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SXSW 2013: Getting Back to Abnormal, This Ain’t No Mouse Music!, No More Road Trips?, & Don Jon

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SXSW 2013: <em>Getting Back to Abnormal</em>, <em>This Ain’t No Mouse Music!</em>, <em>No More Road Trips?</em>, & <em>Don Jon</em>

Geeky, admittedly devoid of tact, and first seen on a radio talk show in which a series of African-American callers accuse her of being a racist, Stacy Head makes an unlikely heroine. But that’s just what she proves to be, as Getting Back to Abnormal conducts a tour of the racial politics of New Orleans that’s as meandering and culturally rich as a second line parade.

The movie—and, it seems clear, Stacy’s political career—would never have ignited without a tireless little fireplug of a woman named Barbara Lacen-Keller, an African-American child of the projects who handles constituent outreach for Stacy and serves as her fiercest and best advocate. The four co-directors (Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker, Peter Odabashian, and Paul Stekler) bob in and out of Stacy’s and Barbara’s storyline, but they keep returning to the campaign as Stacy, the first white woman to represent the central city of New Orleans on the city council in 30 years, runs for reelection. Stacy’s and Barbara’s campaigning and the refreshingly frank, often moving stories they tell to the camera illuminate the chasm that yawns between the races in New Orleans—and the bridges that sometimes span that gap.

As articulate as everyone is, the interviews sometimes veer perilously close to cliché. But for every clip of David Simon delivering the news that New Orleans is dysfunctional and dangerous, though it sure knows how to show you a good time, there are two as fresh and memorable as community activist Stephanie Mingo saying she misses the St. Bernard project she grew up in, which was demolished after Katrina, partly because her neighbors there used to pay her $20 just to see her “fight some girl.”

The last word belongs to Tracie Washington, a civil-rights lawyer who says she loves New Orleans because of its racial tensions, not in spite of them. “I don’t want a post-racial New Orleans,” she says. “That would be—I hate to say—Minneapolis.”

Racial identity is also the theme of This Ain’t No Mouse Music!, a celebration of American and Mexican roots music, as heard through the ears and recorded through the mikes of Chris Strachwitz, founder of the Arhoolie record label and owner of the Down Home Music Store in El Cerrito, California.

Co-directors Chris Simon and Maureen Gosling are Strachwitz’s female film equivalent. Both made movies for years with Les Blank, helping to document personal passions/obsessions in exquisitely executed yet DIY-flavored films like Gap-Toothed Women and Burden of Dreams. Moving for decades in the same circles as Strachwitz, whose Chulas Fronteras, a 1976 collaboration with Blank, was a groundbreaking documentary about Tex-Mex norteño music, they had long seen the potential in his story.

Working with a budget of just $175,000 painstakingly gathered over seven years, they pieced together an intimate and inspirational story of a life well lived. Strachwitz grew up in Germany in the 1930s and ’40s and was forced out after WWII, at the age of 15, as part of the resettlement of Germans from what is now Poland. He wound up in the United States and fell instantly in love with the jazz he heard on the radio, soon graduating to rawer forms of music—basically, anything with soul. “I was a lonely cat,” he explains. (There’s also a lovely irony in a German boy from Nazi Germany becoming an American standard bearer for cultural diversity, not to mention a champion of African-American sharecroppers and Mexican-American campesinos, but the filmmakers don’t address that.)

Strachwitz wound up recording or collecting all kinds of music, nearly all of it from south of the Mason Dixon line, and some from south of the Mexican border. In the process, he helped disseminate the work of seminal musicians from Texas, Louisiana, the Mississippi Delta, and Appalachia, including Flaco Jimenez, Clifton Chenier, and Lightnin’ Hopkins.

The film’s visuals are strictly pedestrian, but the access is impeccable as Simon and Gosling layer jam sessions, family reunions, conversations, and reminiscences into a moving portrait of a man who constructed a new de facto family and life for himself from the music and musicians he kept falling in love with. Richard Thompson, Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder, and other musicians talk about how Strachwitz and the music he recorded influenced them. They tell some good anecdotes in the process, as when Raitt says that she learned, from sharing a dressing room with Big Mama Thornton, that Thornton dressed like a man “right down to her drawers.”

