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On the Southern Circuit During the Season of Republican Resurgence: Hot Springs, Savannah, Memphis & Key West

I first heard the term “southern circuit” while talking to former New York Times film critic, The Treatment radio host and venerated international playboy Elvis Mitchell. Over lunch in Krakow several years ago, he described the series of spring and fall film festivals throughout the American south. After a relatively quiet summer, come late August a festival seems to unfurl almost every week somewhere below the Mason-Dixon line, starting with the Sidewalk Moving Pictures Festival in Birmingham, Alabama. While high-profile southern fests such as SXSW, Atlanta, Oxford, Little Rock and Nashville take place during the spring, an even larger share space on the calendar between Labor Day and Thanksgiving. From Marfa, Texas to Savannah, Georgia and from Cucolorus, North Carolina to Memphis, Tennessee, the fall festival circuit brings indie movies of various shapes and sizes to towns with few art houses and little indigenous indie film culture.

Hot Springs is only the 11th biggest city in Arkansas, but it’s likely the only one that has hosted a documentary film festival for the past 23 years. About an hour outside of Little Rock, Hot Springs is probably best known as Bill Clinton’s other hometown: born in Hope, #42 was raised largely in Hot Springs. Clinton wasn’t back home to watch documentaries during the festival, held every year in mid-October; the overlong ten-day affair’s final weekend coincided with his 50th High School reunion and election season. Clinton was here to campaign, of course, and to have a good time. The soirees he ostensibly throws for his Hot Springs bro crew late into the evenings are the stuff of legend in this old resort town.

Rumor had it he planned to show up to a Saturday afternoon screening of Take Me to the River, a clumsily constructed documentary narrated by a dandified Terence Howard about the legacy of the venerable Memphis music scene, in particular inimitable ’60s and ’70s soul label Stax Records. I hosted a Q&A after the screening with the label’s last CEO and some smooth-as-ice session musicians from Stax’s heyday. Scanning the crowd, I didn’t see any sign of Bubba; he was being mobbed at a bar down the street, where he and several old friends were watching the University of Arkansas football game as Secret Service men held back gawking throngs on the street outside.

I’d gotten my own glimpse of him the night before at a rally held for several Democrats on the ticket for the forthcoming election. Clinton was the reason anyone showed up; milling throngs carried placards reading “Welcome Home Bill” and “Hot Springs’ Finest.” Watching him speak after Mark Pryor and some middling congressional candidate with three names (both of whom ended up getting routed by Republicans) was like watching Little Leaguers play a game of pepper with Willie Mays. Clinton never uttered the name “Obama” as, in folksy and high comic fashion, he listed why the crowd should support the pols behind him. He even made Pryor — a career politician and scion to the state’s signature political dynasty — seem like a hardworking kid who came up chauffeuring around then-Governor Clinton in mid-size American sedans.

It didn’t matter, of course; the Republican wave was upon us and Pryor would lose by 17 points. The national media had seen it from afar, months ahead, knowing the young liberals and colored folks of various ethnicities that had sent Barack Obama to the White House yet again were unlikely to show up mid-term and save the Mary Landrieus and Kay Hagans of the world. Despite the worrisome set of circumstances in play, some of us held out hope that what some Americans still referred to as “the world’s greatest deliberative body” would not be run by wealthy lunatics — people still in thrall to delusions about the environment, the moral use of military force and the secret lives of black people. Sadly, such hope was misplaced and sensible leadership just wasn’t meant to be.

The birthplace of baseball’s obsession with spring training, the city of 35,000 was a major turn-of-the-century resort town thanks to the namesake abundance of warm mineral water flowing out of the Ouachita Mountains. Its speakeasy and gambling culture is legendary; Hot Springs is the site of the Gangster Museum of America and was once a major base of operations for Al Capone, a statue of whom sits in a permanent perch on a bench in front of the Natural State’s oldest bar, The Ohio Club. The entire festival plays out in one old and notoriously cheap hotel, The Arlington, where criminal activity once flowed effortlessly from cabana-esque rooms out onto Central Ave., a gorgeous boulevard lined on one side by spas and bath houses, and on the other by wax museums and southern eateries. It was recently named one of America’s ten great streets of 2014 by the American Planning Association.

