In Ondi Timoner’s lively rock documentary “DIG!”, moody musician Anton Newcombe speaks of “starting a revolution” with his retro-sound band Brian Jonestown Massacre. His declaration might also define the spirit of the 30th Seattle International Film Festival, which unspooled its first celluloid reels on May 20th and is slated to continue through June 13th. Forget Sundance. As America’s largest film festival, SIFF will likely attract over 150,000 insatiable moviegoers to feast at its loaded buffet table of 224 features and 84 shorts.
But how does this filmgoer’s nirvana classify as a revolution? For one thing, its films flaunt a complete lack of Hollywood convention. Tearing down any artifice in favor of bare bones storytelling, these films are more influenced by John Cassavetes and Dogme 95 than “Shrek” or the Wachowski Brothers. Piss on Neo, these new mavericks seem to be saying, when there are so many human stories to be told. The real enemy isn’t the Matrix – it’s the monopolistic way in which banal studio films are channeled to the masses. Meanwhile, heartfelt, homespun movies light on CG effects and heavy on character live or die on the festival circuit. In fact, the title of Debra Granik’s festival entry “Down to the Bone” aptly describes the very sparse, guerilla-filmmaking style employed by many of SIFF’s 2004 offerings.
The cinematic rebellion – a film equivalent to the seventies punk-rock renaissance – is punching through the corporate monopoly to get its stories told come hell or high water, and viewers are joining the cause. SIFF finds compelling drama in Colombian teenagers smuggling heroin into New York City (“Mariah Full of Grace”), a Northwest claymation artist’s tightrope act between genius and lunacy (“Monster Road”), and a Danish priest’s struggle between control and faith (“In My Hands”). The cult-embraced death dream that is “Donnie Darko” visited the festival in a new-and-improved director’s cut, one of the few offerings employing special effects.
Considering SIFF’s Seattle stomping grounds were once inhabited by Kurt Cobain, it’s only fitting that rock ‘n roll should also rear its nonconformist head at the event. Metallica juggle album-recording and psychotherapy sessions in “Some Kind of Monster,” while the White Stripes take us on tour in “Nobody Knows How to Talk to Children.” Then there’s Ondi Timoner’s “DIG!”, fresh from its Grand Jury Prize win at this year’s Sundance.
“DIG!” is a warts-and-all music documentary that uses two retro-rock bands – Dandy Warhols and Brian Jonestown Massacre – to symbolize the inevitable, eternal war that popular musicians wage between art and commerce. For seven years, director Timoner brandished a digital video camera and tracked both groups through trashed apartments, tour vans, record company offices, and music clubs during their collective mission to “start a revolution.” Once she enters this psychedelic portal in 1996, Timoner beholds a sixties-flavored time warp of tunics, sideburns, and sitars (think Spinal Tap’s “Flower People” phase).
Timoner quickly establishes the parallel worlds that BJM and Dandy Warhols inhabit. Both confidently navigate a nostalgic sixties vibe equal parts Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles and Austin Powers, while mining such nostalgic musical styles using strikingly contrasting styles and philosophies.
At the core of this cannabis-stained, beer-soaked odyssey – culled from 1,500 hours of digital video footage – is the passive aggressive rivalry between two fiercely competitive masterminds. In one corner stands San Francisco-based Anton Newcombe, BJM’s sitar wielding, stage-smashing crackpot, representing pure, uncompromising rebellion. Shunning such basic human priorities as income, hygiene, or interpersonal skills, Newcombe comes across as a rock ‘n roll mad scientist ranting against the “bean-counters” running the industry as he tweaks knobs in primitive basement studios to perfect his “art.”
Despite this renegade instability, Newcombe proves himself a startlingly prolific songwriter, capable of churning out three albums a year. And he’s cheap. The musician boasts that BJM’s album “Thank God for Mental Illness” cost only $17 to make. Nonetheless, this often-homeless son of a schizophrenic father (who committed suicide before completion of “DIG!”) snuffs out any hopes of commercial success by sabotaging record industry showcases and alienating major labels. One admirer sums up Newcombe’s tortured duality perfectly by stating, “He can’t integrate his mystical vision with his messed up personality. He’s torn between commercial success and credibility.”
Meanwhile, Dandy Warhols singer Courtney Taylor is presented as an equally talented icon, but one who balances his own musical integrity with a grudging respect for the commercial side of the coin. He’s more self-conscious and well balanced than Newcombe (which might explain why he was chosen as narrator for “DIG!”), revealing a natural songwriter’s knack for catchy verses that stick in the cerebrum.
“DIG!” is thick with telling details and the atmosphere of a tale unfolding before viewers’ eyes. Even if the bands’ repertoire of psychedelic sound is not one’s chosen musical aesthetic, those willing to take the plunge will find themselves as close to the rock and roll lifestyle as an actual backstage groupie or amp-hauling roadie. We watch lines of blow being snorted, take in the surreal Hollywood artificiality of a $400,000 dollar video shoot, and watch a musician hauled off by authorities after planting his boot in a heckler’s forehead. Before “DIG”’s dark ride concludes, Timoner has jettisoned us off of her Magical Mystery Tour and replanted us onto the Highway to Hell instead.
Indeed, Hell comes in many forms. For some, it’s the ocean. Envision Jacques Cousteau and Rob Zombie careening around the Bahamas in a yacht, chugging tequila and brainstorming movie concepts. “Open Water,” a deep-sea nail-biter that welds “Jaws” onto the stripped-down frame of “Blair Witch Project,” might be the culmination of such an unlikely mind-meld.
The premise is deceptively simple. Susan and Daniel trade in their busy desks and cell phones for a week of tropical fun in the sun. While on this initially restful vacation, the yuppie couple embarks on a diving expedition to divert the stresses of work. Stroking the soggy back of a moray eel and cruising alongside various undersea inhabitants, they enjoy the saltwater thrills of scuba diving, alongside numerous other wetsuit-clad tourists on this excursion.
Director Chris Kentis chronicles this unspectacular turn of events at a relaxing, leisurely pace. Then, after nearly lulling his audience to the brink of sleep, he sets his hook and jerks us to attention. The young lovers surface. They look around. The boat is nowhere in sight. Meanwhile, the ocean’s deep blue surface is punctured by…. a dorsal fin. A big dorsal fin. Then another. Soon, the water is a splashing, churning mass of sharks.
Like “Blair Witch Project,” “Open Water” could almost pass for an intimate home movie, with its clinical, digital video-shot images of two people stuck in the wrong place at the absolute worst of times. Meanwhile, Bruce the Mechanical Shark sits this one out, while Kentis employs real man-eaters to terrorize his stars. Inciting feeding frenzies between dozens of gray reef and bull sharks by dumping bloody tuna into the water, a team of seasoned shark wranglers delivered the type of special effects that CGI and robotic imitations simply can’t match.
“Open Water” ultimately floats into the same white-knuckle Hall of Fame inhabited by no-budget, high-tension classics as the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and “Duel.” And unlike many of today’s formulaic, play-it-safe horror franchises, this one will resonate for weeks, churning and bobbing in the brain like a waterlogged corpse. Once “Open Water” gets its hook into you, it refuses to give up the fight.
Get the rest of the story in part two of SIFF 2004: UNSUNG ANIMATORS, RETRO-ROCKERS AND DOGME DIRECTORS>>>
Posted on June 3, 2004 in Festivals by KJ Doughton
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