One of the side effects of spending a week at a film festival is that sooner or later, everything starts to connect. From shared settings to common themes, links start to form between movies that you would typically never consider together. And as the movies bump up against one another, so do the audiences. Heavy-metal fans cross paths with experimental filmmakers, and bluegrass aficionados mingle in the lobby with patrons of a black-and-white Mexican art film. At best, it's like viewing your hometown, and in turn the world, through a kaleidoscope of multiple perspectives.
In part, the NFF's success is a blend of shrewd festival politicking and genuine cinephile enthusiasm. The former entails securing celebrities who will appear in person, often in exchange for showing hard-to-release pet projects. This year's roster included Patrick Swayze, here with his wife Lisa Niemi's stage drama One Last Dance; the fine actor Joe Morton, who actually saw movies besides his own Sunday on the Rocks; and country superstars Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, who attended McGraw's Black Cloud with actor-director Rick Schroder. Of those, only Black Cloud, the story of a Native American boxer, made a strong showing in the audience-award voting, and that probably had a lot to do with Schroder's offscreen likability.
Too many of these films, though, and a festival gets a kiss-of-death reputation as a dumping ground for vanity projects. For balance, the NFF managed to cherry-pick recent favorites from Sundance and Toronto, and the turnout was often better than expected. Films such as Lars von Trier and Jorgen Leth's The Five Obstructions and Guy Maddin's The Saddest Music in the World met with full houses and gratifying enthusiasm. Even so, there was no contest which group had the numbers on its side. When revered independent producer Christine Vachon lamented the way indie films use stars now as "insurance policies," it was crushing to notice her audience was less than half full while overflow crowds wedged into the Swayze lovefest.
What made this doubly frustrating is that visiting filmmakers of Vachon's renown will do the festival, and the city, far more good in the long run than a celebrity grip 'n' grin, however well attended. Vachon carries a career's worth of cred, from Boys Don't Cry to the entire Todd Haynes filmography, and she makes movies she believes in with precious little compromise. (Her new project sounds tantalizing: a black-and-white biopic of Nashville pinup icon Betty Page by American Psycho director Mary Harron.) She's also someone other filmmakers recognize, which might improve the NFF's chances of getting guests down the line. But if the small turnout bugged her, it didn't show in her candid, funny and far-ranging talk, which veered from the growing conservatism of the MPAA ratings board to the mixed blessing of the Queer Eye phenomenon.
As for the festival's selections, they illustrated what is rapidly becoming a law instead of a theory: Documentaries have outstripped indie features in almost every way. The most graphic demonstration came from the overlap between Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel, a thorough German documentary on the late alt-country pioneer, and Grand Theft Parsons, a grotesque quasi-farcical retelling of the theft of Parsons' body by his friend and road manager Phil Kaufman (played by Johnny Knoxville). I missed Fallen Angel, but the latter serves as an object lesson in how to futz up a foolproof story with extraneous crap. You wouldn't think anyone would need to embellish a true tale of celebrity body-snatching and incineration, but the tone-deaf British filmmakers pile on wacky cops, fake incidents and bogus characters. Those who saw Fallen Angel, which apparently paints the story in much more sober terms, were nearly unanimous in their outrage at Grand Theft.
A different kind of outrage was triggered by Control Room, Jehane Noujaim's fair and balanced inside look at the Al-Jazeera news network during the Iraqi invasion. The film could use more analysis of the Arab network's actual content, but it advances the chilling thought that the Iraqi occupation is doing little more than pushing moderate voices to the margins. Its despairing take on the unsolvable complexity of deep-seated ethnic hostilities was echoed in Whose Is This Song?, where a filmmaker's innocuous search for the origins of a Balkan folk song ends in personal danger rather than regional harmony.
Few features at this year's NFF matched the high-octane human comedy of Slasher, John Landis' documentary account of a do-or-die "slasher sale" at a Memphis car lot. Though somewhat slick, facile and padded with music montages, Landis' film allows some sadness to seep through its sharply cynical portrait of a high-pressure economic system that pushes sellers and buyers alike to keep things moving at any cost. The same could be said for Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, their exhaustive fly-on-the-wall record of the metal band's two-year odyssey of therapy, near-breakups and shamelessly indulged whims.
A festival favorite, Metallica might have won an audience award if fans hadn't kept asking Sinofsky to autograph their ballots. "What the hell, let somebody else win one," said Sinofsky, a good sport, as he handed out guitar picks to an uncharacteristic NFF audience of headbangers at 1 a.m. Indeed, both the audience and jury prize for documentaries ultimately went to the wrenching, hugely popular Born Into Brothels, about efforts to teach photography to the displaced children of Calcutta's red-light district as a possible means of escape.
The NFF's jury prize for feature filmmaking was a good call: the gripping shot-on-video drama Take Out, a richly detailed slice-of-life study of immigrant woes set against the backdrop of a Chinese restaurant in Manhattan. Marred only by an overdetermined ending, it could connect with an audience beyond the festival circuitand now it has the chance, since its award includes a week's run in a Los Angeles Regal cinema. Other well-received features included Bradley Rust Gray's minutely observed Icelandic road movie Salt, Alison Bagnall's dark-humored character study Piggie and Ferenc Toth's grimly convincing inner-city drama Unknown Soldier.
By far the biggest response, though, went to the contemporary-Christian teen satire Saved! The convulsive laughter that greeted the movie had an edge of catharsis, as if the audience had saved up all its frustration at the evangelical conservatism sweeping the country. Its audience-favorite award was no surprise to anyone who walked past the theater. My own favorite moments of the festival belonged to Arkansas filmmaker Phil Chambliss' indescribable absurdist melodramas, which either drove people from the theater or left them babbling with excitement, and to the closing-night segment devoted to the extremist art of legendary character actor Timothy Carey. When still shots of an Asian flower-arranging club accidentally wound up onscreen during the Carey tribute, a hilarious moment of uncertainty resulted while the audience tried to figure out whether it was part of the mayhem.
The consensus among filmmakers and audiences alike was that this year's NFF was unusually well-organized. The festival's newly defined emphasis on music films may seem confining in the long run, but not if it permits movies as diverse and worthy as Metallica, the British essay film Imagine IMAGINE and the Canadian concert doc Festival Express. Apart from a tape mishap that sidelined the fine rumba documentary Give Me Your Hand, the only snafu that had people buzzing was singer Mark Collie's eccentric emceeing of the festival's awards ceremony, capped by some impromptu fun with the title "Firepussy." Several people suggested giving the gig next year to Demetria Kalodimos, whose multiple sold-out screenings for her doc Pre-Madonna amounted to a homecoming for 1970s Nashville.
The one thing that was really missing from this year's fest was a major visiting director and accompanying retrospective. The irony was that a likely candidate was present all week: Harmony Korine, who's currently in Nashville writing a screenplay. Christine Vachon produced Korine's first script, Kids; Von Trier welcomed him into the Dogme 95 brotherhood for his second feature, julien donkey-boy. He recently helped conceive and film magician David Blaine's glass-box stunt in London, which opens and closes Pre-Madonna. He even tried to get Timothy Carey for his Nashville-shot feature Gummo. And he's a brilliant, astute cinephileas well as an example for local filmmakers to follow their own intellectual curiosity, not whatever's selling at the moment. When they do, let's hope there's always a Nashville Film Festival to show their work.
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