FESTIVALS: "The Damnedest Thing You Ever Saw!" Nashville's Indie Fest
by Edward Crouse
(indieWIRE/06.15.01) -- Though unspooling during the dog days of the festival-going season, the Nashville Independent Film Festival (June 6 -10) managed to dole out some genuine discoveries as well as some deft archival programming. Though it lacked a single world premiere (quick question: do any general moviegoers go to film festivals to specifically see a world premiere?), Executive Director Brian Gordon and Festival Director Kelly Brownlee nevertheless assembled a bold, formidable lineup of narrative features, documentaries and shorts. What with the hundreds of film festivals around now, it's worth noting that Nashville was among the first and best in the South, beginning its life in 1969 as the Sinking Creek Film Festival.
For its 32nd year, the NIFF took over four screens of an outlying 16-plex, offering both natives and pilgrims the chance to see what Music City had to offer as film and video highlights. Riches were to be found in the past and present, as smart archival screenings chosen by area critics (including some great stuff not available on video like Alan Rudolph's soul-tapping "Remember My Name" and the still awesome landmark "Killer of Sheep " by Charles Burnett) could be taken in next door to top-notch experimental Austrian flicks.
Where else can an as-yet-undistributed Billy Bob Thornton film ("Daddy and Them": a bit of glazed Southern zaniness that's equal parts Jerry Springer and famous actors showboating) introduced by the mulleted country star Marty Stuart suddenly find itself warming the screen for a funny, droning vision of Mickey Rooney groping a matronly woman twice his age (in Martin Arnold's "Alone. Love Wastes Andy Hardy")?
When it came to handling the past, the NIFF, like Rooney, was avid. Nashville has recently opened a newer, bigger Country Music Hall of Fame. Interestingly, the latest edition now houses an archive of 7,800 films (according to curator Alan Stoker), and two of the rarer ones played to sold-out shows. Both "The Nashville Sound" and "Johnny Cash: The Man, His World and His Music" were spiritedly directed by the same man, Robert Elfstrom -- who would later work on Cash's ill-fated, self-produced "Gospel Road."
In light of Cash's solid comeback in the 1990s, it's the "The Nashville Sound" that struck one as the more precious artifact of the two. Coming off as a quizzical look at the human balloons that Robert Altman's movie would aim a shotgun at a few years later, it was very much a revelation. Though the print projected pinkish due to loss of green dyes, it's very clear that this documentary was the basis for the later cavalcade, headed by Lily Tomlin, Henry Gibson, and Keith Carradine. Starting out at the Opry with Earl Scruggs and clan singing "Greenback Dollar," "The Nashville Sound" quickly starts perambulating around the city, picking up details of the 1969 44th anniversary of the Grand Ole herself.
"The Nashville Sound"'s thrills are myriad: everything from bluegrass legend Bill Monroe's astonishing, spine-tingling wail on the tune "Body and Soul" to a bedraggled Skeeter Davis doing radio signoffs (among the stations: WFAG) conceding, "Wow, I need some scotch and water and there ain't no two ways about it." Loretta Lynn, always a treat, is shown here threatening to fire her rhythm section from onstage during a formal dinner for her fan club. By the end, one can't help but be happier than Dolly Parton's guitar, or incredibly grateful for the chance to see this stuff bigger than life.
The present, and possibly the future, was represented at the NIFF by two Tennesseeans who cruised into local acclaim by way of Park City and Los Angeles. Knoxville native Paul Harrill came to town with his "Gina, An Actress, Age 29," a Super 16mm take on union-busting and nascent artistry that won the Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking at Sundance, as well as the Short Film prize here. Having garnered the Best Digital Film award at the Hollywood Film Festival, Craig Brewer's "The Poor & Hungry" came to the NIFF -- which he later claimed was his first choice of festivals -- to virtually conquer the thing, gaining three awards here including the audience award. It doesn't take much figuring to know why.
Hands-down the finest feature among the pack, "The Poor & Hungry" (named for a popular café) was made using a floor-model Digital 8mm camera (no, this is not the same as DV), a two-person crew, $20,000 of inheritance, and first-time actors. Those Dogme-tic fetishes aside, this fast-paced two-hour poetic scraping of Memphis down-and-outers was put together with more than cojones. It also boasts a spiky, if plot-heavy script that's flanked by aptly crude lighting and sound that belies the overall grace of the editing, camera movement and actors.
Flecked with an existentialist twang and a black humor (well-matched to the pixilated image, which tends to be literally black and white much of the time), "The Poor & Hungry" mainly follows two characters -- dead-eyed mechanic-bouncer Eli (Eric Tate) and gabby, asexual street merchant Harper (Lindsey Roberts) -- and their semilegal ways of making a living. Eli, an insomniac who works at both a tittybar and a chopshop, thusly spends his life either guarding strippers or being one himself. The movie could have been a turgid, first person affair (many of the Amerindie features were, to their detriment), but Brewer is more careful and wields ensemble feeling more often than not. Of particular note are John Still, the autoshop boss who's as fine and mellow as a liter of festival sponsor Jack Daniels and Cowboy Earl (T.C. Sharpe). He also has the funniest line of the film, from the middle of a nifty prayer to a Cadillac: "I ain't never been a godly man -- but my mama was."
"I don't even call this independent film. After all, Working Title or Artisan is not giving finishing funds to movies like these," said the director after the last screening. Brewer also recalled his father's response to the scarcity of digital entries accepted at Sundance, "Hey, Craig, fuck Sundance." One is inclined to agree, especially since "The Poor & Hungry" is -- next to George Kuchar's utterly dissimilar multi-hour DV essay "Secrets of the Shadow World" -- among the best handmade, artisanal American movies in recent memory and deserves a far wider profile.
More highlights: the senses-shattering "Outer Space" by Austrian Peter Tscherkassky (a 35mm Cinemascope short that splinters an old Barbara Hershey flick called "The Entity"), "Ferme La Porte" (an unaccountably witty Francophobic short about a clown with "translated" aphorisms like "Puppy love will always end in a dog fight."), and the punky, puckish "Fall of American Matrimony," David Johnson's hilarious charting of Tennessee's 61% divorce rate through radio-station-sponsored, mall-based mass nuptials.
[Edward Crouse contributes to indieWIRE, and can also be read in the Village Voice, Filmmaker, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and Film Comment.]