The Fantastic Fest journals, part one: Milkshakes, beards and the endless HumanCentipede II debate
DAY ONE: THURSDAY
8:00 am: I'm awake. I drag myself to the gym, vowing that I will not succumb to the week of gluttony that is Fantastic Fest, a week powered by fattening Drafthouse food, delicious BBQ and Gourdough's doughnuts. I think up the phrase "Fantastic Five" to describe how much additional weight the average fest-goer takes home with him. I giggle silently at my cleverness as I valiantly scale the elliptical machine.
9:31: I shave my beard. Every writer and blogger has a beard. Heck, every movie fan in Austin has a beard. I'm going to stand out this year. With my shoulder bag packed with notebooks, pens, my laptop and over forty sticks of beef jerky, I depart for Fantastic Fest.
9:40: I turn the car around, stupidly realizing that opening day doesn't begin until around 2:00. I loudly make a sad trombone song in the silence of my car.
11:26: I have officially arrived at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar for Fantastic Fest. The topic of conversation is the newly redesigned online ticketing system, which allows badge holders to reserve passes to the shows of their choice from the air conditioned comfort of a Wi-Fi hotspot instead of baking in the Hot Texas Sun™. Once tickets are secured online, you must have them printed out at the Drafthouse ticket counter. The first tickets printed get priority seating, so while you may have reserved online before everyone else, you get seated last if you wait until the last moment to have them printed. Navigating the treacherous labyrinth that is Fantastic Fest ticketing and seating is a unique challenge. A special challenge.
12:18: I stand in line to have my tickets printed. Nearby, a visitor from England (actually representing the Fright Fest film festival) cackles a few cryptic warnings about tonight's opening night movie, The Human Centipede II, otherwise known as the sequel to that movie about the mad scientist who sews people's mouths to other people's anuses to create a monstrous, crawling, poop-eating machine. I shouldn't be excited for this movie, but I kind of am.
12:51: With an hour to kill, I take the one-minute walk to The Highball, the swanky bar-restaurant-bowling alley that is the home of Fantastic Fest's many parties at night (and the meet-up HQ for attendees by day). I meet up with old friends, some having traveled from as far as Canada. I meet new friends, which is easy because we've all gathered here because we love movies so much. One friend makes his rounds with a beer in each hand. "I have two beers. I'm taking this shit seriously," he informs me.
1:36: And thus I depart The Highball, journeying back to the Drafthouse for my first film of Fantastic Fest 2011…or, as it's called on Twitter, #FF2011. Everyone at Fantastic Fest is on Twitter.
1:57: I'm seated for Let the Bullets Fly, a Chinese action flick starring the legendary Chow Yun-Fat. The excitement in the theater is palpable; as ready as we are to see a bunch of Asian gangsters exchange gunfire (and hopefully witty banter), everyone is just excited to be at Fantastic Fest. They could be showing anything on that screen and we'd be buzzing.
4:25: I now know that Let the Bullets Fly is a 90-minute movie dragged kicking and screaming to 130 minutes. A good, if unremarkable, time at the movies. With over seventy films showing, the chances of seeing your favorite film of the fest in the first slot is unlikely. I venture outside and run into someone I've only known through Twitter and have never met face to face. He's trekked all the way down to Austin from South Carolina to experience Fantastic Fest. It's his first time at the Drafthouse and I take it upon myself to show him the ropes. After all, I am a gentleman.
4:55: We take our seats for Sleepless Night, a French crime film. I take an admittedly sleazy pride in watching my new Twitter-buddy-turned-real-life-buddy soak in the Drafthouse. I teach him how to use the menu and order food during the movie. He teaches me the power of song. (Okay, that last part was a lie. I already know the power of song.)
6:39: The crowd is pretty split on Sleepless Night. Some saw a terrifying stress nightmare re-imagined as a gripping thriller, others saw a tedious, poorly shot mess. That second group is wrong. I tell them so. A combination of intelligent debate and name-calling ensues.
7:23: And now we wait. The Human Centipede II is almost upon us and the crowd is antsy. Early word is that the film is a nasty, brutish and punishing piece of work. Still, this is a Fantastic Fest crowd, a mob of movie fans who have seen the weirdest, sickest and strangest films known to man. We have iron cast stomachs and black holes where our souls should be.
