I’m writing from SXSW 2015 in Austin Texas. SXSW now includes the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music and Media Conference, SXSW Film and the SXSW Interactive Festival.
Two Greenwich Village residents scored big! Recent NYU Graduate School of Film Studies Laura Terruso jumped right into filmmaking even before being degreed. On The Foxy Merkins, the current NetFlix sleeper breakout, she produced as well as doing sound and back up camera work.
A script she co-wrote with one her professors was optioned by Hollywood—Hello, My Name is Doris had its world premiere at SXSW. Sally Field stars as an older woman fearlessly pursuing a younger man. Like The Foxy Merkins, it is a serious comedy. Dead serious and very funny, it won one of the most coveted awards: the SXSW Audience Award, which is voted on by people who pay to see the movie.
Kay Kasperhauser is the second hometown success story at SXSW. Over 2000 bands play SXSW with the hope that a critic or someone from a record label will fall in love with them. It happened for Kay. In three nights Prettiots became the buzz band at the festival. Not hyped, they generated genuine word-of-mouth buzz with people who saw them (including me) saying and texting “see Prettiots” to others.
Kay Kasperhauser grew up on Washington Place, went to the Little Red Schoolhouse, and then to Fieldston. She graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design. KK grew up in a house full of the best of indie music with many of the artists making it dropping by.
Rather than reading Seventeen as a teenager, Kay read BOMB or the New York Review of Books. She learned about songwriting from people like Lucinda Williams—simple on the surface and totally complex underneath.
She formed the three-piece girl band Prettiots about a year and a half ago, playing at the odd art spots of NYC’s music culture. At a show, she caught the eye of legendary photographer and filmmaker Richard Kern and he made the band’s first music video Boys (I Dated in Highschool): https://youtu.be/Jfol9YlSvPc
Their official gig had about 30 people present, but one was Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis, who I think has the best ears in the music business and his label was and still is the coolest label. In sharp contrast to the stereotype, Travis is polite, understated, and fueled with sincerity.
When the Prettiots finished, he turned to me and said “Quite good don’t you think, Jim?” I agreed, but didn’t say that I had been watching them for about a year now. Over the next few days, I found out Travis had gone to all their shows. This, I learned when I did A&R at a major label, is what happens when you see someone you like at a place like SXSW. When you like something you show up so the band sees you. He was there first. Next thing I knew, he had offered to sign them—which happens very rarely to unknown, unsigned bands today .
There is a big but quiet battle within the documentary film community concerning an attempt by PBS to stop funding outside producing organizations like award winning ITVS. PBS, like HBO, wants to bring the documentary film making in-house where they will have more control and input.
When a third party is funded by PBS, PBS only becomes critically involved when it is finished or near finished. PBS has also been attempting to move documentaries out of primetime slots, moving them to secondary channels in different markets. These changes are worrisome and may threaten the independent vision of documentary filmmakers.
PBS depends greatly on the goodwill of federal legislators. When an administration swings right or left, it can have a profound effect on PBS funding. Using outside producers like ITVS allows some distance between PBS’s management and creative interference.
I believe the most interesting political commentary in our country today is not on mainstream television. Instead, it can be found in online programs like Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now, in social critics/comics on cable like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and in the vision of independent, engaged filmmakers.
Independent documentaries have taken on political subjects which mainstream news has failed to examine. For example, Citizenfour reveals the complexity of the Snowden story. Historically PBS and film festivals have brought this kind of socially committed documentary film making to the public. But if PBS succeeds with their proposed changes, we may lose access to important voices.
Some of this controversy may have been generated by the super-rich, check writing elite like the Koch brothers, who are also major donors to PBS. ITVS funded a documentary that was critical of the Koch brothers, and apparently all hell broke loose behind closed doors when they found out. The Koch brothers demanded that it be withdrawn from any public programing or they would stop writing checks.
It took two years for the film to finally receive a theatrical release. If it had been an in-house PBS produced documentary, I don’t know if PBS could have resisted censoring it. Political clout and check book politics are just too strong right now.
Documentary filmmakers have organized themselves into an indie caucus to fight this consolidation of power as well as to fight against schedule changes that push documentaries to unfavorable time slots. I suggest strongly that you educate yourself at the website http://www.current.org/2015/01/filmmakers-push-for-common-carriage-at-first-stop-in-public-tv-listening-tour/. And take the appropriate action supporting true independence in the documentary film world.
Lets Go to the Movies :
Live Ideas at New York Live Arts
S K Y—Force and Wisdom in America Today
I suggest this might be the most important event in April, combining the arts and social issues in synergistic ways. It asks: how do we live in world that is becoming non-supportive of human beings and humanity and the earth herself?
Featuring five days of musical performances, lectures, original dance works, panels, film and a late-night lounge and more, it has been curated by our neighbor, the world- renowned visual artist, inventor and performer Laurie Anderson in conjunction with New York Live Arts’ Artistic Director Bill T. Jones.
It unites some of the world’s most celebrated innovators and provocateurs to build an explosive meeting of contemporary art and ideas. Hal Willner, Chloe Webb, Laurie Anderson, Julian Schnabel are just a few of the artists and social activists featured. Please go to the website http://newyorklivearts.org/liveideas/ and see the listing of discussions—held at noon and usually free, films and performances.
Art of the Real
The Film Society of Lincoln Center is hosting a documentary series that asks a very serious question about what constitutes the boundaries of documentary filmmaking. The programing shows thoughtful and provoking curation at work. Includes The Actualities of Agnès Varda, an Agnès Varda retrospective.
The Royal Road
director Jenni Olson
Olson has been hovering around cinema greatness for the last few years, but here she “femifests” the word “masterpiece.” The Royal Road is rigorous filmmaking with a visual discipline that seduces the viewer to almost step into the frame and travel at the pace and rhythm of the cinematographer as she follows the route of a historical California route—El Camino Real telling its story in a visual language that feels familiar (Robert Bresson tinctures). It is a very personal narrative in which a young, female, LA filmmaker speaks her normally silent thoughts.
directors Nicolás Videla and Camila José Donoso
The directors chose to cross the intersection between subjective storytelling and documentary “objectivity,” using different cameras to capture each strain. We meet Yermén, who wants to change his body so he will look like the woman he knows himself to be. Yermén, comfortable in this self-definition, wants to look as pretty as Yermén feels. Unlike the deluge of almost cliché trans-advocacy films, Naomi Campbel brings a whole person to the screen with a sensitive reality check showing how class determines choice. Not since the narrative film Different for Girls have I seen this subject presented with such complexity and sensitivity.
director Agnès Varda
Varda’s 1969 film has been beautifully restored. Shot in Los Angeles, it features Academy Award winning filmmaker Shirley Clark dressed in a leopard skin coat and wrestling with the idea of making a Hollywood film. It also stars Warhol Superstar Viva (begging the question why was she not a major star with all that beauty and presence and intelligence on display?) and the writers and original stars of Hair James Rado and Gerome Ragni, like children in grown-up hippie bodies. It was surreal to watch people I knew very well back then lost in the Hollywood bubble while real world reality intrudes only via television reports on events like the Robert Kennedy assassination.