The Q&A and Two New Films

Q&As are a film festival staple. For good reason. They convert a run of the mill screening into an event, something special and often festive. But do they tell us anything we wouldn’t be able to get from the film? The safe answer is It depends, but it’s more interesting to look at a couple of recent examples from the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival.

    Child of God

is a feature directed by the ubiquitous James Franco from Cormac McCarthy’s distrubing book about a loner wild man in Tennessee who winds up cultivating a necrophiliac habit and a pile of bodies. The novel’s strength is in McCarthy’s amazing writing style. He is one of the great stylists of our time and, though this isn’t his best work, it is captivating for how he tells the morbid tale.
The film is another matter. Franco has a rather pedestrian but pretentious approach that never does find a visual equivalent for the writing style. It’s a good film but far from a great one.
We could get all this from the film itself. At the Q&A Franco was absent, itself perhaps a message about his over-extended attempt to do too many things too fast. But Scott Haze, the lead actor, who plays Lester Ballard, who, we might wonder, is or isn’t a child of god despite all his depravity, was. (IMDB, the website repository of film facts, tucks his acting credit under Franco’s and two others, perhaps based on pre-release information. Seeing him out of character was itself a relief since he inhabits the psyche of Ballard with haunting power. What he revealed, in addition to the many layers and months of preparation that he did, essentially on his own, was that Franco tends to a one take style, seldom repeating scenes, a trait that works to capture the emotional power of an actor like Hayes, but that also sacrifices some of the nuance and complexity that can come from revision, especially in terms of composition, mise en scene, lighting and so forth. An abundance of close ups of Hayes tends to erase some of the problem since Hayes is mesmerizing as Lester but a stream of close ups do not a great cinematic style make.
The other example was even more revealing.

    Stop the Pounding Heart

was a documentary by Italian filmmaker Roberto Minervini that focused on two south Texas families, one given to bull riding and the other to goat farming. Sara Carlson, the teen age daughter of the goat farmers, spends her days working on the farm and sometimes visiting Colby, the son of the bull riding family. Hints of potential romance hover in the air but seem very unlikely. (And aren’t realized.) From the film it would be easy to characterize the Carlsons as a family with a largely absent father (he’s seldom seen) who, when present, presides over literal-minded readings of the Bible, scolds Sara for not setting fence posts as well as he can, and supervises rifle practices, including Sara’s use of a semi-automatic rifle; a fundamentalist mother who gives compelling lectures to her kids about women’s place supporting her man and the courage it takes to make oneself subordinate; and a bevy of some dozen children most of whom get little screen time lest the film become a TV series. The sight of one boy riding his bike with a Confederate flag and of a burning cross somewhere in the Texas night adds the suggestion that the family is not just of a rural, funadmentalist stripe but racist to boot.
Then we met the family. (This filmmaker was also absent.) It became quickly clear that they were the redneck, Bible thumping stereotypes the film almost makes them to be. In fairness, the film has a deliberate, ethnographic quality to it and does not sensationalize what it observes patiently. Sara, who at one point says she does not want to get married and would just “take pictures of her sisters’ fat little babies,” tells us that she was repeating feelings she had had 4 yers before the filming happened. She had moved on. The mother and father made it clear they were university graduates, with a lot more perspective and savy than what we see in the film, that they consciously chose farm life and making artisanal cheeses over the urban scramble, that they home schooled the kids not to indoctrinate them (though that does seem a byproduct at least) but to enrich, teaching the, for example, Latin. They lives between two major cities, close to suburbs, go to farmer’s markets weekly and are not the isolated hillbillies the film might have us believe.
The Q&As, in other words, were revelatory. The trust the x family had in the filmmaker seemed a bit more misplaced and their lives quite a bit more complex after the Q&A than before. Franco’s future as a director seemed a bit less certain after than before. Audience questions helped make these insights possible, more than opening questions by festival programmers, in fact. They were good examples of what some serious questions and honest answers can teach us about the films we see.