At the screenwriter-centric Austin Film Festival, the atmosphere is two parts camaraderie, one part commiseration. By day, AFF is an industry conference for writers, featuring pitch sessions, table reads of new scripts, and panel discussions. Some of the panels are designed for the novice (“Crowdfunding Your Indie Film,” “The Psychology of Storytelling”), while others are genre-specific forums (“Writing Espionage,” “Television Comedy,” “The Comeback of the Musical”). By night, the festival opens up to the public with a roster of festival-circuit films and a smattering of world premieres.
If less renowned than South by Southwest, AFF is more welcoming: better organized, less crowded and more representative of Austin’s small-town identity. Also unlike SXSW, it’s walkable. Nearly everything on the schedule can be found in a five-block radius. The center of the festival is Congress Avenue, in the shadow of the salmon-colored State Capitol of Texas. Here are two venues, the 1,200 seat Paramount Theater and the 49-seat Hideout. Around the corner are the two conference hotels, the fancy Steven F. Austin and the even fancier Driskill, decorated in a dramatic cattle-baron-art-nouveau style and reeking of a century’s worth of legislative decadence. Just east of that, down “Dirty Sixth” street, nicknamed for its unfortunate smell, is the 180-seat Alamo Drafthouse Ritz, a cinephile’s oasis tucked in among the frat bars.
The top criterion for the festival’s selection of films is good storytelling, which doesn’t necessarily mean narrative nonfiction. A documentary category was instituted in the mid-Aughts, when it was decided, rightly, that a nonfiction storyteller scouring material in the editing room faces many of the same storytelling challenges as a screenwriter in front of a word processor. This year, some of my favorite entries were biographical documentaries of historic entertainers.
Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself
The idea of the documentarian-as-writer takes on new meaning in Thomas Bean and Luke Poling’s Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself, an unusually literary nonfiction film about the unusual literary man who was the roving journalist and longtime editor of the Paris Review. Bean and Poling appropriate autobiographical audio recordings from Plimpton’s archive so that in effect their subject posthumously narrates his own documentary. There’s a whimsical-whirlwind Wes Anderson feel to the film, but I suspect that’s because Gene Hackman’s character in The Royal Tenenbaums was at least partly inspired by the rascally behavior of Plimpton, a well-bred scamp expelled from Exeter who wrote for the Harvard Lampoon and was a close friend of the Kennedys. “Participatory journalism” was the name he chose for his extreme brand of research: to write about the Detroit Lions, he joined the team’s offensive line. He flew on trapezes, photographed wildlife, tried standup comedy, appeared as an extra in the saloon scene in Rio Bravo, and got his nose broken in the boxing ring by heavyweight champion Archie Moore.
Vampira and Me
If Plimpton deserves his own chapter in the history of performance art, so does Maila Nurmi, better known as Vampira, the late-night Fifties creature feature host of a Los Angeles TV show, friend of James Dean, and eventual co-star of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space. The bulk of the material in R.H. Greene’s Vampira and Me comes from the few surviving kinescopes of her program and a series of interviews that Greene conducted with Nurmi before she died. While the film suffers from a dearth of archival footage, Greene’s essayistic narration is full of eloquent observations as he argues for her significance as a feminist icon. For instance, he draws a distinction between Nurmi and Bettie Page: while Page appealed as the naughty girl next door, the goth queen of the late show was a creature from another world, her waist so cinched it suggested the absence of a womb. (“Vampira was far too imperious to be bound and gagged.”) Greene traces the camp-goth meme from Charles Addams’ “Addams Family” cartoons in The New Yorker to Nurmi (born a blonde) to the Misfits song “Vampira,” and frames her morbid, self-satirizing humor as unique among female TV personalities of the 1950s. Most fascinating is Greene’s survey of Vampira’s imitators, from a rival station’s “Voluptua,” a short-lived cheesecake presenter of romance movies, to Elvira, Vampira’s Los Angeles successor, a nemesis Nurmi resented to the end.
A.K.A. Doc Pomus
Also charming is Peter Miller and Will Hechter’s A.K.A. Doc Pomus, a tribute to one of the Brill Building’s most prolific songwriters. Born Jerome Felder in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and hobbled by polio since childhood, he reinvented himself as “Doc Pomus,” a blues singer and eventual composer of 1,000 songs, including “This Magic Moment,” “A Teenager in Love,” and “Save the Last Dance For Me.” Buoyant and heart-rending by turns, Miller and Hechter get the tone just right; seek this one out if you thought Vikram Jayanti’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector was too ponderous.
