Reel Life 

The Indie Memphis Film Festival returns with another dose of Southern soul.

Now in its eighth year, the Indie Memphis Film Festival -- emphasizing its regional strategy with the slogan "The Soul of Southern Film" -- will commandeer two screens at Muvico's Peabody Place 22 theater for a full week, starting Friday, October 21st.

This year's festival features an extremely strong slate of documentaries, led by William Eggleston in the Real World, a portrait of the legendary Memphis photographer by art-film veteran Michael Almereyda, which screened successfully at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this year. But the Eggleston doc only headlines a series of highly regarded nonfiction features, including such critically praised works as the pro-bowling tour diary A League of Ordinary Gentlemen, the embedded Iraqi war doc Occupation: Dreamland, and the Southern Gothic journey Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.

The features are generally less familiar but are headlined by a couple of high-profile bookings. Loggerheads, which was one of 16 competitors for the big prize at Sundance this January, opens the festival Friday night, while Hollywood hotshot and indie pioneer Steven Soderbergh makes an appearance with his experimental feature Bubble.

But despite these national and regional entries and workshops that should be a boon to aspiring filmmakers, Indie Memphis' most important function might be as a visible annual showcase for the local filmmaking community, and this year's slate of local films demonstrates plenty of depth beyond breakout Memphis-movie stars Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) and Ira Sachs (Forty Shades of Blue).

Former Indie Memphis winner Morgan Jon Fox returns with two films, the narrative feature Away (A)wake and the topical documentary What Does Love in Action Look Like. But the real find could be Act One, a big step forward from local filmmaking collective Old School Pictures. And local musicians and filmmakers conspire on a music-video showcase sponsored by the Web site LiveFromMemphis.com.

What follows is a guide to what's best and most promising from this year's Indie Memphis Festival.

-- Chris Herrington

Living Color

William Eggleston in the Real World

By Chris Davis

William Eggleston, the Memphis artist who put color photography on the map, sits quietly with a drink and a drawing pad. He scribbles with colored pencils and mumbles like a Southern William S. Burroughs. His longtime associate, Leigh Haizlip, is reclining in her pajamas, sucking on an orange lollypop, and drunkenly -- or at least incoherently -- rambling on and on about what might happen to her little sum of money if she ever got cancer and died. The soundtrack comes from within the scene: R.E.M.'s "Shiny Happy People" is playing in the background. The accidental juxtaposition is astonishing, since there is nothing particularly shiny or happy about the scene, and although there is laughter, it's the kind you might hear from the tragic heroine of a Tennessee Williams play. Michael Almereyda's documentary William Eggleston in the Real World (Sunday, October 23rd, 5 p.m.) is riddled with resonant incongruities, filled with scenes that are hard to watch and with inspired images that never seem to linger long enough on the screen.

"What you have to understand is that Michael's film isn't really a documentary. It's a portrait," says James Patterson, the guiding light behind local arts organization Delta Axis and a longtime board member and supporter of the Indie Memphis Film Festival. Patterson and Indie Memphis actually played a small but significant role in helping Almereyda complete his film.

"He told me he needed things like a place to stay and a car, things like that," Patterson says. "I told him he could stay with me, and that I had an extra car, and that [Delta Axis/Indie Memphis] could probably help him with the things he needed. In the art world, we're used to collaborating and doing projects with very little money. So we looked at this the same way we would have looked at an art project."

"Why not be silent, patient, and watchful like a photographer?" Almereyda asks in voiceover as Eggleston, so thin and unbalanced the wind seems to blow him into light poles, shuffles down the street with his camera. In reviewing the documentary, The Village Voice used words like "elegant" and "graceful" to describe the photographer's manner and motions, but watching the father of modern color photography nearly flick cigarette ashes into a drink on the way to his lips, it's hard to believe that the Voice's writer wasn't mistaking the man for his work, which is both graceful and elegant in spite of the grit and the grime. Eggleston's elegance is born of paradox, and, like an Escher drawing, his very existence seems to challenge the laws of logic, physics, and gravity. Likewise, his ornery refusal to be defined in academic terms is both brutish and astonishing. "I know I changed the way people look at things," he says, refusing to admit that it has any quantifiable meaning and railing against the absurdity of talking about art.

"I think one of the best things about the film is that you get to see Eggleston taking his photographs, and then you get to see what the photograph looks like," Patterson says. That juxtaposition of act and artifact may provide for the documentary's most magical and confounding moments. Watching the randomness of Eggleston's shots and the unsteadiness of his hand and then witnessing the emergence of his finished product really does make one wonder if the artist doesn't see a far more interesting and colorful world than the rest of us do.

