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SXSW 2012: Girl Model, Tchoupitoulas, & Killer Joe

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SXSW 2012: <em>Girl Model</em>, <em>Tchoupitoulas</em>, & <em>Killer Joe </em>

In tackling the harsh realities of the international modeling industry, Girl Model, David Redmon and A. Sabin’s documentary about a specific corner of the modeling industry, forgoes the expected activist-exposé approach and trains a more intimate eye on a handful of players in order to open up a window into the layers of complexity and self-delusion that make this world turn. Two people figure most prominently in the film: Nadya, a 13-year-old model from Siberia who goes to Tokyo to try to begin a modeling career, and Ashley, an American former model turned scout who discovers Nadya in the first place.

Nadya’s understanding of her financial obligation to her family in embarking on this modeling career doesn’t wipe away the feelings of homesickness and dislocation she feels intensely once she’s in Japan; a tearful phone call she makes to a seemingly uncomprehending mother is heartbreaking to witness. Ashley is, in many ways, the more compelling subject, however. She’s been working within the modeling industry for 15 years now, even though when she was starting out as a model herself she vowed she wouldn’t stay in the industry for this long. Even now, as trapped in the modeling world as she still is, she admits to the filmmakers that she feels no particular passion for it, but that she’s too afraid of trying out a new field to even think about doing something else for a living.

Ashley works, by the way, for a Russian man named Tigram, who owns a modeling agency he calls “Noah” and who says he sees himself as a savior for these young models, offering them opportunities for worldly success and self-improvement. Is he serious? And, perhaps more pertinent, does Ashley truly believe this justification, or is this something she just swallows so she can continue trudging onward in this sordid business? Redmon and Sabin remain nonjudgmental on these and other matters of the exploitative environment they observe. Girl Model offers up an often upsetting portrait of an industry in which even some of its players remain ensnared by its ostensibly rewarding surface, either ignoring or willingly overlooking some of the troubling horrors underneath.

Tchoupitoulas could also be described as a work of nonjudgmental portraiture, but that wouldn’t come close to encapsulating its beauties. For their follow-up to 45365, directors Bill and Turner Ross turn their restlessly exploratory eyes to New Orleans nightlife, following three young siblings as they embark on an aimless nocturnal odyssey exploring New Orleans nightlife—an odyssey that unexpectedly gets extended when the siblings miss the last ferry back home and are forced to hang around until the break of dawn.

As with 45365, Tchoupitoulas takes a kaleidoscopic approach to exploring this milieu, capturing every nook and cranny they see with their camera, exploring certain aspects at whim—random park-bench occupants here, a burlesque house there—if they feel curious enough to do so. There is, thus, an exhilarating sense of freedom to both of their films that one could conceivably compare to Frederick Wiseman’s equally free-form examinations of institutions. Tchoupitoulas, however, isn’t about New Orleans in the usual sense. This is a New Orleans seen through the eyes of these three young children, with all their intact wild-eyed wonder at this seemingly magical playground in which they find themselves wandering about. Tchoupitoulas is as much an evocation of childhood innocence as it is a portrait of New Orleans nightlife—and in one of the brothers, William Zanders, the Rosses have discovered something of a budding young philosopher whose ruminations on dreams, personal aspirations, religion, and so on reinforce the kind of openness to the world that this film wondrously exudes in abundance.

After seeing Killer Joe, I’m starting to think maybe I just don’t jibe at all with Tracy Letts’s darkly comic, sneeringly cynical sensibility. This increasingly over-the-top demolition of a greedy, selfish clan in Texas reminded me of my reservations about the playwright’s later 2008 play August: Osage County. As with that Pulitzer Prize-winning play, this is a dysfunctional-family drama that tries to pass off “shocking” behavior as edgy provocation to mask the utter conventionality at its heart; Killer Joe merely adds extravagant doses of Grand Guignol and trailer-trash condescension to add a superficial flavor of “novelty.” On the other hand, how many movies will you see that features a climactic scene of a battered, bloodied woman sucking on a fried chicken leg in a degrading simulation of oral sex?

For what it’s worth, William Friedkin has directed this emptily outré material with gusto, fully committing to the play’s madness with the same intensity that he brought to his 2008 adaptation of Letts’s Bug. (A nightclub scene in Killer Joe is bathed in a blue light that recalls the hellish hotel-room folie à deux of that superior film’s final act.) And the cast is extraordinary across the board—especially Matthew McConaughey, who is a revelation as the titular corrupt cop, a particularly nasty specimen who may well be the most honestly immoral of this band of scheming nasty specimens. Who knew that McConaughey, memorable more for his handsome blandness in many of his previous roles, was capable of rising to the depths of this character’s depravity so persuasively and menacingly? This proudly perverted morality play is certainly done well; whether it ought to have been done at all is an open question.

SXSW runs from March 9—18.