Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Fantasia 2022.15: "Flames", Out in the Ring, Freaks Out, and DJ XL5's Ultimate Zappin' Party.

End of an era with the final Zappin Party. But first...

First up, we've got Bertrand Hebert and Out in the Ring director Ryan Bruce Levy. There were apparently a lot more people in town to support the documentary on Tuesday, but they're pro wrestlers, so they take gigs when they come, and if that's the middle of the week, it's the middle of the week.

It's a neat documentary, something I'm kind of curious about because for as much as I watched a bit of wrestling back in the 1980s and 1990s, because what else was on Saturday afternoon? A couple of my brothers still follow it, I think, although how much they're still into WWE as opposed to the other circuits like AEW, I don't know. I'm also kind of surprised how many women I know (though not particularly well in some cases) got into wrestling in general and AEW in particular over the last few years, seemingly out of nowhere. I kind of wonder to what extent these alternate circuits being easy to follow online has done, especially with folks having found reasons to be disillusioned with the McMahons' outfit.

The post-film talk was kind of interesting, even if some of it was kind of inside to me - Levy mentioned that they had to reconfigure a lot of the back half of the movie and shoot new material when folks that were apparently a major part of the original cut were involved in a scandal, saying it like this was something most of the wrestling fans in the audience would recognize but not a lot more details (they weren't upset, as it allowed them to get Dark Sheik and other folks they really liked in). It was kind of odd to me that it was in the Q&A that they brought up that Mike Parrow hadn't won a match since he came out and that, contrary to the way she's presented in the film, Sonny Kiss doesn't get on the AEW television shows, which is crazy considering how acrobatic and charismatic she is from what we see in the film. These seem like kind of important omissions.

Take a bow, Mark Lamothe, who has been programming the "DJ XL5 Zappin' Party" program at Fantasia for more or less as long as I can remember going - per the blog, I saw my first one in 2009, and I bet if I dug through whatever boxes my old festival programs are in, I'd find them back to 2005. This was apparently the final one, which means the festival won't be the same next year, at least one one night.

(Apologies for the quality of the photo; I was sitting back much further than usual and while the new phone has a pretty amazing camera, it can only do so much!)

I should have asked Gabrielle to translate for me - as I mentioned the previous time Monsieur Lamothe took the stage, my French was not great when I stopped taking the class in high school 30 years ago - but I caught enough to sort of piece it together: "Soixante", "mes VHS cassettes", "comédie" all came up, and, yeah, I imagine it must be tricky to program a comedy program for a younger crowd once you get up past 60, and Fantasia does do a pretty good job of drawing new young attendees rather than catering to older nerds like me, and given how Québêc-centric a lot of the material can be in some years (including this one), there must be a lot of overlap with Fantastique Week-end programming.

Which isn't to say that times have passed this block by; he seemed surprised by just how many folks in the audience were attending their first Zappin Party show. But, on the other hand, how many of those first-timers had actually spent a late night sitting around, "zapping" between channels on cable, coming across the odd or unusual because a lot of these stations could be kind of fly-by-night, filling the off-hours with any old thing that one might tape (on actual tape) because it may never show up again, as opposed to part of some corporate behemoth that just reruns familiar things constantly (if they've even got cable at all)? If they're college students, not many, I imagine. That makes the format kind of alien, as opposed to something that us fogies remember well and can see this as a heightened take on it - the Zappin' party has gone from a twist on the familiar, to something nostalgic, to a period conceit over the course of its life.

(Maybe in a couple of years, there will be a DJ XL6 who puts a show like this together emulating an eccentric and deranged streaming algorithm, but that might hit different, in that it would be an idealized version of what we want YouTube to do, not the whole thing getting weird and surreal the way the Zappin' Party is.)

We also spent some time talking about how the specific community around the show was, if not gone, dispersed. This show is usually a must-see for another friend, but he wasn't here for this one, having to handle his own screening elsewhere. The presentations always ended with thanks to "the front row crew" (and maybe this one did as well) but that group has thinned out a lot in recent years, even before covid. Where there used to be a group of up to a dozen people who would settle in the front row of almost every screening in Hall and quite a few in de Seve - like, as much as I often take the first row, I always felt like I would be encroaching when I first started coming - they were less and less a presence during the last few in-person festivals, and I think I only saw one of the folks I recognized for a few shows at the tail end this year. And it happens; people go all-in on three-week movie events and the like when they're younger, but then they relocate for work, get married, have kids, maybe move out to the suburbs so that it's a little more hassle to come into the city. It probably hasn't been quite the same for a while.

