Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second welcomes SmallerDemon to the fold, with a mammoth look at the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival. Incidentally, this is the first time Hope Lies has covered an international festival, making this something of a landmark article for the site.
I am guessing that nearly everyone reading this has never heard of the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival. And if you learn that it’s in Birmingham, Alabama you might dismiss it as a regional curiosity on the film festival circuit that probably doesn’t screen anything worth seeing. I mean, how good could it be? It’s in a small southern city in the USA, after all, and not one know for film culture or film making. It turns out that Sidewalk is pretty damn good. I’ve been to several of them. 1999 is when the festival debuted, and I was there for that, but that same year I moved from Birmingham to San Francisco and I never made it back to Sidewalk again until 2004 and I discovered what a spectacular festival it had evolved into. I didn’t make it in 2005 (I did a European vacation and saw great films while I hit London, Paris and Vienna) but I was back in 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2011 (my daughter was born in August of 2008 so we didn’t make it back for 2008). I confess that Sidewalk is a convenience for us since we have family in Birmingham that offer us a free place to stay and free babysitting, but we struggle in San Francisco financially and paying for a babysitter is out of the question 95% of the time, so getting out to see films is few and far between (Our other exception is Harry Knowles’ Butt-Numb-A-Thon in Austin every December, if we’re lucky to make it in). But I have seen some of the best movies in my life and had some of the most memorable movie-going experiences at Sidewalk. Not every year is great (2010 was good but not great), but this year definitely was.
Sidewalk is a weekend festival that starts with an opening picture on Friday night and then has a set of venues throughout the Birmingham classic theater district (a place that my father spent many of his childhood weekends wandering between theaters to watch 50’s serials and the like). Opening night this year saw Ti West’s fantastic The Innkeepers take centre stage.
Friday, August 26th
The Innkeepers, in my mind at least, is the true follow-up to Ti West’s incredible The House of the Devil (Apparently he directed a Cabin Fever sequel at some point, but I’m pretty sure we should ignore that…). The Innkeepers is a small haunted house movie set in the realistic locale of an old New England style Inn. I have a tough time remembering character’s names and the names of places in movies where I get very emotionally involved, so I really am struggling here late at night to remember these folks. I know the name of the Inn was Yankee Peddlar Inn. I remember Kelly McGillis’s Leigh (and a hyphenated last name I forget) and the one innkeeper Luke (last name unknown), and our main protagonist innkeeper the cute, perky, nervous and very much sort of lost in life… uh, (*goes to IMDB*) Claire.
The nice thing about The Innkeepers is what you know going in: this is a haunted house movie. The basic premise is that the hotel is closing and it is the last two nights. The kids that are the innkeepers have decided to just spend the last two nights there in some of the open rooms. It’s an old hotel with many floors, but only the second floor has been kept open for the last few days of its existence. Luke and Claire take turns at front counter and since there are only three guests. Basically they are taking turns hanging around the front desk just futzing around. Luke is writing a web site in glorious late-90s design style about the hotel being haunted and he has roped Claire into wandering around recording things with a special sound recorder while he sleeps and she’s on front desk. One of the guests, Leigh, is a former actress turned psychic who is in town for a psychic convention. There are a couple of other guests, one incidental and the other a little more involved in the story.
What you have with The Innkeepers is a well paced and interestingly mixed tone horror movie that plays for a lot of laughs, two jump scares (one predictable, the other trying to be part of the plot but it doesn’t fall neatly into place), and a lot of tension when the actual ghosts begin showing up. And show up they do. It takes a while, but West leads us up to the supernatural with the tools and knowledge that the character of Claire possesses. The movie relies as much on great sound design as it does cinematography, editing and effects to build up tension and the concept of the ghosts. That made it all the more scary and enjoyable for me personally since I feel sound design in film can be woefully ignored or underutilized. Claire’s experience is largely your experience in the movie, and it’s not until later you realize that the movie is almost entirely from her point of view. It reminds me a bit of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World in how it very much relies on coming from one person’s POV without necessarily telling the audience about it up front. The story naturally leads you into this and Sara Paxton who plays Claire makes you like her and also shake your head at her sometimes awful decisions. The script does rely on a few old die-hard scary movie tropes that when they happen you’re left to yell at the character a bit, but on the whole these are forgivable given the rest of the wonderful tone, pace and storytelling.
