The 2019 Chattanooga Film Festival is now done and dusted and its winners have been announced. Giovana Olmos won the Student Filmmaker Award for Sweet Tooth, Dylan Meyer took the prize for Best Short with Rock Bottom, Andi Morrow’s Pusher the Movie won for Tennessee Filmmaker, Bethany Brooke Anderson won Best Feature for Burning Kentucky, and the Audience Prize went to Billy Senese’s The Dead Center. Senese’s film, shot in Nashville, was the only award-winner that I saw and it was an enjoyable horror experience, featuring an ancient evil unexpectedly held in a hospital’s psychiatric ward and a frustrated doctor forced to face this unexpected threat. The filmmaker’s own experiences with mental illness obviously inform The Dead Center and the film finds legitimate scares in the friction between its institutional setting and its supernatural menace. Still, the movie fails to make the most of its concept by remaining too vague in its characters and its monster, missing opportunities to ratchet up its stakes and bring its audience even closer to The Dead Center‘s dark core. I would encourage horror fans to check out The Dead Center but MMC! had favourites of its own and the best of the best were found in the “CFFeatures” section.
1. In Fabric (Peter Strickland, 2018)
If last year’s Suspiria remake had exchanged a ballet school for a women’s clothing store, it might have been Peter Strickland’s In Fabric (and would have been better for it). Strickland’s film concerns a deadly, “artery red” dress sold by a fashionable store seemingly run by a coven of witches. Strickland, whose Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy have already established him as filmmaker with a keen aesthetic eye and a unique sensibility for uncanny psychodrama, is having obvious fun with In Fabric, revelling in the dark humour of its eccentrically consumerist witchcraft (with some hilariously ornate customer service-speak) and some self-referential shout-outs (including some gourd butchery and a surprise cameo by Sidse Babett Knudsen). Even further, Strickland is thoroughly audacious in his storytelling, revealing virtually the entire film through a series of stills that accompany the opening credits and making some bold choices with his characters midway through the movie, turning In Fabric into the story of a dress and not its purchaser. The movie is unlikely to be a film easily embraced by most given its unusual blend of near-camp comedy and arch, overdetermined horror, but those attuned to Strickland’s style will find themselves rewarded with a peculiarly creepy, quirky effort.
2. Monos (Alejandro Landes, 2019)
The only film to surpass Peter Strickland’s enervating In Fabric was Alejandro Landes’ Monos, a stunning work about a group of adolescent child soldiers tasked to guard an American doctor for a South American guerrilla army. Initially set on a mountaintop above the clouds and amid some strange and imposing concrete edifices, Monos feels almost Olympian in its combination of an idyllic plateau, its carefree teenage reveries, and the power of youthful physical vigour and high-powered military hardware. When an impromptu leadership change destabilizes the group and they are relocated into the jungle with their prisoner, Monos becomes even more ferociously predatory, with resentments, power-trips, and multiple escape attempts turning the film into an eddy of Apocalypse Now intensity punctuated by open citations of Lord of the Flies. Boasting gorgeous cinematography by Jasper Wolf and a fearsome score by Mica Levi, Landes crafts a bracing survival thriller and a feverish, even delirious, take on the war film. It’s a shame that Monos, a Sundance jury award-winner and arguably the best reviewed film at the Festival, was placed in the CFF’s last slot on its final night. This incredible film deserved a wider audience and the opportunity to create some buzz around itself.
3. Woman at War (Benedikt Erlingsson, 2018)
The “CFFeatures” section had a number of another noteworthy titles. Patrick Wang’s A Bread Factory Part One (2018) felt like Tanner ’88 if it were about regional theatre and municipal politics, while Part Two turned in a decidedly more surreal and experimental direction. Lost Holiday (Michael Kerry Matthews and Thomas Matthews, 2019) offered a charmingly lo-fi tale of a pair of recreationally medicated twenty-somethings acting as amateur sleuths. John Maringouin’s Ghostbox Cowboy (2018) blended fact and fiction to contrast the ascendancy of Chinese manufacturing with the arrogance of American hucksterism, creating an unusual film that descends into Lynchian unease in its final sequences and resolves itself into something more interesting than entirely successful.
Benedikt Erlingsson’s award-winning Woman at War is the cheeky, crowd-pleasing take on our impending environmental collapse for which we’ve all been waiting. The film concerns a middle-aged Icelandic woman secretly operating as an environmental terrorist and sabotaging a local aluminum facility. Woman at War most resembles a thriller, with its main character running from drones and government officials, but the film reveals a sweetly comedic heart when this eco-warrior’s years-old application to adopt a child gets approved and she is forced to reevaluate her actions and the means by which she aims to change the world. Erlingsson keeps the tone buoyant with the unusual choice to make his score a quasi-diegetic one thanks to the appearances of a three-piece oom-pah band and a trio of Ukrainian singers who both serve as a winking chorus to the film’s story. Woman at War is a clever, likeable film, full of wonderful performances, beautiful landscapes, and a cameo by former Reykjavík mayor and MMC! favourite Jón Gnarr as Iceland’s President.