7:44: A voice above the din cries out: "Let the Fandango people pass!" Two people dressed as the talking paper bags from the Fandango.com commercials part the crowd like Moses parting the Red Sea. There is no way The Human Centipede II can top this for sheer, hallucinatory terror. In an attempt to prove me wrong, an ambulance parks in front of the Drafthouse, "just in case" something happens during the movie. Well played, Fantastic Fest. Well played.
8:29: I locate a seat in the packed auditorium and play the waiting game. Everyone has been helpfully supplied with a Human Centipede "Survival Guide." It's a barf bag containing a staple remover and a breath mint. In a word: "Ewwwwwww."
8:48: Alamo Drafthouse and Fantastic Fest founder Tim League takes the stage to welcome us all to Fantastic Fest 2011. We respond with much applause and cheering. Tim tells us that becoming the father of two twin girls less than a month previously and has him reconsidering the direction of the festival. Former Hobbit and Fantastic Fest regular Elijah Wood joins Tim up on stage while footage from an episode of the children's show "Yo Gabba Gabba" instructs us to dance. We do. And then it gets weird. Everything culminates in a montage of exploding heads and a "poop sausage" eating contest. We are all sufficiently pumped.
9:01: We are treated to a Fantastic Fest bumper depicting graphic footage of an actual vasectomy. Every man in the audience weeps tears of blood.
10:37: The Human Centipede II has happened to this audience. There is a small smattering of applause, but the crowd is otherwise silent. There is a toxin in the air. As director Tom Six takes the stage for a Q&A, I get the impression that most of the crowd would gladly punch him in the nose. Some because they think the film goes too far with its depiction of torture, murder and improvised surgery, others because they were bored to tears. Well, if Mr. Six's goal was to instill a reaction in his audience no matter what, he has succeeded with bloody colors: he has broken the will of a Fantastic Fest audience.
11:12: For my final film of the day, I have selected a repertory screening of Lucio Fulci's cult classic House by the Cemetery. What better place to bear witness to a crazed fever dream of an Italian horror film than in a theater filled with horror buffs? I note the attendance of William Lustig, the legendary-in-some-niches director of films like Maniac and Vigilante. I say hello. He's as polite as can be, proving my long-standing theory that if you direct violent horror movies, you're among the nicest, sweetest people on the planet.
12:44: I contemplate the existence of House by the Cemetery as I stumble out of the Drafthouse and into the Highball. I'm fairly certain the film has left me with food poisoning of the cerebral cortex. I tell myself that I only have myself to blame and attempt to track down some booze. I am successful.
1:54: On the curb outside of The Highball, I spot a tiny, round man chatting with two incredibly attractive British women. My initial suspicions are confirmed as I draw closer: the little man is Lawrence Harvey, the terrifying star of The Human Centipede II, and those insanely beautiful women are his co-stars. Without hesitation, I bypass the gorgeous ladies and shake the hand of the squat, Peter Lorre-type whom I had just watched build a human centipede. Only at Fantastic Fest.
DAY TWO: FRIDAY
8:00 am: Why am I up so early? Oh, yeah. Fantastic Fest! Online ticket reservations begin at 9:30, but there is no reason to delay. Sleep is for the weak.
9:29: I hit "refresh" repeatedly. The ticketing system places people in a digital queue to avoid crashing the system. That doesn't stop me from from feeling nervous and clammy.
9:33: In the metaphorical line for tickets, I'm number 103. The system gives me an estimated wait of seven minutes. Some people have complained of a few bugs in the system, but it has worked flawlessly for me. After three hour lines in the elements last year, this is heaven. Well, maybe not heaven. A very pleasant purgatory, perhaps?
10:01: As is the morning ritual, I make chit-chat with other festival-goers at The Highball. The topic of the morning? The Human Centipede II, of course. The film has few friends at Fantastic Fest and my attempts to play devil's advocate and defend the film as an interesting social experiment are immediately shut down. I can't help but laugh: the fact that people are talking about The Human Centipede II means that the film has lost the battle but won the war.
10:39: The conversation turns toward Kevin Smith. Give any circle of film fans enough time and the conversation will always eventually turn toward Kevin Smith, for better or for worse. That's just how the world works. I break away from being social to check out the Fantastic Arcade, Fantastic Fest's exhibit of the latest and most interesting in the world of independent video game development. I play a game called "Jesus vs. Dinosaurs," which finds players taking on the roles of Jesus and Charles Darwin and attempting to solve the question of divine creation or evolution once and for all via a game of chicken. Does Cannes have a video game showcase? Of course not. I think the question of "What's the best film festival in the world?" is officially answered here.