The festival opened and closed with keenly observed, too-accessible-for-their-own-good profiles of aging artists Hot Springs baby boomers would recognize: James Keach’s Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me and Jennifer Kroot and Bill Weber’s George Takei hagiography To Be Takei. All screenings unfolded in ballrooms that had been converted into cinemas with questionable acoustics. Dog in tow, Little Rock native Joey Lauren Adams was on hand for a career retrospective and to hang out at cabaret shows, even if she, when I last checked, was not considered a documentarian. The festival unfolded with genuine cordiality from everyone involved on the planning side; after having struggled with financing in recent years, under Courtney Pledger’s leadership the festival seems to have hit its stride.

I would be remiss to not point out that I was on the international competition jury, and that fellow Filmmaker contributor Lauren Wissot is the programming director. I’d be even more remiss not to point out that the program she put together is as deep and carefully modulated as any you’ll find at a regional doc fest currently in operation, including domestic grand prize winner Evolution of a Criminal from new face Darius Clark Monroe, Iva Radivojevic’s Evaporating Borders and Teodora Ana Mehai’s Waiting for August, a searingly humane and well-observed look at a Romanian teenager forced to act as primary caregiver to her six siblings after their mother travels to Italy for much needed work. Assuming they can move their screenings to a place where one can actually hear the films the way they’re intended, this nearly quarter-of-a-century-year-old fest could be one to reckon with in the ever-expanding doc fest scene.

A week later, I found myself in Georgia. I had long wanted to go to Savannah’s wealthy and — as it turns out — remarkably well-run festival. Its reputation on the southern circuit is strong but unclear — almost everyone I talked to about it would say, “Oh, I hear that one is good!” The Republican push toward Senate control was moving forward with a full head of steam; Michelle Nunn (like Mark Pryor, the scion of a southern political dynasty) was trailing badly in her U.S. Senate seat race against a man whose claim to fame is how well he outsourced and eliminated American jobs while CEO at Reebok, Sara Lee and Dollar General, collecting a $42 million golden parachute on his way out of that last gig. None of that mattered to most of Georgia’s voters: Nunn, like Pryor, ran away from President Obama’s record of averting the great recession and insuring millions of poor folks. Nor did she castigate the myriad failings involving civil liberties and lacking of courage in his convictions that Republican and Tea Party detractors are too color-struck to remember or self-deluded to understand. Regardless, Obama wasn’t popular in these parts. Neither is she: Nunn got trounced on election day, losing by eight points.

Owned and operated by the Savannah College of Art and Design, the Savannah Film Festival has an easygoing pace and leisurely deep south vibe. There’s one high-profile gala screening a night and a smattering of other screenings during the day, generally at handsome old movie palaces long in disrepair and only recently beautifully restored by the college, which is largely credited with this Georgia city’s revival from ’80s backwater status. The festival throws expansive but rather quaint parties; booze stops flowing at 11:30 pm on the dot, as all those students have to get up in the morning and aren’t actively encouraged to embark upon the type of wild Savannah evenings Robert Downey Jr. so memorably uncorks in Robert Altman’s under-appreciated The Gingerbread Man.

There’s a typical mix of workshops and panels, most held in casual fashion at the Marshall House, a Civil War-era hospital for Sherman’s invading Union army. It’s just one of the many antebellum buildings lining handsome streets full of weeping willows, Spanish moss and 24 immaculately kept squares. Savannah and New Orleans are probably the closest you get to the feel and texture of old European cities in the States — along with Holly Springs, Mississippi and unlike most of the south, both were spared the scorched earth policy of William Tecumseh’s legendary campaign.

On opening night I caught Victor Levin’s 5 to 7, the most risible movie in recent memory about the life of a young New York writer. The crowd was mostly very old or very young; SCAD students and genteel retirees are the festival’s bread and butter. They were the perfect audience for the type of fantasy Levin, a veteran TV writer and producer making his debut as a feature film director, had in store; they don’t know Canarsie from Tribeca. In this bogus fantasy of class-hopping, inappropriate love, Anton Yelchin is an aspiring novelist whose walls are lined with rejection letters from Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and many other publications. He doesn’t seem to have another source of income; the movie never shows him waiting tables or babysitting, selling his body to old rich ladies or practicing clickbait internet journalism. Nevertheless, he lives in a Manhattan one-bedroom that, given the part of town it’s in, surely rents for well over $2,500. What does this character actually do for a living? Where does the money come from, Buster Brown?

