On paper, I’ve done a lot of traveling in the past year.
My tour started last year in Montreal, for the 2020 edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival. From there, I jetted down to Manhattan, visiting Lincoln Center for the 58th annual New York Film Festival. I came back home for IFFBoston’s Fall Focus series and the Salem Horror Fest, as well as Nightstream, a collaboration between our beloved Boston Underground Film Festival and a number of like-minded events from around the country. And while our own Kyle Amato handled Sundance duties for the Hassle, I did sneak in a quick trip to Park City to catch Edgar Wright’s new rockumentary The Sparks Brothers. Cinematically, I’ve been quite the jet-setter– even if, for reasons too obvious to state, I covered all these festivals from my sofa. On the bright side, I at least got to take my cat to these screenings.
This week I resumed my tour with the Hassle’s first-ever coverage of the film festival at South by Southwest. Of course, conditions still haven’t eased to the point where I can fly to Austin without risking life and limb. To help remedy this and get myself into the proper Lone Star state of mind, I pregamed by rolling out of bed and watching Richard Linklater’s Slacker, and ordered myself a burnt ends sandwich from Redbones for lunch. Physically, I’m in a triple-decker walkup in Somerville, but mentally, I’m in a movie theater deep in the heart of Texas. So let’s do this.
Before I begin, a quick note on my coverage strategy this time around. For most of my virtual festival coverage last year, I committed myself to writing full-length reviews of each film I watched. This model, while immensely rewarding, necessarily limited the number of films I could cover, and also drove me very near the point of madness. For SXSW, I am instead opting to tackle the festival in real time, watching several movies each day and writing a comprehensive dispatch the following morning (of which, obviously, this is the first). In doing this, I hope to give a more comprehensive overview of the festival’s offerings, and (hopefully) keep myself sane to boot (more comprehensive reviews are likely to come when the films receive “official” release). If you’re socially inclined, you can follow my Hot Takes over on Twitter, or you can just watch this space each morning for my unexpurgated views. So without further ado, let’s dispatch!
SXSW, of course, is first and foremost a music festival, and a fairly mainstream one at that, so it makes sense that the two most ballyhooed films of this year’s program are feature length documentaries about Demi Lovato and Tom Petty. While I’m sure these films are compelling, and I have no disrespect for those artists, those feel less vital for me to cover, both in terms of my own personal taste and what I imagine to be the Hassle’s general readership. With that in mind, I opted to begin my festival with a pair of films about far more eclectic musical visionaries.
My personal opening selection was Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliche, a personal, often devastating portrait of the legendary X-Ray Spex frontwoman. For those not in the know, X-Ray Spex was one of the essential bands of the UK ‘77 punk scene (their debut, Germ Free Adolescents, is easily one of the best punk rock albums ever recorded, and “Oh Bondage, Up Yours” has as fair a claim as any to being the genre’s finest anthem), and Poly Styrene was one of the movement’s most unique figures. Born Marianne Elliott, Styrene was a mixed-race woman in a field dominated by white men, whose day-glo aesthetic and effervescent persona made her an instant media darling. But she was also deeply troubled, a free spirit and compulsive poet whose sensitive nature made her ill-suited to the stresses of stardom and the modern world (the sarcastic lyrics to songs like “Genetic Engineering” and “Art-I-Ficial” mask a genuine horror toward consumerist society).
I Am a Cliche is narrated by Styrene’s daughter, Celeste Bell (who also co-directed with Paul Sng), who uses the film as a vehicle to process her complicated relationship with her late mother. As one can imagine, it’s difficult to grow up in the shadow of a celebrity mother, and doubly so when that mother is plagued by mental illness (Styrene was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia at age 21, and was later found to suffer from severe bipolar disorder). The result is a poignant, elegiac film about one of rock’s most colorful figures. That said, the film is also a treasure trove of priceless archival footage, complemented by voiceover interviews with Styrene’s contemporaries (including Don Letts, Vivienne Westwood, and members of the Raincoats) and followers (Kathleen Hanna, Neneh Cherry, and Thurston Moore, to name just a few). I Am a Cliche is a deeply sad story, but also an invaluable artifact for anyone with a love of punk history.
