I took things extra slowly on day 4 of my SXSW Film experience, because music is about to start up and the true insanity of SXSW will be coming with it. This was a day for relaxation, making new friends and having no expectations. Dylan and I only had the short film "Necronomica" pencilled in as our must-see experience for the day. A short film about black metal, "Necronomica" was part of the second of SXSW's short film showcases and its title alone was enough to make a sweet old woman suddenly question my tastes after asking me what I was seeing.
But "Necronomica," which has been one of the absolute highlights of this SXSW for me, is deceptively sweet. In truth, it's less a film about black metal than an exploration of the way certain friendships can be more meaningful and developed than romantic relationships. Focusing on the two remaining members of the titular band Necronomica, the short starts with these friends walking back from a convenience store, discussing a local black metal band that has started to get big enough to "get their own baskets of bat wings at Hades — that's one basket per band member per show." But we soon learn that the band's drummer left and has caused a mood of shaken confidence. Though it's a comedy and inarguably a light film, "Necronomica" packed a surplus of character and emotion into its short running time and regardless of your musical tastes, it's an absolute must see.
The rest of the shorts were mostly good, with a few perplexing oddballs and only one real misfire. The Danny Boyle-esque "Indoors," which is a bit of an adolescent fairy tale about a girl who can't leave her trailer because wind makes her fall to sleep, was maudlin and somewhat cliché, but it was well shot and featured strong performances from its child actors. "The Slaughter," a short about the unease between a man and his son and the tension that unfolds to violent results as they slaughter a pig, was a brutal piece of work that was remarkable for the intensity of its imagery and the devastating performances of its leads. But shorts like "Kelly" and "La Della," which hinged on Miranda July and Harmony Korine-level weirdness, were less successful, mostly because their content and form felt strained and unearned. Still, they were at least interesting and unusual, which is more than can be said for the short that looked and felt like a perfume ad that isn't really worth mentioning here.
While waiting in line for the shorts, Dylan and myself ran into Sean McKeever and his friend Jeff, which is the type of serendipitous interaction SXSW is great for. McKeever, an Eisner award-winning comic writer who has logged time at DC and Marvel (for whom he wrote Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane), is a relatively recent Austin transplant who now works for Bioware and Jeff was visiting from Columbus, OH, where McKeever is also from. We had a long talk about whether criticism is still valuable (we actually started talking because Jeff said critics aren't worth reading, something Dylan and I couldn't help but respond to) and after the shorts, the three of us went to get lunch at Casino el Camino while Dylan went to another screening.
Jeff's point about criticism was a natural segue for a discussion about what people want in their pop culture coverage, and while we were all attending a film festival, comics naturally came to the forefront. What is often so refreshing about festivals is that everyone there is at least somewhat passion about pop culture, because, after all, you're either covering it or you shelled out several hundred dollars to experience it. This leads to a lot of conversations about the state of pop culture, and how it is evolving, particularly in media like comics, which are now blossoming on a mainstream level. Jeff spoke about his belief that so much criticism today is based around negativity and how critics, due to the amount of content they're consuming and the way in which they're consuming it, are often untrustworthy because of that oversaturation.
I don't entirely disagree with his point and in the confines of a festival, it's an especially valid point to make. Both Dylan and I myself have consciously kept our film slates relatively small in order to avoid that. But festival fatigue is a very real thing and it can make for a jarring experience, where your own critical instincts turn against you and because of your environment, mood and energy level, you sometimes make declarations that are unrealistic or which come from an unnatural place. I was left wondering about that after I closed the evening with the premier of Rob Zombie's new film The Lords of Salem, which I found to be remarkably ambitious but nonetheless a total disappointment. Zombie's film trumpeted style over substance, with gorgeous cinematography and fascinating visuals, but it lacked cohesion and focus.
Essentially the story of Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie), a radio DJ who finds herself haunted by a centuries old curse, The Lords of Salem fits in more with '70s colonial horror works like The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby, which took horror to the old architecture of the Northeast and in the process made it more elite and academic. That's an odd fit for Zombie, whose films have typically hinged on gritty rural and road textures rather, but he gets the mood right. The problem comes in his scripting, which substitutes often silly lecturing and overdone symbolism for the intensity and rawness of his previous works. There's not much at stake in The Lords of Salem, and the film's ending sacrifices all of the moodiness in favor of a laughably bad quasi-montage sequence and a final sequence that is meme worthy. Zombie would have been better served bringing on a collaborator who could infuse the film with more context, particularly since his specific skill set is not this kind of horror, but instead is in psychotic Americana of the Western variety.
But would I say the same thing if I hadn't seen the impeccable Evil Dead remake only a few nights prior? Or if I hadn't been fresh off my enjoyment of "Necronomica?" That's up to you to decide. After all, criticism is only as valuable as your interpretation of its larger points.
Nick Hanover doesn't want to set the world on fire, unless he has to, which seems increasingly more likely each day. As Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, he most looks forward to making subliterate internet commenters angry and forcing his record collection on unsuspecting readers through his comic, film and television reviews and miscellaneous other pop culture pieces for t
he site. He promises to update Panel Panopticon more this year, but you can always find his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover or explore the world of his musical alter ego at Fitness.