The Innkeepers is a fascinating directing follow-up to The House of the Devil. It is a small movie and it feels like it, but it never feels cheap or low-rent. In no way does it drip with the effects and feeling of a studio movie, though. It sits squarely in the indie horror world and sits very comfortably there. I will be surprised if The Innkeepers doesn’t open up West to more projects. Everything is far past competent filmmaker and more into talented writer/director/editor range. It’s almost as if when you’re watching The Innkeepers you feel like you’re watching a movie from a great director’s past in which you see all his potential on the precipice of exploding.
The movie is an enjoyable modern ghost story with likable characters played by talented actors that effectively builds up tension and releases it, albeit brutally. Events get darker with each passing minute and you hope for the best and expect the worst, and one of those expectations is met at the and. There’s little ambiguity about the final outcome for the characters, although there is certainly a tiny question of the nature of the reality of events preceding the outcome.
If you’re a fan of the horror movie genre, you’ll might be disappointed. It’s not really a traditional horror movie as much as it is ghost/haunted-house movie, but if you enjoy solid storytelling and you’re willing to see the movie as not only a fun (and very scary) ghost story but as a beacon of Ti West’s future potential, I think you’ll enjoy The Innkeepers.
Saturday, August 27th
We started early the next morning at a 10:30 AM showing of children-oriented short films that we took our three year old daughter to see. UK readers will have already seen the main feature since it originated in the UK as a 2006 holiday special, The Gruffalo. There were many other shorts, but the real purpose of going to see them with my daughter is to introduce her to movie-going as a family. We almost went to see the latest Winnie The Pooh movie but circumstances never aligned themselves for it to happen. We did attend the 2010 shorts last year as our first movie outing with her, and they gave us passes last year for her to wear, and we now have that framed and hanging in her room. Movies are important to us, and more importantly for us is the social aspects of going out to see movies in a theater with other people.
After the kids shorts the group I was with largely split up to see different things. My choice was a documentary called Unlikely Treasures. It’s a short documentary that follows a few avid collectors of things. What they collect varies wildly, and overall what they collect isn’t as important as the fact that they collect at all. The movie wisely focuses on collecting not as a hoarding problem but instead as a quaint cultural and societal phenomenon. It also makes a good choice in focuses on mostly younger to middle age collectors and not simply on older folks collecting antiques. Collectors in New York City from the Brooklyn Burroughs are featured as are a young couple in Greensboro, North Carolina all taking the ideas of collecting and having collections of stuff in unexpected directions. The New Yorkers from Brooklyn find a way to create a community space for neighborhood people to publicly display their collections, and the couple in Greensboro takes a grandmother’s old fabric store and junk collection and turns it over to artist many times a year to let them choose anything they want to create art installations inside the grandmother’s former store space. Another collector of Quebecian country music vinyl albums from the 60s and 70s is followed and he takes his collection and creates projects with radio stations and dance companies. An older pair of collectors are followed as well, but even those collectors work as museum curators and they create art with their collections. Another woman has made her house simply into a great collection of odd things, but all of which are beautiful and she too finds ways to take her collected items and make art of them. Collecting is only one of the commonalities between them all, though. The other is a the ability to be highly organised. The movie never dwells on the negativity of collecting, and they focus on collectors that all are very positive and realistic in their views of their collecting habits. This creates an almost entirely positive light for these collectors since they outwardly understand and state that their collections are indeed possible problems at all times and they must pay close attention to their habits. The fact that it portrays them in a positive light and that they are healthy collectors and not unhealthy hoarders makes Unlikely Treasures succeed and lets you walk away not feeling like humanity needs quite as much help as you might think.
Next up for me was the documentary Dragonslayer. Nothing to do with the beloved 80s fantasy film, but instead we have a documentary that follows a semi-talented skateboarder as he makes efforts to turn his skating into a living in order to support his child and have some direction in his life but whose worst enemy is himself and his own habits of alcohol, pot and returning to the skatepark of his youth and never escaping the vicious circle. This is not an uplifting film by any means, but it escapes being all out tragedy at the end, but only marginally. Skeech, the skateboarder the filmmakers are following, is simply to unfocused and to oblivious to step his skateboarding up to the professional level. He has a young child (as in only a few months old) and he has already broken up with the mother, but he does make some efforts at being around for his kid. He hooks up with a girl still in high school who has plans for her life, but she slowly becomes more ensconced into Skeech’s world but always straddles the line between her plans and Skeech. In the end Skeech’s child becomes his main focus in getting his life slightly more together, but his skateboarding career never materializes primarily due to his inability to not live to excess when he is involved in the skateboarding culture. Dragonslayer is peppered with great punk music, broken into 10 unique chapters and is a great documentary that tracks the difficulty of being poor, under-educated and trying to escape those things with talent that doesn’t transcend one’s own vices.
