Working on the reasonable assumption that people who attend film festivals are receptive to films about other films, SXSW programmers sprinkled the 2013 lineup with a number of biographical documentaries about noted directors and actors, a tribute to the era of VHS and, of course, mashups and homages that require audiences to be aware of “B” and “Z” movie conventions to appreciate the in-jokes.
Still, the question remains: Can even the best of these films find a sizable audience outside of the fest circuit? This year at SXSW, the answer to that query seemed to be, at best, a qualified maybe.
(From the pages of the March 26 issue of Variety.)
Sophie Huber’s “Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction” sustains interest and provides amusement as a free-wheeling, teasingly elliptical study of the elusively reserved character actor, who comes across here as alternatively playful and nihilistic as he sometimes answers, but mostly dodges, the director’s probing queries. The 86-year-old subject — a legend, with more than 200 film credits on his resume — seems to be only half-joking when he claims, “I’ve avoided success artfully.”
Friends and co-workers are appreciably more forthcoming while providing bits of biographical detail and repeatedly waxing enthusiastic about the “actor’s actor.” But even when Stanton himself gleefully admits that, once upon a time, he and Debbie Harry were more than just good friends, viewers are constantly aware that they will learn only just so much, and no more, about an artist determined to remain an enigma.
Two other biographical docs at SXSW — Jeffrey Schwartz’s “I Am Divine,” a tribute to the drag-queen diva who served as John Waters’ muse, and Zak Knutson and Joey Figueroa’s “Milius,” a hagiographic portrait of macho writer-director John Milius — are more traditionally structured works.
Schwartz’s affectionate appreciation of Divine’s life and career should please fans and enlighten the uninitiated. Born Harris Glenn Milstead, the self-styled superstar comes off as surprisingly sweet, despite her notoriety as the excrement-chomping harridan of Waters’ “Pink Flamingos.”
But “Milius” is the one more likely to gain any sort of wide exposure — followed by extended play in various homescreen platforms — if only because of the star power on display: Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Arnold Schwarzenegger offer enthusiastic testimonials for the outlaw filmmaker and self-described “Zen anarchist” who gave us “Conan the Barbarian,” “Dillinger” and the original script for Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.”
Unfortunately, scholars seeking anything more substantial than hosannas from fan club members would do well to look elsewhere. Though “Milius” overflows with fascinating behind-the-scenes anecdotes (an account of Milius’ contributions to “Jaws” is especially intriguing), everyone involved seems rather too quick to buy into the notion that Milius was unfairly blacklisted for his right-wing politics in the wake of his “Red Dawn,” and therefore had trouble finding work even before he suffered a debilitating stroke a few years ago.
The home-entertainment marvel that revolutionized that same era, the videocassette player, gets its own spotlight in Josh Johnson’s “Rewind This!” Though overlong and ungainly, the docu packs nostalgic appeal for anyone who warmly remembers the novelty period of the homevid revolution.
Not unlike a college-level survey course that covers a multitude of related topics as quickly as possible, “Rewind This!” briskly recalls the pre-TiVo era of time-shifting, the early VHS-vs.-Beta showdown, the leap of porn from sleazy theaters to comfy living rooms and so on. But the film is most entertaining when it focuses on schlockmeisters such as Frank Henenlotter (“Basket Case”) and Charles Band (“Troll”) who pioneered the production of direct-to-video monster mashes, action-adventures and slasher flicks.
The enduring influence of such disreputable fare factors into at least two of SXSW’s cheekier dramatic features: Jacob Vaughan’s “Milo,” the crazy tale of a stressed financial advisor (Ken Marino) who discovers he has a bloodthirsty demon baby living in his colon; and Mike Mendez’s “Big Ass Spider!” a fast-paced, surprisingly clever horror farce whose title says it all.
Appealing primarily to the rowdy frat-boy crowd, “Milo” appears to have been inspired by the legendarily tasteless ad campaign for “Ghoulies,” Band’ s franchise-spawning 1985 cheapie-creepie that was sold with poster art depicting one of the title creatures emerging from a toilet. But “Big Ass Spider!” generates even more laughs simply by not trying so hard to be a cult movie.