SXSW Diary 2008: Day 7
Day 7: Thursday, March 13
I made up for seeing only one full movie (and parts of two others) yesterday by seeing six of ‘em today. Yes, SIX! And three of them had to do with Iraq! Wheeeee!
I began my day with a heaping helping of nerdery, thanks to “Second Skin,” the aforementioned documentary about World of Warcraft players. It is very interesting to me that there are 50 million WOW players, and I don’t know a single one of them. Or at least if I do, they have kept their WOW involvement secret from me. The film does a nice job of showing us the lives of several players without making fun of them or treating them like jokes. Of course, I still think they’re all losers worthy of ridicule, but I think that about a lot of people. You can’t blame the movie for that.
After “Second Skin” is when my Iraq marathon began. Initially my plan was to see one film and be done with it, in and out, easy-peasy. But I realized after the first one that I should probably stick around for the second one, and then that led to the third one, and even though my resources were drained and I really wanted to do something else, I was stuck and had no choice but wait until it was all over, no matter how lengthy or costly it became. When it was all over, I questioned whether I should have ever started in the first place. I’m sure you know the feeling.
First up was “Body of War,” a documentary directed by Phil Donahue and somebody who isn’t Phil Donahue (don’t feel like looking it up), about an U.S. soldier who came home from the war paralyzed from the chest down and is now involved with the Iraq Veterans Against the War organization. I think the film has some fundamental flaws, not least of which is the fact that its subject, Tomas Young, joined the Army on Sept. 13, 2001, specifically because he wanted to do something in the aftermath of 9/11. If he’d already been in the military and THEN was sent into a dubious, ill-conceived, disastrous war, then I think the film’s point would be stronger. As it is, well, you did sign up with the intention of fighting a war, and that’s what you got. Would you be any less paralyzed now if the Iraq invasion had turned out to be a really great idea? I just think the film’s point would have been better made if Donahue and not-Donahue (seriously, too lazy) had chosen a different poster boy.
One thing the film does well is to intercut Tomas’ story with C-SPAN footage from October 2002 in which one senator after another parrots back President Bush’s message about the dangers of Iraq in the run-up to the war. Much of what these men and women, Republicans and Democrats both, said at the time now sounds hilariously naive and inaccurate, which of course was the point of including it. The film seems to ask: How could so many people have been so wrong?
What amused and annoyed me — annused me? — was the audience’s reaction. When a particularly vile senator such as DeLay or Frist would appear on screen, many of those in attendance at the Paramount Theatre would boo and hiss. Yes, actual hissing, as if they were watching a silent melodrama in which a mustache-twirling villain had tied a woman to a train track. When someone spoke out against the war (such as Sen. Robert Byrd, who emerges as something of an ignored prophet), they would applaud him.
Mind you, I agree with the sentiments here with regard to the Iraq war. But it’s silly to applaud a movie. It’s filmed images being projected against a screen: The performers aren’t actually there to soak in and respond to your admiration. And in this case, not only are the performers not there, but the footage of what they’re saying is 5 1/2 years old. You’re applauding or hissing something that happened half a decade ago. Laughing, gasping, crying — those are natural, spontaneous responses to a movie, done almost unconsciously. Clapping, booing, and hissing are conscious decisions, and the only reason you do it in a situation like this is to let everyone around you know what you think. “Look how civic-minded and outraged I am!” is the subtext. And guess what? No one cares what you think. Shut up and watch the movie.
Next in my Iraq marathon was “Bulletproof Salesman,” a documentary about a man who sells armored vehicles in Iraq. Is he a war profiteer? Um, probably. He says he’s no more a profiteer than the people who sell toilet paper and other necessary supplies to war zones, and maybe he’s right. Maybe I’d agree with him more if he didn’t come off as such a b-hole in the movie.
In truth, it’s not a very good documentary anyway. It’s very short (70 minutes), and it lacks any kind of story or arc. It’s basically, “Well, here’s this guy, and here’s what he does, and the end.” It was disappointing because I’d had several people tell me the film was great. Turns out my intel was faulty. It was the best I had at the time, and I took the appropriate action by seeing the movie, but now I knew differently. To make up for it, the only option I had was to keep seeing more Iraq movies.
Luckily, there was another one showing! It was “Stop-Loss,” a fictional film in which an Army staff sergeant with pouty lips is angered to learn his tour of duty has been extended beyond its original expiration date. It will be released in theaters in a couple weeks, and it has some big names in the cast (Ryan Phillippe, Channing Tatum), but I cannot imagine it will break the trend of Iraq-themed movies failing at the box office. Nor do I think it should, as it’s emotionally flat and unengaging. If you want to see a great movie about the effects of war on young soldiers, rent “In the Valley of Elah.” If you want to watch a shallow treatment of the subject — co-produced by MTV, for heaven’s sake — watch “Stop-Loss.”
Having finally found my way out of the Iraq movies (well, OK, there weren’t any more), I hit a midnight screening next with several of the regular gang. The film was “Southern Gothic,” a horror flick in which a preacher becomes a vampire and views it as a blessing rather than a curse — the fulfillment of God’s promise of “eternal life.” I think that’s a fantastic idea for a movie, but this one squanders it with terrible, terrible acting and dialogue. It was no “I Slammed My D*** in the Drawer,” I’ll tell you that much.
It was now 1:30 a.m. You’re thinking that surely this was the end of my day. But no! Weinberg had a DVD player back in his hotel room, and he and Goss and I elected to watch more movies. Our selection was “[Rec],” a very, very frightening Spanish film about a virus outbreak that turns people all killy. That’s nothing new, of course (“28 Days Later,” etc.), but man alive does this thing ever sizzle. It’s filmed by the characters themselves (like “Blair Witch Project” and “Cloverfield”), and that device continues to be a scarily effective way of drawing the audience in to the action. The film has not been released in the United States and is already being remade as “Quarantine,” to be released in October. I can only assume that the remake, in keeping with the trend of American remakes of foreign horror films, will suck. In the meantime, here’s what Weinberg had to say about “[Rec]” at Cinematical.
Goss and Weinberg and I collapsed into the loving arms of sleep shortly after the film concluded, with Goss on the floor between the hotel room’s two beds. Visions of zombies and soldiers and World of Warcraft nerds danced in our heads.