Eggleston is also a musician, an accomplished keyboard player, and he's far more interested in talking about music than taking pictures. At one point, he plays an original piece he composed for a female admirer. "She said it was depressing," he says with an amused smirk. "But I find it uplifting." This hallucinatory fusion of depression and weird inspiration forms the conceptual axis around which William Eggleston in the Real World rotates. "You know [filmmaker] David Lynch was deeply influenced by Eggleston's work," Patterson says.

In a rare moment of introspective dialogue, Eggleston decries the greatest failure of technology: Nobody has invented a machine that can record our dreams and play them back again. He says he dreams about taking perfect pictures of the most beautiful things but, "in just a minute or two," the memory of the dream vanishes.

"That's why photography is real," Almereyda says, suggesting that Eggleston catches dreamlike images that die as soon as the light changes. Eggleston doesn't agree and retreats from candor into grunting denials. William Eggleston: In the Real World may provide a fascinating history of Eggleston's life and career, but the eccentric photographer remains enigmatic, a dream vanished.

Still life with tricycle: an iconic image from   William Eggleston in the Real World
  • Still life with tricycle: an iconic image from William Eggleston in the Real World

The Next Wave

Local features reveal the depth of Memphis moviemaking.

by Chris Herrington

This has obviously been a breakout year for Memphis filmmakers, but the local selections of this year's Indie Memphis festival show that there's more to Memphis filmmaking than Craig Brewer and Ira Sachs. Leading the way is a group of features from filmmakers who have screened at Indie Memphis in the past.

Morgan Jon Fox, who won the award for best hometown feature at the festival two years ago with Blue Citrus Hearts, will screen two films this week. Away (A)wake (Tuesday, October 25th, 8:30 p.m.), Fox's feature-film follow-up to Blue Citrus Hearts, debuted at Studio on the Square earlier this year, but it screens at Indie Memphis in re-edited form. Created in full collaboration with writing and directing partner Suzie Crashcourse, the film follows four primary characters -- two adults dealing with loss and two younger characters dealing with family tension and questions about their sexuality.

click to enlarge Twentysomethings find their way in standout local feature  Act One.
  • Twentysomethings find their way in standout local feature Act One.

As a tender coming-out drama, Fox's This Is What Love in Action Looks Like: The Preface (Monday, October 24th, 6:30 p.m.) is something of a documentary companion piece to Blue Citrus Hearts. Fox's look at the ongoing controversy over Memphis-based Christian "ex-gay" program Love in Action, a controversy spurred by the pained blog entries of a Bartlett boy whose parents forced him into the program, the film is dubbed a "preface" because recent legal problems with the program have made it an ongoing story.

Particularly impressive is Act One (Thursday, October 27th, 6:30 p.m.), an extremely well-made comic feature from East Memphis filmmaking collective Old School Pictures. The Old School group has been making do-it-yourself features for several years, dating back to high school, and Act One follows The Path of Fear, an atmospheric "psychological horror" thriller which screened at Indie Memphis in 2002. But this movie is a quantum leap forward for the group, handsomely shot in widescreen by Matt Weatherly and director Brad Ellis and engagingly acted throughout.

Act One is about a young Hollywood screenwriter (Allen Gardner, also Act One's actual screenwriter) whose life is thrown into disarray when a one-night stand leads to an unwanted pregnancy. The film has the structure and tone of a post-collegiate Hollywood comedy by way of Adaptation -- a poster of which is prominently placed in the protagonist's apartment -- albeit more heartfelt than that comparison suggests.

Two other Indie Memphis vets check in with features. TV sportscaster David Lee, whose Dog Me: Potluck screened in 2003, is back with Slow Down, You're Dating Too Fast (Wednesday, October 26th, 6:30 p.m.), which looks at the world of speed dating. And Memphis Digital Arts co-founder Brandon Hutchison, who screened a documentary about Tha Movement concert series at last year's festival, checks in with his first feature, Dollars & Signs (Thursday, October 27th, 6:30 p.m.), which follows three local businessmen struggling to succeed.

click to enlarge The waking nightmare of war in the documentary  Occupation: Dreamland.
  • The waking nightmare of war in the documentary Occupation: Dreamland.

Directed by New York-based filmmaker Aaron Goldman, Dreaming in America (Thursday, October 27th, 8:30 p.m.) follows Memphis faves Lucero at a recent career crossroads, making their most recent album, Nobody's Darlings, with no money and no label commitment. The well-made doc, which premiered at the CMJ Music Festival in September and is available on DVD with a bonus live disc, includes raucous tour footage in Knoxville and Louisville (Goldman seems to only film the band on stage when lead singer Ben Nichols is good and drunk), references to the band's estranged relationship to local label Madjack, intimate scenes of the band recording the new album in Mississippi with Jim Dickinson, and radio interviews in New York. It culminates with the band's decision to sign on to major-label-connected EastWest Records. Along the way, look for such entertaining side trips as drummer Roy Berry's obsessive, hand-scrawled drum patterns and guitarist Brian Venable blowing his per diem at record stores and referencing Eric B. and Rakim.

