Nashville Film Festival: Day Three
Saturday, May 12. Finally, the day job is over for the week, and I can devote a full day to Nashville Film Festival…ing. Added bonus, or so I think at the time–I have all the time I need to get to the theater without using a Lyft (we are not currently blessed with a car). Nashville’s mass transit is adequate–was nearly more, but voters fear taxes slightly more than, say, venomous snakes who are also Nazi war criminals and registered sex offenders–so, for now, it is (as the kids say) what it is, and no more than that for the foreseeable future. As such, one bus from my house to downtown, one from downtown to the theatre, and hay presto, I’m at the festival for cheap.
Or so I had planned. Actually, the bus from my house to downtown reached downtown…one minute after the bus for the theatre left.
My Lyft driver was a political refugee from Venezuela. Interesting chap.
Using Lyft was, as it happened, a gift from the Segue Gods, in that my first film on day 3 was Driver X, about a man who, having no other option, takes a job with a company called Driver X–an ersatz answer to Uber and/or Lyft; having taken said job…I suppose you could say “wackiness ensues”, even though that which ensues is 10% wackiness at best. Patrick Fabian, late of Better Call Saul, is Leonard Moore, an LA native and former record store owner, now a stay-at-home dad; what drives this entire film is that Moore, described in the press materials as “skidding into middle age” (I’m 46, and he looks at least a decade older), is not wholly reconciled to the world of the gig economy.
The proverbial fish out of its equally proverbial water has driven many a narrative; I’d say it’s equally present in Taxi Driver and Private Benjamin. What helps, however, is the feeling that the narrative is informed by a fish who has known similar displacement. While this is a story based on events that actually befell director/writer Henry Barrial, the story feels artificial, forced: most people my age have had to move on from careers and positions we’ve dreamt of, but we haven’t all been record-store owners (which feels like a heavy-handed means of telegraphing Moore’s obsolescence). Nor have we all been completely overwhelmed by the brave new world, which belongs here to millennials, who are treated here less fairly than they are in, say, Mallard Fillmore comic strips.
In an early sequence, Leonard interviews for a job at what appears to be a stand-in for Buzzfeed. The staff with whom he interacts are depicted as inarticulate, fragile morons who don’t get him any more than he gets them–they’re little more than The Kids Today With Their Long Hair to our protagonist’s Bob Hope.
Oddly–as if someone took Barrial aside mid-shoot and made that exact same point to him–a millennial character becomes a turning point in our narrative. Moore is hired by a young man named Tom (Desmin Borges), who is keen on strip clubs and partying–and on being driven by Leonard, after their first encounter. Tom gives Leonard pointers on how to improve the quality of his rides–offer phone chargers, supply candy and bottled water, etc.–and Leonard gives Tom his direct number, which isn’t company policy, but allows Tom to get direct, mission-critical rides to the home of his overdose-prone girlfriend, which allows Leonard to stare longingly at the couple and realize that other generations have valid experiences as well.
Essentially, Driver X is about half of a decent comedy and character study, which takes rather a long time to advise people my age that they should lean in/bloom where planted/make lemonade/you favorite trite maxim here.
The day’s second film was a jarring departure from Driver; for that matter, the second film was jarring in general. It was Barbara Kopple’s A Murder in Mansfield, a documentary about a murder in the titular Ohio town. The victim was Noreen Boyle, the wife of a prominent local doctor. The prime suspect, ultimately convicted, was in fact the prominent local doctor. The prosecution’s star witness, Collier Landry, was 12 years old. He was also Noreen’s (and the doctor’s) son.