And then, of course, there's covid, which had this program virtual at least in 2020 and maybe 2021, so really not the same. There were also local folks we used to see a lot, but didn't see at all this year. One in particular was older and somewhat frail-looking back even before 2019, so we found ourselves kind of hoping that he was just staying away from indoor crowds, but you never know with this sort of nodding acquaintance, do you?

Ah, well. Some of this is probably way off, me projecting a lot of feelings about a dynamic, evolving festival and my own growing older on some poorly-heard words in a foreign-to-me language. But even if so, there's going to be a hole where the Zappin' Party used to be ⅔ the way through the festival next year. Maybe it gets filled with something similar, or something new and exciting, or maybe it's just another spot to show movies until someone comes up with a new signature event. Time will tell.

But as we say goodbye, let's applaud all the folks who made shorts for the festival and came, in large part because they were local. Enough were pickle-related that I wonder if there was some sort of Montreal-area filmmaking challenge, but it's cool to see this sort of crowd of filmmakers.

One last thing - Gabrielle wondered if the meowing between the time the lights went down and the film started up would fade in coming years, as it originated what the regular "Simon's Cat" shorts here (themselves no longer an indie cartooning thing, but something bought by a larger company that makes plushes, greeting cards, and the like along with the cartoons). I figure it won't, because it's too much of a thing on its own now, for better or worse, and I wouldn't exactly put it past the programmers to pair a Simon's Cat cartoon with the opening-night film just to make sure it continues.

So, this is Thursday. Friday is up next, another short-ish day with What's Up Connection, Whether the Weather Is Fine, and The Witch Part 2: The Other One.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, digital)

A cute little short that pairs quite well with Out in the Ring, although it's one of those where I looked at the program's description afterwards and was like "oh, yeah, that explains some things!" It's always interesting when you see just how well a short can get by without much in the way of exposition, but what's in the program is necessarily nothing but that.

As to the film itself, it's very cute, a pair of young men practicing pro-wrestling moves but not exactly entirely into it while being heckled by an older man watching from the apartment. There isn't exactly a lot to do at this point, so filmmaker Matthew Manhire has his cast quickly sketch some emotions out, establish that the old man has probably been this specific sort of pain since these two were little, and then give them time for a rather nice reversal of emotion before an entertainingly goofy punchline.

It packs a fair amount into its six minutes, without a whole lot of talking but with an earnest vibe of it not being what you love, but that you love it and how you express that.

Out in the Ring

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Documentaries from the Edge, DCP)

Not a lot of documentaries made by people who are clearly fans are able to approach their subject quite so clearly as Out in the Ring does, openly acknowledging that the history it presents is full of contradictions, and that the thing those fans love has so often not loved them back. There's no escaping the cognitive dissonance. Nevertheless, the filmmakers clearly love wrestling and celebrate queer people, even when the intersection can be a mess.

As the film points out, queer angles in wrestling go back in 1940s lucha in Mexico, where the "exoticas" gimmick was actually created by American Dizzy Davis, although when he returned home, he didn't think it would work north of the border, telling George Wagner to run with it if he wanted. "Gorgeous George" quickly became a superstar with his make-up, capes, and boas, and other wrestles with pretty-boy gimmicks would prove popular through the years (and even those not technically doing that sort of thing, like Ric Flair, would lean into that sort of flamboyance). There would be leathermen more clearly inspired by Tom of Finland than any real bikers and other similar angles, but at the same time, folks like Pat Patterson, who started out in Montreal before moving to Boston and the West Coast, would stay carefully closeted, even as he took behind-the-scenes roles and was arguably the architect of what made Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation (later World Wrestling Entertainment) the dominant force in the industry.

There are plenty of stories like Pat's and George's, and plenty which don't turn out so well, as well as a lot of chances to impishly point out that if a lot of wrestling wasn't directly lifting from drag balls and other pieces of queer culture, they certainly came up with a lot of the same things. Filmmaker Ryan Bruce Levey has a big job in compacting 75 years or so of history into something under two hours, and that he manages it without feeling like he skipped over any particular time periods or got trapped in a repeating cycle is actually fairly impressive, when you think of how many documentaries don't find the time or the good combination of archival footage and people who were there to make that happen. It reassures the audience that he's not trying to shape the narrative into something else without hammering points home too bluntly.

(He is also very helpful in putting names, areas of expertise, and pronouns on the screen nearly every time someone appears as an interview subject. It may seem like overkill, but there are a lot of people popping up even if people weren't more inclined to watch movies in general and documentaries in particular in chunks in the streaming era.)

