Festival Files: 2018 Dallas International Film Festival, Dispatch #2

Introducing his labor of love film titled Also Starring Austin, filmmaker Mike Blizzard confessed there are two swipes at the city of Dallas, one obvious and one not so obvious. The obvious one, which is a comment from one of the interviewees that Austin is still weird and cool because big idea guys from Dallas haven’t ventured in and ruined their town just yet, did hit a bit hard. But in lieu of good films, we let the comments slide. After all, we’re one big state that once wanted to secede from the entire Union, so how different can we really be?

Assembled from the clips of  over 120 various films, Also Starring Austin is exactly the type of regional filmmaking history I love. Directed by Blizzard and edited by Laura Colwell, the documentary is a rambunctious and sleekly cut together ode to the very unglamorous filmmaking scene of Austin, Texas from the 1920s to the present. Perhaps a better title would be “Austin Plays Itself.” Like Thom Anderson’s monumental film Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), Blizzard utilizes scores of film clips to tell the evolving history of a city as it’s defined on celluloid.

Though much less scholarly than Anderson’s mammoth effort, bred from his distinctively dry background as a professor, Also Starring Austin does the same admirable job of surveying a city, its architectural bones, and its wavering culture throughout several decades of viewing via a wide angle lens. The tumultuous 60s … the independent burgeoning film scene of the 70s and 80s … and the financially provocative 90s are all explored in detailed fashion from film clips both macro (Spy Kids) and micro (David Boone’s early 80s short film Invasion of the Aluminum People, which no less than Jonathan Demme proclaimed to be a real American masterpiece).

Leaving no filmic stone unturned, Also Starring Austin also displays a playful sense of humor in the way editor Colwell ‘Frankenstein’s’ films together, so to speak, to create her own experiment. Watching scenes from the Coen Brothers’ debut film Blood Simple (1984) intercut with Ronald Moore’s z-grade apocalypse film Future-Kill (1985) not only injects a shrewd comment on Austin’s blank interchangeable urban architecture, but it reveals the broad canvas that no doubt lured so many to the city’s blank-canvas aesthetic.

Currently seeking distribution, Blizzard told me one of the only films he wasn’t able to include was the 1974 curiosity titled The Tomato That Ate Cleveland. If anyone knows of the whereabouts of that film’s missing reels, please notify the filmmaker asap. Until then, Also Starring Austin is as complete a retrospective course on Austin filmmaking that one can hope for.

Digging further into the documentary category, two films about musicians — Korn guitarist Brian “Head” Welch and Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto — couldn’t headline two more diverse talents. The real coup here? That both men are remarkably similar when it comes to finding spiritual equity within their hectic professions.

The more successful of the two is Ryuchi Sakamoto: Coda. Not only is it probably the best film I’ll see at DIFF, but it’s one of the best films of the year, period. Known to Western audiences mostly for his Oscar winning soundtrack to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987) and Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), Stephen Schible’s documentary showcases portions of Sakamoto’s recognized music both through film clips and live performances. However, the immense power of the film is eventually relayed through several long observations of Sakamoto recording his work. Endlessly wandering desolate locations like the Arctic Circle or a rain-drenched forest to record sounds, the infectious child-like glee that sprays across his face when he finds and molds the right sound into his atmospheric music is the crux of the film.

Beyond his decades-long composer career, Schible also follows Sakamoto in his humanitarian work, protesting against global warming and his dabbling in photography. Nothing quite compares to the portion where Sakamoto visits the Fukushima restricted zone, though. Amongst the rubble and debilitated structures, he wants to see a piano that’s survived the flood (complete with water line marks). He plays it gently and later finds the exact moments to add this survivor’s sounds into his latest work. It’s a stunning moment of resiliency and it just shows the vibrancy that has kept Sakamoto living (and fighting cancer) for so long now.

Less successful (but still respectable) is Scott Mayo and Trey Hill’s Loud Krazy Love. The film’s world premiere, it charts the rock-and-roll-lifestyle-desolation-to-salvation journey of Korn guitarist Brian Welch. Nibbling at the edges of a faith-based film (largely since it was produced by the noble I Am Second foundation), the documentary tells its story in a no-frills-by-the-book manner, checking off the right emotions and hitting all the (literal) beats. Welch is undeniably a charismatic persona and his story is one worth telling. I just don’t know if it’s justified on the big screen.