The central action of Mansfield concerns Landry—now ensconced in the film industry for several decades—returning to Mansfield, to the state prison where his father is housed, in an attempt to get him to finally admit that he did in fact kill Landry’s mother. To reveal whether he does or not feels like a violation of the Spoiler Code, but I will say that the dialogue between the two (which has the lion’s share of onscreen time) is a game of chess that would make Boris Spassky look like an amateur—at first. Over time, it becomes evident that Collier’s struggle to extract the truth from his father has less to do with his father being a liar and more to do with the fact that, on some level, the father genuinely believes what he is saying, that his worldview is correct, and that only the failure of other to perceive it as such is why he’s in prison. It’s hard to watch, and it should be; Mansfield would be an excellent companion piece to the Fox Network special from earlier this year in which O.J. Simpson reveals similar traits. As we, as a society, become more aware of the psychopaths in our midst, these are two texts which help us to see them as they truly are: deluded, and as such, the closest real equivalent we have to human monsters.
The fourth film of the day (yes, I skipped the third; saving it for last) was Industrial Accident—The Story of Wax Trax! Records. You’ve seen formulaic romantic comedies described as boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, and all the rest; narratives about our truly great record labels are nearly as formulaic. Boys-found-label, label-launches-iconic-careers, label-becomes-victim-of-its-own-success, larger-label-buys-label. The founding boys here are Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher, a gay couple in 1970s Denver; because being a gay couple in 1970s Denver is apparently not sufficiently risky enough for our heroes, they found a record store catering to Denver’s nascent punk scene. It caters well; their store’s reputation is sufficient to bring The Ramones to the Mile-High City. Buoyed by success, and hearing that there will be an even larger market for punk (and more tolerant attitude towards gay couples) there, they move to Chicago, where Wax Trax becomes even more successful, to the point that they begin releasing records. The new label quickly draws musicians from the US and Europe who will come to form the backbone of what is known as Industrial Music: Ministry, Front 242, KMFDM, Meat Beat Manifesto, Nine Inch Nails, My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult—in short, the bands that really made the parents of Gen-Xers nervous.
Via talking-head interview segments and (nowhere near enough) performance clips, we learn how these bands and their nearly interchangeable members rose to unparalleled niche success (before the internet, to boot), and how Wax Trax struggled to keep them and nurture them as they grew; ultimately, having taken on distribution rights for a European label and officially overextended themselves, we watch as Wax Trax files for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy to survive. They do survive—only to be bought by TVT Records, hitherto known as the label responsible for the decidedly non-punk album Television’s Greatest Hits (and no, we don’t mean the band Television…)
It’s a sad story, in its way, and not without impact, even though the greenest student of the entertainment industry will see where it’s all heading. What makes the film more than a by-the-numbers story about a failed label is who directed it: one Julia Nash, who has the same last name as Wax founder Jim Nash. She also has 50% of his DNA, and made the film as a way of learning more about her father. I can only claim, at best, a passing familiarity with the music of Wax Trax; their artists were (to say the least) an acquired taste. But I am familiar with the mystique surrounding one’s favorite celebrities, and it’s fun (or it can be, at any rate) to see that mystique pulled back to reveal that The Artist Who Speaks To You is as human as you are. The screening I attended was full of people exceeding fond of Industrial, and it was rewarding beyond the pale to see these folks interact with Thrill Kill Kult frontman Frankie “Groovie Mann” Nardiello, who attended the screening and is a talking head in heavy rotation; likewise, it was rewarding to see camcorder footage of Jim Nash playing with his infant daughter. Industrial Accident is a documentary best consumed by hardcore fans of its subject matter, but those fans will get a lot for the cost of their tickets.
Now, we discuss the best film I saw on Day Three. The Wax Trax doc was about Industrial Music. It was not, however, about Industrial Musicals. Which are, in fact, A Thing. They are now the subject of a movie, as well—Dava Whisenant’s Bathtubs Over Broadway. Before diving headlong into the movie, it might be wise to give some background on what, exactly, Industrial Musicals are, or were. They’re largely artifacts of Mid-Century America, of the worldview that Mad Men and your grandparents took seriously: Large, iconic, blue-chip American companies would hold annual conventions for their staff (largely their sales staff) and, as a means of entertaining the staff and showing where the company was headed in the coming years, the company would entertain the staff (or “entertain” the staff) with full-tilt Broadway-style musical productions about their products.