I moved on to a shorts block next, and Sidewalk has always been able to focus attention on short films that escape attention and recognition since there really is no outlet for short films in the US besides festivals. There were four stand out shorts in the block: Beta to the Max, All Flowers in Time, Pillow and Bathing and the Single Girl.
Beta to the Max is set in 1982 and is a fictional battle between a Beta-max salesman who is on top of his game and lauding the 60 minute format and the new technology from Japan, VHS. It’s hilarious from start to finish and they get the 80’s dead on. The acting is great and and graphic design and video design are perfect early 80’s.
All Flowers in Time briefly features Chloe Sevingy. It’s impossible to describe as it’s basically a sort of mix between surrealism and horror and experimental film making. There are some creepy moments in it that turn to humor pretty quick and the reverse of that. It is enjoyable from the perspective of it being something you probably never have seen before.
Pillow is outstanding. It’s a Southern Gothic about two brothers whose elderly mother lives upstairs in their old farm home as they try to please her. She wants a pillow and they go to get a new one, but the store is out and on the way home in a thunderstorm feathers fall from the sky, so they bait a hook on a kite and go fishing for the type of thing that has feathers and lives in the clouds. They are not nice to their catch, and let’s just say things end poorly. However, it is never too dark, even at the end when it ends about as dark as you can go, and the cinematography (shot on Red cameras) is stunning as is the music.
Bathing and the Single Girl is a hilarious stand-up monologue act that’s cut together as a monologue with switching locations and chronicles a late-30s early-40s attractive woman’s efforts to make a trip to Cougartown. Disappointment for her, hilarity for us.
The film makers for all but All Flowers in Time were there, and we did Q&A with them. That’s how I found out they shot Pillow on Red. It was great talking to them all and they all had genuine passion for their projects.
Around this time we headed over to one of the only actual on-location restaurants, the ever-reliable Lyric Hot Dog Grill. It’s classic diner hot dogs, burgers and fries and they specialize their hot dogs with sauce, onions and a host of other great stuff that’s terrible for you. I had a classic hot dog and a corn dog. Mmmm… corn dogs. Seriously bad for you, seriously good for keeping you going through the next film.
7ish on Saturday night was a choice for me between a Tokyo Gore film called Helldriver and the Austrian thriller The Robber. I was all set for Helldriver until I saw the trailer for The Robber. I finally decided that since I went to see Mutant Girl Squad last year that I would try for something different and I went over and saw The Robber in the Alabama Theater.
Glory be! A 35mm print! Probably the ONLY one I saw this year, which was sad. It was glorious because it was well lit and bright and crisp and wonderful. They have a little bit of an aperture issue at the Alabama Theater, but nothing I could complain about given the fact that the Blu-ray projection of The Innkeepers was almost unwatchable because it was so dark.
The Robber is a stunning piece of work. It is an adaptation of a book based on the real life story of a marathon runner and bank robber in Vienna, Austria named Johann Rettenberger. He begins running in prison, which is where he is for six years due to attempted bank robbery. Ultimately he become so good at it that he enters the Vienna marathon and sets the record for native Austrians marathon times. However, the marathon accompanies his almost immediate return to bank robbing as soon as he is released. Johann is addicted to the high of the robberies and running seems to be the only way when he isn’t robbing a bank to keep his adrenaline level high enough. He wears heart rate monitors and he checks it with his computer, and we get to see at least one instance in which he uploads the data after a bank robbery and it shows increasingly high level and a giant peak and then a slow downward arch (note that after he dumps his stolen cars from his robbery he runs back to his home). Johann is not a nice guy, really. That the film makers are able to get us on board with having even the tiniest sympathy for him is its own achievement. They succeed, and it pays off later when we finally are able to step across the line to having no sympathy for him at all because you feel betrayed by him.
