SXSW Film 2014 Day 3: A Nicolas Cage Comeback and an Overly Congratulatory Showbiz DocA column article, Shot For Shot by: Nick Hanover
I've harbored a not-so-secret Nicolas Cage fixation for a while, so day three of SXSW was devoted to one of the only films on my must-see list: David Gordon Green's Joe, the eclectic director's first collaboration with the even more eclectic Cage A slow burning exploration of masculinity and poverty in the South based off the novel by Larry Brown, Joe is a fitting follow-up to Green's minimalist feature Prince Avalanche, which also screened at SXSW last year. Though Cage has mostly been treated as a punch line for the last decade or so, Joe proves the unpredictable actor can still turn in a masterful performance and it helps that Green plays to Cage's strengths and encourages his eccentricities.
As the titular Joe, Cage is full of explosive vulnerability, constantly striving to keep his rage in check while living a quiet, blue collar life leading a group of laborers tasked with killing off trees in a land that's set for redevelopment. Joe's stable, hard working life is disrupted when an alcoholic drifter and his family come to town and Joe takes the drifter's son Gary (Tye Sheridan) under his wing. Green populates Joe with unknown actors who nonetheless turn in stunning performances that feel entirely lived in, similar to the casting that made Richard Linklater's Bernie stand out. But the film undeniably belongs to Cage, who comes across as endearing and dangerous at once, fiercely loyal to the people he cares for but aware that a desire for destructive violence will always remain at his core.
Like Green's early works, Joe has a casual quality to it that relegates story to the background in favor of character and scenery. Green is unafraid to let scenes happen spontaneously, and Joe is a film where the mood and aesthetic of the small town at its heart is just as important as the performances of the cast and that devotion to Southern cinema verite pays off. Fans who have been longing for more serious turns from both Cage and Green would be wise to see the film.
The only other film I caught on day three was Mike Myers' (yes, that Mike Myers) documentary on Shep Gordon, Supermensch. Gordon is best known as the manager of Alice Cooper, whose theatrical style and shock tactics Gordon had a hand in creating. Beloved for his ability to bring people together and his capacity for resolving disagreements in a diplomatic fashion, Gordon rose up in show business despite not coming from an entertainment background. Supermensch thrives when it lets Gordon open up and tell stories about his crazy career, but Myers' insertion of strange reenactments and random footage from other films works against Supermensch. Myers and the subjects he collects for the interviews are all deeply appreciative of Gordon and his work, which can make for a passionate documentary but in this case it's more frequently a maudlin sentimentality.
While Gordon was instrumental in the destruction of the chitlin circuit while managing Teddy Pendergrass and even initially wanted to be a social worker, Supermensch mostly focuses on the latter stage of Gordon's career, when he devoted himself to the culinary arts and basically created the concept of the celebrity chef while also hosting celebrated parties for his showbiz friends. Much of Gordon's familial past is left unexplored other than quick segments here and there despite the fact that the film makes a major point of Gordon's desire for a family. The overall effect is one of flimsiness, as every interesting diversion the film heads towards-- like Gordon's brief Hollywood detour that found him producing John Carpenter's They Live! and Prince of Darkness among other works-- is cut off for jovial but not necessarily vital compliments from Gordon's many celebrity friends.
It's necessary to also point out that Supermensch never paints Gordon in anything other than a celebratory light. Gordon's infamous womanizing is celebrated throughout, which makes for a weird contrast to the innumerable times Gordon states he just wants a family. And even the tragedies Gordon faced, like his battle with a devastating intestinal problem and Teddy Pendergrass's career ending car accident, are given all the gravitas of a Behind the Music segment. Gordon is clearly affable and it's easy to see why he means so much to his clients and friends, but it's to the film's detriment that no other perspectives on Gordon or his career are shown. At 84 minutes, the film clearly had room for more perspectives, and it seems hard to believe that no one has any criticisms of Gordon or the excess he represents. Myers' work is ultimately more of a commercial for Gordon than a proper, multi-faceted biographical work, and it seems a little tone deaf to spend so much time celebrating the way Gordon morphed from an optimistic social advocate to the kind of showbiz manager who can't help but brag about the $20 million home he owns in Hawaii and all the women he's seduced while bemoaning the fact that he doesn't have a family.
But maybe SXSW was the perfect environment for this kind of documentary, as the crowd ate it up and was undoubtedly full of showbiz vets who wish they had cashed out when Shep did and were luxuriating in the sun like he now does instead of trying to figure out a way to make a buck at events like SXSW, where questionable branding has replaced the theatricality Gordon and Alice Cooper made their fortunes on.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he's the last of the secret agents and he's your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Comics Bulletin, or at Panel Panopticon, which he started as a joke and now takes semi-seriously. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover and explore the world of his musical alter egos at Fitness and Pontypool.