No, really. To their credit, the companies tended not to phone these in; shows were written by the likes of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, who also created a non-industrial musical you may have heard of: Fiddler on the Roof. The performers included folks who would go on to bigger and better: Florence Henderson, Chita Rivera, Martin Short. In most cases, records were made of the musicals, which were sent home with the convention attendees, who may or may not have ever listened to them again, nor could they do much more with them; these albums tended to bear warning labels along the lines of NOT FOR PUBLIC PERFORMANCE. Thus was the general public denied the joy of, for instance, a six-minute song commissioned by General Electric listing, so help me, all the current uses of silicone.
Many decades after the age of Industrial Musicals, where/when the film begins, there exists a Baby Boomer from the Midwest named David Letterman, who grew up in/becomes a household name by taking apart Mid-Century America. He doesn’t do it alone. One of his writers, Steve Young, is charged with (among other things) a recurring sketch called “Dave’s Record Club”, which compels Young to wander the earth in search of unusual vinyl. While this is a film about Industrial Musicals, it’s also largely about Young himself, and the journey fostered by his research. The press materials indicate that, prior to seeking odd records, Young “had few interests outside of his day job”, but doesn’t much elaborate beyond that, and the film only hints: is he an introvert? Is he insecure, depressed? Might Steve have an undiagnosed case of Asperger’s Syndrome? We’re never definitely told.
What we are told, and shown, is that his discovery of this most peculiar sub-sub-subgenre of music awakens something within him. He begins collecting albums with an aggressive fervor. He starts learning who wrote and performed the songs. He eventually has favorite writers. He discovers fellow collectors—among them Jello Biafra, who, perhaps more naturally, is also in Wax Tracks. His fellow collectors finally realize that it’s almost inevitably Young who outbids them on eBay for the albums. Young has found a passion, and is leaning into it—and none too soon, per the film’s timeline; this may simply be a trick of the editing, but his enthusiasm really seems to come to fruition at about the same time that Dave announces his retirement.
We watch this man of “few interests” flourish within his interest; it comes alive for him, and he begins to make it come alive for others as well. He writes the definitive book—okay, the book —on Industrial Musicals, Everything’s Coming Up Profits. He begins to meet the people involved. At a hotel in Chicago, we watch as Young finally meets Barbara Lang, the Elaine Page of industrial musicals, legendary (within this crowd) for performing the industrial musicals version of “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina”, a tender ballad commissioned by American-Standard with the haunting title “My Bathroom”.
We watch as he meets Sid Siegel, the Lin-Manuel Miranda of industrial musicals–the author, in fact, of “My Bathroom”–who seems equally touched and surprised that (1) Young has reached out to him (2) anyone even remembers or has heard of his work.
Soon after we are introduced to Siegel, it becomes apparent that this movie is reaching its audience to a surprisingly thorough degree. Unfortunately, Siegel, who was 88 when Young found him, passed away during filming; the revelation of this left your reviewer in tears, grieving a man I’d only just learned even existed. It’s the only negative emotion triggered, however. I and a friend I was sitting with found ourselves laughing riotously, applauding, even singing along; after the screening, we waited in line like geeks at ComicCon to meet Steve Young, get his autograph, and get our pictures taken with him. Young was more than happy to oblige; in fact, I can now boast of having Steve as a friend on social media. I went into Bathtubs Over Broadway looking forward to post-modern, ironic snark. I got that, but I also got a welcome into a world built on mutual (if peculiar) interests, and true friendship.
Pictured left to right: Matthew Essary, Kristina Winters, Steve Young, Jason Sparks.
That’s a pretty good day at a film festival.
Day 4: Voting, rock stars, the Okavango, and the film you’ll all be talking about soon…