The Robber makes use of Vienna and the surrounding areas of the city as beautiful locations that lend themselves to the great cinematography. But the most important part of the movie in establishing a feeling of constant motion and constant pursuit is the sound design. Every footstep in the movie is heard and they use sound design to establish a level of constant motion that I can only compare to Run Lola Run. Another movie that came to mind the next day that The Robber reminded me of was There Will Be Blood. Both movies follow quiet, single-minded pursuit individuals and you are never let into their minds but only shown their behaviours. Both characters are personally impacted by unexpected affection for someone in their lives, and both characters ultimately let their pursuits destroy them and their relationships. There Will Be Blood and The Robber would make a fantastic double feature in that order since There Will Be Blood is a slow burn throughout and The Robber is slowly paced, but paced in a way that makes you feel the running so you feel a sense of urgency throughout but you also know from the events on the screen and the storytelling throughout that the urgency is false. It is nothing more than his pursuit for an addiction. Johann is only patient in his pursuit when he is in jail, and as soon as he is freed he pursues his addiction to its end. If you see The Robber it will stick with you for quite a while after the initial viewing. It’s a contemplative post-viewing experience that keeps you wondering what Johann Rettenberger’s addiction must have felt like to him and wondering just how it could overwhelm him to the point which is does. The acting is fantastic, and the dialouge is very minimal throughout with a great deal of the story being told by simply showing us Johann’s actions and behaviours. This is such a great piece of storytelling I hope it is able to get a wide audience beyond Austria. It deserves it.
After The Robber we went to one “short” film that was about 75 minutes. It’s a comedy of sort called The Catechism Cataclysm. It isn’t bad, but it is not particularly good either. The first 25 to 30 minutes of the movie could be lost entirely as it is all used to establish the stupidity and unlikable nature of the main character. It follows a scatterbrained border-line special needs adult who has become a priest. A lousy priest. He is unfocused and scatterbrained and wildly inappropriate to his parishioners and his bishops. He is taking a break to go on a canoe trip with a guy he was obsessed with as a kid, an old boyfriend of his sister. It’s a road trip turned bizarre horror film via two strange Japanese girls with too much money and a bent toward murderous DJing (yes, that’s what I said, and I’ll let that sink in and I’m going to let it stand on its own merit as a statement because there’s simply no other way to describe what happens). The canoe trip goes ok at first until they get lost and the sister’s ex finally burst out in anger to the priest that he doesn’t even remember who he is and the only reason he came along was because of the relentless barrage of emails the priest sent to the guy. In some ways it’s a funny flick, and if you can tolerate extremely unlikable ignorant characters as the comedic focal point of a film you might like it. The second half certainly goes into weird territory and is much funnier than the first half of unnecessary character establishment. We simply didn’t need to know that much about these guys to know one is a fat-headed idiot and the other a sort of washed out human being. However, it was all worth it for a bluegrass spiritual at the end called Hand of the Almighty with the chorus being “He’ll Fuck You Up” in which they sing about God in the old days and how he fucked people up if they did things he didn’t like.
Thus ends Saturday. It was a great day of movies and day of very unhealthy food in the form of one slice of cheese pizza, one lemonade Italian ice, one hot dog, one corn dog and one IPA. Then back to the family house to get some sleep and start the next day of film going!
Sunday, August 28th
Although movies started at 10:30 AM, we opted out of any early morning first showing to hang out with family and friends who were all heading back that day. It was just my wife and myself for the day, and we started off heading to different venues for different movies. She was off to see the documentary The Reconstruction of Asa Carter and I was headed off to see Live At Preservation Hall: Louisiana Fairytale.
Live at Preservation Hall: Louisiana Fairytale is a mixed style of documentary and concert film. If you love music of any type then this is a must see do not miss film for you. It goes beyond documentary and concert film in many ways but I can’t tell you for the life of me exactly how that happens. It simply does. The movie focuses on the current owner of the Preservation Hall Jazz Club in New Orleans, Louisiana. He is the son of the original founders of the club, a white middle-class military couple from New England that loved Dixieland Jazz so much they went to visit New Orleans and never left and ultimately became one of the most important proponents and preservationist of Dixieland Jazz and many of its original artist. Great local Dixieland musicians founded the first Preservation Hall Jazz Band in the 60’s and the tradition has continued with the current owner Ben Jaffe, son of the original founders. Ben plays sousaphone (often called the tuba in the US, but basically it’s the large brass instrument you wear over your shoulder with a bell about 2 feet wide) and is a band member with the current Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The movie does three things: (1)Establishes the history and importance of both Preservation Hall and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, (2) gives you close up view of a few of the band members and how talented and passionate they are and (3) presents a performance collaboration with the band My Morning Jacket. We get to see to see the two bands working together on pieces they are going to perform in the club and we get to see several full pieces performed in full by both band separately and at least two of their collaborative efforts with the last one and the finale of the movie culminating in the band picking up and marching out into the night streets of New Orleans down Bourbon Street playing music and spreading the beat and the music like a spiritual virus to the people on the street and balconies of Bourbon Street.