As I imagine that most stories of wrestling inevitably do, Out in the Ring sort of gets swallowed by the WWE during its second half, and it's kind of a tricky thing to maneuver: How Vince McMahon built what sure looked like a monopoly to non-fans - one that has only recently seen its first real competition in a decade or two emerge - is a big part of the landscape but not the point of this story. It does allow the filmmakers to zero in on a certain type of hypocrisy in how it's often good business to demonstrate you're not bigots but maybe not so much to put your money where your mouth is, which could probably be extracted as an object lesson in it. Based on the Q&A, the film probably paints things a little rosier than is actually true, at least in how prominent some of the gay or trans wrestlers shown are in the mainstream, at least if you're not coming to it as someone who watches regularly.

And it's a shame that wrestling fans are not getting as many chances to see that talent as they should; the film is at its best when celebrating the folks who would be up and comers in a just world - the acrobatic stuff Sonny Kiss does is particularly amazing - and otherwise showing some joy. There are moments when it engages in the sort of weird meta-reality that wrestling often indulges in, like Charlie Morgan coming out during a show somehow feeling just different enough from typical mic work to feel authentic even as one is aware just how much acting is involved in those segments, and cockeyed bits where tiny shows of people beating on each other in high school auditoriums are family entertainment for queer kids. For a film that's about something so physical, where the performance clips are expected to be the most fun, it's able to get incredible mileage out of its subjects probably feeling more comfortable about the intersection of the thing they love and who they are than they were a few years ago, let alone when some of the older subjects were active. It's infectious, although it can be even more so because it's not just talk.

Despite what Levey and company choose to show, those things don't actually intersect as well as one might hope. On the other hand, the end of a documentary that might not really circulate until a couple years after it's done, festival circuits and sales and release schedules being what they are, needs to show trajectory as much as anything, and there's no shame in being a little hopeful there, given how good and persistent some of these folks are.

Freaks Out

* * (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

As oddball superhero movie premises go, one would think that "Italian circus X-Men versus a 12-fingered Nazi who gets hgh and sees the future" would be an excellent starting point, and it winding up a complete mess makes it one of the festival's biggest disappointment. Director Gabriele Mainetti and co-writer Nicola Guaglianone seem to be trying to do too much on the face of it, but they often have the opposite problem, lacking the important pieces needed to pull the story together.

As it opens, Ringmaster Israel (Giorgia Tirabassi) is showcasing the other four members of his small troupe: Fulvio (Chaudio Santamaria), an erudite beast-man covered in fur with superhuman strength; Mario (giancarlo Martini), a diminutive clown who is also a human magnet; Cencio (Pietro Castellitto), who can control insects, which is particularly impressive with fireflies, though he dislikes bees; and Matilde (Aurora Giovinazzo), a teenager who can channel electricity, though controlling it is another story. It's interrupted, though, as the town where they've set up is bombed - it is World War II, after all - and they find themselves making thier way to Rome without a tent. Israel intends to get visas so that they can escape to America, but vanishes, and while Matilde seeks him, the others figure they may as well see if the German circus direct from Berlin is hiring. What they don't necessarily realize is that its leader Franz (Franz Ragowski) is not just a pianist with an extra finger on each hand, but that he can see the future, and has become convinced that the only way to prevent the Nazi's ignominious defeat is by him leading a team that includes a foursome of people with powers like his.

Superhero tales have been inserting World War II since it was current events, and it's easy to understand why - the truly monstrous villains, the iconic imagery, the real-life stories that seemed to become iconic immediately - but it always winds up a little trickier than it looks. You're also talking about the Holocaust, after all, and there at least should be a certain amount of unease in rewriting history to fit in necromancers and super-soldiers or juxtaposing the horrors of war with the whimsy of brightly-colored costumes. This film opts to confront the Holocaust directly, and while it could go much worse, it's hard to see the point of mixing it with this sort of fantasy - the reality of it is so seemingly larger than life that you don't need fantasy to lay things out in starker terms, and it risks recasting true horrors as cartoon villains. Mainetti and Guaglianone seem aware of this, and work hard not to diminish the reality, but it mostly means there's not much fantasy value here. It's an alternate history where everything's all going to turn out the same, except there are mutants.

And on top of that, their mechanics of building the story are kind of terrible. There's a sequence where Fulvio, Cencico, and Mario wind up on a truck heading toward a concentration camp, bust out in violent screw-these-guys fashion… and then just head back to town to join the Nazi circus. Once there, Franz bounces between making the guy very comfortable and torturing them for no reason, and there are at least two or three times when the only way the filmmakers can get to the next stage of the story is just to have Matilde walk deliberately and stupidly into danger even when it's exceptionally clear she should know better, when a well-written movie would have actually having her learning from the first time it ended in disaster. It's odd, because they never really come up with much for the troupe to do beyond the absolute basics, rather than having any sort of particular stories of their own.

