The elusive form of American independent cinema known as mumblecore has been killed off many times over, but its phantoms still haunt the reputation of the South by Southwest Film Festival. This year, however, seemed like a welcome exception: With no premieres from Joe Swanberg or Andrew Bujalski, and erstwhile SXSW starlet Greta Gerwig co-starring in a newly released Ben Stiller vehicle, the prototypical SXSW mumblecore routine faded to the background as a broader range of innovative filmmaking techniques took center stage.
The connectivity between the best narrative features at the festival primarily involves the way they use conventional storytelling in much the same fashion that mumblecore typically avoids it. Whereas plotless displays of naturalistic exchanges once defined the principle aesthetic of American indies on display at SXSW, the festival now plays host to genre subversion as its dominant modus operandi. This allows the program - and, by extension, the international filmmaking community it represents - to maintain a cogent agenda of expanding audiences for intelligent movies.
The first example is an obvious one. Aaron Katz's "Cold Weather," the expected breakout movie of SXSW, may sound like a slice of the same old pie. Katz's last two features, "Quiet City" and "Dance Party, USA," premiered to positive receptions at SXSW, and he has been considered an essential member of the mumblecore crowd since the word entered into tenuous circulation. But Katz's latest work both proves the blatant mythological nature of mumblecore and profoundly advances his stylistic capabilities. In its early scenes, the movie simply functions as a low key character sketch, but the organic second half morphs into a delightfully strange detective story that inhabits the genre even while playing around with it.
This seems like a smart route for low budget filmmakers to follow: Dance a traditional jig and throw in a few sporadic maneuvers; audiences will come for the familiarity and stay for the innovation.
"Monsters," an alleged sci-fi movie that screened in the midnight SX Fantastic section of the festival, pretends to tell a story about the aftermath of alien invasion, but actually remains focused on a budding romance and life amid natural catastrophe. The movie takes place six years after the crash of a NASA probe brings back hostile alien life forms that wreak havoc on third world countries. America remains safely removed from the danger behind its insurmountable wall. In the midst of this scenario, a young photojournalist (Scott McNairy) is hired to escort his boss's grown daughter (Whitney Able) across the Mexican border. The whiff of adventure slowly becomes a red herring, as the perilous journey through the "infected zone" put the two characters at the mercy of carnivorous tentacled creatures in addition to their growing feelings for each other.
Like "Before Sunrise" crossed with "District 9," the movie comments on personal relationships and uses its fantastical components merely as tools of metaphor. Director Gareth Edwards developed his project using a highly improvised technique and included documentary footage from interviews with locals discussing hurricane attacks, turning their words into references to the monsters in question. Edwards also developed the movie's special effects by himself. These ingredients turn "Monsters" into a highly personal filmmaking experiment, although don't expect Magnolia Pictures to market it that way when the movie comes out. Genre, in this case, provides the bait; unsuspecting audiences may find themselves pleasantly surprised by the hidden subtext.
Even the SXSW movies that bear closer resemblance to the mumblecore paradigm make significant attempts to inhabit genres with mainstream appeal. "The Happy Poet," a deadpan charmer directed by Austin filmmaker Paul Gordon, moves along at the brisk pace of a light romantic comedy. Gordon stars as a loner hoping to turn his organic food cart into a success, but the finances never come together. (There's probably a helpful metaphor here for the state of independent film itself -- trimmed down and in business against all odds -- but that's probably taking things too far.) Everything about "The Happy Poet" is cheerily conventional, save for Gordon's hilariously monotonous delivery, an ironic performance that incessantly contradicts the movie's title. A glance at the movie's trailer might suggest an overly sentimental product, but Gordon subtly defies that assumption.
One could apply the same description to the narrative competition entries "Phillip the Fossil" and "Tiny Furniture" (which won the top prize of the category on Tuesday night). Set in a heavy drinking New England scene, "Phillip" revolves around a grungy party lover (Brian Hasenfus) whose messy lifestyle persists even though he has clearly outgrown it. The movie's premise is so rudimentary that it barely goes anywhere until a violent twist at the end of the second act, but Dellaroca's performance puts it on a far greater level of psychological insight than the rudimentary setup should reasonably allow. "Tiny Furniture," with its meandering narrative about a young college grad (writer-director Lena Dunham) adrift in the world, borrows much from Woody Allen neuroses, although the story frequently transcends such familiarity with its close relationship to the real lives of its main characters.
Even the wilder examples of genre sport ulterior motives. Another SX Fantastic entry, "A Serbian Film," delivers exactly the grotesquely violent and depraved sexual behavior suggested by its budding reputation, but its prevailing metaphor for governmental censorship injects the shock value with deeper topicality. The revenge thriller "Red, White and Blue" comments on the pratfalls of sexual promiscuity when transposed to conservative values. And SXSW's ebullient opening night entry, "Kick Ass," has been marketed as a violent superhero movie but harbors a critique of that very fantasy. Given its mass market appeal, "Kick Ass" implies that genre subversion can translate to mainstream sensibilities - a key factor for the perseverance of creative experimentation among narrative filmmakers in America.
Links to all of Eric Kohn's indieWIRE reviews at SXSW '10:
Fraternity Failure: Will Canon's "Brotherhood"
Americana in Microcosm: Jeff Malmberg's "Marwencol"
Fierce Iconoclasm: Cameron Yates's "The Canal Street Madam"
Blossoming "Furniture": Lena Dunham Entertaining Self-Portrait
Live from New York: Franco Manages Compelling Portrait In "Saturday Night"
Taming the Man-Child: "Barry Munday"
Not Elementary: Genre and Realism Collide in Aaron Katz's "Cold Weather"
First Look: A Familiar Can of "Kick Ass"