More cinematic sounds come in the form of the Live From Memphis Music Video Showcase (Saturday, October 22nd, 9 p.m.). Sponsored by the essential local Web site LiveFromMemphis.com, the showcase features over 25 music videos by Memphis bands or filmmakers or, in many cases, both. In particular, look for several videos from local exploitation auteur John Michael McCarthy, including one for Jim Dickinson and two for garage-rock stars the Hives.

Sundance Comes South

North Carolina's Loggerheads leads Indie Memphis' slate of regional features.

click to enlarge Bonnie Hunt (right) searches for the son she gave away in Sundance contender Loggerheads.
  • Bonnie Hunt (right) searches for the son she gave away in Sundance contender Loggerheads.

by Chris Herrington

The Indie Memphis Film Festival sells itself as a regional festival -- "the soul of Southern film" -- but festival organizers could be forgiven for thinking that the Sundance Film Festival, the nation's most prestigious annual showcase of independent filmmaking, was trying to steal its theme this year.

Four of the 16 films selected from 1,385 entries to compete for the Grand Jury Prize at the Utah-based Sundance festival in January were examples of just the kind of Southern filmmaking that Indie Memphis is designed to champion. Two of them, of course, were Memphis films from directors who had earlier screened at Indie Memphis: Craig Brewer's Hustle & Flow and Ira Sachs' Forty Shades of Blue. But two others were from North Carolina: the family drama Junebug, which enjoyed a successful Memphis run last month, and Loggerheads (Friday, October 21st, 8 p.m.), which will open the Indie Memphis festival Friday night.

Loggerheads is like Forty Shades of Blue in that it's a tender film with authentic atmosphere but lacks the kind of dramatic energy that would give it life beyond art houses and film festivals. Directed by Tim Kirkman, best known for his Emmy-winning 1998 documentary Dear Jesse, about North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, Loggerheads tells three overlapping stories about characters connected through family estrangement, covering three distinct regions of North Carolina.

click to enlarge Morgan Jon Fox (left) screens two of his own films and acts in  Dollars & Signs  (above).
  • Morgan Jon Fox (left) screens two of his own films and acts in Dollars & Signs (above).

In coastal Kure Beach, a handsome drifter (Kip Pardue) stops to study endangered loggerhead turtles and strikes up a romance with a beachside motel owner. In Eden, in the middle of the state, a minister's wife (Tess Harper) confronts changing social mores in her community and worries over her runaway son. In Asheville, on the western edge of the state, an unstable woman (likable TV vet Bonnie Hunt) returns to her hometown and decides to search for the son she left for adoption 20 years before.

The three stories are told about a year apart, a subtle time lapse that adds poignancy to the story. The film's metaphorical conceit (the titular turtles) doesn't really work, but there's real skill and feeling to how Kirkman gradually reveals the connections between his three stories and peels back his characters' repressed emotions. And the director is matched by the almost uniformly calm and perceptive performances of his cast.

After Loggerheads, the most promising of the festival's nonlocal features is likely Bubble (Monday, October 24th, 8:30 p.m.), an experimental film from Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean's Eleven), written by Coleman Hough, who worked with Soderbergh previously on Full Frontal and who will be attending the festival.

A relatively late edition to the Indie Memphis lineup, Bubble has screened recently at the Toronto and Venice film festivals and is the first movie in a proposed six-film series, each to be shot in a different part of the country, on digital video with a nonprofessional cast and minimal crew. Bubble was shot along the Ohio/West Virginia border and follows three small-town residents who work at a local doll factory.

The other features on this year's Indie Memphis schedule are short on recognizable names, but past history suggests that's good: The best features to screen small festivals tend to be ones without star actors, films that have had to be selected purely on the merits.

From South Carolina, Among Brothers (Saturday, October 22nd, 5 p.m.) tells the true story of a young woman who was found dead in her burned-down apartment, a death originally ruled accidental that was later changed to homicide. Among Brothers is a fictional account of a now 10-year-old case that remains open. The film is slated to be featured on a Dateline NBC story about the murder case later this year. Among Brothers won an award at the 2005 Houston International Film Festival.

Oceanfront Property (Sunday, October 23rd, 1 p.m.), about a man unexpectedly reunited with his ex-girlfriend and her new husband, has been a festival-circuit hit this year, winning the audience award at the Texas Film Festival and being named best feature at the Magnolia Film Festival.

