Entering year number seven, the Indie Memphis Film Festival is still a baby on the festival circuit, but it seems to be planting some roots. This year's festival marks the third consecutive year using Muvico's Peabody Place Theaters and the second year since expanding to a week-long schedule. What organizers find most notable about this year's festival, dubbed, as always, "The Soul of Southern Film," is the sharp uptick in local entries.
"One thing that's standing out this year is the proportion of local films, including features," says Indie Memphis' Les Edwards. More than half of the festival's 70-plus films have a Shelby County connection.
Another Indie Memphis organizer, Emily Trenholm, notes that "local filmmakers who made shorts last year are stepping up with bigger projects." A key example is Rusted Sun Films, which submitted the short film The Visitor last year and returns this year with an ambitious feature, the genre thriller A Cowboy's Silver Lining.
All but a couple of the films scheduled fit the festival's Southern theme, meaning they're made by Southern filmmakers or deal with Southern subjects. Subjects include bluegrass and barbecue, race and politics, football and capital punishment, poke sallet and crystal meth. The festival opens with Death & Texas, a star-studded mockumentary that attacks American hypocrisy as it's manifested in football fever and the death penalty. The closing-night film, screening out of competition, is When Hair Came to Memphis, director and University of Memphis professor Craig Leake's look at the controversy surrounding then Memphis State's 1971 production of the Broadway musical.
One exception to the Southern rule is End of the Century, the widely acclaimed documentary about the Ramones, America's definitive punk band, which holds the annual midnight movie slot previously filled by skateboard documentary Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator and the Wilco rock-doc I'm Trying To Break Your Heart. The other exception is Rick Schmidt's 1988, which is being shown because the author and filmmaker will be at the festival. Schmidt, author of the classic how-to Feature Filmmaking at Used Car Prices and the new follow-up, Extreme DV at Used Car Prices, has been a key influence on the growth of the American independent film scene over the past decade or so and will be at the festival all week to conduct a filmmaking workshop.
The Indie Memphis Film Festival runs Friday, October 22nd, through Thursday, October 28th, with all screenings at Muvico's Peabody Place Theatres. Full festival passes cost $60 and a six-film pass goes for $25. Tickets for individual screenings are $5. Tickets and passes can be purchased at the Muvico box office or at the Indie Memphis table inside Peabody Place during the festival.
What follows is a critical guide to this year's festival, including a countdown of some of the festival's most worthwhile selections.
Friday, October 22nd, and Saturday, October 23rd
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster has gotten rave reviews this year for its investigation into the perilous group dynamics of the rock-and-roll band, but here's a documentary that does the same thing without making as big a deal about it and celebrates the career of a far greater band in the process.
Four kids from Queens (Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy) who "saved rock-and-roll," as rock writer Legs McNeil asserts in the film, the Ramones are arguably the most important American rock band. Yet End of the Century reveals that they were self-conscious throughout their 20-year career about their own inability to score a sizable hit.
Another potential surprise for fans who know only of the records and live shows is how different the members of the band were from one another and how frequently discordant the band dynamics were. With their matching black-leather jackets and matching surnames and a blitzkrieg bop of a sound that made no room for solos or other individualistic indulgences, the Ramones presented as united a front as any band in rock history. Yet this image and sound obscured the odd couplings of troubled Dee Dee and grounded Tommy, shy bleeding-heart Joey and surly reactionary Johnny.
The extent of these fissures is a little jarring: Dee Dee and Johnny dismiss the importance of Tommy's drumming to the band's sound. Only initial replacement drummer Marky bothers to praise Tommy and only Tommy even mentions the recently deceased Joey at the band's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. (By contrast, Dee Dee thanks only himself and Johnny asks God to bless George W. Bush.) It's revealed that, despite constant touring, Joey and Johnny barely spoke to each other after Johnny became the KKK that stole Joey's baby away (and married her in a union that lasted until his death this year). Most awful of all, yet amusing in its own way, Johnny confesses that he felt sadness when Joey died but was so bewildered by the emotion that he had to examine himself for "weakness."
Despite all this, there is a dedication to the band as a unit bigger than themselves. Joey says that they chose the strategy of the shared Ramone surname to bolster band unity, and Johnny says that whatever problems they had, they were ultimately loyal to the Ramones. And if you care at all about popular music, then chances are you are loyal too.
