A Letter From America

If you can’t get enough of MostlyFilm’s festival coverage, you’re in luck: today, Laura Morgan reports from two of the USA’s most mindbending genre film festivals.

The ABCs of Death 2

Have you ever discovered two giant crickets chasing each other around your bathroom, or watched thousands of bats flying out from under a city-centre bridge at dusk, or eaten at a restaurant where the only menu options are three types of meat and one type of beer? If not, it’s likely you haven’t been to Austin, Texas; home to barbecue, live music and the eight-day celebration of the weird and wonderful that is FantasticFest.

FantasticFest is a film festival, but it’s much more than that. It’s the only festival I’ve ever been to which fields debates on the future of cinema and rounds each one off with a boxing match, or invites all its attendees to take part in a giant food fight. It’s the only festival I’ve ever been to whose closing night party features a contortionist, a live donkey and free shots all night. The amount of extracurricular fun laid on by the FantasticFest team is such that you could probably have an awesome time without seeing any films at all, but luckily for you – and for me – I did.

The festival celebrates the outer edges of film-making: you’re more likely to see a crowdfunded first feature than a studio-made film; more likely to get drunk with a director or a writer or a movie star than to watch them walk a red carpet, and almost certain to see something that blows your mind. There’s horror (The Babadook, about which more later this week; It Follows, a smart and well-directed slice of creepiness starring the new darling of US horror, Maika Monroe; The ABCs of Death 2: a better-than-its-predecessor compilation of short films about death featuring some of the genre’s best-known directing talent). There’s documentary (Creeping Gardens: an earnest and increasingly extraordinary study of slime mould, which is exactly what it sounds like; Kung Fu Elliot, the story of a Canadian martial arts fanatic which spurred intense debate as to its truthfulness – see it and judge for yourself; Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD, which is interesting enough that you don’t have to be a comic book fan to enjoy it). There’s comedy (I Am A Knife With Legs; Jacky In The Kingdom Of Women, both of which are indescribable) and there are movies so unlike any other that they defy easy categorisation (The Tribe; The Duke of Burgundy). There are brilliant films by relatively new directors and terrible ones by established names (I’m looking at you, Kevin Smith).

Bennett Jones, writer, producer, director, composer and star of I Am A Knife With Legs
Bennett Jones, writer, producer, director, composer and star of I Am A Knife With Legs

My out-and-out favourite film of the week was The Tribe, which I wrote about last week as part of the LFF, though I wouldn’t necessarily advise you to follow my example by seeing it twice. Others I loved included the brilliantly dark and funny In Order Of Disappearance; the noirish, atmospheric Man From Reno and fascinating life-is-stranger-than-art documentary Lost Soul, which tells the extraordinary story of Richard Stanley’s doomed attempt to film The Island Of Doctor Moreau. Other stand-out moments were offered by As Seen By The Rest, an ambitious Indian riff on Pulp Fiction, and the programme of short films which included Alice Lowe’s intensely creepy Solitudo and Adan Jodorofsky’s off-the-scale-bizarre but brilliant The Voice Thief. If you’re looking for a filmgoing experience like no other I can heartily recommend a trip to Austin next autumn. But be warned: the experience will leave you drained.

A good way to recuperate from a week-long excess of films, wine and oil-based snacks is to spend a week in the sun eating salads, so I’m glad that the next stop on my tour took me to Los Angeles and the much more laid-back Beyond Fest. Featuring a similar line-up of films to FantasticFest but with a much less intensive programme that left me time to sunbathe, swim and soak up the sights, this festival is only in its second year but is already attracting a hardcore fanbase.

Highlights of the week and the greatest coups the organisers scored were undoubtedly the Q&A with John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis that preceded a screening of Halloween, and the live-scored screening of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but there was plenty of new material to enjoy too, much of it steeped in the heady swirl of movie-making and movie-makers which surrounds this city. Nightcrawler, in which Jake Gyllenhaal chases ambulances around in order to take photos of civilians with potentially fatal injuries and sell them to TV news shows, was both an excellent film and an excellent, if slightly alarming, introduction to Los Angeles. The screening of Liv Corfixen’s My Life Directed By Nicholas Winding Refn, the film she made of her husband making Only God Forgives, featured an illuminating and endearing Q&A with both halves of the couple (I met Refn afterwards and confessed that although I love Only God Forgives, I’ve never seen Drive. ‘Don’t bother’, he said. ‘It’s overrated.’ I’m almost sure he was joking). And my favourite picture of the festival, Starry Eyes, is a stunning coming-of-age story about making it in Hollywood, featuring a breathtaking performance by newcomer Alex Essoe, who deserves a career at least as glittering as that to which her heroine aspires.

Alex Essoe in Starry Eyes
Alex Essoe in Starry Eyes

It’s relatively easy to persuade The Talent to turn up to screenings when they are held in Los Angeles, but the corollary of that is that local audiences can be quite blasé about movie-based events, used as they are to seeing Bobby De Niro skipping past with his dry cleaning, so kudos is due to the small but dedicated festival team, who kept spirits high with a terrific line-up of guests, surprise screenings, endlessly entertaining pre-show patter and nightly giveaways of DVDs, t-shirts, sweets and vinyl (Spencer Hickman of Death Waltz Records is one of the organisers and there was a plentiful selection of beautifully-produced soundtrack discs and related paraphernalia on display in the foyer each day). They also benefit from the setting; the gorgeous Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard which has been there since 1922 and combines almost a century of Tinseltown history with stunning state-of the art sound and visuals.

I could wax lyrical at this stage about how lovely everybody I met was, or how much extraordinary food I ate, or which was my favourite beach (Manhattan), but instead I will simply advise you to extend your festival-going horizons and try something different in 2015. You might just like it.

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