After some tired expository tropes, our hero spies an impossibly gorgeous French diplomat’s wife (Berenice Marlohe) on the street. They meet, talk awkwardly, and then meet again, less awkwardly. Before long, they embark upon an affair, one she has to convince him to indulge — she’s in an open relationship and he’s not sure he’s up for all that. The movie unwisely fails to treat us to significant depictions of their actual lovemaking leaving us to wonder – is our scrawny writer a stud? If not, why is this gorgeous, older French woman drawn to him? He isn’t particularly intelligent or compelling, and her husband (Lambert Wilson), who is cool with everything, doesn’t seem chaste. He even invites our young scribe to fancy parties at their Upper East Side home, where people like Julian Bond just happen to drop by for supper. At one of these parties, he meets a young editor from Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Olivia Thirlby); soon enough, he’s publishing stories about animals in The New Yorker and being offered book deals. But really, as it should be, his focus is stealing this hot French lady all for himself.

5 to 7 only comes to life when Frank Langella and Glenn Close show up as the young novelists’ kvetching Jewish parents and take him to lunch. The two veterans are so good you want the movie to just follow them back up the BQE back to Great Neck and leave their starry-eyed son behind, like some kind of latter-day Slacker. It doesn’t, so we have to stick around as Yelchin’s writer blows up when the affair turns serious and people start doing things they really, truly would never do in real life, like write six-figure checks to men who’ve been fucking their wives so as to make those men disappear.

Deep verisimilitude is different than having David Remnick show up in your movie. Levin has been writing for TV since 1989; his knowledge of what it’s like for an aspirant (and, by all evidence, not terribly talented) young writer is at least 25 years old — that’s the last time such a writer might, sans a day job, be able to afford a Gramercy Park one-bedroom without parental help or another job. After watching Levin bash a few softballs lobbed by that night’s moderator into the cheap seats, I opened up the opening night’s audience Q&A with the question I posed a few paragraphs above. “He’s a writer,” Levin said, not understanding the nature of the question. “Yes, but all his pieces have been rejected,” I continued, “How’s he paying his rent?” Having written very recently for several of the publications and the publisher Yelchin’s character is coddled by in the film and having, despite the modest financial support they provide, moved to the northern Bronx to find an affordable writer’s studio a fraction of the size of Yelchin’s, I saw through the lie. I just wanted Levin to admit how separate from any tangible reality his protagonist’s life was. “He’s saved some money,” Levin replied from the stage awkwardly, the grave unreality of his vision rattling around the back of his mind. “And probably,” he said almost as an afterthought, “has some help from his parents.”

The final weekend before election day, I went to the 17th Indie Memphis Film Festival. Other than a brand new venue — the Hattiloo, devoted almost exclusively to African-American content — little had changed since last year’s stellar edition. It is still one of the countries’ great regional film festivals: remarkably programmed by Erik Jambor, generously supported by investment bank Duncan-Williams and pleasantly managed by Brighid Wheeler and a team of amazing volunteers. Savannah’s great wealth and gorgeous architecture were nowhere on display in this generally working-class southwest Tennessee town, but Indie Memphis has a good natured urgency and freewheeling ingenuity most festivals can only hope for and wealthy festivals like Savannah can rarely pull off. I sat on a jury judging hometown movies, ate a significant amount of barbeque and fried chicken, and heard, from producer Mike Ryan, the story of Ed Redditt, a former Memphis police detective removed from his usual duty on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s security detail for mysterious and still unclear reasons the day he was shot. Redditt was a key witness in the King family’s successful 1999 wrongful death civil suit, King v. Jowers and Other Unknown Co-Conspirators, which persuasively alleged that various government agencies conspired to kill King.

Conspiracy was in the air, and not just because Tennessee voters had just returned former Republican Presidential candidate and obstructionist filibuster king Lamar Alexander to the “world’s greatest deliberative body” by a two-to-one margin over hopeless Democratic challenger Gordon Ball. But the show went on. Highlights included an incredible 20th anniversary screening of Hope Dreams — with DP Peter Gilbert and subjects William Gates, Arthur Agree and his mother on hand for a Q&A afterward — and a batshit crazy Holloween ball at the famous Memphis dive Ernestine & Hazel’s, hosted by festival board chairman and bard of Memphis auteurs Craig Brewer. Fandor’s Ted Hope skipped the jury brunch the next morning to go to Graceland, but was happily signing copies of his new book at the Hattiloo after giving a talk supporting his thesis that indie film is, despite all the evidence to the contrary, a salvageable means of making a living for the non-wealthy.