One of the aims of AFF is to boost industry morale. This is why a spirited personality like Paul Feig, who doesn’t have a film playing at the festival or coming out this year, is a good choice for a guest programmer and (motivational) speaker. At a panel (“A Conversation with Paul Feig”) he encouraged emerging screenwriters to “dig into the first 18 years of your life, because what happened to you in high school never stops happening to you.”
Not Fade Away
The “life is like high school” philosophy worked well for Feig in Freaks and Geeks. Not so for Sopranos creator David Chase in his feature directorial debut, Not Fade Away, the opening-night film of the festival. First of all, let’s acknowledge that Chase is largely responsible for reinventing the long-arc narrative television series for the 21st century and raising it to an art form. We know Chase’s strengths as a writer and director: apportioning emotional distance, drawing out quotidian insights, using surrealism to foreshadow, and igniting slow-burn suspense. None of these skills translate well into a 110-minute format. Fairly or unfairly, fans will be primed to expect the film to match the pleasures of serial storytelling.
Chase stacks the deck against himself by getting too romantic about his own past. Not Fade Away might be called an affectionate self-portrait of the artist as a young man. The film’s fictional hero is (as its writer-director was) a bright-but-frustrated Italian-American coming of age in the Jersey suburbs in the mid-Sixties. Disillusioned with his narrow-minded family—James Gandolfini is the disgruntled patriarch—he joins a Rolling Stones–inspired basement band as the drummer and eventual singer, but grows dissatisfied with the quaint aspirations of his band members as well. Not Fade Away feels like The Sopranos minus the Mafia. Gandolfini is seen in contexts familiar from the show—gobbling pasta, waddling down the driveway of his home—but without the dimensionality of Tony Soprano’s double life. The casting choice only reinforces the absence of the underworld subculture that was the crux of the HBO show.
Introducing the film at the Paramount, Chase described it as “more personal than autobiographical,” then went on to itemize its autobiographical elements, including those mentioned above and the budding romance with the woman who later became his wife, portrayed in the film by Bella Heathcote. I was reminded of The Sopranos storyline in which mid-ranking mafioso Christopher draws heat from his associates by hiring a Hollywood hack to help him write an autobiographical screenplay. This was presented as a bad idea on Christopher’s part: what kind of dimwitted egomaniac would think he could get away with publicizing the exploits of the secret criminal organization of which he is an active member?
Chase’s own story is not incriminating—it’s just boring. As anybody who has spent time around musicians can testify, band drama is rarely interesting to those outside the band. Lead John Magaro plays a kid with Bob Dylan’s hair but none of the talent, and I guess that’s the point. There’s nothing wrong with a personal history as long as it’s engaging and fresh, but Not Fade Away is a familiar slog through boomer nostalgia. The audience exploded in guffaws at the unhip old fogey Dean Martin’s introduction of the Rolling Stones in a 1964 clip from Hollywood Palace. Never mind that the people laughing are all older now than Dino was then. Anybody seen Mick Jagger lately?
It's a Disaster
My top pick of the festival, writer-director Todd Berger’s It’s a Disaster, requires a caveat. It screened a full week before the onset of Hurricane Sandy, and, though it feels a little awkward saying so, this screwball doomsday rom-com is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen this year. Scheduled for theatrical release by Oscilloscope in the spring, it stars David Cross, Julia Stiles, America Ferrera, and five others, as a group gathered for a couples brunch party gone beyond wrong. The get-together would have been volatile enough under normal day-drinking circumstances—here are all the usual sexual triangles, octagons, and rhombuses—but Berger adds an external catastrophe. Nobody knows what it is, because nobody’s getting a signal on their phone. The WiFi and cable aren’t working either. As the title suggests, the young urbanites are unprepared for what hits. They have no batteries, no flashlights, and no radio. All they have is irrelevant expertise, in subjects ranging from psychopharmacology to zombies to xylophones, and the dubious aid of copious booze.
In a “case study” panel before the screening, Berger cited Night of the Living Dead and Dr. Strangelove as his inspirations, and while those movies are rarely compared side by side, they do share the same powerful mix of claustrophobic dread and giddy fatalism. Berger said he set the story in motion by asking himself how couples at different stages of commitment (third date, terminally engaged, marriage on the rocks, etc.) might react to the end of the world.
Last week, as I followed the news and texted with my loved ones in New York, I thought about the film constantly: how the jovial weekend mood about “Frankenstorm” gave way to alarm at the satellite images, then a long, CNN-filled wait for the hurricane’s approach, followed by an eerie Internet silence on Monday morning. Extolling the hilarity of It’s a Disaster feels out of place under current circumstances, but there’s no disputing Berger has his finger on the zeitgeist. The world didn’t end in 2012, but the planet does not appear to be on a course of improvement. Perhaps a sense of humor—and a well-stocked liquor cabinet—really are the tools we’ll need to survive what’s coming.