Chattanooga Film Enthusiast Gordon Inman on new trends emerging in the local film scene and the rise of 'guerilla cinephilia'.
One of the most significant film premieres in history took place on April Fool’s Day, 1980, next to the original Tokyo Dome in a rented, inflatable tent. The producer Genjiro Arato had bet on the darkest of horses: hopefully a comeback feature for director Seijun Suzuki (1923-2017), who a decade earlier had been blacklisted from Nikkatsu, because the two-dozen genre pictures (mostly yakuza-flavored, an easy winner) he’d made for them had evolved into such monuments to opacity that they could not be guaranteed to break even. (By Suzuki’s own autumnal admission, “I make movies that make no sense and make no money.”) His newest film and the premiere in question, Zigeunerweisen, centered around the reunion of two college friends who share the love of a woman who may be deceased and/or have a doppelganger, while occasionally the disembodied whispering voice of Pablo de Sarasate escapes from the eponymous vinyl to haunt them. Needless to say, this was his most academic work to date, and Arato had been unsuccessful in securing any exhibitors, let alone a formal premiere; the tent premiere, harkening in its own ragtag way to the medium’s sideshow roots, was his Hail Mary.
The return on Arato’s investment was formidable. The film was an immediate hit, picked up for a successful wide release, and won four Japanese Academy and Kinema Junpo Awards, including Best Picture. This triumph is perhaps not only a testament to the film itself (which is riveting in a way that Suzuki’s greener pictures were not) but to a change in audiences’ priorities; that is, a public who had previously gone to the movies to pass the time were now buying tickets to feed their intellect. Neither is incorrect, but there’s an undeniable excitement in that switch. We are seeing such a change in our partial post-Covid culture, both on an international scale and locally: after months of waiting out a curve that never flattened, the idea of killing time feels suddenly cheap, and it’s a safe bet that we no longer live in the era of recommending TV shows at parties.
Regarding the city of Chattanooga specifically, a similar shift is occurring, and local audiences are voting with their dollars for enriching and challenging arts and entertainment. A five concert chamber music series out of the Chattanooga Theatre Centre sold out all but one show (The Northshore Karass), an experimental theatre company adapted Eugene O’Neill’s most expressionist play with all seven cast members taking turns playing the protagonist and managed to turn a profit (Obvious Dad), and a dance company which uses videography as its preferred venue has taken over the city’s dance scene with a humbling ubiquity (The Pop-Up Project). For the first weekend since many before the pandemic, Chattanooga’s townpainters had to choose tragically between unmissable events.
The SHORTFLIX 'n' CHILL film series was hosted by Tyler Green at Wanderlinger Brewing Company and featured the work of eleven local directors, nearly all of which came out of Dr. Chris Willis’s superlative media program at Chattanooga State. A few highlights include:
To Jonas (Zach Ratchford) - An essay from the founder of the Festival of Rejects, in reverence of the recently deceased father of the New York avant-garde.
A Hand (South Turk) - A comedic sketch involving a randy wish-granting goblin that seems inspired in equal parts by Old Gregg and Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England. The film unapologetically exhibits early adolescent humor, to what felt like the absolute delight of everyone in the audience.
Inner Demons (Robert S. Evans) - A disgustingly cynical haunted house short in the style of Ti West with a legitimately terrifying ending. Happy Halloween.
Get the Van Running (Christopher Flippo) - A one-reeler about two women who are stuck with a broken-down van and running late for a gig. A prime example of what can only be called rock’n’roll realism.
Illation (written by Ryan Reece and directed by Rachel Bohanon) - Easily the most divisive film of the night, and possibly the most fascinating. The story has been told before: a professor and student share a close but chaste friendship which is incorrectly perceived by others as inappropriate, to bittersweet results rather than tragic. The brilliance of this filmic world, however, is that it’s bound by the rules of a 21st century brand of puritanism that exists in its full potency to a small percentage of the Bible Belt population but is untraceable to this demographic due to its ubiquity in their lives (elements of David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” come to mind). As a result, the audience feels the same intensity for this non-scandal as the characters and possibly the film’s screenwriter do, and the sincerity of this kind of filmmaking is worth celebrating regardless of one’s views on its religious hue.
Days Counted (Chandler Gibson) - Gibson’s third and best film centers around a prisoner decades into a life sentence reflecting on his regrets while disturbingly at peace with his fate. Less a thriller than an essay with narration, which creates different kind of unsettling effect.
Counterpole (Emily Steele) - Steele has very quickly established herself as the queen of horror filmmaking in the area (although the “horror” qualifier may not even be necessary). The film is not so much a psychological thriller as a study on trauma and a (purely fictional) argument for subsequent trauma as a healing force, an argument Wes Craven tried and failed to make in Screams 2 and 4. Major trigger warnings to future audiences: this is an extremely disturbing film, to the degree that a non-zero number of relationships have been damaged at its three screenings to date.
It should be noted that the last three films on this list share a Director of Photography in Christian Eaves, an artist with a remarkable eye who deserves his own spotlight article rather than this footnote.
Four blocks away in Miller Park on the same night was the opening of the new monologue play by Peggy Douglas, Chattanooga’s master of present tense prose. Douglas’s work has always celebrated Chattanooga’s history through a decidedly progressive contemporary lens, to moving effect. One is reminded of the not-Winston Churchill quote, “History is written by the victors” in her work; specifically, that the socially liberal view is nearly always the eventual rhetorical winner. (Please send any hate mail to email@example.com.) This newest play, Steel Toes and Hired Hands, contains my favorite line she’s written, which is certain to infuriate any Critical Race Theory skeptic: “Whoever heard of a haunted black hotel?”
In April of this year, an anonymous friend with ties to the local economy let me in on a little secret: business owners were and are investing in projectors and screens. As of this past weekend, this is no longer a secret. The patron saint brewery of Chattanooga arts had the capacity to host a film festival, the screen in Miller Park was used as an integral backdrop for “Steel Toes'' after months of use showcasing the Lookout Wild Film Festival to end every Nightfall event, and at least Cherry Street Tavern, the Woodshop Listening Room in St. Elmo, and (Be)Caffeinated’s Kent Street location are primed and equipped for movie night. While Rose Cox’s decision to close The Palace Theater last year (which she made because, simply put, continuing to operate during the pandemic would put her patrons' health at risk, anointing her an ethical titan in my book) felt like a tragic death knell for the local film scene at the time, this city has defiantly taken a page out of Genjiro Arato’s book and pitched our collective tent.