Hope jokingly offered 100K from the organizations of fellow jurors Eliza Hajek and Dan Guando (SAGindie and The Weinstein Company, respectively) to the winner of the grand jury prize, Nathan Silver’s Uncertain Terms, if the director of the film would come up and accept the award. Hope milked the moment for all it was worth, waiting for Silver to emerge, as Guando and Hajek (who seemed unaware Hope was going to go all Don Rickles on the audience) squirmed behind him. Silver wasn’t there, as Hope well knew. There was a grin on his face and drink in his hand as he suggested Silver would go on to have the kind of career indie greats Hope’s worked with — Nicole Holofcener, Ang Lee, Hal Hartley — have achieved. A great guy and current critical darling, Silver has been a favorite on these pages. I couldn’t help but think that in this day and age, he’d have to be independently wealthy to have the kind of career working-class Hartley (who makes similarly idiosyncratic films) once had, when such movies fetched much more on the international market, in American cinemas and on American television. Silver has finished four features (and attempted another) since first emerging on the festival circuit with the short Anecdote in 2008; to my knowledge, none of them have yet to make even a five-figure return theatrically.

Election day was over, mid-November was upon us and I was steeling myself for the long winter of Republican governance. Former Florida Republican governor Charlie Crist failed to win back his position as a Democrat, losing to incumbent Republican Rick Scott by a point. It was the most expensive race in the history of Florida politics, I was told while in Key West, the southernmost place in America (even if it technically isn’t “the south”). Why shouldn’t it have been? Rick Scott has a fortune estimated at $218 million dollars and Crist doesn’t have shallow pockets either. Meanwhile, the second Key West Film Festival is a nice idea still in the process of becoming an actual thing. (Note to fest directors: providing transportation and/or walkable venues along with readily available food and drink for your guests is 90% of the guest relations battle, no matter what idyllic beach you’re pitching your tent on), and the expensive election was only the second most alarming thing I learned about.

The first? A screenwriter whose prize-winning directorial debut had been picked up by a major independent distributor told me his film had been acquired for exactly zero dollars. “Zero? As in no minimum guarantee at all?” I blinked at him as we sat on a grand porch, observing something like a film festival panel going on below. Drinks in hand, a smattering of other filmmakers were sitting amongst us, sipping rosé or margaritas from the bar just a few feet away. Housed in a 1930s two-story frame house that maintains the porch as its central attraction, we were trying not to complain, but we couldn’t help it.

“Nope, none at all,” he reiterated. Sheesh. On our way to a local restaurant (called, ironically, Two Cents), one of the movie’s stars mentioned how uneasy the director was while staying in a five-star resort on vacation without his family, supporting a film that its distributor clearly doesn’t have much faith in. “He’s struggling to support his family, so it’s all a little weird for him,” she told me privately. I knew how he felt when he talked about the guilt in having wait staff, towel boys and maids serve him, feeling more solidarity with them than the vacationers with burnished tans and expensive handbags at the Casa Marina. They were as unlikely as the jerseyed hordes filling sports bars on Key West’s main drag/tourist trap boulevard, Duvall Street, to come check out an indie film at the gorgeous five-screen art house the Tropical Cinema or the San Carlos Cultural Institute, a 19th century educational, civic and patriotic center founded in 1871 by exiles to support Cuba’s campaign for independence from the Spanish.

Despite being one of the very best of the year, the film in question faces an uphill battle when it opens next week. Distributors with little skin in the game have no incentive to push to glory a film they acquire for little (or, in this case, nothing). It will open amidst a barrage of movies the industry and its media enablers have deemed award season contenders, films whose outsized P&A budgets will surely swallow whole whatever modest box-office aspirations our film director and his investors had.

Our director knows it. He stares it right in the face as he hears terms like “day and date” and faces a dozen or so spectators at a Q&A near the beach. “I just want people to know about it, know it’s out there,” he told me, knowing damn well that they won’t, at least not enough of them to make any dent in the cultural conversation. Like all those who went to the polls the week before, thinking that their vote mattered — that their desires would be earnestly represented by the men and women they sent to Washington, that they could somehow, collectively with like-minded citizens, defeat the awful calculus of a democracy (or a movie industry) in which Congressman are beholden to fundraisers, since the better financed candidate wins 91% of the time and half of the ten most significant contributors to propaganda spewing super PACs were billionaires who made their money in finance — our poor director was engaged in a form of magical thinking. God bless him for trying.

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