I accidentally managed to make my fifth day of SXSW film my weirdest day in terms of curating. Things started normally enough, with Holy Ghost People, a film that both Dylan and I had been long anticipating and which fit in with a lot of other films playing at SXSW this year, with its fixation on deception, cults and artful imagery. But from there I went to a documentary fetishizing VHS tapes to a feature film about the joy of Halloween from an incredibly young SXSW veteran and then ended the evening with a documentary on Pussy Riot. If there was a throughline, it was that none of the films impressed me as much as films I had seen on previous days, even though I saw more films than I had on any other day of the festival.
Holy Ghost People was perhaps the most disappointing, but that's not a comment on the film so much as it's a statement about how high my expectations were for the film based on the press material and trailer. Holy Ghost People is one of those increasingly more common indie films that has a truly incredible trailer that doesn't exactly lie to you about the film itself, but which does present the film it's advertising in a deceptive light. There is an intensity to the film's trailer that Mitchell Altieri's feature itself lacks; Altieri instead focuses on an almost tranquil eeriness in his depiction of a woman's quest to track down her missing addict sister, who she believes has joined up with a fringe Christian cult living on Sugar Mountain. As the protagonist Charlotte, Emma Greenwell is remarkable, imbuing her character with a dangerous charm and spontaneity that makes it easy to see both why she's able to talk people into helping her with the trouble she gets herself into. Brendan McCarthy portrays Wayne, the former soldier who winds up getting conned into being her driver/bodyguard and his performance is a bit harder to peg down. Wayne as a character feels less developed than Charlotte, with his alcoholism functioning as his defining trait, a cliched coping mechanism for his time in Afghanistan.
But the film understandably comes to focus on Billy (Joe Egender), the charismatic snake preacher who leads the Church of the One Accord and who serves as the villain of the film, but in different ways than you'd expect. Or at least in different ways than you'd expect right up to the film's ridiculous conclusion. While Altieri builds up the religion at the center of Holy Ghost People, he struggles with the relationship that is supposed to be at the heart of the film, never quite giving the viewer a reason to believe that Wayne would go as far as he does for Charlotte, and the climax of the film mostly destroys the goodwill built up by the better crafted elements of the work. There's a lot of reason to believe that Holy Ghost People is a sign of what Altieri will craft later, and taken from that perspective it's a worthwhile glimpse at a director who may soon be one of our best.
Though it's a documentary, Josh Johnson's Rewind This! has the opposite problem of Holy Ghost People: the relationship at the center of this film, that is to say the love these people have for VHS, almost overwhelms every other aspect of the movie. As far as problems go, that's not a bad one to have, and Rewind This! is a fun documentary that also manages to raise an important point about the disappearance of physical media. Focusing on the cultural history of the VHS, Johnson's documentary interconnects the world of collecting, commerce and art, and though that approach is sometimes a little scattered, the history of VHS is so interesting that it's worth it. Johnson brings together directors like Atom Egoyan and Frank Henenlotter, adult industry veterans and collectors like Austin's own Zack Carlson in order to get at the heart of VHS's longevity, which several of the figures in the documentary claim is unprecedented for a medium and will likely never be seen again.
A lot of culture commentators often make claims that things like VHS collecting are acts of irony, a hipster pose with no value, but Johnson does a great service in shedding light on why the VHS as opposed to, say, the LaserDisc warrants such passion. There's the obvious nostalgia factor, with the medium's longevity allowing it to play an important role in such a huge portion of the current adult population, but for Johnson and others, the bigger reason is the democratization that VHS brought to film, in that it allowed so many freaks, weirdos and visionaries to put their works out there at a minimal cost. Through his events at the Alamo Drafthouse, Carlson in particular has been a highly visible supporter of that facet of the medium, but he's just one of many people like him across the globe. Rewind This! goes on a little too long, and it could use more material about the business of VHS in its era to flesh it out, but for anyone with an interest in the development of film over time, and independent film in particular, this is an easy recommendation.
Emily Hagins' Grow Up, Tony Phillips is a little harder to recommend. Hagins is a SXSW celebrity, who first appeared at the festival in 2005 with her film Pathogen, which she finished at age 13. Tony Phillips is her latest feature, and while it's impeccably crafted from a technical standpoint, it has an odd distance to it that makes it have more in common with Disney Channel films than the kind of indie features one might expect at SXSW. There's no denying that Hagins is incredibly talented, but I didn't get the feeling that she was very passionate about the story at the heart of her film. It hinges on the titular Tony Phillips (Tony Vespe) and his love for Halloween, which is at odds with his friends' maturation and their desire to be cool rather than embarrassed. If that sounds kind of familiar, it might be because it's reminiscent of a well-loved "The Adventures of Pete & Pete" episode, though in that instance the divide was along the fraternal line. Hagins tries to insert some darker subject matter in the form of Tony's cousin Pete (AJ Bowen), who owes some sketchy people money for unknown reasons, but that feels forced and awkward and doesn't quite fit the rest of what she's doing.
Hagins undoubtedly has a long career ahead of her, which is why Tony Phillips is easy to read as a work in transition. There's a sense that she grew out of her script in the process of filming it, because there's no passion or heart to the work, just a weirdly mechanical drive. Hagins will turn 21 in October of 2013, which is a big deal for anyone, and I'm excited to see what interests she takes on as a filmmaker as she deals with this time in her life. It's odd to think of someone literally growing up through film work, but the advance of technology has made it possible for us to witness that kind of maturation in real time. Hagins' professionalism and technical abilities make her a director to watch, and once she's had the chance to build up life experience, she'll have the scripts to match those skills.
For an examination of intense life experiences, you could do worse than Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin's documentary follows the lead-up to Pussy Riot's infamous "A Punk Prayer" performance and the judicial chaos that ensued, but it's also a story about the way three women from very different families came together over a commitment to not having their lives' paths determined by a government they refused to believe in. At this point, the international attention paid to Pussy Riot has quieted down, which helps make Pussy Riot the film more of a necessary viewing experience, especially since it offers a closer look at the trial and fallout than most other coverage has provided. In America especially, many people have had a hard time understanding what it was that provoked such an intense reaction to Pussy Riot's performance art spectacle, and the film gets into the details of contemporary Russian society, which not only lacks an understanding of punk rock but of performance art as well.
Since it's a compressed work that mostly focuses on a time period of less than a year, Pussy Riot doesn't have as much depth and detail as similar documentaries, but that also fits the subject, which is all about bursts of righteous noise and spectacle. Lerner and Pozdorovkin have done great work compiling what must have been a tremendous amount of footage, much of which was actually given to them by the Kremlin, who recorded every moment of Pussy Riot's trial, including quiet moments between the three women while they were locked in cages awaiting the start of the trial. These moments are amongst the best in the film, as they give a glimpse at the human side of these protesters who have been reduced to martyrs or targets in the international eye.Pussy Riot could have used more journalism, particularly in regards to the role the Orthodox Church plays in Russian society and why it has become so dominant after being held down by the communists for so long. And it likewise would have benefited from more viewpoints and less of a bias, but even so, it's a work of potency and vitality that will hopefully renew interest in the plight of these women in particular and the state of feminism and tolerance in Russia on the whole.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he's the last of the secret agents and he's your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Comics Bulletin, where he reigns as the co-managing editor, or at Panel Panopticon, which he started as a joke and now takes semi-seriously. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover and explore the world of his musical alter ego at Fitness and Pontypool.