Film archivist Rick Prelinger put a new spin on the word “interactive” with his showing of No More Road Trips?, a film that doesn’t yet have a soundtrack. Prelinger, who stood at a mic during his Thursday showing of the film, offering facts about what we’re seeing at intervals, asked the audience to supply the rest of the soundtrack, saying he wanted us “to be like the rowdy Elizabethan theater, that rabble in the box. To be like a sports audience. That is my ideal theater audience.”

Audience members obliged, speaking for characters in the movie, commenting on the action, and supplying cheesy sound effects while Prelinger identified locations, dates, and the occasional fact about the people we were watching. It all gave the afternoon the loose, companionable feel of an MST3K screening as we watched a cannily edited compilation of clips, most of them from home movies, that spanned much of the nation and most of the last century.

The footage, which hopscotches through time, starts with the early days of the automobile in the 1920s and ends in the late 1970s or early ’80s. It investigates the notion of exploring the country by car, alternating between footage shot on the road and shots of particular places, most of which capture a flavor that has since been diluted or lost: coal dust blanketing Pittsburgh in 1928, a man flying over a crowd for a few seconds with the help of a jet pack, or an early shot of newly completed highway, a Howard Johnson already anchoring the brand-new rest stop.

Covering mostly the midwest, southeast, and west, the film is heavy on documentation of the kinds of things that seemed amazing before TV and the Internet turned them hokey or ho-hum: the route JFK traveled just before he was shot, a huge crater left by a meteor, the Hoover Dam, a petrified tree trunk, and the big western sky, which gets the slow-pan treatment at least a couple of times. We also see Woody Allen’s name in giant letters on a marquis in old footage of Las Vegas, and both Jerry Lewis and a beautiful, young Dennis Hopper in passing cars in Los Angeles, Lewis mugging obligingly for the camera.

Before the screening, Prelinger noted that road trips are now on the wane in the U.S. That was news to me, yet it didn’t surprise me. After all, why pay all that money for gas when you can just jump on the information superhighway and experience nearly everything you could on the road and more? But it’s not really the same at all, of course. No More Road Trips? reminds us of what we lose when we substitute traveling through the real world with surfing the net. At the same time, it’s too smart to be a simple jeremiad. Showing us tourists hand-feeding wild bears and ads for Native American dances at a roadside stop in the southwest, it reminds us that the wonders we encountered on the road were always primarily of our own invention.

Don Jon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s first feature, is an uneasy mix of broad comedy and earnest message-mongering that tries too hard at both to succeed at either one. The title character, known to his boys as Don Jon (Gordon-Levitt), is a Joe Piscopo-esque Jersey Shore stereotype, decked out in sleeveless T-shirts with his hair in a punishingly unflattering cut. He zooms around in a growly racing-striped muscle car, dividing his time between his gym, his job as a bartender, repetitive nights out with his boys (who are, by his own account, assholes), perfunctory confessions at church, even more perfunctory family dinners, and ritualized daily doses of Internet porn. Gordon–Levitt, who also wrote the script, may have wanted to make a point about the objectified nature of Don Jon’s life by showing him doing the same things over and over, but he only succeeded in trying our patience.

In a voiceover at the start and again in an exchange with the wish-fulfillment MILF (Julianne Moore) he meets at night school, Don Jon says the porn is the one part of his life that offers transcendence. (“I just fuckin’ lose myself.”) But the rote repetition of his porn sessions and the scoldings of the MILF make it painfully clear that this isn’t true transcendence. In fact, the loud metallic DANH! of the computer booting up as he sits down for another session tells you all you need to know about the rote nature of his love affair with porn. If Gordon-Levitt had trusted cues like that instead of feeling the need to spell everything out in capital letters, this might have been a genuinely funny and thought-provoking movie. Instead, we’re left with seemingly endless scenes of Don Jon’s father (Tony Danza) watching TV at the dinner table, his sister (Brie Larson) tuning out her surroundings by texting, his mother (Glenne Headly) talking without listening to anybody else, and his erstwhile girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson) chewing contentedly on a wad of gum.

Like Gordon-Levitt himself, the movie seems to mean well and try hard, so it feels a little mean to carp. Unfortunately, meaning well and doing well are two very different things.

The film portion of South by Southwest ran from March 8—March 16.