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SXSW Film Festival 2013 | Day 2

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SXSW2013FilmLogoAccording to Danny Boyle, many directors started out wanting to be priests: They both deal in secrets, and both get to order people around.

 

 

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My first event today was an interview of Danny Boyle, conducted by David Carr, in a presentation including clips from Boyle’s films. It doesn’t get any better than that, folks. Among the topics pondered by Carr and Boyle: how to take risks in filmmaking without endangering your ability to create a useable final product (coverage—be willing to shoot something that comes into your head on the day of shooting, but be sure you also have a more conventional version of the scene); why so many directors started out wanting to be priests (they both deal in secrets, and both get to order people around); what music can do for a film (besides the obvious—supporting and reinforcing what you see—it can also provide a different lens through which to view the action); why Boyle refused a knighthood (“That kind of world is just not my cup of tea,” a diplomatic answer into which much can be read); and why Boyle played a clip that seemed to be the climax from his new film, Trance, which Carr said really “opened the kimono” and perhaps gave too much away (Boyle believes that when an audience is watching a film, they forget everything they have heard and read about it before).

Mention the name “Divine” to most people and their first thought is “the drag queen who ate dog shit in a John Waters movie.” As Waters himself says, that’s one act that will probably never be topped on film, but it’s not the whole story of Glenn Milstead, Divine’s non-stage name. Milstead, a childhood neighbor of Waters, grew up to be not only a wildly successful drag queen (while literally broadening the definition of what was possible in drag), but also a skilled straight (i.e., non-drag) actor. Jeffrey Schwartz’s I Am Divine takes a traditional, chronological approach to his subject, from Milstead’s unhappy childhood as an overweight, effeminate child who regularly was bullied at school, through his appearance in cult films like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, to mainstream stardom in Hairspray, and finally a premature death from a heart attack.

Schwartz has a real gift for making his subjects come alive. Vito, which he made for HBO, was one of my favorite films of last year, and he also directed the enjoyable Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story and Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon, the latter film about the porn star Jack Wrangler. I Am Divine is one of the most fun documentaries I’ve seen in years. Schwartz chose his film clips well, and assembled an excellent cast of interview subjects, including Waters, of course, but also Divine co-stars like Ricki Lake, Tab Hunter, and Mink Stole, all of who seemed to have both admired and enjoyed working with him. Although the story ends sadly (no one should die at age 42), the film itself is not sad, but is instead a celebration of a performer who made the most out of the talents he had.

Usually, after a natural disaster, everyone is concerned with getting life back to normal. In New Orleans, at least in the view of director Louis Alvarez, the definition of “normal” depends on who is making the judgment. The particular focus of his documentary Getting Back to Abnormal is the balance of power between New Orleans’ black and white citizens, an issue made more complex because, as one speaker notes, not only do the city’s black and white citizens regularly interact with each other, but New Orleans is home to some of the whitest black people and blackest white people you have ever seen.

 

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Getting Back to Normal | Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker, Peter Odabashian, and Paul Stekler

The spine of Getting Back to Abnormal is a particularly nasty city council race pitting—you guessed it—a white and a black candidate against each other. But through a well-chosen collection of interviews, verité footage and factoids displayed on chyrons, as well as a bouncy soundtrack, Alvarez keeps a positive spirit while creating a composite portrait of the city in 2009 and 2010 (the filming of Treme and the Saints’ march to the Super Bowl are also in the mix). The title refers to the disproportionate effect of Hurricane Katrina on the city’s black population, along with various political decisions since then that, in the view of some of the city’s current residents and former residents, are intended to keep them from returning, and hence to restore the city to a white majority.

James Broughton was a leading poet and filmmaker in the San Francisco Renaissance, a movement preceding the Beat Generation. In Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton, directors Stephen Silha and Eric Slade celebrate Broughton’s life and work, and in particular his embrace of sexuality. It’s no hagiography, however: Broughton’s ex-wife and children remember him as self-centered and too busy with his own concerns to consider the needs of anyone else, while he apparently took no responsibility for the child he fathered with film critic Pauline Kael. If you’ve never heard of Broughton, this film offers an excellent introduction not only to his work, but also to his spirit. Speaking personally, I had forgotten his name, but recognized many of the film clips included in this documentary, including several from Bed (1968), a celebration of sexuality including more full-frontal nudity than you will see in 10 years’ worth of Hollywood films.

I’d like to think that, if James Broughton were alive today, he’d approve of Mr. Angel, a documentary by Dan Hunt about Buck Angel, a transgender man, porn star, and educator. Buck Angel was born a biological female but always identified as a male. His androgynous good looks led to a modeling career, but conflict over his gender identity led to drug use and suicide attempts. He had top surgery and began hormone treatments 20 years ago, and enjoyed a successful career in pornography as a “man with a pussy” (i.e., he didn’t have the lower surgery, and does not plan to). Today, he is happily married to Elayne Angel, a professional body piercer, and if you saw them on the street, you’d just figure they were another married couple. This story has a happy ending, and today Angel is also an advocate and educator for transgender rights. Mr. Angel is definitely X-rated in terms of the body parts on display, but it’s so wholesome that it’s impossible to be offended. After all, aren’t children’s movies always telling us to be who we are?

Mr. Angel took six years to make, due in part to difficulties in getting funding (foundations are not particularly interested in backing documentaries featuring porn stars). The other reason for the lengthy filming process was revealed in the talkback following the film: It took time for the filmmaker and subject to gain each other’s trust, and to reach an understanding about exactly what the film’s subject would be—Angel wanted it to be about his pornography career, rather than the much broader film Hunt wanted to make. | Sarah Boslaugh

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