4. Memphis ’69 (Joe LaMattina, 2019)
The CFF’s “Sonic Cinema” block was well-stacked with great films. Joe LaMattina’s Memphis ’69 documents the 1969 Memphis Country Blues Festival which commemorated the city’s 150th anniversary. Cut from nearly 50 year-old footage acquired by Fat Possum Records, the documentary features stellar performances by local and more widely popular artists like Rufus Thomas and The Bar-Kays, Bukka White, Furry Lewis, Piano Red, Johnny Winter, and others. LaMattina’s approach delves into typical concert problems, like the influx of non-paying attendees, while also dealing with more local issues of race and class, inserting footage of youngsters picking cotton and including a collection to raise bail money for a performer’s wife. Clocking in at a mere 72 minutes, Memphis ’69 certainly leaves the viewer wanting more but it makes the most of its runtime and stands as an important record of a distinctly American art form.
5. Desolation Center (Stuart Swezey, 2018)
Stuart Swezey’s excellent documentary Desolation Center traces the history and legacy of an early ’80s guerrilla concert series in Southern California organized by him. These shows featured punk, industrial, and experimental artists providing collective experiences in remote and unconventional locations years before events like Lollapalooza, Burning Man, and Coachella became commonplace. Swezey offers interviews with a wide array of performers and attendees and deftly mixes them with captivating archival footage, live audio recordings, and animated sequences, producing an absolutely fascinating snapshot of a brief but influential moment in music history. While conventional in its form, Desolation Center‘s musical acts are anything but and much of the documentary’s joy comes in observing the enthralling performances of Sonic Youth, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Swans, Redd Kross, Einstürzende Neubauten, Survival Research Laboratories, Savage Republic, and others, then seeing them and theirs fans reflect now on this singular experience. Swezey’s film could easily have been twice as long and I still would have welcomed more. I can only hope that some enterprising network or content provider sees Desolation Centre and looks to expand it into the 5-part miniseries it deserves to be.
6. Leto (Kirill Serebrennikov, 2018)
I had no idea going into Leto (Summer) that Kirill Serebrennikov’s film concerned real musicians in the underground music scene of early ’80s Russia, focusing on the tripartite relationship between a young Viktor Tsoi (co-founder of seminal Soviet band Kino), garage rock statesman Mike Naumenko, and Naumenko’s wife Natalia. Leto is a not a film without controversy, having been criticized by many in the industry as misrepresenting its characters and its community, however Leto places the tension between reality and legend at its forefront, opening with Natalia and her friends attending Mike’s show by literally sneaking through a bathroom window. Serebrennikov litters the films with Across the Universe-like musical sequences and dramatic scenes that the film self-consciously disclaims as having never occurred, suggesting that the director chooses to print the legend of a rock culture over its truth. Considered as a filmic experience and not a historical text, Leto is thoroughly enjoyable – shot in a beautifully milky monochrome, full of lively and energetic camerawork, grounded by strong, surprisingly understated acting, and spiked with a soupçon of 24 Hour Party People-esque meta-awareness. Most importantly, Leto is full of great music, both Russian and Western, and Serebrennikov’s film deserves to be embraced if for no other reason than for Shortparis’s cover of David Bowie’s “All the Young Dudes.” One might quibble about how original Leto‘s rock bio is in its execution, but it is an elegant and enchanting example of the modern musical that likely brings to light a little known music scene sure to win over rock fans.
7. Vice Squad (Gary Sherman, 1982)
The CFF’s “Cinemassentials” block programmed a modest selection of repertory picks including Nietzchka Keene’s beautifully understated The Juniper Tree (1990), an Icelandic medieval fantasy starring Björk and brought to the Festival in a 4K restoration from the good folks at Arbelos Films. Yet for as wonderful as Björk’s innocent mysticism was, it hardly compared to Wings Hauser’s psychotically violent pimp Ramrod in Gary Sherman’s Vice Squad. Sherman’s film is set over a single night in L.A.’s seedy underbelly, with Hauser’s revenge-obsessed Ramrod chasing a prostitute named Princess while members of the local vice squad comb the city in hopes of finding either and saving Princess. Vice Squad is packed with entertaining material, both lurid and violent, yet the film is also sneaky sophisticated in its representation of sex work and life out on the streets, careful to never glamourize or romanticize its subject matter. Sherman’s Q&A was extremely insightful and highly engaging. He remarked that the original script was written by a former vice squad member and he went through an accelerated course with the L.A. police academy that in turn allowed him to partner with a vice squad cop and observe the film’s material firsthand. Sherman maintained that everything in Vice Squad is based on real events and even shared some funny stories about Hauser’s method acting and Martin Scorsese’s admiration for the film. Best of all, Sherman commented that fans should avoid searching for the movie on the secondary DVD market and paying the inflated prices commanded for its previous editions. Shout Factory is set to release a 4K restoration of Vice Squad!
