Tuesday night finds me holed up in the ancestral manse handed down to me by whatever Incarnate Word student used to rent this place before I moved in. But the spirit of Austin is still with me, even before I truck on up the 35 again for more movie fun: dinner is leftovers from the Kolache Factory, footwear is a super-boss pair of Yo! MTV Raps kicks I bought at the Puma Store at the Domain, and viewing is a couple of screeners for movies that are playing even as we speak at South By Southwest. Let's get right to it, and you can call me a poseur for going to the Domain later.
As a big fan of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, I'm always on the lookout for a good solid warning sign of the coming total collapse of society and inevitable descent into anarchy. There's been an awful lot of harbingers of the end times lately, what with the economy turning out to be about as sound as the fake version of Rock Ridge at the end of Blazing Saddles and the environment deciding it's goint to take an extended leave of absence, but as signs of the Apocalypse go, perhaps no recent development is creepier than the sudden disappearance of the bees. And that's the subject of The Last Beekeeper, a documentary by Jeremy Simmons.
For those not in the know, bee communities all across the world have, in the past year or so, been subject to what's called CCD, or Colony Collapse Disorder, a little-understood phenomenon in which hives essentially undergo a massive die-off. No one is quite sure what causes CCD, as is made frustratingly clear in the film: pesticides, environmental changes, disease, predators, infestation, stress, and even cell phone radiation have been blamed for the large-scale disappearance of the bee population, and any one could be the deciding factor, or it could be a combination of all of them. A number of scientists — not only those involved in entomology — are trying rather desperately to find out, however, because as The Last Beekeeper takes pains to explain, robust bee populations are vital to the economy, and are a major factor in food production. Without them, we could all be in a heap o' trouble, and if the bees know what's happening, they ain't talking.
The Last Beekeeper follows a pretty predictable path all throughout its runtime: it focuses on three professional beekeepers, who seem selected for their screen-friendly quirky personalities; it places a big event at the center of the narrative (the annual California almond pollination, which requires participation from billions of bees to stand a chance of success) to keep us interested; and it gives us a perfunctory run-down of the history of what one of the men call "the second-oldest profession". (Actually, the second-oldest profession is calling things the second-oldest profession.) It's informative enough, and not unentertaining, but it generally lacks a distinctive narrative tone, and possesses no real aesthetic feel beyond the functional. Still, it's got an air of pervasive menace to it, and it does give end-of-the-world buffs something new to be helplessly worried about. (I would have rated this one grade higher, but you bastards would have never let me hear the end of it.)
Judging solely from the number of people, both here in comments and out in the real world, who asked me if I'd seen it yet or was planning to see it, Make-Out With Violence — the new film by the Deagol Brothers, who are apparently some kind of multimedia collective and bear no relationship to the better-known Smeagol Brothers — is one of the more hotly anticipated movies to come out of this year's SxSW Film Festival. I'd never heard of it before a screener ended up in my mailbox about a week back, but I figured anything with this much buzz was probably either pretty worthwhile or pretty terrible. The excellent title argued for the former; the zombie/romance elements, sad to say, argued for the latter. Of course, the filmmakers insist this isn't a zombie movie, which is good, because the living dead long ago shuffled off with the title of most overrated internet-generation fad/punchline, easily beating out pirates, robots, and monkeys. Once I made the time to watch Make-Out With Violence, I read a few other reviews, and the kind of wildly overhyped comparisons it drew made me even more suspicious. Then I actually watched it, and…well, we'll get to that.
The plot of the Deagol Brothers' first full-length feature is both simple and complex. At its most basic level, it's the story about twin brothers coping with the death of a girl who they loved; at its most complex, it's a creepy, subtley invasive horror film about how the death shatters the well-being of the whole town. It's also a (pretty funny) comedy, a zombie movie (don't try to deny it, fellas), a coming-of-age story, a mutated seriocomic version of Weird Science, and, apparently, a musical. A less ambitious film would have taken as its jumping-off point the scene where the boys bring home their dead friend's body and brought us nothing but sub-Sean of the Dead wacky hijinks, but the Deagols, for better and for worse, set their sights a lot higher than that. The movie starts out creepy and veers wildly between farcical, sensitive, dramatic, satirical, and horrific, blending indie-hipster comedy elements with J-horror — and that's the least of it. It certainly doesn't lack for reach, and if it was any more determined to sample every genre in the catalog, it would have a documentary about global warming stuck in the middle of it.
So, what did I think of it? Well, that's actually kind of hard to say. I liked Make-Out With Violence just fine, because it had tons of ambition and some genuinely good ideas; there were a number of scenes that were really memorable (despite a disappointing lack of both making out and violence), especially a protracted underwater segment. But I certainly can't go as far as to say that I loved it. The acting is its biggest flaw, with the male leads being sporadic at best and a lot of the supporting cast flat-out bad. But there's also the fact that the very ambition and determination to fuck around with genre and tone that makes it so memorable also renders it pretty incoherent at times, as the Deagols seem to care more about cramming the movie full of eclectic elements at the expens of establishing an overall consistent mood and formal quality. The musical elements may or may not work for you, depending on how strong you find the material, but after a while, the sheer overwhelming force of the directors' tonal diversity starts to really wear you down. I'll say this much for it: it's absolutely worth seeing, because it's daring and it fails in big ways instead of small ones, and that's commendable. And the Deagol Brothers are without question filmmakers to watch; whatever its flaws, Make-Out With Violence isn't a movie that falls short on ideas or style.
Stay tuned later in the week for more SxSW updates. Also, for those interested in such things, Made in China — which I gave a generally positive review on Day Three — was a big winner this year, taking home the Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature at the festival.