Docs at SXSW: Beautiful Garbage, Serial Killers and Bizarre Cults

Docs at SXSW: Beautiful Garbage, Serial Killers and Bizarre Cults

Mar 11, 2012


Although I assure you it has merit, I won't bother you with my argument that The Cabin in the Woods is technically a documentary. Not because the awesome horror deconstruction that kicked off the 2012 South by Southwest Film Festival is being talked up enough elsewhere, and not because most of you wouldn't accept my claim no matter how well I make the case. The reason I won't get into it here is because there is definitely no way of doing so without spoilers. Maybe in the future when everyone has the chance to see it -- and if you like movies you should see it -- I'll bore you with my analytical reasoning. For now, a hint: it has to do with the fact that it's a deconstruction and therefore a nonfiction of a sort.

Anyway, I mainly mention Cabin because it’s a crazy film to program as a festival opener since it sets the bar very high, and so far I’ve seen nothing that compares. Of course, I’m mostly covering the documentary beat this week, and I shouldn’t measure the more qualified nonfiction films to a genre-bending horror flick. Still, I think I’m having trouble being wowed with anything, whether movies or food or life since Friday’s premiere. Perhaps I should have held out on seeing The Imposter and Vivan las Antipodas!, since these two incredible docs could have lifted me out of the Cabin haze.

I can admit to having another terrific experience in Austin’s stately Paramount Theatre. It’s hard not to be excited by a doc that plays to such a giant house, especially when packed, and the locally relevant Trash Dance was particularly wonderful thanks to the venue being filled with people who in the film or of some association to them. The movie is kind of like a funny, American version of Lucy Walker’s Oscar-nominated Waste Land, similarly presenting an art project involving people employed in the sanitation industry. Here, rather than inspiring portraits made out of garbage, the workers are recruited for a choreographed show featuring themselves and their vehicles.

It’s always fun to see something set in the city you’re in, and Trash Dance now has me very conscious of the thankless workers who’ll be cleaning up after all of us at the end of this week (show gratitude if you see them). I like the long lead-up to the performance more than the “dance” itself, at least in the cut-up form director Andrew Garrison gives us, but I’m thankful this message of “there’s beauty in garbage” lacks the poverty porn aesthetic and outsider perspective that Walker’s has.

Another insider’s view of a city, Tchoupitoulas is a fabulous trip around New Orleans, mainly the French Quarter, through the eyes of two groups of brothers. There’s the set of three young boys on screen whose adventures in the streets and on an abandoned riverboat form the film’s narrative and give us a point of reference that’s filled, mainly from the youngest boy, with innocence and wonder (he is further proof that kids say the darndest things). And then there are the fraternal directors, Bill and Turner Ross (45365), who filter that position through their own vantages of memory and fresh, romantic observation.


It is probably appropriate to that film’s duality that it has viewers divided. Not on the film itself, as I haven’t met a soul who doesn’t love it, but on the portrayal of the city. Either you come away like myself, very anxious to go (back, in my case) to New Orleans, or you now never ever want to visit (or revisit). Either way, the Ross brothers deliver a travelogue that I think immerses you in the place, as well as in a certain age or ages, to where you should be satisfied with the filmic experience of a city that is so very old and so very adult yet also so very magical and playful.

I almost want to consider Chris James Thompson’s Jeff a sort of city film, because its focus on the crimes and capture of Jeffery Dahmer is so significant to its Milwaukee setting. But the doc touches on less of the iconic murderer’s impact on the city than I expected. I also anticipated the film to feature more than just three talking heads, a neighbor, a detective and a medical examiner, recounting the upsetting events of 21 years ago and exploring the nature of how criminals so quiet and normal go unnoticed. Yet these interviews are surprisingly fulfilling at times. As is the intentionally mundane reenactment material encompassing much of the content. Last year at SXSW I noted that the skater doc Dragonslayer felt like a narrative from Gus Van Sant. With this anti-sensationlist excercise, I was reminded of the director’s “Death Trilogy,” particularly Elephant.

Jeff was the second doc I’ve seen here that deals with a well-known homicidal figure. Avi Weider’s Welcome to the Machine is largely about the debate on whether technology is moving us in a positive evolutionary direction or if we’re being ruled by the evil pull of false progress which really impedes our biological advancement. It’s an exploration of philosophical and scientific ideas that left me even less certain which side I’m on than I had been before (never mind the iPhone in my hand as soon as the lights go up in a screening).


The personal film, which is framed by the director’s own story of becoming father to premature triplets, also presents a correspondence between Weider and Ted Kaczynski, who wouldn’t participate more with the doc because the filmmakers gave time to his opposition, figures like Ray Kurzweil and even David Gelernter, a professor he crippled with one of his mailbombs. Some of this can be seen as disturbing, as can Weider’s spotlight on Kaczynski disciple David Skrbina, but that make is one of the most interesting and fascinatingly balanced docs on this or any topic.

Machine has a connection to another incredible, yet very different doc called The Source. Both films feature social historian Erik Davis (not the editor), who here helps us to understand the bizarre story of an L.A. cult in the 1970s. People are and will easily call it a real life Wanderlust or Martha Marcy May Marlene, but by itself it’s one of those tales you have trouble believing both that it happened and that you never heard of it before. The film is a bit long, especially during the final chapter updating us on where all the major members of the Source Family are today, but otherwise it’s a phenomenal history that’s at once so astonishingly like nothing you’ve ever heard before and then also so familiar in where this ultimately universal and stereotypical story of idealism, power and lust ends up. 

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The Burning Question

In the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, what is the name of the character played by Johnny Depp

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Captain Jack Sparrow