Made all the more poignant since the three-headed rock god of Joey, Dee Dee, and Johnny have all passed on in the last couple of years, End of the Century would be invigorating no matter the context. Rock history buffs will thrill to the archival footage and scene history that place the Ramones within the nascent New York punk scene (alongside Blondie, Television, the Heartbreakers, and the Talking Heads) and as the impetus for the later British punk scene. But anyone with two functioning ears and an appreciation of songcraft will get an instant sugar buzz when songs such as "Judy Is a Punk" and the majestic "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" pop up, no matter how many times you've heard them.
Tuesday, October 26th
As much performance-art ensemble as rock band, one-of-a-kind locals Automusik engage in comical critiques as dependent on their deliriously orchestrated visuals as their dead-on deadpan songs. So, transferring the group's sensibility from the concert stage to the movie screen is a natural idea, one that Automusik Can Do No Wrong gets totally right.
Collectively written by and starring director C. Scott McCoy (as film within the film director Phil Johnson), producer Talbot Fields (as sleazy A&R man Skye Merriweather), and Automusik's own Scott Moss (as, of course, Automusik), Automusik Can Do No Wrong takes a mockumentary form clearly inspired by This is Spinal Tap. Though the structure is familiar, it fits the material perfectly, and the use of simple video-game-style visuals deployed at Automusik concerts gives the film a personality entirely its own.
Though the entire film is quite smart and funny, Purple Rain fans will particularly love a priceless extended homage early in the film, which makes tremendous use of downtown's Power House space.
Tuesday, October 26th
Directed by North Carolina filmmaker Brett Ingram, this look at Seattle-based claymation artist Bruce Bickford won the best documentary award at this year's Slamdance Film Festival. A sort of low-rent Crumb, Monster Road is equally interested in Bickford's eccentric art and even more eccentric family. It's a portrait of a compelling underground artist and also a glimpse at a peculiarly entertaining father-and-son story.
Best known for his '70s collaborations with Frank Zappa, Bickford's wondrous claymation -- erupting, decomposing, transforming -- is often violent and disturbing, like Hieronymus Bosch gone 3-D. As obsessive about his art as R. Crumb, Bickford describes its roots in a fictional world he imagined as a child, one ruled by "little guys."
"It was pretty tyrannical in the other direction," Bickford says, adding, "that's usually what fantasy is about, trying to perfect your imperfect life." But as interesting as Bickford is, his father, retired Boeing engineer George, is a thoughtful but blunt octogenarian not at all happy about getting old.
We Did It All Ourselves
Saturday, October 23rd
This program pairs two documentaries about voting in America, one looking at the mess that was Florida in 2000, the other offering a little history on what some Americans went through to get the vote. Call It Democracy looks back at election night 2000 and asks: What went wrong in Florida? The answers it finds are depressingly many, beginning with the myth (fostered by the major networks' announcement of a Bush victory) that Bush had won Florida and that Gore was a challenger contesting the vote.
This intensely relevant film gives enough history to establish that razor-close elections and contested votes were nothing new in American presidential elections and that there have been attempts to retire the Electoral College in favor of direct popular vote for years.
Featuring interviews with figures such as law professor Alan Dershowitz, reporter Greg Palast, and Washington Post database editor Dan Keating -- who oversaw a media consortium that did a full statewide recount of the Florida vote, which found that Gore actually won the state -- Call It Democracy explores all the awful aspects of the Florida quagmire: civil rights violations, confusing butterfly ballots, dimples and hanging chads, and the political meddling of the U.S. Supreme Court.
An instructive corollary, We Did It All Ourselves tells the history of African Americans in Fayette and Haywood counties in Tennessee who insisted on their right to vote in the days before the March on Washington or the Voting Rights Act of 1964.
Sunday, October 24th
This wonderful Peabody Award-winning film from University of Memphis professor David Appleby is like a sliver from the classic civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize expanded to an in-depth hour.
The difference is that the story told by Hoxie, about a small Arkansas town's voluntary school integration in 1955, is far less well-known than most of the material covered in Eyes on the Prize. Featuring interviews with prominent figures on both sides of the integration battle, Hoxie depicts not only the first blow in a battle that would gain more stature in Little Rock a couple of years later but a dynamic that upends the familiar arc of school integration stories.
