SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST 1997: MORE FROM THE FRONTLINES Image

[ BATTLE FOR THE MINDS ] ^ Probably the surprise of the festival, and a big time oxymoron. Who would’ve thought that a documentary on Southern Baptists would ever make it as an entrant in a liberal, arts-oriented film festival? It’s a good thing it did, though, because this compelling, often frightening look at the Fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Conference was an eye opener.
Lipscomb’s film, the SXSW Honorable Mention winner, combines interview footage, press conferences, and chilling excerpts of the SBC’s annual conference to examine the battle over ordaining women into the Baptist Pastorship. This would seem like a “who cares?” non-issue for the rest of us, except that the film reveals just how insidious the Dark Ages mentality of the Christian Far Right is. Remember, these loonies are out to tear down the Church/State wall.
“Battle for the Minds” makes no attempt to hide Lipscomb’s opinion that these angry white men are Neanderthals. The beauty of the film lies in the fact that it lets the fools hang themselves by espousing their twisted view of “a woman’s place” on camera, for all to ridicule. It was a bizarre experience screening a movie with a bunch of Baptists in the first place. It was even more bizarre to learn from “Battle for the Minds” that even most Baptists hate the idiotic patriarchs of the Fundamentalist movement.
[ BEN JOHNSON: THIRD COWBOY ON THE RIGHT ] ^ Perhaps it’s only fitting that legendary sidekick and character actor Ben Johnson was forced to play a sidekick in what was ostensibly his own documentary. Admittedly, much of “Third Cowboy’s” 82 minutes of talking heads James Coburn, Charlton Heston, Peter Bogdanovich and others was about Johnson, the only “real cowboy” and the only man ever to win a World Rodeo Championship and an Oscar, (“The Last Picture Show.”)
Yet what filters through at times is not so much a portrait of Ben Johnson himself, but how he adapted to and reflected the personas of the diverse Western directors John Ford and Sam Peckinpah. There were large chunks of this film where the interviewees were rhapsodizing, not about Johnson, but about these legendary directors or Johnson’s usual on-screen CO John Wayne.
During the Q&A, director Thurman lamented that he’s had a hard time generating interest in this documentary. Well, it’s no wonder. Ben Johnson seems like a durable, versatile, resilient survivor able to accommodate some of the biggest egos of the Golden Age of Hollywood. By his own admission, however, and even in his own documentary, Ben Johnson apparently just wasn’t meant to be a leading man.
[ UNDER THE BRIDGE ] ^ Yet another formulaic urban drama. When I remember that the winner of last fall’s Austin Heart of Film Festival was “Dog Run,” a, you guessed it, gritty urban drama, I wonder if Austin is going out of its way to point out that for a city its size, it’s got it relatively good. In any event, “Under the Bridge” introduces Matthew Weathers as eight year old Eddie, (aka “Shiner”), a battered runaway from a local orphanage. Eddie stumbles across a band of squatters occupying Hellhole, an abandoned warehouse along New York City’s East River. Eddie, as cute little kids are prone to do in films such as this, humanizes each of the stereotypical inhabitants of Hellhole; the prostitute with the heart of gold, the sagelike old black fisherman, the charismatic petty crook, etc., etc…
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the film. It’s just that it’s too much of a slave to a tried and true formula. Plenty of other movies have covered this territory already, making this one seem like, uh… water “Under the Bridge.”
[ REDBOY 13 ] ^ Like Nickelodeon woozy from a sugar rush, this spy parody details the adventures of a retired thirteen year old secret agent brought back into the game for “One Last Mission”. Director Marcus van Bavel built his own studio and computer effects in Texas to see how close he could get to a Hollywood action picture on no budget. The result has plenty of goofy charm but occasionally shows the strain of trying to hard. As usual when you try to hit every target, you miss a few. The “Rambo” parody is brilliant but the James Bond-like sequence with van Bavel playing a “Q”-like character falls flat.
All the “Murkinaugan” terrorists attempting to cover their Texas accents is often hilarious.
The end result? It’s uneven but still entertaining. It was nice watching someone labor not to depict the plight of the human condition but instead make a kids movie.
[ RETURN TO GIANT ] ^ In 1956, way before the days when Texas was considered a filmmaking alternative to Hollywood or New York, Warner Brothers Studios dispatched a film crew and several of its biggest stars to the town of Marfa, TX, a blip of 4,500 souls clinging to the sands of the West Texas plains. Their mission; to bring to the screen the quintessential Texas novel, “Giant.”
In “Return to Giant,” director Jim Brennan documents the making of this “national movie of Texas” and the impact it had, not only on the grounded, yet marginally star struck inhabitants of the town itself, but on its famous visitors from Planet Hollywood, including Rock Hudson, Dennis Hopper, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean, who would be killed in the closing days of production.
This is an engaging, if fairly pedestrian, study of not only a largely overlooked motion picture, but an example of the often amusing, sometimes life altering culture clashes that occur when a squadron of filmmakers invades an unsuspecting host.
[ RIDING THE RAILS ] ^ This is what should have won the documentary feature competition. If I was gonna drag my sorry ass out of bed on a Sunday morning, and for a documentary no less, it had better be a damned good one. Fortunately, it went way beyond good. “Riding the Rails” was the best feature film – narrative or documentary – in the entire festival.
This compelling documentary tells the largely forgotten saga of the 250,000 America teenagers who took to the transient life of freight train hopping, either in a desperate attempt to find work or just for the sheer sense of adventure during the darkest days of the Great Depression.
Consisting of a solid mix of archival newsreel footage and photos intercut with live interviews of a widely diverse group of surviving “train kids” who are now in their 70’s and 80’s, this was a funny, often poignant and highly educational film. In spite of the temptation to romanticize the adventures these kids lived, the film manages to balance the glamorous side of the story with the serious and occasionally tragic consequences of train hopping.
This is a must-see cautionary memory refresher for older Americans and an incredibly vital history lesson for our nation’s kids. For not only does “Riding the Rails” do an interesting and entertaining job of telling the unusual story of the train kids, but it snugly places that story within the broader context of an horrific and pivotal time in the history of the United States. It shows us just how close the Great American Experiment came to blowing up in our collective faces.

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