Live at Preservation Hall: Louisiana Fairytale was by far my favorite movie on the Sunday schedule and by far my favorite documentary. The energy it infuses you with is amazing and the connection you have with the bands and the music feels genuine and special. I am not sure what equipment they shot this with but it looked fantastic throughout, especially given the crazy small environment of both the club and the office they practice in. The setting is cramped and cozy and that is conveyed throughout every performance.The times in the club with Ben Jaffe alone talking about his connection to the club and family feel special and not sterile. He’s a man who loves music, loves being a musician and loves New Orleans and the traditions that make it a special place in the world. The projection in the historic Carver Theater for this was spectacular as was the sound. I know it was digital, but not sure if it was tape of Blu-ray. Either way, The Carver did the movie a great justice especially given that the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame resides in the Carver Theater.
I moved on to a set of shorts noted in the program simply as Local/National Shorts. Technically they were local international shorts, unless they use national to specify the film makers and not the story origin. Either way, there was some interesting shorts in the line up including The Dancer, The Desired Effect and Satan Since 2003. There were others, but about two thirds the way through I was starving and had to make my way to the iCantina taco truck in the Sidewalk Central for lunch (mmmmm… Fish tacos and veggie taco) and also locally brewed IPA from Good People Brewing.
The Dancer is a rather intense 11 minutes short that is like a summary of an 11 year old orphan boy in an Indian orphanage. Although certainly sad in many ways, it also was positive and forward looking from his perspective. He had to grow up fast, but he’s still a kid.
The Desired Effect was a short about practical effects and how many of the practical effects artist from the 70s and 80s view CGI and how they incorporate it. They certainly are not against CGI, but you can tell where their affections are centered even now.
Satan Since 2003 was the best of the block. It follows a moped gang in Richmond, Virgina (Uh… what?) called, and I am not making this up, Hell’s Satans (yes, the same name from The Simpson’s episode when homer joins a bike gang). The craziness of the premise in no ways prepares you for the fact that this is a GREAT little documentary that easily could have been stretched into feature length. It follows the leader of Hell’s Satans around and shows the collection of rival moped gangs in Richmond battling it out for territory as gangs often do. It turns out that moped gangs are basically motorcycle gangs with 2 cylinder, 2 stroke engines that they don’t need licenses or insurance to own and operate, making them almost the perfect transportation for people who aren’t interested in being involved in regular society. The story culminates in one of Hell’s Satans members getting hit by a car on filmand it’s brutal. He doesn’t die, but he’s got a broken femur and broken pelvis and probably a broken back. The film ends with the gang’s leader basically about to drop a firebomb on the rival gang responsible for the attack and the film maker being very verbal about how he could get in serious trouble for filming a criminal attack. The End. Boom. The entire thing is available on Vimeo.
I ditched the last four shorts for food and met up with my wife for a viewing of what is the staple of all indie film festivals: the quirky indie comedy. Small Pond played in the Alabama Power corporate headquarters presentation hall (a venue they’ve been using for a long time) which has a decent digital project from Christie with appropriate bulb brightness. The seating on the other hand has always been a bit of an issues at this venue because it’s designed for corporate presentations and the like and even though it’s a big room it has terrible, stiff seats that make for a lot of constant shifting around to get comfortable. Nevertheless, I am incredibly glad Small Pond played in this venue because the cinematography for a small quirky indie comedy was outstanding. I found out later he shot on Red cameras and friends of his run a Red camera based production house and they did the post-production on the film. It was remarkable and it shows how the world of indie film is about to undergo a major transformation through the availability of low-cost, high quality equipment.