Hoxie's decision to integrate after the Supreme Court's Brown decision was apparently going smoothly until Life magazine ran an approving spread on what one local school board member called "a morally right decision." But after that publicity, the forces of segregation and so-called states'-rights advocates focused on Hoxie as a test case to try to stop the impending deluge. In Hoxie, it was the segregationists who were the "outside agitators" trying to disrupt a community's status quo.
Saturday, October 23rd
Sinkhole is about a small-town Alabama teacher who loses his job after being accused of having an affair with a student. Working hard labor to pay child support to his estranged wife, he discovers a dead body and gets pulled into an ... um ... sinkhole of corruption.
This moody little thriller doesn't boast any actors you've heard of, but the realistic depiction of rural working-class life and a small-town meth ring makes it a solid slice of regional filmmaking. Nicely shot in 35 millimeter, Sinkhole at its best feels a little like a cross between David Lynch (especially Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks) and David Gordon Green (George Washington and All the Real Girls). It's far more ordinary than those comparisons suggest, of course, but the small-town realism combined with undercurrents of danger and corruption draw from both sources.
Saturday, October 23rd
A must for bluegrass fans, Bluegrass Journey is an intimate look at some of the genre's biggest contemporary stars, including Tim O'Brien, Del McCoury, Nickelcreek, Rhonda Vincent, Peter Rowan, and Jerry Douglas. Bluegrass Journey follows these performers from venues like the Grey Fox festival in upstate New York to the stage of the International Bluegrass Music Association awards, where country-music stars such as Dolly Parton and Marty Stuart pay tribute to the music. Packed with performances, Bluegrass Journey also pays tribute to the diverse fans who make the bluegrass circuit such a tight-knit community.
Friday, October 22nd
This documentary about Shane Ballard -- an imposing twenty-something who ran for sheriff of Lowndes County, Mississippi, on a pro-prostitution platform and the slogan "Unlike some people" -- is plenty compelling in its own right. But it takes on an added air of sadness given the knowledge that the film's primary creators -- director Ron Tibbett and "star" Ballard -- both recently passed away.
Tibbett, founder of the Magnolia Independent Film Festival and a friend to the Indie Memphis festival (the festival's organizers are adding a special jury prize, dubbed "The Ron," in his honor), died in a car crash in June. The 23-year-old Ballard apparently took his own life a couple of months later.
Ballard's quixotic bid for Lowndes County sheriff (he ran in the Republican primary) is political campaign as performance art. Ballard's never-aired television ads are terribly funny and odd, worthy of Andy Kaufman. One features Ballard -- a huge young man with a bald head and mutton chops -- wearing a priest's collar and a sheriff's badge and talking about the compatibility of "sacred religious traditions" with "hardcore pornography." Another simply features Ballard standing silent in front of a huge American flag.
But as funny and smart as Ballard is, there's also a creepier side that Tibbett finds, one involving Ballard's longtime correspondence with serial killers. There's also a tormented past that may or may not be informing Ballard's bid for sheriff.
Thursday, October 28th
This second feature from Rocketinaditch Productions (Memphians Stephen Stanley and Boris Triko: both wrote and produced, Stanley directed and edited, and Triko was the director of photography) improves on their engaging debut, the political satire Slick Lily Vs. the Grand Canyon, which played Indie Memphis in 2001.
Stanley Johnson is extremely likable as Mims, a Dean Martin-like character who spends his days hanging out with friends and sucking down martinis made by his ever-present butler Starky. Upon learning from street preacher Elijah that the Rapture is coming in five days, Mims and his coterie of eccentrics decide to celebrate with a big party.
Six Days in the Life of Mims has some of the inside jokiness common to low-budget films made among friends, but that spirit of camaraderie is also a strength. The film is odd, funny, and generous in a manner similar to the films of Wes Anderson, with the climactic party scene here (where the Reigning Sound are the band!) rhyming with the one that ends Rushmore. The five-day countdown and clearly drawn cast of sidekicks (each with a distinct problem) give the film a strong structure. Of particular note is Talbot Fields, who is quite funny in a dual role as Elijah and Mims' hobo friend Bums. (Overheard bar-talk from Bums: "I thought, what did I need with two testicles? So I bought my drink a drink and I got out of there.")
