I only managed to catch a handful of features during my time in Austin for the SXSW Film Festival, so I can’t claim to offer anything close to full “fest coverage” (though how possible that is for all but the most manageable festivals is an open question). But I did watch two worthy movies that you’ll hopefully get the opportunity to see in the coming months.
Margaret Brown’s The Order of Myths had its premiere at Sundance, but this low-key, rigorously traditional doc was generally overshadowed in coverage of the lineup by its flashier competition, somewhat understandable (if certainly not just) given that the contemporary measuring stick for a doc’s theatrical readiness is so closely linked to its topicality. Brown’s second feature (after the Townes Van Zandt doc Be Here to Love Me), a movie about the continuing segregation of Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama, falls far from the immediate headlines of the day, but the miracle of Myths is how Brown spins the local minutiae of party preparation for the 2006 festivities, filled with unknown players, into a complex meditation on our country’s troubled racial history. Her cuts between the arrangements for the black and white festivities are well-placed and appropriately calculated for effect, but what stings are those shots in which a black figure (usually some kind of server) is highlighted against a host of white folks enjoying a posh event that African Americans can only participate in while via supporting roles.
Given that Myths is about race in the South, it’s also a movie about class, and Brown takes care to note the differing financial impacts of purchasing and creating parade finery and floats on the various families. But she carefully eschews easy moralizing—an Alabama native herself, Brown knows well that the relationships between Southern whites and blacks are much more complicated than most who don’t live there will ever understand. There’s a sense of tender, tentative, ever-encroaching rapprochement between the two communities—even though the divide between them is palpable, some kind of thaw surrounding the two ceremonies seems more than possible. Fittingly, Brown’s stirring climax finds the black Mardi Gras royalty attending the white king and queen’s coronation for the first time. As the two are announced, the all-white audience seems genuinely sincere in its vocal approbation. This court visit is repaid at an event the next night and Brown lingers on joyous shots of the two royal courts intermingling freely and openly. What’s fascinating is a little nugget of shared history Brown’s plucked from an interview and placed earlier in the film: the white queen’s grandfather, on a dare, illegally carried out the last slave run from Africa to the United States . The black queen’s ancestors were part of that cargo. Order of Myths is built around these subtle, gradual revelations, leaving the overall effect more of long, involved conversation than an attention-grabbing slap in the face. Dear documentary filmmakers: More of this, please.
On the narrative side, SXSW seems to be struggling somewhat uneasily with its own growth in relation to that of the filmmakers the festival has long championed. A home for the mumblecore movement that Sundance has largely ignored (save for the two Duplass brothers films), the festival continues to showcase work by Swanberg, Ross, Bujalski, Kat, Duplass, and the like (a friend commented that he felt the narrative features could be generally described as films made by young men wielding video cameras), but will those filmmakers step up from each work to the next to fit SXSW’s ever-growing stage? And if they won’t, who will be the next generation of talents to find a home there? 23-year-old filmmaker Joshua Safdie provides a ready answer. His slight and winning The Pleasure of Being Robbed, a not-really-mumblecore feature that still exists somewhere in that movement’s orbit of DIY, youth-centric filmmaking, was my favorite narrative of the fest.
For the first half, as Safdie follows his young protagonist Eleonore (Eleonore Hendricks) as she robs a variety of random folks (not at all maliciously—her theft drips of raccoon-ish curiosity), I was worried that Pleasure would be nothing more than yet another film constructed around a masculine eye following a pathological female and just waiting for the hammer to fall. Safdie’s protagonist is caught rummaging through a bag (instead of running from the police, she loudly proclaims, “I just wanted to see what’s in there” while continuing to dig), but instead of mug shots and punishment, the film cruises into fantastic whimsy—Safdie takes us on a trip to the zoo for a swim with a giant fake polar and all of a sudden we’re in what I hope is an homage to unexpected magic acts of Jacques Rivette. The Business of Being Robbed is certainly slim as a narrative (a lengthy trip to Boston in a borrowed car might occupy too much screen time), but its mood is so lovely that it might have actually benefited from stretching out to a gargantuan Rivette-ian length. Even as it stands, Pleasure is a nice little movie made by a seemingly unpretentious and talented young guy that doesn’t focus on the painful end of a relationship or the inarticulacy of space post-college, and for that I’m grateful I had the chance to sit with it for a little while.