Small Pond as a quirky indie comedy mostly exceeds expectations. The story follows Kirsten, a girl stuck in her college town with a pile of credit card debt and a dead end service job at the town’s most popular pizza parlor and social hang out. She’s stuck in every part of her life and the friends she’s made in college, of which there are many, are all starting to move on in life and she is increasing acerbic to them due to her recognition of their progress and her resent of it. She feels alienated by them and in turn she begins alienating them. The only one she isn’t alienated by is a friend from childhood she meets who has moved to the town, Lynn. But Kirsten is so wound up in herself and her spiraling out of control that she treats Lynn pretty badly when Lynn ask if friends of her can use Kirsten’s backyard to throw up their tent and simply walks away when they ask her where a good public campground is located. Kirsten is basically burning through nearly all of her good will with her friends, and she turns down a promotion job offer with insurance from the pizza place she works at. Things just get increasingly frustrating for her and her friends and she bottoms out one night after running away from a going away gathering for a co-worker who is moving on with his life. She tries to get the promotion back at the party, but her roommate has already taken the job in order to buy the house they live in (and probably kick Kirsten out). She runs off to another bar, has $1 leftover from Halloween pumpkin ale and steals a pack of nitrous cartridges from some girls out on the town for a bachelor party. The scenes that follow of her and Lynn ending up at some drunker stoner friends’ apartment lead to what I can only describe as the “bottoming out scene involving nitrous”. My wife was expecting exactly what happened, and I was not. The scene is absolutely shocking, though, to the point that someone in the audience passed out. Kirsten does not die or become a vegetable from brain damage, but she is physically injured in such a way that it leaves her permanently scarred and deeply regretting her lack of insurance. Lynn takes care of her a bit, but Kirsten has a hell of a moment trying to go back to work with a very obvious injury and she simply quits. She spends a lot of time pondering and thinking back on some things in her life and ultimately she takes her first small step toward getting her life together.
Small Pond is a damn fine quirky indie comedy and as I said before it looks great. Hari Leigh who plays Kirsten is fantastic, and she pulls off alienated/alienating realistically. She also pulls off the bottoming out scene with great realism. Small Pond isn’t perfect. It has some sketchy acting here and there and you can tell that some scenes were probably the earliest ones filmed because of how they are lit a little more obvious, but luckily none of that dominates the movie. There are occasional narrative diversions that probably were meaningful at some point that felt a bit out of place, but again, nothing that makes one want to throw out the whole movie since the parts that do work are outstanding.
The director of Small Pond, Josh Slates, attended, and he answered my question about how they shot it. He also discusses the bottoming out scene and said many people have walked out after the scene before but that it was the first honest to god fainting. The fainter came back to finish the movie. I would easily recommend Small Pond for fans of the indie comedy in the vein of Slackers or even Clerks. In many ways those films were clearly inspirations for this film, but this film outdoes them in some remarkable ways. This is the kind of film that IFC should be snatching up for broadcast and VOD and giving the director some exposure and opportunity.
Our final movie of the day and of the festival was called Prairie Love by Alabama film maker Dusty Bias. It’s noted in IMDB as a comedy, and while there are some funny things in it that might be considered very dark comedy, on the whole it’s a comedy/drama/love story mixed genre flick. I’m not sure what got into Dusty Bias to head north for making a film set entirely in the plains of North Dakota in the dead of winter, but that’s exactly what he did. The movie is set on the country backroads of North Dakota during the winter and follows a character only listed as “Vagrant” in the credits who drives a beater station wage with a trailer through the frozen backroads listening to second-hand self-improvement tapes (“Take a deep breath and tell yourself ‘I am a beautiful woman.’”) and picking up dead deer to sell to anyone that he can get to buy them. His car is a hodge-podge of space heaters and flat tires and his trailer is necessary because it houses his gasoline and his tools for repairing his car if it breaks down. This is particularly important if you don’t want to freeze to death. While out on a wandering he finds a man in the middle road with a suitcase half-frozen to death. He drags him into his station wagon and proceeds to rifle through his suitcase. He finds a box full of letters from a prisoner in a women’s prison who the gentleman has been corresponding with and learns that the gentleman was on his way to pick up the woman prisoner on her release day. The gentleman wakes up and much oddness ensues in which we find out the half-frozen man is named Nathanial and goes by NoDak with the prisoner. The Vagrant hatches a plan to go and meet the woman himself and at first he tries in his own way to persuade NoDak to let him do that, but in the end NoDak tries to knock out the Vagrant and then runs off in the frozen night. That ends as expected. Vagrant retrieves NoDak again, but he doesn’t make it this time. Vagrant abandons his trailer and ends up picking up the prisoner and it goes as awkwardly as you could possibly imagine since Vagrant has the social graces of an autistic sociopath and the prisoner’s expectations are being shattered with every thing he says. His first big move is to rent a hotel room so that they can have sex and she is more than a little put off by this. It doesn’t happen in the hotel, but later on there is a strange sex scene as they break into a house that some North Dakotan has left for the winter and they dress up in their clothes and shoot their guns. The gun shooting does not result in the obvious, but instead results in Vagrant getting a ricochet bullet to the head. They leave the place and drive on and Vagrant either forgets of doesn’t care what he is doing and drives right to NoDak’s truck, which is where he has taken NoDak’s frozen body to in order to make it look like NoDak simply died in his broken down truck to begin with. The cops are there and the cop let’s the prisoner know the name of the guy and things go crazily downhill from there with Vagrant and prisoner. As expected, the car breaks down and prisoner forces Vagrant to start walking and… well, the movie ends and we end up with the explanation for the title.
