Sunday, March 04, 2012

True/False 2012, Day Two: The Influence Machine

This is crossposted from Indiewire.

"The thing is, directors and studios don't really like each other." Graphic designer Erik Buckham ought to know. He has a ringside seat. He designs movie posters. The nature of the business means that he deals with both studio marketing departments and control freak directors, but not always in equal measure. This comment explains a lot about why American movies look the way they do and a lot about why Buckham prefers to work on small films rather than big.

If you don't know Buckham's name, you probably know his work. His most famous poster is probably the "You don't get to 500 million friends..." poster for The Social Network. True/False asked him to design their poster and graphics this year and brought him to the festival to speak about what he does. He brought a slideshow of his past work, including multiple variations that never made the cut, as well as pieces that show the evolution of the concepts that make up his final work.

The process of making the True/False graphics was the centerpiece of the talk, and it showcased the evolution of image from concept to final product. The theme of this year's True/False festival, both in its visual presentation and in the various artworks scattered around the venues, is film as an "Influence Machine," and the final result progressed from fairly abstract, illustration-y images to a steampunk Van de Graaf generator, cobbled together in the poster art as a photo collage, and in real life as a huge sculpture in the lobby of the Missouri Theater. It also features in the arresting bumper reels that play at the beginning of each film.

Friday is when True/False transforms into a kind of arts carnival. Most of the shows have opening acts of busking musicians who pass a hat around the audience. I wish there were a greater diversity of musicians and musical styles beyond the kind of 1990s-ish indie folk rock that dominates the fest, but not enough to grouse overly much. The Friday parade up at the Boone County courthouse seems like a combination of open-air rave and homecoming celebration, complete with marching band. And, as I mentioned, there's art scattered across the various venues. All of this gives True/False its flavor.

The opening scenes of Building Babel (directed by David Osit) are a study in contrasts. First, we see the huge twin spotlights that mark the site of the World Trade Center. On the soundtrack are the phone messages directed at Sharif el-Gamal, the man behind the Park 51 Islamic Community Center--popularly misidentified as the "Ground Zero Mosque". The messages are a mixture of invective and nativist bigotry. To the callers, el-Gamal is an Islamic invader. The scene then switches to el-Gamal's home life as he gets his daughters ready for school. The man we meet in this scene is an American, born and bred in Brooklyn to a Catholic mother and a Muslim father. In his demeanor and his speech, he's a New Yorker, not different in any significant way from a devout New York Jew or New York Catholic. Therein lies the thesis of the movie. It wants to paint a broader picture of what it means to be an American, a picture that includes people like el-Gamal and his family. It wants to be a rebuke to nativism.

The movie's ostensible narrative finds el-Gamal and his team fending off an attempt to get the old Burlington Coat Factory where he's set up shop as a landmark building. There's nothing particularly notable about the building except its proximity to the World Trade Center. A piece of airplane wreckage fell on it on 9/11. Making it a landmark would prevent el-Gamal from remodeling the property. At the time, the building was in a state of dereliction, so it would unintentionally freeze it as a derelict, which seems antithetical to the idea of a landmark. Al-Gamal's team (rightly) argue that being in the path of a disaster isn't enough to make it a landmark. Does the guard rail that James Dean drove through on his way to his death qualify as a landmark? Most sensible people would say no, and the landmark commission turns out to be unanimously sensible.

In some respects, the community center and the uproar around it is beside the point. The film gives it lip service--it can't avoid it--but it expends more energy painting Sharif and his family as an all-American family, just like any other American family, and it's largely successful at this. But it doesn't deal with a fundamental problem in its thesis: why does it matter? If he is otherwise law-abiding, if he is otherwise a good citizen, what does it matter if he is totally assimilated or not? This is always the problems of a minority living within a majority, and the absence of a discussion of this is an elephant standing in the room. The movie works better as a character study of el-Gamal himself. It shows him warts and all. He's obviously an affable guy. He loves his kids and his wife, Rebecca (who is almost an equal partner in the film's attentions). He's a businessman who has bitten off a project for which he's totally unprepared. Still, he's perpetually optimistic, and that makes him archetypically American.

Building Babel was preceded by "Paraiso" (directed by Nadav Kurtz), a short film about skyscraper window washers in Chicago. I liked it better than the feature. Apart from the vertiginous locations over the sides of some very tall buildings (Mission: Impossible has nothing on this), it also touches on a bittersweet sense of mortality as its workers all contemplate their own deaths should they fall from their workplace. A beautiful film.

True/False isn't strictly a documentary festival. Its mission from the outset has been to showcase films in the fuzzy shadowland between truth and fiction, so it's not out of character at all for them to screen fiction. Last year, they showed Troll Hunter, based on its mockumentary styling. This year, they have V/H/S, a new wrinkle on the "found footage" subgenre. New wrinkles are sometimes wrapped around old forms, and in spite of its lo-res, found footage conceit, this is a familiar kind of film. This is our old friend, the anthology horror movie returned to life. V/H/S is a film that Milton Subotsky would have greenlit at Amicus in a heartbeat back in 1971. It's a close cousin to films like Tales from the Crypt, The House that Dripped Blood, and Torture Garden. There are five stories and a framing sequence. Like all anthologies, it's highly variable.

The premise finds a group of sociopathic friends hired to retrieve a mysterious VHS tape from a sinister house. Our "heroes" like to film their stunts, so they take their cameras with them. In the house, they find a dead body and a plethora of videotapes containing disturbing footage. The tapes they find provide the individual stories. In one, a couple of partying dudebros pick up the wrong woman in a bar, in another, a woman brings some of her friends into the woods to act as bait for a mad slasher. My favorite finds a couple on a second honeymoon terrorized by a mysterious woman who films them while they sleep. My least favorite finds another pack of partying dude bros lured to a haunted house. Mostly, they're all of a piece.

As far as horror movie tropes go, this doesn't reinvent the wheel. We get vampires and long-haired ghost girls and a haunted house. The slasher film segment provides a droll take on the penchant of mad slashers to move around the movie via off-screen teleportation. None of this is exactly new. What IS new is the form. Mostly filmed handheld and occasionally nausea inducing, this has a veneer of raw, undoctored footage (which, of course, it isn't--there are plenty of special effects). It's not unwatchable, but it takes some getting used to. I'm less sanguine about the depiction of gender in this film. Men in this movie are all douchebag dudebros. Women are generally there to be abused. The opening of the film has some disturbing rape imagery, while date rape figures into the first story and killer lesbians figure into another. I know that character development isn't necessarily the genre's strong point, especially in short form, but this film suffers from the lack more than most.

Watching V/H/S provided a nice callback to the Erik Buckham seminar earlier in the day because Buckham claimed the covers of old horror VHS tapes as one of his prime inspirations. He designed the art for The House of the Devil, too, and one of V/H/S's directors is Ti West. The experience of watching it is like sampling a bunch of old VHS horror movies after they've degraded a bit. Visually, the lo-fi grottiness of V/H/S is in the tradition of crappy 16mm blown up to 35 or the filmed through a glaze of dirt aesthetic of, say, Basket Case or I Spit on Your Grave. It's generally better than those movies, though it should be taken with a grain of salt.

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