Welcome to our fourth day of SXSW coverage (catch up on it all here).
For whatever reason, day four of SXSW wound up being documentary day. I saw three documentaries that were wildly different in concept and style but nonetheless shared a bad habit of digression and self-indulgence, albeit to different degrees. The Visit, a documentary “simulating” what would happen if an alien landed on earth, nearly put me to sleep at the start of the day with its pacing issues. They Will Have to Kill Us First started stronger but couldn’t quite figure out where to end its story about musicians in exile from Islamic extremists. And Hot Sugar’s Cold World had the opposite problem, beginning a little too self-indulgently before settling into a nice, stylish groove.
I was drawn to The Visit by some slight word of mouth after critics in line at The Corpse of Anna Fritz suggested it, claiming it was one of the weirder films at the festival. A documentary about “an event that hasn’t happened yet,” The Visit is certainly odd and ambitious. Gathering a number of scientists, military personnel, psychologists and political experts together to discuss the protocol for “meeting” an alien intelligence for the first time, The Visit initially structured itself in a way that had the viewer in the role of the alien. What this meant was that director Michael Madsen (no, not the Tarantino favorite) seated these experts directly in front of the camera and had them “interview” the alien while facing the viewer. Not a bad idea in concept, but in execution it resulted in awkward pauses and tonal issues and instead of giving the film more cohesion, it became distracting.
However, Madsen basically abandons that concept halfway through the film, shifting towards a mix of trippy scenes involving an engineer “entering” the craft like some weird mix of Under the Skin and Interstellar and more traditional talking head interludes. The film does this in an effort to show the more philosophical end of the first contact question (How will we process the otherness? How will we communicate?) with the more “rational,” worst-case-scenario end of it, specifically in terms of military response, biological conflict, and the historical track record of devastation that results whenever an advanced civilization meets a less advanced civilization.
This is obviously a deep, heavy film and Madsen directs it with heft, but instead of letting the heaviness of the conversation exist organically, he fiddles with the conversations and structure so that the film is even more dreamy and digressive than it would have been otherwise. The end result is a documentary that frequently feels forced and unclear, full of one-way conversations that are stunted by editing that creates unnecessarily long, awkward pauses, amplified further by an overuse of slowmo. Buried somewhere within all that stylish indulgence is a profound examination of our role in the universe. Maybe Madsen’s next film will relax enough to let the viewer just soak in the experience without all the fuss.
They Will Have to Kill Us First
I had higher hopes for They Will Have to Kill Us First, and for the first half of the film, it delivered on my expectations. Johanna Schwartz’s documentary on the ban jihadists instituted against all music in Mali after they took over the war-torn country attempts to educate audiences on Mali’s strife as well as its musical history, and for the most part it succeeds. More or less split between four groups of artists, the documentary covers a lot of ground in its relatively short running time, introducing these musicians in exile while documenting how the civil war in Mali was derailed by the intrusion of opportunist jihadists who continue to plague the region even after the intervention of French and UN forces.
Schwartz’s background is in television, and it shows. They Will Have to Kill Us First has a relatively stylish opening that gives way to more sentimental stretches before getting a little bland. Schwartz informed us at the start of the screening that they had literally just finished editing the film, so the pacing issues are likely also due to the rushed nature of the festival screening. Still, the movie would have been better served by paring down the stories and showcasing more of the music. In fact, the musical elements of the movie are mostly confined to one band—the more internationally known Songhoy Blues, who have worked and toured with both Blur’s Damon Albarn and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner—while the other artists get short shrift. Everyone interviewed for the film has a personal connection to the Mali conflict, with many of their loved ones devastated, injured or lost to the war and their passionate need to spread the story of what’s happening in the country gives the work a profound emotional impact. But Schwartz seems less capable of translating their musical passion to the screen, resulting in performance footage that mostly feels undercooked and uninspired rather than transcendent.
The film is still very effective and audiences who aren’t familiar with the issues in Mali will undoubtedly be shaken by the intense imagery and stories presented here. Schwartz and her crew bravely waded into one of the most dangerous regions on earth and captured the real human element of the conflict. If only they could have done so with a bit more artistry, They Will Have to Kill Us First would have been a truly rousing and memorable documentary instead of an ambitious but somewhat disappointing work.
Hot Sugar’s Cold World
The screening that impressed me the most this evening was also the one I had the lowest expectations for. Hot Sugar’s Cold World was on my list of films to catch mostly because of the names attached to it—David Gordon Green and Danny McBride both produced, and the “characters” included everyone from Das Racist to Martin Starr to Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I didn’t know much about the film’s subject, Nick Koenig, going in but the SXSW guide description of him as a “modern day Mozart” had me half expecting a hate-watching experience. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case at all.
An instrumentalist and producer who creates lush, complex music utilizing creative samples of every day sounds, like street noise and pop rocks and even room silence, Koenig goes by the name Hot Sugar and cultivates a quirky online presence and following. Looking like something from a VICE photospread, Koenig is initially off-putting, particularly whenever he waxes poetic about his creative process and talks shit about traditional instruments and recording. You get the sense that Koenig views himself as a genius figure who is too good for us mere mortals, right up until the point where his relationship with Kitty Pryde falls apart, at least.
After this development, Koenig becomes more vulnerable and open and the film transforms from a somewhat gimmicky accounting of two internet sensations to an intriguing glimpse behind the curtain of creativity and sound addiction. Koenig’s earlier statements about the evolution of music themselves evolve into philosophical treatises on the role sound plays in everyday life and Koenig’s quest to control the chaos of life by harnessing the everyday sounds we ignore. What previously seemed like stoner goofball talk about noise in space and human egotism over the worth of some sounds over others becomes clearer and Koenig takes on a kind of guide role. At this point, Hot Sugar’s Cold World delivers on the second half of its title, shifting the focus to Koenig’s view on our place in a world of sound and not merely Koenig himself.
By the time the film wraps up, Koenig is a lot more relatable and regardless of where you stand on his music, Hot Sugar’s Cold World is a fascinating peek inside the creative process and the larger meaning of art. Usually music films struggle to convey the spontaneity of the creative process in an artful manner, but Hot Sugar’s Cold World presents the process in a realistic and entertaining fashion. That’s quite an accomplishment and regardless of the eventual course of Hot Sugar’s career, Hot Sugar’s Cold World is a film that has the potential to develop a strong cult following.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City. When he isn’t doing that, he plays drums for Denise and gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.