As a documentarian, Nick Broomfield is a high-minded bottom feeder with an insatiable curiosity about other bottom feeders. And as any seafood lover knows, bottom feeders are pretty tasty. You won’t catch this BBC newshound wasting his time on something that isn’t sensational, and his movie titles scream for exclamation points: Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer! Heidi Fleiss, Hollywood Madam! But Broomfield has staked out his own unique beat on the crummiest fringes of fame. He starts at about three degrees of separation from his subject, and like a termite tunneling through the rings of a rotten tree, he gnaws through layer after layer of duplicitous hangers-on.
Kurt & Courtney, Broomfield’s new film, fails miserably as in-depth reporting, but it works as a creepy meditation on access and the role that the media play in doling out credibility and celebrity. Turning away from criminals and deviatesat least at the outsetBroomfield chooses to chronicle the stormy relationship of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. He never tells us why, or what he hopes to find; he evinces no interest at all in their music beyond using it on the soundtrack. Instead, he journeys to the Pacific Northwest and begins interviewing anyone with a tenuous connection to the late Nirvana frontmanhis down-to-earth Aunt Mary, his former friends, who watched him grow more remote and isolated.
After a hair-raising interview with Hank Harrison, Love’s father, a jowly opportunist who all but accuses his daughter of killing her husband, Broomfield decides to see how crazy the possibility is. At this point, his financial backers start to feel pressure from MTV and other “concerned parties” to drop the project. Broomfield learns that Love controls Nirvana’s music and won’t let him use it; in its place, he’s forced to use the wanky noodling of Cobain’s best friend’s band. In absentia, Cobain becomes a spectral, contradictory presence, a courteous near-saint who’s nonetheless capable of threatening a contract hit on a reporter.
The more channels of access Love closes, the more Broomfield is forced to find bizarre alternativesstalkerazzi, Love’s embittered glam-rocker ex-boyfriend, even The Mentors’ notorious frontman El Duce, a burly lunatic with Ping-Pong ball eyes who claims point-blank that Courtney offered him $50,000 to whack Mr. Nevermind. (Luckily for the sake of conspiracy cred, El Duce was fatally smushed by a train a week after the interview.) The movie reaches a peak of bizarro-world irony at an ACLU fundraiser, where the infamous reporter-threatener Love is the guest of honorand Broomfield gets bounced for defending his freedom of speech.
The portrait of Love that emergeswhich feeds into Broomfield’s own obsessions with received celebrity and second-hand fameis of a kinderwhore Eve Harrington, a remora who leeched off the fame of a larger host. But how much better is the director, who got his funding on the strength of Love’s notoriety, and who then turns his camera over to these crackpots out of necessity? Not a whole lot, which makes Broomfield’s work both fascinating and repellent. Broomfield strips celebrity, and reporting, down to naked transactions of access and money.
Unfortunately, after a while, he has nothing to offer but his lack of entry to Courtney Love. Insights into Kurt and Courtney’s relationship are few and far between, and he brushes their talent aside so dismissively that you wonder why he even bothered to take the assignment. The movie is worth seeing for its bursts of rancorous humor and its window onto a fetid ecosystem of celebrity saprophytes. Beyond that, Kurt & Courtney smells like something much more dubious than teen spirit.
Best of the Fest
What’s in a venue? Plenty, as it turns out. Moving the 29th annual Nashville Independent Film Festival from the gated seclusion of Vanderbilt to Hillsboro Village made a huge difference in the appeal and accessibility of the eventnot to mention the box office. Last week, from Wednesday through Sunday, the festival drew more than 2,500 viewers to the Watkins Belcourtan increase of 43 percent over last fall’s attendance. At least three shows were bona fide sell-outs: the Best of Tennessee Wednesday night, the animation fest Thursday, and Friday’s Gay & Lesbian Mini-Fest.
The difference wasn’t just the location. The NIFF’s new executive director, Michael Catalano, and his exhausted staff (including Kelly Coplin-Brownlee and David Buchert) worked 20-hour days to promote and organize the festival, and it showed. For one thing, the audience expanded beyond the local film community and Belle Meade dilettantes. Busloads of inner-city kids attended the morning screenings of children’s moviesone of the festival’s most successful programming ideasand Saturday’s block party on Belcourt Avenue attracted families, filmmakers, afternoon strollers, bored teens, even people who love movies.
Ah, yes, the movies. Except for the roundly disliked Full-Tilt Boogie, a self-congratulatory account of the making of From Dusk Till Dawn, the features were generally well-received. Among the most popular entries were Les Blank’s documentary “The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists” (whose subject, Gerry Gaxiola, was a constant and inspiring presence all weekend); the sick, sick computer-animated howler “Gabola the Great”; and the farcical romantic short “A Look in Her Eyes.”