8. Everything is … Explicit
The CFF scheduled live events in its main theatre and in its prime evening slot on three of its four nights. MMC! skipped “An Evening with Joe Bob Briggs” and his discussion on “How Rednecks Saved Hollywood,” as I had seen JBB speak at the 2018 CFF. I did catch the following night’s “An Evening with Crispin Hellion Glover” and the next night’s raucous presentation by video cassette archivists Everything is Terrible. The results were … graphic.
The Everything is Terrible crew brought its clip show of disposable video nightmares. The usual cast of cassette cast-offs were there – terrible Christian comedians, cat massagers, and the Eyes Without a Face terror of the Rejuvenique toning mask – and then EiT outdid itself a Jerry Seinfeld look-alike stripper waggling his junk and an extended clip of a vomiting polar bear, yet this unsettling show was still a distant second to Crispin Glover’s unsettling film. After opening with a series of comedic(?) readings from his experimental books, Glover screened It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine. (Crispin Glover and David Brothers, 2007), the bizarre tale of a man, seriously afflicted with cerebral palsy and who has a fetish for long hair, who seduces women with unusual efficiency, revealed in graphically explicit sexual detail, and then murders them. Written by and starring Steven C. Stewart as a transgressive artwork resisting the performance of disabled people by able-bodied actors and the depiction of those characters as untouched by darker thoughts, Glover spoke eloquently about It Is Fine! as a work of outsider art that celebrates free speech and opposes the sterile, commodified products made by the corporatized film industry. His conscientious discuss got a bit wobbly when he solicited criticism of the film, but overall Glover and his material were a hit – a truly transgressive experience made with artistic principles at its foundation (something hard to find nowadays).
9. Cowboy Who? (1990-1994)
Full disclosure: I did not make it to Peter Kuplowsky’s presentation of the bizarre Canadian children’s show Cowboy Who? and missed his 90 minute cut of the series’ first season. Still, the CFF’s write-up was too tantalizing to ignore and I’m now currently working my way through the show’s four seasons uploaded to YouTube. The series, which aired in Northern Ontario for four seasons, sets itself up in the mode of wholesome children’s programming like The Howdy-Doody Show before quickly spinning into the absurdity of SCTV, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, Mystery Science Theatre 3000, and The Kids in the Hall. The show’s first season generally concerns puppet pal Smilin’ Tom trying to hold the show together when its host, Cowboy Pat, vanishes in a flash of green light. Pat is replaced by the show’s engineer-turned-reluctant co-host, dubbed Cowboy Slim, but the quickly changing show is constantly interrupted by an alien-obsessed idiot detective named Inspector O’Really, a fussy codes and standards official, and a series of underwhelming guests. Subsequent seasons change in structure significantly, with the show’s setting transitioning to space and its reliance on in-studio performers giving way to outside alien television programs, eventually casting off the need for over-arching plots and instead operating in the mode of channel-surfing variety show, arguably anticipating Rick and Morty‘s beloved “Interdimensional Cable.” Even stranger than it sounds, Cowboy Who? is precisely the kind of bizarro treasure one always hopes to find hiding in the realm of cable access television and is worth discovering for those missing that unusual brand of 1990s comic weirdness.
10. The CFF’s Opening PSA
This might sounds passive aggressive but my favourite short film at the CFF was the Festival’s own PSA for proper movie-watching conduct. The CFF did have many past MMC! short film favourites programmed – Astron-6’s Chowboys, Jon Rhoads’ Riley Was Here, Anthony Cousin’s The Bloody Ballad of Squirt Reynolds, Ashlea Wessel’s Tick – and some new ones waiting to be discovered – Izzy Lee’s hilariously Herzogian The Obliteration of Chickens; Rob O’Neill’s Mos Eisley Cantina-for-millennials music video, Starcardian Freak Night; David Nessi’s ridiculous dog-dream, Chichi; Tim Reis and James Sizemore’s deliriously hallucinatory take of a murderous action figure, The Legend of Budfoot; and Joel Jay Blacker’s Who You Are The Commercial, a very funny commercial for a soul-reading, sentient computer. Still, it was the CFF’s pre-show PSA cautioning against talking and texting that most captured my imagination, a kaleidoscopically shifting collage of genre cinema imagery that brought to life the Fest’s posters and banners and inspired a never-ending game of spot-the-reference. The Super Inframan? Sweet Jesus, Preacherman? Tarantula!? The Jaguars Vs. The Mysterious Invaders? The Doberman Gang? To be honest, I’m not 100% sure I ever caught everything cautioned against in the PSA, but I loved seeing it whenever it was shown and was disappointed at each screening where it failed to appear. Please CFF, post it to your YouTube channel!
Big thanks to the Chattanooga Film Festival for having MMC! attend and for once again programming some great movies! Things still look bright at this Sundance of the South. Here’s looking forward to next year!