Frustrating because as much as so much is dumb, one can see where the filmmakers are right on target. The opening introduction, for instance, is terrific, a way to introduce the characters and their personalities and powers without a lot of exposition before pulling the curtain back on the sort of darkness the movie is dealing with. There's a bit of inspired lunacy with the cannon used to launch human cannonballs that's just goofy enough that one can happily overlook how, nah, it's not going to help them catch up with that train. And for all the dumb anachronistic jokes built around Franz, there's a specific sort of angering tragedy about him: It's not just that he can see the future, but he's pulling in songs and art that only he can play on the piano, seeing other ways to delight people, and all he wants is to be a normal Nazi, even knowing that they're a historical dead-end.

Those clever bits are too few and far between, though, and too much that's in-between winds up tacky or boring when it's not just downright ill-considered. It's a terrific premise squandered by people never finding the right material to flesh it out.

DJ XL5's Ultimate Zappin' Party

Seen 28 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

So many of these shorts are very short indeed, too short for notes, and many of them local-enough that I'd just be grasping them by the time they finished, so let's just hit the highlights:

  • "Monsieur Magie" - A delightfully daft premise which almost feels enhanced for those of us who speak little French because we get the slow dawning on us as to what's happening organically: The title character, the sort of magician who usually works children's parties, is brought out to a cabin to perform for an adult audience, and while on the one hand the guest of honor just seems kind of dim, it eventually turns out that these guys are criminals, and they want him to make a body disappear.

    It's a nutty, dumb idea that would probably absolutely self-destruct if dragged out much longer than these ten minutes, but at that length it's still got me chuckling at the goofball logic of it while M. Magie is trying his best to extricate himself from a bunch of murderers using only his skills at close-up magic and their evident gullibility. Just long enough not to get frustrating and just tricky enough to keep a contest of wits with morons from being an unfair fight.
  • "Simon's Cat: Light Lunch" - Maybe not the most brilliant or original "Simon's Cat" short, as we have probably seen Simon leave food unattended only for the cat to be gross, or go to some trouble to feed him only for the cat to ignore it, and there's not exactly a lot of creative destruction here. It's a comfortable familiar gag, though, and it would have been wrong to see the Party without a visit from its favorite feline. Though it does seem likely that it was chosen for the fact that there's a pickle in it, which made for a bit of a theme with other shorts.
  • "Felis Infernalis" - Then again, this kitty sows a fair amount of havoc in one minute. Just a cute, funny short that captures the exact line cats straddle between deliberate and uncaring mayhem.
  • "Spaghetter Getter" - The sort of short that seems custom-made for the Zappin' Party, because it initially seems like it could be one of the screwy commercials used to pad out the time between shorts until it just starts going off the rails. It's random-seeming, dark and absurdist comedy, maybe not actually that funny unless you're on its up-too-late-what-is-this vibe, but this is a package that gets you there.
  • "Guimauve" - Kind of comedy torture, in a way, as writer/director/star Daniel Grenier demonstrates his skill at tossing a marshmallow in the air and catching it in his mouth, tosses one too high, and then spends the next ten or fifteen minutes getting in position to catch it. Silly and self-aware, but Grenier by and large has the right instincts on when to get laughs from stretching a bit out and when to cut something off and amble on to the next thing.
  • "Guts" - The of "guy with his guts either on the outside of his body or his belly just sliced open and somehow not bleeding out feels he's being discriminated against at work" sort of speaks for itself, but it escalates into chaos even as it repeats its joke four or so times, treating the weird gross-out bit as a sort of safe place to reset as the film spirals into bigger messes.
  • "Panique au village: Les grandes vacances" - Who doesn't love "Panique au village" (aka "A Town Called Panic")? Joyless monsters, that's who. This one's a jumbo-sized short, nearly half an hour, but it hums along as the mischievous Cowboy and Indian create trouble, have it spin out of control, and have to do something even stranger to fix what they've broken. Somehow, this goes from building a toy boat to having to win a bicycle race to replace Horse's car, all while Horse is trying to impress his would-be girlfriend.

    Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar are masters of just piling one thing on top of another, having it fall down, and then having their characters scramble to make up for lost time in a way that makes the audience feel almost as frantic as they do. As is often the case, they use this to let them suddenly take sharp turns into new territory even as they maintain the running jokes that have been going on since the whole thing started. The very limited stop-motion just adds to this, like they're frantically trying to keep up with their story while also reminding the audience that this is a totally made-up cartoon place with no rules , so absolutely anything can happen next.
… and a dozen more, and a bunch of stuff in-between where you kind of had to be there.

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