October 15th, $20). — CD
and Zombie Girl:
Two zombie-inflected pictures are highlights on this year's Indie Memphis lineup: the fictional thriller Pontypool and the documentary Zombie Girl: The Movie.
Pontypool is the festival's midnight movie Saturday, October 10th, and it's perfect for that setting. The film is a claustrophobic tour de force, one of the best films to screen in Memphis this year. Set in the titular small town in Ontario, Pontypool premises a talk-radio station as the hub for a strange news day that begins with reports of a hostage situation and evolves into sounding like a zombie-type event. Think The War of the Worlds imagined by Arthur Miller.
Zombie Girl: The Movie (12:30 p.m., Saturday October 10th) is more straightforward and certainly a sweeter, cheerier imbibe than Pontypool. The documentary introduces us to Emily Hagins, a sixth-grader in Austin, Texas — where else could this happen? — who instigates a fairly mature amateur film production with her zombie-horror Pathogen. Zombie Girl is essentially a making-of doc, but it doesn't require you to have seen the movie it's about. The star here is Hagins, a super-sweet, precocious kid who fell in geek with Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and was inspired to try her own hand at filmmaking. — Greg Akers
The Hand of Fatima
Augusta Palmer's documentary The Hand of Fatima (5:45 p.m., Sunday, October 11th) is many things at once. It's a detailed biography of her father Robert Palmer, The New York Times music critic and Deep Blues author who abandoned her when she was a month old. It's also a portrait of the Master Musicians of Jajouka, the 1,300-year-old Sufi brotherhood championed by Beat-era luminaries such as William S. Burroughs. But Palmer's film begins like a proper Disney classic, with the animated image of a big red storybook, and is ultimately a tragedy-laced fairy tale about a young woman who follows a trail of crumbs from the juke joints of north Mississippi to a secluded Moroccan village looking for home, harmony, and something like a happy ending. Mixing animation and live action with archival footage and interviews with artists such as Yoko Ono, Genesis P-Orridge, and Donovan Leitch, The Hand of Fatima is a sophisticated piece of documentary filmmaking that explores how we make our myths and how they, in turn, make us. — CD