Friday, October 22nd
The opening-night feature, Death & Texas is littered with small turns from name actors and minor celebrities, the kind of thing that usually portends bad things for festival-circuit fare. (I still shudder at the thought of the serial-killer movie starring Lando Calrissian and Winnie from The Wonder Years that played Indie Memphis a couple of years ago.) Among those making an appearance are: Andy Richter, Corbin Bernson (that's right), Mary Kay Place, Jello Biafra, Billy Ray Cyrus, and that guy from Office Space. Of course, the film also stars the always-welcome Charles Durning and features former Memphian Chris Ellis.
But Death & Texas is a cut above fest fare of this type. A mockumentary-style satire about two things Texas specializes in -- the death penalty and football -- Death & Texas chronicles the case of pigskin star "Barefoot" Bobby Briggs (Steve Harris), on death-row for a murder during a convenience store robbery but with his old team, the Austin Steers, preparing for a Super Bowl-like title game. Death & Texas gets plenty of yuks. And, sadly, it's topical in the extreme.
Local connections abound here: The barbecue-oriented feature Black & Blue (9 p.m., Sunday, October 24th) was shot in Memphis. And the creators of past Indie Memphis success The Horla return with 2000 Miles (7 p.m., Sunday, October 24th). Also screening is the Depression-era tale Tom's Wife (6:30 p.m., Thursday, October 28th).
After submitting the supernatural thriller The Visitor for last year's Indie Memphis festival, the crew from local production company Rusted Sun Films makes an impressive leap with A Cowboy's Silver Lining (7 p.m., Saturday, October 23rd). This accomplished and professional-looking digital video feature is a big step up in terms of technique and storytelling for the no-budget locals. Bevan B. Bell co-directs, co-produces, edits, shoots, and stars in this genre thriller about a contract killer coming to grips with a traumatic past. With the film's temporal twists and mix of hard-boiled violence with comedic undertones, Quentin Tarantino is an obvious influence. What holds the film back a little is familiar content -- a collection of tropes and effects common to the genre. What saves it is that it's all very well executed.
Also of note is Memphis Blues (8:30 p.m., Monday, October 25th), ostensibly filmed as a television pilot. Concerning a lawyer who has a private practice above a Beale Street club, Memphis Blues taps into the John Grisham mode but tries to bring a bit more true grit to the proceedings.
The vérité-style Sheriff (9:30 p.m., Saturday, October 23rd) follows a North Carolina county sheriff through a normal workweek, which includes everything from speaking to church and youth groups to a homicide investigation to breaking up illegal backroom video-poker establishments. It's a little Cops, a little Walking Tall, a little Andy Griffith Show. Barbecue Is a Noun (3 p.m., Sunday, October 24th) looks at the lives of five dedicated pit masters in the barbecue-mad Carolinas. Road Work (3 p.m., Sunday, October 24th) is a poetic 16-millimeter, black-and-white snapshot of road construction workers on I-55 in Memphis. Where Do You Stand?: Stories From an American Mill (6:30 p.m., Wednesday, October 27th) traces the quarter-century struggle by textile workers in Kannapolis, North Carolina. A Dam Story (3 p.m., Sunday, October 24th) is a half-hour history of Greers Ferry Dam in Arkansas and its impact on surrounding communities. Six (7 p.m., Sunday, October 24th) looks back at the case of a family of Jehovah's Witnesses murdered by six youths at a Tennessee rest stop.
Directed by Memphis Digital Arts Cooperative's Brandon Hutchinson, Tha Movement: For the Record (8:30 p.m., Wednesday, October 27th) is a short feature-length documentary (48 minutes) on the popular local R&B and hip-hop concert series. The film features interviews with the series' organizers as well as interview and performance clips with artists such as Valencia Robinson, Bella Sun, Kelley Hurt, and Fathom 9. The film gets great crowd footage (and most of its performances) from Tha Movement's first anniversary party at the Gibson Lounge. A particularly interesting sidetrip is a glimpse at Memphix DJs Chase and Redeye Jedi making music in their home studio.
The screening of Tha Movement will be preceded by the five-minute film Memphis, What Is Your Dirty Little Secret?, a fun little Midtown-specific mini-Slacker.
