Austin Film Festival prides itself on showing a number of local films -- there's even a category called Austin Screens, and other films with local connections often appear elsewhere in the lineup. Two locally shot documentaries stood out this year, showing audiences two very different perspectives on the city. One was a "marquee screening" of Frederick Wiseman's film 'Boxing Gym', shot at Richard Lord's Gym in north Austin; the other was 'Echotone,' a look at local musicians and how local condo/building development is affecting the music scene.
Don't expect a neatly plotted story arc in Frederick Wiseman's documentary 'Boxing Gym.' You won't find a "cast" of several selected documentary subjects working toward a specified goal, either. Instead, you'll spend 90 minutes or so inside a boxing gym, just as you might if you were sitting on a bench in a corner, watching and listening without anyone noticing. The members and visitors at Richard Lord's Gym in Austin appear to be entirely unaware of the camera as they train, spar or chat.
The boxing gym draws a variety of people. One woman works out with her baby watching from a nearby carrier. Kids are training in earnest, with help from gym owner Richard Lord. Some are just starting out and still figuring out how to put on their hand wraps; some are preparing for boxing matches. Two guys in a corner are conversing in Spanish, which the movie doesn't translate. One guy talking about the Virginia Tech shootings -- 'Boxing Gym' was shot in 2007 -- may be recognizable to some viewers as Richard Garriott, although he's not identified in the film. Richard Lord weaves through it all, meeting prospective new members in his tiny office, explaining to a teenage boy how boxing is different from street fighting or leading a group of men in a strenuous version of leapfrog.
I used to work out in Richard Lord's Gym, and I was amazed by the way Wiseman captured it on film, so palpably I could practically smell the unairconditioned place. 'Boxing Gym' has no soundtrack other than the ambient sounds in the gym -- the rhythmic slams on the speedbag, the thuds of punches in the ring, the crack of jump ropes and again and again, the buzzer on the time clock. In the beginning of the movie, most of the scenes are of people in ones and twos, but as the movie progresses, we see larger groups, even small classes. Nearly every scene is inside the gym (or right outside on the "porch"), except for a sequence shot during the weekly runs up and down the ramps at Texas Memorial Stadium, and a lovely shot of the Austin skyline that closes the movie.
'Boxing Gym' doesn't include a big climactic fight scene or a suspenseful final match. Don't expect 'Rocky' in this documentary. It's a fascinating look at a place where all kinds of people go, perhaps to build a career as a fighter, perhaps to work off a little aggression, perhaps just to stay in shape ... or simply because they love what they do in the boxing gym. The only real problem with watching 'Boxing Gym' is that you may feel tempted to join them.
The documentary 'Echotone' premiered at Marfa Film Festival in May, where I was lucky enough to see it. I liked this look at Austin musicians and Austin music issues enough to catch it again at AFF, where it screened at Alamo Drafthouse Ritz on Sixth Street -- the street where some of the film was shot. Although its focus is on Austin, the issues in 'Echotone' are universal in any city with musicians and a live music scene.
Profiles of local musicians make up about half of the film, with a focus on what these musicians are doing to survive financially and artistically. Director Nathan Crist follows Joe Lewis (of Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears) around Austin as he delivers fish for a local seafood business. Lewis isn't terribly fond of his day job, and many of the remarks he makes in the delivery van are priceless. It looks like he's on the way up, with a professional photo shoot and a CD release party at Waterloo that's tied into SXSW, but he keeps delivering the fish.
Bill Baird, on the other hand, had a big record ing contract and a gig at ACL Fest when he was in the band Sound Team ... until things went sour with the record label and the band broke up. Now he's starting fresh with a new band, Sunset, and hoping for a different kind of success. Cari Palazzolo happily hand-paints and cuts up paper to use as CD liners for the band Belaire, while chatting about her day job as a courier ... delivering blueprints and plans for Austin condo development companies.
These intimate interviews alternate with shots of business development in Austin, which is impacting the music scene. For such a potentially disruptive force, the scene are beautifully shot -- one "dance of the cranes" sequence is especially lovely. Business developers comment that people in Austin are always fearing that change will ruin the city, and have been talking that way for decades. The current problem on which 'Echotone' focuses is that condos are being built in the city's long-time live music districts (like Red River), and then the people moving into the condos and apartments complain about the live music being too loud.
'Echotone' also relies heavily on footage from Austin City Council and the Austin Live Music Task Force as they try to reach compromises on the noise levels from live music so bands can continue to perform and (hopefully) residents will be less unhappy. However, the film never shows the direct effect of city music ordinances and neighborhood complaints about live music -- the musicians interviewed have no experiences to share about these problems when performing, and we never see a band shut down or kicked out or told to turn down the volume. The musician profiles don't quite intersect with this theme.
Still, 'Echotone' does tell a compelling tale about what happens when music intersects with business in all its forms. The musicians in the film are dealing with juggling day jobs, promoting themselves, finding gigs and ways to sell their music, and in Austin, dealing with the musical behemoth of SXSW. The documentary also includes excerpts from a number of local musicians' performances -- a mixed bag of musical tastes from the Austin scene, a little something for just about everyone.