I took a “break” from SXSW film for days five and six, by which I mean I played two lackluster music showcases and ran all around town. But luckily Nate Abernethy stepped in and provided a phenomenal amount of coverage for day five, which makes my relatively restrained day seven all the more lackluster. I started day seven with a lot of anticipation for Deep City, a mini-doc on the Miami soul and R&B scene of the ’60s and ’70s, which centered around the label that gives the doc its title. The Deep City volume of Numero Group’s Eccentric Soul series is one of the best, in my opinion, and the schism that developed between its co-founders over its biggest star, Betty Wright, seemed like it could make for a great story.
Deep City somewhat covers that story towards the end, but the lack of Betty Wright in the documentary (she declined to appear) and label co-founder Johnny Pearsall (who died after a battle with cancer) keeps the story from truly being told, instead focusing on the label’s early days. That smaller focus is understandable, but even with that in mind, the film feels slight, less like a film than an hour long commercial for the Eccentric Soul release. Much of the film utilizes music released by Deep City set over photographs, and while the music is consistently excellent, the filmmakers’ use of the same pool of photographs without much variation makes for a bland visual experience. Last year at SXSW, A Band Called Death built up tremendous buzz thanks to its incredible music and the clarity of its narrative, and Deep City would have been wise to follow its example with a more clear cut story and deeper interviews.
For soul fans, particularly those of the Northern Soul variety, Deep City is still an easy recommendation, simply because the music is so great and it offers the opportunity to see unjustly forgotten Deep City stars like Helene Smith show that they’ve still go it. The film was made for a Miami public broadcasting station, so its short length makes sense, but it still feels like the filmmakers could have done more with their time or structured the film in a way that showcased the story of the music more while finding a way to integrate the music better than the soundtracked photographs. If it were included as a bonus feature on a reissue of the Deep City Eccentric Soul volume, the documentary would perhaps function better, but as a standalone work it’s lacking.
I followed up Deep City with She’s Lost Control, a film about a sexual surrogate named Ronah (Brooke Bloom) who has taken on a difficult, volatile patient. Sexual surrogacy is an area of therapy that remains misunderstood by many people, including medical professionals, and She’s Lost Control was in a unique position to capitalize on that mystery while also exploring human intimacy in a fresh way. Much of She’s Lost Control is effective, including Bloom’s understated yet commanding performance. But first time director Anja Marquardt struggles to coherently convey the intent of her film, leaning on moody vagueness and a somber tone to cover up the gaps in the story she first sets off to tell.
Part of the blame is due to Marc Menchaca’s problematic performance as Johnny, the hostile patient Ronah has started working with. Ronah’s vulnerabilities and growth are abundantly explored, particularly in the moments where Ronah meets with her other patients or when she speaks with her mentor about what she’s learning through work. But Johnny is an enigma, a strong, violent presence with a disabled sister in his care and self-flagellation tendencies. Johnny’s introduction to the audience is immediately jarring, as we witness him masturbating in a corner on the street, and other than a reference to ED later, we never come back to that image nor does it fit the other issues he seems to have. Johnny would be a challenging role for anyone due to his constantly shifting personality and mixture of sensitivity and volatility, but Menchaca appears especially out of his depth.
Menchaca certainly has the physical presence to make Johnny intimidating, and he has an effective scowl at all times, but he buckles under the pressure in the quieter interludes and comes across as petulant and irritable rather than broken and misunderstood. It’s never exactly made clear why Johnny even needs a surrogate, since he appears to have no fear of a female presence or body image issues; a scene where he beats himself after Ronah touches his back seems to have been added in order to show he isn’t as confident as he lets on, but that self-flagellation is more mysterious than it is an explanation. This is doubly disappointing because one of the film’s best scenes involve Ronah convincing a man with psoriasis to be open up to her by taking his shirt off, demanding he stop worrying over whether she’ll be scared– that scene is emotional and explanatory, providing more perspective on surrogacy than the rest of the film combined.
As expected, things with Johnny go sour and it becomes clear that Ronah is in over her head, but she keeps pushing. Ronah’s meetings with Johnny’s therapist show that she is willfully minimizing her problems with Johnny, and her inexperience is shown in full as she tries to conquer Johnny’s problems, viewing them as parallels to problems she faces in her own life. When things with Johnny reach a boiling point, Ronah becomes a victim to her own impotency, as no matter how much she claims Johnny doesn’t scare her, the fact that she’s powerless to truly help him symbolizes everything she fears about her career choice and her personal life. The film seems ready to shift at this point, as though it intends to explore the emotional impact of surrogacy for both parties when something goes wrong but then it just…ends. Rather than having an anti-resolution by design, the result appears haphazard and sloppy, like Marquardt just didn’t know where else to take the story. That said, She’s Lost Control indicates Marquardt has the potential to be a great director with a fearless willingness to explore aspects of human intimacy that are rarely spoken about let alone penetrated to such depth.
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, 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 egos at Fitness and Pontypool.