There was strong support also for the short films “My Body,” “Nude Descending,” and “Mad Boy, I’ll Blow Your Blues Away.” My favorites of the new films were Jeff Lipsky’s risky, offbeat teenage character study Childhood’s End; Sam Stumpf’s surprisingly entertaining homemade children’s film Amy Everhart; Corky Quakenbush’s very funny short “One Hand, Left”; and Ross Spears’ dauntingly ambitious Tell About the South. The programming offered a healthy mix of material every day. It says a lot about the festival’s breadth that I logged nearly 30 hours of screenings in four days’ time, and I still missed the week’s big award winners, Nick Searcy’s drama Paradise Falls and John O’Hagan’s Levittown documentary Wonderland.
But if any one film marked the moment when the festival became something more than a bunch of consecutive screenings, it was Friday night’s showing of Burden of Dreams, Blank’s extraordinary 1982 film about the hellish making of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Watching director Herzog defy God and nature to finish his filma nightmare that involved casting woes, flash floods, and native warfarethe filmmakers in the audience laughed and groaned out of sympathy. And yet there was a significant shift in the festival’s mood in the lobby afterward.
Part of it was the sheer crush of people. Perceptibly, though, conversations grew livelier and more animated, spilling over into Fido across the street (where director Blank, a lanky, laconic figure, retreated after the screening). All through Hillsboro Village, you heard laughter or music or excited voices. “This is the greatest thing,” said one Nashville director, who’d shouldered his own burden of dreams for the past year, juggling work schedules and a shifting crew base.
Still, the festival was not without notes of caution. At a packed Saturday-morning panel on the ABCs of independent filmmaking, Jeff Lipsky, who cofounded October Films, warned that three indie features are completed every day, creating a hopelessly glutted market. “Ask yourself, ‘If I don’t make this film, will I die?’ ” Lipsky said. “If the answer is no, don’t make it.” He added that too many first-time filmmakers put more creativity into their financing than they do into their films.
A slightly more optimistic voice was local director Coke Sams, who is currently completing his Nashville-lensed satire Existo. “The investment community here is on the verge of critical mass,” Sams said, then confessed, “I’m just saying that over and over until it comes true.” Yet Peter Wentworth, who produced two superb indie films, Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, said the term “independent” has been rendered meaningless. “It just gives you a better press angle now,” he said.
For all its big successes, the festival was not without its mistakes. I missed the comedy Merchants of Venus, but the consensus was that the NIFF got stuck with a dud feature because its star, Michael York, had agreed to show up. York canceled, which was a blessing in disguise, but it’s too bad the prime Saturday-night slot couldn’t have been better used.
I also felt sorry for the crew of the locally filmed feature Lunker Lake; they sat through the entire movie only to have the closing credits cut off. And there were the expected technical glitches: dim, poorly centered video projection (which was corrected early on), slow reel changes on 16mm films.
Yet compared to the festival’s overwhelming success, these problems were niggling. Hillsboro Village restaurants were flooded with business; audiences and filmmakers alike had a blast; the Watkins Belcourt received a huge shot in the arm. And the festival is primed to attract even better films and bigger audiences (not to mention corporate sponsors). Next year, maybe the festival can bring in more visiting filmmakers; expand the standing-room-only Gay/Lesbian Mini-Fest to an entire night; show another international entry or two; and take advantage of the Watkins Belcourt’s second screen.
The great thing about having a film festival in Nashville is that there’s no need to try to impress potential distributors, no need to hype Film A over Film B. All you have is a large audience that likes movies, likes moviemakers, and likes them both more every year. The 29th annual Nashville Independent Film Festival showed that outside the mainstream, the tide continues to rise.
Low on fuel
A romantic comedy can be forgiven many faults if its leading players have some personality. In the case of Six Days, Seven Nights, Harrison Ford and Anne Heche have a lot to make up for. The screenplay by Michael Browning is your basic marooned-on-a-desert-island plot dressed up with some South Pacific scenery and a boatload of pirateshardly fresh material and never believable. But Ford and Heche are such game and gung-ho performers that they almost overcome this impregnable setup to capture the audience’s hearts.
Heche plays a fashion-magazine editor, a role that allows her to wear fabulous cruise couture and make plenty of cynical wisecracks. She’s on an island paradise courtesy of David Schwimmer, in the thankless role of wimpy boyfriend. On a hop to Tahiti for a photo shoot, Heche and crusty old pilot Harrison Ford crash-land on an uninhabited beach and find themselves with a plane full of hotel-surplus alcohol, several stylish outfits (albeit with a tragic shortage of bras), and little hope of rescue. While Schwimmer falls for a local girl, Heche and Ford develop the standard grudging respect for each other in the course of dodging pirates and trying to escape.