Prairie Love is a strange movie. It in no way is a straight up comedy. It is reminiscent of David Lynch in some ways, but in no way is it at the same caliber of a Lynch film. If you like strange movies, though, you’ll like it well enough. I enjoyed the experience of watching it for the most part and the acting is outstanding, but the story itself sort of meanders in all sorts of weird ways that seems misdirected of misguided or written just to be odd without even being within context of the oddness of the movie overall. It at least wasn’t a soul crushing depressing documentary and there was enough humor in it and it lacked anything harrowing that might make me go home and dwell on it being unnecessarily gory. I am glad I was able to see it, though, since I’m not expecting it to show up anywhere else. I think it is simply too odd to be picked up for distribution, but I congratulate the film makers for getting it done. Dusty Bias definitely has the directing talent to start moving forward with a career in film making as long as he’s open to collaboration and trying out more traditional narratives. Bravo to him for trying something new, though.
My only criticism of the movie at all was that the filmmaker was there with friends and family that felt it was OK to be a little drunk and talk aloud quite a bit during the movie. I could hear them trying to reign it in, but alcohol and the feeling that you’re special because you are there with the film maker and can do whatever you want ended up with me having to ask the venue manager to go talk to them to ask them to shut up. They did for the most part, but they still had trouble restraining themselves every now and then. I am not sure what the format was for projection either. Prairie Love was in The Carver theater which had fantastic projection earlier in the day for Live At Preservation Hall. Prairie Love, though, was underlit and the pixels on the screen were a little more than obvious.
The 13th Annual Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival was a grand improvement in nearly every area of organization and programming this year over last year. I lament the loss of 35mm and 16mm prints. I even feel that DVD projections in previous years were better than the majority of the Blu-ray projections this year. In particular the Alabama Theater’s widescreen Blu-ray projection was simply unacceptable. It was fine for fullscreen, but the widescreen was not only underlit but it was dark in each of the lower corners of the screen. Once The Robber showed up in 35mm and you could see how great it looked you could very much appreciate the terrible set up they are using for their Blu-ray presentations. It’s a minor quibble on one hand, but when you consider they showed Ti West’s The Innkeepers in Blu-Ray widescreen as their opening night film you wonder exactly how they let that projection stand as representing the festival. I’m still flummoxed by it and I complained to the venue manager, but I never did see any changes in this issue. On the upside, The Carver and the Alabama Power venues were great when they had the right media formats to project from. Sidewalk Central, the blocked off block between venues with music and food, was a major improvement. They were organized this year and everything started on time and tickets were easy to get. There were a lot of volunteers and they were all nice and all helpful and friendly. It’s easily an A rating for the festival as a whole with the + missing due to the projection issues.
Sidewalk is a bit of a remarkable wonder for a southern city like Birmingham with no film making roots and whose primary association for the rest of the world and the rest of the country is the unrest of the civil rights struggle in the 60s. Alabama is without a doubt a very politically conservative state overall, but Sidewalk and Birmingham and the people involved in the festival give me hope that Alabama is on a progressive path one little step at a time.
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