11:16: As The Highball crowd heads back to the Drafthouse for the first round of movies, the debate over the quality of The Human Centipede II arises again.
11:37: As I take my seat for The Yellow Sea, a two-and-a-half hour Korean crime film, my will breaks and I order a milkshake. This is the day my diet was broken by 157 minutes of Koreans hacking each other to death with hatchets.
2:02: I officially feel guilty about that whole "ordering a milkshake" thing. I don't, however, feel guilty about about submitting myself to The Yellow Sea, an incredible film which earns every minute of its running time. If there's one thing Fantastic Fest teaches you, it's this: never anger a Korean. If their cinema reflects reality in any way, they take a long time to die and will destroy hundreds of people and an absurd amount of public property in the process.
2:31: I meet the filmmakers behind the horror film Rabies and congratulate them on making the first Israeli horror film and getting into Fantastic Fest. They ask me what I thought of their movie. I clumsily respond that I haven't seen it yet. They forgive me.
2:44: I learn that the Norwegian action/comedy Headhunters is one of the hottest tickets in the festival. I learn this hard way by taking my time getting to the theater and discovering that the only available seats are in the first and second row. I grumble to myself and order another milkshake to soothe my First World frustrations.
4:59: I discover that I'm in the minority regarding Headhunters. finding it middling while every single other person in the audience loves it to death. I mentally prepare to deal with everyone telling me how wrong I am. There's no crying in Fantastic Fest. Only laughter and beer and milkshakes. My opinion aside, the screening reminds me that Fantastic Fest audiences are the best in the world. They're so quiet you can hear a pin drop, but they're ready to burst into rapturous applause and cheering whenever a character says a truly great line or a villain gets an epic, bloody comeuppance. The crowd can barely restrain its enthusiasm. There is love in every Fantastic Fest screening. Well, except for maybe Human Centipede II.
5:05: Oh, no. The Fandango bags are back.
5:59: I spot filmmaker/Fantastic Fest mascot Nacho Vigalondo in the restroom. Nacho has been a regular here ever since he brought his debut film, Timecrimes, to the fest a few years ago. It's impossible to attend Fantastic Fest and not notice him: he'll be the loudest, drunkest guy in the room and you can bet your bottom dollar that someone is going to get tackled or dry-humped if he's near. His latest film, Extraterrestrial, begins in precisely one minute. Everyone in the restroom wishes him luck.
6:08: I take my seat for Clown, the feature version of a popular Danish comedy series. I shake my fist at the screen and demand for the European funnymen to make me laugh.
7:51: And they succeed. Clown isn't just the funniest film at Fantastic Fest this year, it's one of the funniest films I've seen in quite some time. An often brutal combination of awkward and crude, large chunks of the film are lost to me thanks to audience laughter. It's a film that pushes enough boundaries to guarantee it never getting a mainstream release in the United States. I feel genuinely thankful to be here and feel a wave of gratitude to the Fantastic Fest programmers.
8:23: An ice cream truck, sponsored by FearNet.com, has arrived outside the Drafthouse and is distributing free soft serve. The combination of Texas weather, large crowds and free desert make this truck a popular destination. Good job, FearNet: you have officially gained the love of 1500 ice cream loving movie buffs.
8:25: My ice cream high is deflated by the arrival of the Fandango bags. I barely escape with my sanity.
9:01: Next is the premiere of Juan of the Dead, Cuba's first horror film. The director takes the stage and makes an impassioned, nervous opening speech about how his film playing Fantastic Fest is a dream come true. You can feel the audience falling in love with this scrappy young filmmaker.
10:52: Once again, I am the object of derision—I am only person in the theater who doesn't like Juan of the Dead. Thankfully, the French film Livid has just ended, and the film has so violently divided the audience that my little indiscretion is immediately lost in a swirling crowd of discussion.
11:34: I decide to skip my midnight screening because the conversation outside the theater is way too good. If you put this many film fanatics in one place, you have to work exceptionally hard not to fall into a captivating discussion. These are my people and I love them all. Even the people I hate.
12:59: Several drinks later, I realize I have to go home and write this journal. Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh—