"A film festival with the boring parts cut out."
"I plan my entire year around Fantastic Fest."
"Fantastic Fest is the greatest film festival of all time."
"I want to have Fantastic Fest's children."
One of those quotes is the advertising tagline for the increasingly popular Austin-based genre film festival Fantastic Fest. Another one of those quotes was taken straight from the mouths of several Austin film geeks, while another is a common refrain amongst bloggers and critics and those in-the-know. The last quote? I made it up, but I'll let you figure that one out on your own.
Fantastic Fest. For years, I've heard others extol its virtues, speak of it like it's the Second Coming of Film-dom, a Mecca for all things celluloid and those that worship movies. A place where everyone knows the movie minutiae that your friends always look at you funny for reciting. A place where film fans and journalists and filmmakers can all mingle as one. A place where Kane Hodder (aka Jason Voorhees) can win a Best Actor Award.
But how much is true, and how much is just fantasy? Surely, there is no way that Fantastic Fest can live up to the absurdly high praise. Hype may get your butt on a plane to the ATX and the famed Alamo Drafthouse theater, but won't it ultimately deflate your entire experience when you realize "Yeah, it's good, but it's not that good"?
This is an important question and one that I, as a new Austin resident and first time Fantastic Fest attendee, decided must be answered. This is what happened. This is the story of my time at Fantastic Fest.
And it's all true. Except for the parts I made up.
Day One: Thursday
And so my journey began with me making a mad dash to the Drafthouse box office after Fantastic Fest's brand new beta online ticketing system is crushed under the weight of countless movie nerd logins, which brings me to the first thing I learned about Fantastic Fest and, quite possibly, the most important thing I will learn:
Rule #1: Get there early.
You think you're the only person who's heard how cool this festival is? The answer is no. No, you are not. Within fifteen minutes, the ticket line behind me stretched all the way to the Highball, the bar/restaurant/bowling alley/karaoke bar/official festival party location created by Fantastic Fest co-founder and Alamo Drafthouse mastermind Tim League.
Which makes this a good time to bring up something else:
Rule #2: Learn to deal with lines.
No matter how early you get there, you will not be the first person in line. This is a fact. An undisputed scientific fact. You will never, ever, ever be at the front of the line. Grow some patience, make some friends and learn to love the Art of the Wait. You'll be waiting for tickets. You'll be waiting to enter a theater. You'll be waiting to exit a theater. You'll be waiting in a standby line when you fail to secure tickets to that one movie you just have to see.
So you'll be waiting. A lot. With that said...
Rule #3: Don't be shy.
For a state capital and a college town and a not-small urban environment, Austin is a shockingly friendly place. Despite being inhabited by geeks and nerds and film snobs and, worst of all, writers, Fantastic Fest itself is a haven of nicety, a place where you can join a conversation circle without knowing a single person involved and immediately find yourself a handful of new friends.
You have to try pretty frakkin' hard to be an outcast at Fantastic Fest. After all, everyone here has gone out their way to spend a week watching movies featuring aliens and wizards and mentally challenged backwoods killers, so it's not like you're spending time with the hippest folks on the planet. Unless you count the hipsters who are there to drink the booze and ogle the celebrities, but whatever. You, gentle movie geek, have the power here. So:
Rule #4: Pull the stick out of your butt -- this is a genre film festival. Have fun!
With new friends made and a line or two conquered, Fantastic Fest truly began when I entered the theater to watch a German science fiction film called 'Transfer'. The movie itself is unremarkable, but it proves itself the palette cleanser for' Golden Slumber' (pictured), an unclassifiable and brilliant Japanese film about rekindling friendships while on the run for a political assassination you didn't commit. Before the day is over, I'll see a Thai martial arts film (Ong Bak 3), a darkly comic Swedish thriller (Corridor) and a Japanese man-transforms-into-vengeful-cyborg move (Tetsuo: The Bullet Man).
Rule #5: You'll be reading a lot of subtitles.
With my first day of Fantastic Fest coming to an end, I found myself elated at having seen a handful of unique movies that I may have otherwise never had the opportunity to see. I also found myself saddened to realize that these were all foreign films because American studios would never give these movies and these concepts the time of day.
And somehow, Fantastic Fest is living up the hype.
Day Two: Friday
Rule #6: You will not sleep. Ever.
Maybe that one's an exaggeration. I got a solid three and a half hours and headed back out to stand in line again. I don't drink coffee but I picked one up on the way just because. This is Fantastic Fest, damn it. I don't have time to screw around.
As I waited in line, much of the conversation around me was about last night's showings of 'Let Me In' (pictured) and 'Buried' at red carpet, gala events. I had forgone these showings to check out the smaller films that weren't guaranteed wide releases and was informed by seasoned festival goers that I made a wise move.
Rule #7: Take your chances with the small stuff.
Am I tempted to go see the slick, studio-financed blockbuster instead of the made-for-pennies cardboard indie? Of course I am! I'm a young American male raised on a diet of Hollywood.
But when you don't take chances, you miss 'Gallants', a weird and often wonderful Chinese kung-fu comedy about aging martial artists. You miss 'A Somewhat Gentle Man', a pitch dark Norwegian comedy featuring Stellan Skarsgård's best performance. You miss the absurd, hilarious, oddly subversive and completely brilliant 'Rubber', the only movie you'll see this year about about a tire with psychic powers wreaking havoc across the desert. You miss 'Norwegian Ninja', which re-envisions key moments in Norwegian history as having been instigated or prevented by a top-secret team of commandos with martial arts abilities and smoke bombs and deadly feng shui.
And perhaps it's because Fantastic Fest is such an intensely social experience, or maybe it's because everyone is here to watch and talk about movies. Whatever it is:
Rule #8: Even the bad movies are worth your time.
I saw the first film I outright disliked the night of my second day. A Serbian film called 'The Life and Death of a Porno Gang'. Sure, it's 90 minutes I'll never get back, but I was able to produce a couple hours of conversation out of discussing it with my fellow film buffs.
Of course, by this point, you've been festival-ing it up for 48 hours on only four hours of sleep, so these conversations tend to be slurred and muttered between the occasional whimper. You realize it's three in the morning and you have a "Diary of Fantastic Fest Virgin" entry to write and then a press screening early in the early morning. You try very hard not to crash your car on the way home.
Day Three: Saturday
It is at this point, conversing with his colleagues at the press screening for the absolutely brilliant Korean thriller 'I Saw the Devil', that this chubby white guy with a beard noticed that he represents a pretty consistent demographic for this event.
Rule #9: If you are attending Fantastic Fest, you are probably a chubby white guy with a beard.
It's a Saturday and the festival is at its peak. I'm told that a bunch of people are in for the weekend and the crowds will begin to dissipate by Monday. In the meantime, I waited in line, met so many people that I forgot they all existed within the hour and watched as nearly every single screening of every single movie sold out.
I learned that I'm the only jerkface who doesn't like 'Sound of Noise', the whimsical tale of "musical terrorists" turning ordinary places and objects into instruments. People inquire as to why I don't have a soul. I don't have an answer.
One side effect of following Rule #7 was missing Roger Corman winning a lifetime achievement award before the world premiere of the Syfy original movie, 'Sharktopus'. This is rectified by attending a screening of Corman's 'X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes'. I'm delighted to realize it's a beautiful 35mm print and that Corman will be there to answer questions after the film. I noted that Corman seems overjoyed to be there, happy to answer any and all questions, happily signing autographs and shaking hands with anyone and everyone.
Fantastic Fest is the rare place where Corman isn't a famous schlock filmmaker...he's a great filmmaker, one of the most productive and innovative artists of the past fifty years. I tarnish my journalistic image forever and for all time by asking Mr. Corman to inscribe his name on my notebook.
The Corman Q&A is solid and filled with interesting questions proposed by knowledgeable and reasonably intelligent people. This is a relief since, even at Fantastic Fest-
Rule #10: People will ask stupid questions at Q&A's. Always.
'Drones' is a funny, charming comedy directed by Amber Benson and Adam Busch, who, once upon a time, were featured on 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'. Cue the inevitable eye-rolling Joss Whedon question. Bad for sure, but not nearly as embarrassing as the 'Stake Land' Q&A, where someone asked Danielle Harris, star of 'Halloween 4', 'Halloween 5', 'Hatchet' and 'Hatchet 2' if she's ever been in a horror movie.
Want to see a Fantastic Fest audience, the most amiable of all audiences, turn into something resembling a lynch mob? Ask Danielle Harris if she's ever been in a horror movie.
My evening concluded with zombies. First of the German variety in the excellent 'Rammbock' and then of the African and British variety in the not-so-excellent 'The Dead'. With a day well spent, I retired to the Highball, on the hunt for a familiar face. Soon enough, I run into fellow Cinematical writer Todd Gilchrist and noticed right away that he was beaming. Not just smiling. Oh, no. Mr. Gilchrist is not just happy. He is in a moment of spiritual transcendence. Something has touched his soul this evening. I have rarely seen an individual more at peace with his existence.
I asked what happened.
It seemed that while I was zombie-ing it up, I missed the Chaos Reigns Karaoke party. It seemed I missed Elijah Wood, Tim League, 'Timecrimes' director Nacho Vigalondo and The RZA joining together on stage to sing "I Gotta Feeling' by The Black Eyed Peas. It seems I missed Bill Pullman dancing on stage to "It's Raining Men." I missed the weirdest, wildest musical performance of all time.
It was apparently the Best Thing Ever. Only at Fantastic Fest.
Rule #11 Anything can happen. And it will happen.
(And this is where I leave you, but I feel like I'm barely scratching the surface. I haven't talked about the audiences, or the Drafthouse food service, or the inappropriate bumper contest, or the Highball, or the booze ... or the usefulness of Twitter at a film festival. Or the booze. Or the booze. Look for my next entry on Wednesday.)