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Critical Consensus: Ben Kenigsberg and Matt Singer Discuss SXSW 2012

Critical Consensus: Ben Kenigsberg and Matt Singer Discuss SXSW 2012

Editor’s note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which two critics from Indiewire’s Criticwire network discuss new releases with Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn. Here, Time Out Chicago film editor Ben Kenigsberg and Criticwire blogger Matt Singer discuss this year’s SXSW Film Festival, which continues through the weekend.

Ben, since this was your first year attending the festival, how did the experience compare with everything you’ve heard about the festival over the years?

It didn’t really change my perception of the kinds of films that I associated with SXSW. Certainly, experiencing any festival is different from watching it from afar. I think I have a much better feel for how the fest works logistically and what kinds of crowds show up for certain films and what the atmosphere is like. In terms of the kinds of films that show here, I guess I mostly associated it with the Movement That Shall Not Be Named that begins with “m” and ends with “core.” I saw some of the filmmakers associated with that movement here.

We can name names. This isn’t HUAC.

Well, I’m kidding, but I thought Amy Seimetz’s “Sun Don’t Shine” was something I had never seen from that crowd before. I thought it was structurally very interesting and the way that the plot was doled out over the course of the film was actually very sophisticated. It takes as an organizing principle the notion that it has no exposition. It’s just this relationship you come into in medias res and gradually find out this big elephant in the room that’s troubling it. Describing the plot to that film that makes it sound completely cryptic.

This leads us to another pertinent issue at this year’s festival: Spoilers. Matt, since you’re a huge fan of the SXSW opener “The Cabin in the Woods,” you would be a good person to address this. Both that movie and narrative competition entry “Starlet” contain major plot details that are considered surprises. At the “Cabin” premiere, Joss Whedon made a point of asking the audience not to talk about the details of the plot. How important is it to respect that kind of wish, especially as a critic where part of your job is telling people about the movies you see?

That’s a tough one. It’s such a rabbit hole: Yeah, you want to tell people about the film and talk about it, but you’re hamstrung by the desire to keep things relatively spoiler-free. To a certain degree, I can respect that. I don’t want to go into a movie knowing everything that’s going to happen, either. On the other hand, I think a lot of the things that are interesting about “Cabin in the Woods” can’t be spoiled by explaining it. It’s not like the film starts from moment one and continues for 45 minutes as one movie and then suddenly changes into something else. It’s pretty clear from the beginning that this movie is going to take us on a surprising ride. It’s not like it’s completely straight as a teenagers-in-the-woods movie and then it shifts. From the very first scene, there’s something going on.

Without being able to talk about what those things are, you can’t talk about what I think is so interesting about the movie — its commentary on the horror film genre. And maybe that’s a spoiler! But here’s the thing: Did I just spoil it or make you more interested in seeing it because I’ve just revealed that it’s a really smart movie that has interesting things to say? It’s not just scary; it’s scary and smart. Maybe somebody who would have decided that it looks like a boring teenagers-in-the-woods story might decide to check it out now.

Ben, since you saw “Starlet,” do you think a similar logic applies here? In that movie, it’s technically a spoiler to discuss the main character’s profession, although it plays a key role in the plot.

I don’t think that particular detail has such huge bearing on the overall arc of the film. Apart from that detail, it’s a pretty ordinary movie. I seem to be less bullish on it than most people, but I thought it was the sort of “mutual lessons learned bonding movie” that — I sound like a jerk if I say this — I was eager to avoid based on the festival summary.

MS: You sound like Dennis Green. “It was what you thought it was.”

BK: I think it has that one shocking detail, but even that I sort of knew going into it, because there had already been mentions of it on Twitter. Then again, I didn’t like the film, so I don’t know if that would have mattered. And now we’re getting into abstractions.

MS: I haven’t seen the movie, so I have no idea what you guys are talking about.

It’s basically about a dog.

MS: That sounds good.

Ben, you mentioned Twitter as one major place for figuring out the quality of movies at this festival. The plugged-in nature of the environment is definitely a significant aspect, but there are others: A lot of audiences drink during the screenings and in general they’re very energetic in a way that can impact the way you experience a movie. Is there a danger for critics at this festival, since so many things can affect the filmgoing experience? And can it have a negative impact on the movies as well?

