FESTIVAL: Whither Country? Goodbye Twitty City, Hello NIFF
by Edward E. Crouse
(indieWIRE/ 06.13.02) -- The Nashville Independent Film Festival, the gleam in Music City's cinematic eye, prevailed this year, setting new attendance records and challenging local viewers to more than just country music docs, traditionally one of NIFF's strengths. Festival director Kelly Brownlee and executive director Brian Gordon bobbed for edgy, topical stuff and in general came out on top of both new technologies and current events, spotlighting avant-garde films that rarely make it outside of basement screening spaces and museums. Beginning its life in 1969 as the Sinking Creek Film Festival, the 33rd NIFF, which ran June 5 to 9, yielded a meld of sentiment (opening night's "Colored Eggs," the riveting, PBS-bound "Partners of the Heart") and often weird, gauche humor (John Waters' searing closing night lecture, a rip-roaring archival gem called "The Monster and the Stripper").
For some reason, the Country Music Hall of Fame declined to participate in this year's fest, a regrettable decision, considering their sold-out shows last year. Picking up the slack is Nina Gilden Seavey's "The Ballad of Bering Strait," a movie less interesting for the music that it (sparsely) documents than for the often stunning technology it deploys to do it. Shot on HDTV, the movie toddles along with a seven-member band of Russian teens newly emigrated to Nashville from hicktown Obninsk, determined to make it in music biz. The movie is concerned mostly with the group's lucklessness and waiting for a gig, bouncing from label to label. Something of a B-side to the loaded, loathsome "Making the Band" TB series, the end result is that teen platitudes and soul-searching -- "Life is a chain of disappointments" and "I'm in a very weird space right now" -- eclipse the promising scenes like a banjoist tearing it up at a Moscow conservatory with a Bela Fleck tune. Most of the film's weight rests on the group's wild card, a hellcat named Natasha whose "yee-hah"s are as rich and resonant as Erich Roland's flashy cinematography. Co-financed by NHK Japan, the movie has reportedly been touted at trade shows showing off the new format, and indeed it's worth a look despite some occasional condescension to Nashville natives; the shots of local yokels saying the darndest things like "she don't sound like no Russian" is not so much comic relief as a tragic clutching at straws. In the end, the kids' mainstream bluegrass-inflected country music, or what little of it there is in the three complete songs and few scattered fragments Seavey keeps cutting away from, prevails.
In other docs, like "Partners of the Heart" (about a little-known innovative black heart surgeon), the PBS aesthetic wielded its slick head. The exception was a nice little cheapie concerning the Nashville footstomper George Mitchell. Called "Injurious George," the movie goes so far as to collaring the bemusing author of "The Sex Life of the Foot and Shoe" to explain the half-heinous, always fascinating acts of an arch-criminal whose thousands of heel-crushing attacks proved nevertheless sexually harmless. His victims, interviewed here, feel an interesting strain of regret, and to the movie's credit, the makers do doff their caps to the glue-sniffing festishist stamper in John Waters's "Polyester."
"Every town had its own version of the footstomper," notes John Waters, who made NIFF's closing night a notch on his lecture tour. The title of the evening "Shock Value" proved almost too literal as Waters for the first half recycled much of the (admittedly brilliant) material from the book of the same name, continuing from where that tome left off (from "Hairspray" all the way up to his recent appearance in Herschel Gordon Lewis's "Blood Feast 2: All You Can Eat").
Playing out like a sublime kind of proto-Waters drive-in fare, NIFF's vile underbelly shined on with 1968's wonderful, sexploitative "The Monster and the Stripper." From the barely known, locally feted, and utterly gleeful team of Ron and June Ormond, the New Orleans-based tale of swamp things, burlesque casting couches, and soul-shouting mamas had a nigh-riotous effect on the crowd. From the moment that an Okeefenokee monstrosity (rockabilly demigod Sleepy LaBeef) dismembers poor cajun (and real-life Johnny Cash sideman) Luther Perkins, the assembled souls were hooked. By the time a headline about the Monster is lowered to reveal Tatanya, a stripper who's clearly mastered the art of the flaming tassels, they were rabid. Possibly the oddest entry in the fest, this full jiggle slice of camp arrived from some alternative dimension, where Gilligan's Island-y sets and color patterns mingle with bizarre, never-to-be-heard again argot. Barkers purring "a young lady who'll twitch it and twatch it and even let you watch it," are not just post-obscene, but the last bloodily colored spasms of vaudeville. What other film festival sports stuff like a bucktoothed sap doused in spittoon juice, tacky argyle sweaters, a fiend ripping a man's arm off and "beating him about the head with it," not to mention husband and wife harmonica team? At times like this, NIFF made out like the New Orleans of the movie: "A time of restless abandonment ... sleepy by day and psychedelic by night." Almost as bracing was the Q&A with the 90-year-old+ producer, June Ormond, who held the crowd spellbound with tales of other stars like Ginger Rogers ("a lovely person but her mother was a BITCH"). She did have a salient point, too, about the waning of the current crop of Undergrounders: "What would we do without those boobs? Boobs, boobs, boobs!"
Even more up to the minute than non-mammary observations is "Underground Zero," a touring omnibus of films commissioned by Bay Area filmmakers Jay Rosenblatt and Caveh Zahedi to comment on the September 11 attacks. The highlights of this tour, interestingly enough, weren't either of their films however, but Frazer Bradshaw's chilling and serene scenes of suburbia ("The End of Summer") and Knoxville native (and NIFF-Sundance favorite) Paul Harrill's clipped, short story-like "Brief Encounter with Tibetan Monks".
More welcome encounters in Nashville: Przemyslaw Shemie Reut's "Paradox Lake," a bewildering, mysterious look at autism and camp counselors, which was barely noticed at Sundance and went on here to snag the Dreammaker award, and also "The Slaughter Rule," a determined, if downbeat slice of Big Sky modesty involving smash-mouth football and Ryan Gosling's sly bewitching of ragged, but right boy-prospector David Morse.
For a complete list of winners, visit: http://www.nashvillefilmfestival.org/festival/awards.html.