Memphian turned New York film student Geoffrey Brent Shrewsbury moves out of the hometowner category with 17-Inch Cobras (5 p.m., Saturday, October 23rd, and 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, October 26th), a film about a teen boy's pawn-shop lust over the title objects, featuring the music of Three 6 Mafia and the Compulsive Gamblers. The Academy (7 p.m., Saturday, October 23rd, and 8:30 p.m., Wednesday, October 27th) is a handsomely shot vignette about parking-lot attendants discussing the nature of God. Perils in Nude Modeling (8 p.m., Friday, October 22nd) has the kind of evocative little twist that can make a short film memorable and has won awards at a couple of festivals. Finally, my fave is Tackle Box (6:30 p.m., Monday, October 25th), which won the Audience Award for best short at this year's Slamdance Film Festival. The film starts with an On Golden Pond premise then takes an unexpected turn.
As with pretty much every other thoughtfully deadpan, oddly personal short film from Ben Siler, Classified Ad (3 p.m., Saturday, October 23rd) made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion and made me smile all the way through. The copyright on Siler's "mostly silent movie" credits Creepy Lonely Films, which is an oh-so-true moniker yet merely a start to the emotions his films convey.
Directed by Terry Foster and (very well) shot and edited by MeDiA Co-op's Brandon Hutchinson, This Must Be My Lucky Day (5 p.m., Saturday, October 23rd, and 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, October 26th) is a lovely, whimsical, fully realized short film about a man ferrying a stable of children's rocking horses to freedom.
The MeDiA Co-op pops up again with the latest from Blue Citrus Hearts director Morgan Jon Fox. Octopus (Experiment No. 23) (7 p.m., Saturday, October 23rd, and 8:30 p.m., Wednesday, October 27th) and Strawberry (Experiment No. 24) (3 p.m., Saturday, October 23rd) boast the intimacy that made Blue Citrus Hearts such a success, with Fox in front as well as behind the camera this time.
Memphis exploitation master J. Michael McCarthy offers up The Egoist (8:30 p.m., Tuesday, October 26th), an apparently sexed-up 30-minute film.
Other local shorts of note include the directors Sarah E. Fleming's and Jim Casey's funny Das Corpse (5 p.m., Saturday, October 23rd, and 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, October 26th), which features The Poor and Hungry's Lindsay Roberts, and G.B. Shannon's Goody Goody Gumdrops (8:30 p.m., Tuesday, October 26th), a tale of a camping trip gone horribly wrong. æ
Behind the scenes of
When Hair Came to Memphis.
The 1971 staging of Hair at the University of Memphis (then Memphis State) was the first production of the fabled "tribal love rock musical" to be performed by any group other than the original professional company in New York City. It's gone on to become one of those storied theatricals where fact and fiction are almost indelibly interwoven. Craig Leake's documentary, When Hair Came to Memphis, captures the event in excruciating detail, from the first auditions through opening night and beyond.
Contrary to popular belief, Hair was not the first Memphis stage production to contain nudity. In fact, there was no nudity at all. Nudity wouldn't happen on a respectable Memphis stage until the Circuit Players (the precursor of Playhouse on the Square) produced Marat/Sade a few years later.
"I don't think it was just the [threat of] nudity that had people upset," says Ken Zimmerman, former artistic director for Playhouse and part of the tribe in the U of M production. "People were saying 'masturbation' on stage and admitting that those kinds of things actually happened. There were men dressed up as women, talking about their beads. There was all this talk of free love. And it was an antiwar play."
Zimmerman knew that he was part of a groundbreaking production for Memphis and a historic moment for the university. The Commercial Appeal made that much clear by publishing articles denouncing the university for staging such uncivilized trash. There were angry letters to the editor. There was a camera crew documenting the company's every move.
"We got used to the cameras pretty quickly, because we had a play to rehearse," Zimmerman says, sounding exhausted by the mere recollection of it all. "Betsy Anthony was the choreographer, and she worked us hard."
According to Zimmerman, it wasn't social pressure or the media attention they were getting that told the cast they were involved in something special. It was the box-office receipts.
"I can't tell you how joyous it was to see that big red theater packed night after night," he says. "People were lining up just to get on waiting lists to see the show."
After Hair ended its run in Memphis, the cast was invited to play other venues, including the Atlanta Pop Festival, where the crowd was 250,000 strong.
Zimmerman says that director Keith Kennedy, then chair of the university's theater department, obtained rights to perform Hair after corresponding with the musical's authors. Zimmerman describes Kennedy as "kind of a shaman."
"Keith had a way of building a mystique around everything he ever did," Zimmerman says. "A lot of the excitement around this production was due to Kennedy's ability to create and project such a powerful mystique." • --Chris Davis
When Hair Came to Memphis
Thursday, October 28th