BK: I think that’s the case with any festival. By and large, I think the atmosphere at SXSW has been friendlier to more films in general, as you wrote. Almost all of the films that play this come in as a relative unknowns, so there’s a lot of comparing notes and trying to figure out who likes what. More often than not, I’ve found that when I ask someone how a film was, I would get a recommendation: “Oh, you should see that.” I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case at Cannes or Toronto. Groupthink exists. One of the examples from 2011 at Cannes was the movie now known as “The House of Pleasures,” which was carpet-bombed there and went on to be fairly well received in limited release.

MS: It’s true that once a movie gets a reputation, and it can just be through tweets, it’s hard to counteract that. Even if 100 people in the theater liked it and one person didn’t, and that person has the most followers on Twitter, the general perception could be that the film was a flop. And maybe in the room it wasn’t.

It’s almost like the festival version of the anathema leading up to the release of “John Carter” that you wrote about a little while back.

MS: Yeah. I do agree, though, that the audience at SXSW is pretty welcoming. In previous years, I’ve been in a few situations where I felt like the audience was misinterpreting a film, when they thought it was playing funnier or broader but it was actually a little more complicated.

For example?

MS: I saw “Observe and Report” at the Paramount. That’s a film I like, but it’s a really dark film that played really broad there. They thought it was hilarious. It’s funny, but there are some really disturbing, dark notes that I don’t think played very well in that crowd. They were so ready to laugh that they just sort of went with that. I do think in general that people are very accepting, interesting and excited here — which is refreshing compared to other festivals, where a lot of times you feel like people are showing up ready to hate it.

BK: There will be a festival reception at SXSW, there will be another reception when a film is released somewhere else and history may rewrite itself yet again. So I would say the main difficulty for filmmakers is getting that positive reaction out of the gate so that their films get picked up. But the festival is never the ultimate judgement on any film.

MS: Yesterday I saw “Fat Kid Rules the World” at its third screening. This was at the Alamo Ritz downtown. It couldn’t have played any better. I enjoyed it along with the crowd. But my impression is that the overall response hasn’t been that positive. It’s been mixed to positive, but at this screening it was overwhelmingly positive. If it had been eligible for the audience prize at that screening, it definitely would have won because everyone would have given it the highest possible score. And I learned that this is an audience award contender, but they only give out the ballots at the first screening. So that’s interesting because it means that first screening really does mean a lot. An audience award from SXSW can be a big feather in a film’s cap. So if your first screening goes OK, but your third screening is amazing, it’s like it never happened.

BK: I haven’t verified this, but the director of “King Kelly” said that they forgot to hand out ballots at the first screening of that film.

MS: And what if there’s a technical problem at the first screening? What if the weather was so bad you had to wait two hours in the rain for a movie? I talk to some people who did that this year. What if that made you grumpy? Who’s going to enjoy a movie after two hours in the rain? It better be good. All those sorts of things that color that all-important first screening.

Just to wrap this up: Name your favorite movie here that you’d like to see have a life beyond the festival. Let’s take big stuff like “Cabin in the Woods” off the table.

MS: There are a couple at this point I’ve really enjoyed. I just saw “Tchoupitoulas,” the new movie from the Ross brothers, which I really loved. I think those guys are really talented and doing really interesting things. Their first movie, “45365,” didn’t have the life it deserved because of legal reasons, I think. They couldn’t license the music, so it never got a release. I don’t think there would be similar problems with this one. I hope people see both of them. They’re really talented guys and they should keep making movies.

I also really liked “King Kelly” as well as “Fat Kid Rules the World,” which is really charming and could be a real crowdpleaser when that gets out there.

BS: I think my favorite films of those that showed here is “Killer Joe,” which showed at Toronto, but that obviously doesn’t need a push relative to other films here. Among the stuff that surfaced here, I’m going to go with “King Kelly” at least for the moment. It should be noted that we’re saying this only a few days into the festival.

Let’s talk for a second about “King Kelly,” because the three of us really liked it but others had the opposite response.

MS: I’m not surprised, really.

BK: Well, it’s glib and confrontational. I was definitely rolling my eyes for the first 20 minutes at this portrait of teen life, which is so exaggerated that the movie essentially forces its arguments since what you see doesn’t exist in the real world. But as the film builds, I really appreciate the fact that it swings for the fences. It’s shot entirely with iPhones and Canon Elphs. Stylistically, it’s really impressive. This gets into spoiler territory again, but there’s something that happens and I’ll be vague about it. There’s a very interesting way in which it shifts the focus from being a film about narcissistic teens to being a film about police work.

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