A few minutes after the South by Southwest Film Festival screening of his new documentary, Scratch, director Doug Pray received a rousing round of applause from the Austin crowd when he explained why he had shot his movie on film rather than digital video. Scratch is a documentary about "turntablists"--those renegade hip-hoppers who turn old vinyl recordings into new musical expressions--and Pray said it would have been inappropriate to use digital technology for a movie about analog artists. But when the applause died down, Pray confessed that his next project would almost certainly be shot on DV (digital video). "With Scratch," he said, "I kinda thought, 'I gotta do the last film.'"
The last film... If the 2001 edition of the SXSWFF had a theme, it dripped down from a digital cloud. Through well-attended, all-day screenings at five decent-size venues--one of which was set up exclusively for video projection--the battle that has raged at just about every film festival for the past few years reached something like a critical mass in Austin. There were videos transferred to film, films transferred to video, videos projected via video, and, periodically, like a potbellied stove to the frostbitten, a film shot on film and projected in 35mm.
Of the video productions transferred to film, the best--those that survived the transition with their aesthetics intact--were documentaries about music. Down From the Mountain, a video recording of last year's O Brother, Where Art Thou? benefit concert at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, was shot by veteran doc-makers D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, and Nick Doob, who know where to put a camera to capture performances. Gillian Welch, Allison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, and other country-bluegrass stalwarts are seen singing and playing their songs from the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers' comedy, and any complaints heard after the screening had more to do with the filmmakers' lack of penetrating behind-the-scenes footage than with the fuzziness of the transferred image.
Meanwhile, Penelope Spheeris's Ozzfest doc We Sold Our Souls for Rock & Roll offered high-energy editing, dynamic sound, and vibrant color to overcome its own video origins. Again, the biggest complaint had to do with the content: Like her third Decline of Western Civilization installment, Spheeris's latest youth-culture study is too accepting of degradation and depravity, and not nearly probing enough as to their root causes. The director lets the violence and the stunted sexuality of both the bands and the fans on Ozzy Osbourne's heavy-metal carnival tour proceed unchallenged by pertinent questions or damning imagery.
No such problems with Scratch, however. Pray's followup to the hugely entertaining grunge doc Hype! shows again that the young journalist knows whom to talk to, what to ask, and how to cut it together so that there's at least the illusion of exhaustiveness. Scratch's history extends from early rap DJs to the current Young Turks; it gets into "digging" with DJ Shadow, and breaks down the art form with Mix Master Mike and DJ Qbert (among countless others). The performance footage is ridiculously exciting, and Pray even edits the film in a scratch style at times, cutting across images like a needle rips across wax. Scratch is artful and informative, and it simply feels more worthy for having been shot on film--as though the investment alone reinforces the fact that the picture has ideas worth exploring.
As for the rest of the SXSWFF, the question lingered as to whether this was an exceptional year or a slack one. Compared with 2000's near-universally fine slate, which included such highlights as the still- underdistributed Dark Days, The Independent, The Target Shoots First, and The Woman Chaser, the 2001 schedule featured more outright duds. Dreary exploitation, student-quality work, unimaginative (and half-finished) documentaries, and pitifully awkward indie efforts plugged holes that would've been better left empty. The biggest disappointment of the fest was the premiere of Bartleby, a heavily hyped adaptation of the Herman Melville short story, directed by first-timer Jonathan Parker and starring such compelling actors as David Paymer, Maury Chaykin, Glenne Headly, and, in the title role, Crispin Glover. Parker made a huge miscalculation by playing the material as farcical comedy; Melville's original is inherently funny in a dark way, and pressing the humor only turns the story into a shaggy-dog joke. The color scheme is vibrant, but the acting is intentionally unnatural and surprisingly weak given the talent involved.
When a film like Bartleby earns noisy pre-fest buzz and then turns out to be awful, it tends to kill an attendee's enthusiasm: If we can't trust the tastes of festival directors in their selection of a huge, prime-time premiere, then why bother with what they picked for 3:30 on a Tuesday afternoon? At a panel led by Chicago Reader curmudgeon Jonathan Rosenbaum and Film Threat wise-ass Chris Gore, the usually smug, eminently ignorable Gore made an astute point when he observed that, with the decline of the independent art house in America, the regional film-festival circuit had become a viable alternative distribution chain for worthy "little" films. But that ray of hope may be dimmed if medium-to-tiny fests bog themselves down with such mediocrities as Bartleby or A House on a Hill, director Chuck Workman's blandly obvious misunderstood-artist melodrama starring Phillip Baker Hall as a veteran architect whose work is too "difficult" for the masses. (That Workman shot on DV and wildly overmanipulated the image only made the picture all the more dispiriting.)