It’s refreshing to watch the leads giving every ounce of their energy to this tired plot. Heche isn’t self-conscious about appearing ridiculous, a useful skill for a comedienne, and she holds the screen well against a proven leading man. Ford channels Nick Nolte to create a gruff, chapped persona with that slightly pathetic, hurt tone that hasn’t failed him since Star Wars. He’s Heche’s match in every way except chemically; no sparks fly, but the foundation for a lasting friendship seems to develop, which makes the closing kiss-and-fade-out scenes more superfluous than usual for this genre.
Ivan Reitman, the director, moves the story along at a brisk pace, although he likes his special effects a bit too much. If people recommend Six Days, it’s not going to be because of that shot where the missile whizzes past the camera. It’ll be because they appreciate stars who work at entertaining them.
Younger than that now
In the wake of the ’80s slasher-flick revival, some have claimed that the new film Can’t Hardly Wait is a similarly nostalgic revisitation of the John Hughes-style teen comedy. Judging by the film’s exaltation of nerds and the underclass over jocks and popular kids, it would be difficult to disagree that Hughes’ Capra-fed populism is an inspiration. In truth, though, Can’t Hardly Waitwhich follows a wild high-school graduation partyis more blatantly in the tradition of American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused, in which kids cruise around all night to stave off impending adulthood.
Unfortunately, that’s tough company, since both of those films are masterful views of one generation from the perspective of another. (In American Graffiti, the ’70s look at the ’50s, and in Dazed and Confused, the ’90s frame the ’70s.) Can’t Hardly Wait suffers from a lack of such a singular sense of time and place. The film presumably is contemporary, and yet the ending employs the tired device of telling us what happens to each of the characters in the ensuing yearswhich would seem to connote that the film is set several years ago. Also, the soundtrack (the key to a successful teen comedy) is all over the map, employing stale grunge, aging hip-hop, and mellow classic rock. Don’t the filmmakers realize that most high-schoolers aren’t confident enough in their tastes to dig anything older than the current Top 40?
Still, Can’t Hardly Wait gets by on two frontsthe general good nature of the filmmakers (writer/directors Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan), who keep the film at a brisk, entertaining pace, and also the stellar young cast, of whom I hope to see more in the future. Standouts include Peter Facinelli (the Tom Cruise-ish football star, who gets his comeuppance), Lauren Ambrose (as the antisocial plain Jane), Seth Green (as a white rap enthusiast who learns to put aside his poses), and especially Charlie Korsmo (as the class valedictorian who gets drunk and delivers a performance of Guns ’N Roses’ “Paradise City” that alone is worth a matinee admission). These are engaging young performers, obviously bringing everything they have to the party in hopes of getting noticed by other casting agents.
Still, this is a genre that was effectively killed off by Cameron Crowe’s wonderful Say Anything..., which started with a much funnier graduation party and proceeded through a fully realized romantic story, one that brought John Hughes’ stereotyped characters into maturity. Can’t Hardly Wait is still making sting-less comments on cliques, and it’s doing so with none of the revisionist self-awareness that Scream brought to the slasher genre. It has no attitude, no spin; even the teens’ out-of-control drinking and drug use has been toned down for a PG-13 rating. Can’t Hardly Wait is entertaining as far it goes, but it doesn’t really go far enough.
Bad comedies must suffer a unique kind of entropy. The talent involved in Almost Heroesdirector Christopher Guest, costars Matthew Perry and the late Chris Farley, supporting actors Eugene Levy, Kevin Dunn, and Harry Shearermust have come to the project with high hopes. The story of a pair of bumbling explorers running a shadow expedition to the famed Lewis and Clark journey must have seemed like the kind of premise that imagination and improvisation could enliven on the set (especially since the script by Mark Nutter, Tom Wolfe III, and Boyd Hale offers little to count on). But between Farley’s humorless shouting and Perry’s wooden attempt to combine his crackerjack Friends persona with an ill-advised patrician accent, Guest must have decided that giving this film the heart that he had brought to The Big Picture and Waiting for Guffman wasn’t worth the trouble.
There are some funny bits in Almost Heroes: a great piece of silent comedy in which Farley tries to swipe some eagle eggs, and the loss of more than half of the expedition crew, which decides instead to go to New Orleans because “the food alone is worth the trip.” There’s even the occasional funny line. (My favorite: “You smell like you passed through the system of a sick old woman.”) But by and large, the comedy is far from inspired. Watching people fall down and holler euphemisms for excrement seems to be the film’s raison d’être. By the end of Almost Heroes, you can almost feel the exhaustion of the cast and crew, as they yearn to wrap for the day and get back to drinking up their per diem.
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