The 2010 edition of Fantastic Fest has no greater defining image than that of festival founder and Alamo Drafthouse owner Tim League, decked out in a pink mohawk, dodging punches from a sprightly Michelle Rodriguez. The farcical duel marked the climax of “The Fantastic Debates,” an annual tradition at the Austin-based festival in which contestants engage in verbal sparring before heading into the ring. After freely trashing “Avatar” (“Kids don’t play with ‘Avatar’ action figures. Kids know this movie sucks”), League faced Rodriguez’s mock wrath, although the charade swiftly ended when the two fighters called it a draw and fell to the ground, grinning like schoolchildren, in a tight embrace. Absurd, giddy and overloaded with adrenaline, the scene was a classic Fantastic Fest moment.
The debates marked the midpoint of the eight-day genre festival, now in its fifth year, and naturally epitomized its uniquely naughty spirit. Despite the rampant party vibes, the feud still reflected a community of filmmakers and audiences, as dozens of movies screened just next door at the Alamo Drafthouse South Llamar. Local sibling directors Nathan and David Zellner took to their respective podiums in hysterical warrior outfits to debate the merits of videogames (“Videogames give you the skills to achieve your goals,” said David, “‘Leisure Suit Larry’ showed me how to please a woman”) before jokingly socking each other while covering their faces in an abundance of fake blood. (The Zellners have a concise new short, “Sasquatch Birth Journal 2,” playing before the woodsy Australian monster movie “Primal” — and upstaging it despite being composed of only four murky shots.)
And then there was the curious case of Brown v. Ford. Just before the League/Rodriguez face-off, the jokey spirit took a sudden dark turn, with Todd Brown (editor of the movie site Twitch) staring down Jon Ford, one half of the directing team behind the Africa-set zombie thriller “The Dead.” The event briefly abandoned its comedic posturing for a somewhat legitimate argument. Months ago, Brown called out Ford for anonymously posting an inane defense of his movie after two commenters had expressed skepticism about the quality of a clip posted on the site. Brown went ahead and identified Ford, deriding his actions in an instructional post partially titled “How Not to Promote Your Film.” During their debate, tongues were not planted in cheeks; the hostility got real. Ford, glancing around the room and looking increasingly like a deer caught in headlights, desperately tried to defend the movie that he claimed to have absorbed 23 years of his life. “I was being kicked while I was down,” he said of Brown’s response, before making the specious claim that journalists should support all independent films. Then the men got into the ring and fought like animals, and Ford’s arm popped out of its socket twice before he decided to call it quits.
I’m not sure I agree with the staging of an unabashedly juvenile battle to resolve an issue pertaining to online civility, but watching a prototypical crass Internet debate turn physical still had a notably therapeutic effect that made me think of other good contenders for the ring (John Anderson vs. Jeff Dowd? Jeffrey Wells vs. David Poland?). Of course, the brawl resolved nothing save for perhaps raising the profile of “The Dead” ever so slightly, although not by placing it in the best light. That might be a positive effect if the movie deserved the attention, but as far as I can tell its only critical defense has come from Harry Knowles, the famously arbitrary tastemaker of Ain’t It Cool News fame. Personally, I found this spare walking dead saga to hold plenty of visual appeal in its opening sequences, which eschew dialogue in favor of lush, shimmering desert imagery, but it lacks enough story to sustain the grandeur.
The plot barely congeals before it disperses: A tense plane crash in the opening sequence causes its sole survivor, an American engineer, to wander the wilderness in search of an escape strategy, eventually joining forces with a rogue military man looking for his missing son. Their quest never really goes anywhere, and even the vaguely clever metaphorical value of the story — Western relief abandons the continent in the wake of the outbreak, and the soldier says “I don’t understand the white man,” so figure that one out — can’t provide enough of a foundation to keep “The Dead” from becoming as lethargic as the animated corpses dotting its scenery. That’s too bad, because “The Dead” sports a remarkably immersive cinematic vision, with a few strong, near-poetic sights that turn the barren setting into a dreamlike wasteland. But it’s a classic example of dragging a premise as far as it can go before beating it to death. At least Brown didn’t do that to Ford, whose flawed directorial effort makes his initial Twitch comment suggesting that the movie surpassed the original “Dawn of the Dead” (“It’s a bit dated now”) particularly obnoxious.
A more calculated solution to Ford’s online gaff might have been to confront him about it privately rather than literally dragging things into the spotlight, but there’s no doubt that the filmmaker could use a lesson in humility. Though I can’t fully recommend “The Dead,” I do admire aspects of its design and wish Ford (the movie’s co-director with brother Howard) could admit its shortcomings or focus on its merits rather than exaggerating them. The best festivals force filmmakers to come to terms with their art, warts and all, by facing an audience not skewed towards blindly praising it. At Fantastic Fest, much of the program — from “Sharktopus” to “Zombie Roadkill” — wears its guilty pleasure status on its sleeve. The stage is set for a little truth-telling to go along with the fun.
The identity of Fantastic Fest is intentionally rough around the edges, aggressively virile and yet tied to the notion of showcasing the best genre movies generally relegated to the sidelines at the arthouse. It has popular components as well, opening this year with Matt Reeves’s well-received remake of “Let Me In,” offering a sneak preview of Darren Bousman’s remake of “Mother’s Day” and a secret screening of Mark Romanek’s “Never Let Me Go” (a sneak preview of “Jackass 3-D” is expected later in the week). But it also sticks to the fringe culture that provides its base, honoring renowned Hong Kong martial arts choreographer and filmmaker Yuen Woo-ping and screening his latest work, “True Legend,” in addition to quintessential B-movie auteur Roger Corman. There’s also a nice showcasing of indie games organized by League along with game designer Eddo Stern and former CineVegas organizers Mike Plante (the now-defunct festival’s director of programming) and Roger Erik Tinch.
The Fantastic Arcade, located next to the Drafthouse in The Highball, includes the hilariously scrappy “Enviro-Bear 2000” (you are a bear, driving a car, plowing through the forest) by Canadian designer Justin Smith, and the beautiful, otherworldly sidescroller “Feist,” from Switzerland. Plante and company originally wanted to set up the arcade back at CineVegas, but most of the rooms at that festival were overtaken by slot machines. Fantastic Fest, on the other hand, provides an ideal venue for showcasing indie games alongside their movie brethren, given the crowd’s willingness to consume both. A great idea finally coming to fruition — as they in these parts, now that’s fantastic.