A cyber-savvy "Southern Gothic" love story directed by a producer of The Blair Witch Project, Say Yes Quickly (Sunday, October 23rd, 7 p.m.) is set in Athens, Georgia, and was praised in Variety for its "refreshing energy and humanity."

The post-collegiate drama The Rest of Your Life (Saturday, October 22nd, 7 p.m.) and the thriller Snap (Wednesday, October 26th, 8:30 p.m.) round out the festival's feature lineup.

Dreaming and Searching

Indie Memphis documentaries

range from the Gothic South

to war-ravaged Iraq.

by Ben Popper

The slate of documentaries at this year's Indie Memphis Film Festival has something to satisfy those who enjoy a great topical polemic as well as something for those more interested in the potential of the documentary form.

More essay or meditation than conventional documentary, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (Sunday, October 23rd, 3 p.m.) stands apart from its festival peers as a film that abandons any pretension to objectivity. Rather than simply trying to examine the veracities of a world, this film toys with becoming an extension of it.

The movie takes as its subject an album (Wrong-Eyed Jesus) by Southern folksinger Jim White. With White as tour guide, the film explores his inspiration, the darker facets of life in rural Louisiana and southern Mississippi.

Wrong-Eyed Jesus does not concern itself with following a narrative arc or establishing characters. The only person the film introduces is White himself, and then only obliquely. What the film delivers instead is a series of spaces -- a juke joint, a prison, a church -- through which it unpacks White's dreamlike vision of the South. This wandering journey manages to feel vital by relying on the music it foments.

A number of musicians (among them Johnny Dowd, the Handsome Family, and David Johansen) appear throughout the film, popping up unannounced and unidentified within a scene. They help to generate the film's rich atmosphere, adding texture to the people and locations that inspired White.

Slowly these surreal happenings begin to accumulate into a picture of what White was running from when he left the South and the way in which these same forces drew him back. Superbly crafted and inventive in its approach, this is the standout film from the festival's documentaries.

The other docs are more traditional, but no less powerful. Occupation: Dreamland (Sunday, October 23rd, 3 p.m.) goes well beyond the boundaries of today's journalism, presenting an astonishingly intimate portrait of American soldiers fighting in Iraq as they struggle to find a purpose for their actions and justifications for their service in the military.

Occupation: Dreamland documents the daily lives of the soldiers serving in the 82nd Airborne, a unit of Army Rangers stationed in the insurgent city of Falluja. Speaking from their cramped bunks, the men are disarmingly open about their conflicted feelings. They discuss their reasons for enlisting, their fears about the government's motivations, and their sometimes-painful realization that they are duty-bound to continue.

The film is careful to humanize the Americans against a backdrop of their daily activities, which even the soldiers admit must seem shocking to Americans back home. The film alternates between soldiers discussing their experiences and footage of them on patrol. In this way, the film manages to convey a sense of their experience -- brief moments of tension and violence that fuel long stretches of boredom and reflection.

The soldiers' interactions with the Iraqis are painful to watch. Their well-intentioned attempts at communication seem shockingly naive in light of the film's Arabic translation, frighteningly so in the context of the violence they must navigate on a daily basis.

At many points during this film, I wondered how the filmmakers had gained such incredible access to the war. At a time when the government won't even allow the media to show the coffins of soldiers returning home, Operation: Dreamland is an eye-opening film that presents a startling picture of our military at work.

The festival's other standout doc is also a glimpse into the lives of a group of American professionals, albeit in much calmer circumstances. In fact, maybe calm is not strong enough a word. What do you do when you know you're boring? That is the question facing the Professional Bowling Association (PBA) in A League of Ordinary Gentlemen (Saturday, October 23rd, 7 p.m.), a film that chronicles the PBA's attempt to recapture its former glory.

The film follows a group of pro bowlers, many with a history that stretches back into the golden age of the sport. As their pastime's popularity dwindled, some of the pros lost their direction in life, some their chance for revenge, while others merely moved on to the professional horseshoe circuit.

My only complaint about this film is that it doesn't realize its potential for comedy. The film has moments of comedy but, much like the PBA, it is so concerned with presenting bowlers as dramatic and talented athletes that it misses its chance to be respectfully coy.

The festival also features two documentaries about American justice. Code 33 (Sunday, October 23rd, 7 p.m.) is a look at the police work that went into tracking down a serial rapist in the Miami community of Little Havana, focusing on the gritty realities of investigation and the effect on the community. Fighting for Life in the Death Belt (Saturday, October 23rd, 5 p.m.) follows Stephen Bright, one of the nation's leading defense attorneys, who has dedicated his life to representing death-row inmates and fighting to end the death penalty, as he travels the South racing against time to save his clients' lives. Fighting for Life in the Death Belt won "best of fest" at the Chicago International Documentary Film Festival.

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