Austin’s rambunctious genre festival, Fantastic Fest, is churning through its seventh year with dozens of diverse new movies from around the world. And yet it’s sometimes easy to forget there’s actually a film festival going on.
Attendees often hang out in the desolate parking lot of the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar or next door at the Highball event space, the only places in the immediate vicinity to catch a breath between screenings. Each day rolls along like a single, prolonged activity filled with constant chatter and a whole lot of standing around. It’s too much fun to feel busy, but the experience can still be exhausting. That’s why the Fantastic Debates are a welcome addition, injecting a fresh shot of energy into the proceedings.
The most rambunctious item on its program, the Debates take place at the South Austin Gym. The program is simple: A variety of notable (and often quite random) characters engage in raucous arguments before donning boxing gloves and knocking each other around the ring. Last year’s event culminated with a showdown between Alamo Drafthouse co-founder Tim League and actress Michelle Rodriguez, after the two exchanged sharp words about “Avatar” with mock intensity. It’s a theater of absurd for movie nerds, which is Fantastic Fest’s entire raison d’être.
The latest edition topped that moment with a surprisingly pointed debate between former hobbits Elijah Wood and Dominic Monaghan about whether or not “World of Warcraft” was “a fucking waste of time.” (Monaghan won with his surprisingly in-depth explanation of the vast potential for digital adventure in the online role-playing game.) Local filmmaking duo Nathan and David Zellner (directors of the Sundance hit “Goliath”), who appeared in a lively sparring last year, returned after a to argue about whether or not robots were superior to humans.
The young man behind the viral hit “Fuck NASA” faced off against astrophysicist Andy Howell, whose faux-elitist knock (“the bar for Internet fame has been lowered”) elicited jeers from the crowd, even though they eventually determined he had the superior argument (or, rather, any argument at all; the “Fuck NASA” guy only succeeded at kickstarting a nonsensical “free energy” chant).
Then there was League, who faced a showdown with the hulking Irish bare-knuckle fighter James Quinn McDonagh, whose fury is at the center of the Irish fighting documentary “Knuckle,” which premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. League valiantly argued in favor of the duo’s announced topic: “A Texan is tougher than an Irishman.” But McDonagh didn’t even bother with a rebuttal. “I’ve lost the debate,” he said, but spoke ill of League’s willingness to hit Rodriguez last year. Then they knocked each other around for two aimless matches before everyone went home happy.
These wild, sarcastic encounters show how Fantastic Fest aims to be not only about movies, but about the personalities that surround them. League casts himself as the riotous centerpiece of the mayhem, which occasionally overshadows the movies. A volunteer driving me to the Drafthouse last week said she was interested in event planning and had become involved with the festival because of its various activities, rather than the programming selection.
However, even the chaos of Fantastic Fest is informed by that reasonably strong program, whether or not people realize it. The Debates were sponsored by the distributor of “Knuckle,” ARC Entertainment. Monaghan came to town because he stars in the post-apocalyptic movie “The Day,” which played earlier in the evening. Outside the Highball at the end of the night, I heard fragments of conversations about Fantastic Fest movies that began their festival journeys back at Cannes, including Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia.” These movies were treated as high culture on the Croisette, but at Fantastic Fest they compete for space while facing very different standards.
Other entries I’ve enjoyed so far this year include “Urban Explorer,” a rough but ultimately satisfying “Hostel” rip-off, the Danish sex romp “Clown” and a microbudget Japanese pink film called “Invasion of Alien Bikini.” The synthesis of these more niche-oriented genre experiences and their crossover brethren create the main ingredients of Fantastic Fest, but the environment holds them together. You have to be on the ground here, either taking punches or watching them get thrown, to know the nature of this unseemly beast. Nobody can debate that.
Watch: Dominic Monaghan defends “World of Warcraft”