If I Am a Cliche is a downbeat film about irresistibly catchy rock and roll, then Disintegration Loops is an inspirational tale of one of the most mournful pieces of music recorded this century. In 2001, experimental ambient musician William Basinski recorded a series of tape loops as they wore themselves down to nothingness, which took on a life of their own as he watched the twin towers fall during their mastering. Released as an elegy for the victims of 9/11, The Disintegration Loops became a sensation, one of the first major works of serious music of the twenty-first century and a perfect expression of a nation’s inexpressible feelings. In his mid-length documentary, director David Wexler interviews Basinski and other notables via Zoom about the creation of the works and their cultural impact. In perhaps the first of what I’m sure will be many films on the subject, Wexler explicitly contrasts footage from 9/11 with images of an empty Times Square during the COVID-19 lockdown (not for nothing was Baskinski’s latest work, last year’s Lamentations, a direct meditation on the ongoing crisis). Basinski’s work is often indescribable, which may be why it feels so vital at our most disorienting moments.
Both Styrene’s and Basinski’s music attempts to make sense of a world gone mad; others try to navigate life’s mysteries through more conventional detective work. Paul Fronczak, the subject of Ursula Macfarlane’s gripping new CNN documentary The Lost Sons, discovered at age ten that he was the subject of a mystery in the most literal sense of the word: according to his parents and a treasure trove of news clippings, he had been abducted from Chicago’s Michael Reese Hospital as a newborn, and was inexplicably found in a stroller in Newark, New Jersey more than a year later. This knowledge haunted Fronczak through much of his life, eventually leading him to launch his own investigation as an adult. As you can likely imagine, the story turns out to be several degrees stranger than it initially appears.
The Lost Sons feels in many ways like an expanded 20/20 episode (quite literally– Fronczak was interviewed on that program by Barbara Walters early in his search), and it occasionally falls victim to the infographic aesthetic currently in vogue for true crime docs. But it more than makes up for it by being really, truly compelling. Even from the outset, Paul’s story is irresistibly disquieting– Why was he kidnapped? How did he end up in New Jersey?– and the deeper he digs, the weirder it gets. There are enough twists and turns that this probably could have been inflated into a miniseries, but I’m glad Macfarlane kept it to a concise, easy-to-follow tale of intrigue. By the end of the film, we don’t have all the answers (though we do have more than I would have expected), and some of the mysteries of the case will likely never be solved. What we’re left with, ultimately, is a sense that the world is a weird, creepy place where weird, creepy things happen– yet, against all odds, it is possible to find peace.
Finally, as the DST sun went down, I left the world of documentaries behind for the first film of the festival’s “Midnighters” program (thankfully for an old fart like me, the midnighters go live on the festival’s digital platform at a merciful 9:00 PM). In Broadcast Signal Intrusion, James (Harry Shum, Jr.), a young tape archivist in late ‘90s Chicago, stumbles across something unusual: a tape from the late 1980s in which an innocuous rerun is interrupted by a disturbing pirate feed of a towering woman in a creepy rubber mask spouting distorted gibberish. In researching the phenomenon, James discovers that this is one of a handful of similar interruptions, each timed with a seemingly unrelated tragedy– including one that hits close to home. Increasingly obsessed with tracking down the source and motive of the pirate frequencies, James finds himself diving down one rabbit hole after another, realizing only too late that he may be in over his head.
Broadcast Signal Intrusion bears a few unfortunate hallmarks of its low budget– occasionally overly wordy dialogue, a handful of plot threads that never quite tie together– but it is also, as the kids say, Extremely My Shit. The pirate tape is clearly inspired by one of my favorite real-life urban legends, the infamous 1987 Max Headroom Incident,* and the story ties in bits and pieces of underground tape trading, EVP, numbers stations, and a number of other spooky-nerdy phenomena for which I will always be a sucker. The whole thing is tied together by Shum, who sells his character’s spiral into neo-noir obsession with a manic, yet entirely soulful and believable, intensity (I must also commend the unconventional music by composer Ben Lovett, which is far more lively and interesting than most contemporary Hollywood scores I can think of). In a way, this was the perfect film to watch at the outset of a virtual festival, as I sit in my darkened living room, staring at the unnerving images on my glowing screen. I still miss the theatrical experience terribly, but obsessing over video after video, I am fully in my element.
* – The Max Headroom broadcast interrupted a Tom Baker-era Doctor Who rerun; in Broadcast Signal Intrusion, the tape interrupts a fictional show called Don Cronos, which is represented on screen by a late-period Dark Shadows clip. I don’t know if this will be interesting or amusing to anyone but myself, but as perhaps the last surviving Dark Shadows obsessive, I larfed.
SXSW, DAY ONE:
Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché
dir. Celeste Bell & Paul Sng
dir. David Wexler
The Lost Sons
dir. Ursula Macfarlane
Broadcast Signal Intrusion
dir. Jacob Gentry
Watch this space for our continuing coverage of SXSW 2021!
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