I'll be honest with you, handful of AV Club readers who are bothering to click on this film blog entry: I'm getting a little burned out. I've driven back and forth up and down the I-35 so many times that I'm beginning to see the Tanger Outlet Mall in my sleep. I've eaten so many K.C. burgers at Casino El Camino that the blood is actually beginning to pump backwards into my heart. The ushers at the Paramount have learned to recognize my hacking cough from several blocks away, and are beginning to give me preferential seating right in between the toilets and Harry Knowles' electric scooter. And I'm neglecting some very important television-watching back home, so much that I probably should learn to use my DVR one of these days. But I soldier on for you, brave handful. All for you.
You go to enough of these screenings, and you start to see the same people over and over again. That one usher who looks like he has a robust supply of penniless drifters in his basement; the guy with a platinum festival pass and no command of the English language, who is just spending a few hours in a quiet theater waiting for his hangover to ease up; Karina Longworth. In my case, it seems I had just caught Brian Chippendale — in his role as avant-art provocateur — in the rock-poster documentary Died Young Stayed Pretty, and here he was turning up again in All Tomorrow's Parties, the fan-shot documentary about the famed British music festival of the same name. In this case, he was appearing in his role of maniac drummer for Lightning Bolt, the fantastic, impossible-to-describe rock band who played at ATP in 2004 and 2006. Watching Chippendale and Brian Gibson pummel a tens-of-thousands-strong outdoor crowd into submission with their hyperactive spazz-rock stylings got me in the mood to go see some great live music. If only such a thing were available here in Austin, TX during the South By Southwest Festival.
The unique thing about the All Tommorrow's Parties festival — which began in 2000 and has spun off a satellite festival in New York — is that it's actually run by a small company that takes a largely hands-off approach to the creative side of things, and instead hands over programming the musical content to a series of 'curators'. The curators are themselves prominent band members — a roster that's included, over the years, Shellac, Autechre, the Melvins, the Mars Volta, and the Dirty Three — and the quality of the musicians who are asked to line up the talent ensures a pretty diverse mix of artists who aren't normally found on a bill together. The emphasis is often on the obscure, the underground, and the experimental in genres from metal to electronica to hip-hop, and there's an overall air of creative living in the crowd as well, with unusual approaches to housing and travel, free-form and bizarre game-playing, and a constant blurring of the line between observer and participant.
Given all that, it's no surprise that a documentary about the festival would have its own hook. While the music selected for the film is generally unimpeachable (besides Lighting Bolt, we get a glimpse of top-notch sets by Grinderman, Battles, Grizzly Bear, Mogwai, and Portishead, the latter two of which have also been event curators), the real gimmick is that the film — credited to "All Tomorrow's People" — is actually 'directed' by fans, bands, event organizers, participants, and anyone else who felt like turning up, on an astonishing variety of media: 8mm film, video (analog and digital), cell phone cameras, and anything else that can capture moving pictures and sound. The film was edited together from seven years' worth of footage by over 200 people, and while the constant shifts in film and sound quality can be enervating, it does give a pretty enjoyable twist to what would otherwise merely be a serviceable concert film.
Indie comedies are a tough proposition. When they work, they work like crazy, because they're a lot more willing to take chances and make risky choices than mainstream films, and their comedy usually grows out of character instead of situation. However, this is often why they don't work: if the way the characters react to the situation falls flat, so does the whole movie, and they generally tend to emphasize quirkiness above all, which is no fun if you aren't attuned to their particular interpretation of quirk. This dichotomy is both the salvation and the doom of Paul Cotter's Bomber; when it sticks to the interaction between its usually-engaging characters, it's charming and often extremely funny, but when it lets its situation guide the direction the film heads in, it gets pretty hard going.
The plot of Bomber involves a British couple, played by Shane Taylor and Sara Kessel, making a last-minute decision — the first of a few plot missteps that get in the way of the character-driven comedy — to drive his elderly parents to Germany. The comedic interplay between the characters soars once they're stuck in the car together; the parents are played with utterly proper British stoicism by Benjamin Whitrow and Eileen Nicholas, and they're not any more pleased to be stuck there than the kids are. These early scenes, clocking the journey from London to a small town in Germany, are the movie's best, allowing the natural comedy of character to drive the situation and letting a little-known but capable cast show off their chops.
Once they arrive, however, and Whithrow pursues the purpose of the trip — making a mass apology to the residents of the German town he inadvertantly bombed during the Second World War — things go pretty far afield, tonally speaking. Situational comedy takes over, and while it at first suggests some of the quirkiness of a young Bill Forsyth, it soon sours a bit, and starts to seem forced. Worse still, the comedic quality of the film gets oddly shunted aside, and a major shift to what seems to be a somewhat preachy family drama takes place that completely takes the viewer out of the movie he thought he was in and deposits him into one that's not nearly as successful. Cotter is a very capable director of actors, and there's enough nice shots and compositions here to suggest that he's got something to say behind the camera, but the tone-deaf mood shifts of Bomber suggest that for his next effort, he should hand the screenwriting reins over to someone else.
I'll be continuing to bounce back and forth between SATX and Austin over the next few days, and I'll be giving at least a little time to the music festival they're supposed to be having in town, but rest assured, I've got at least 6 more films to cover, so keep watching this space for plenty of insightful, typo-riddled film criticism. And if you happen to be employed as waitstaff or kitchen help at Casino El Camino, can a brother get a press discount? I have my heart surgeon's family to think about.