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Fantastic Fest Debates: Behind the scenes of film fest blood sport
Watch a fight: Are Tim League's Drafthouse bouts courting personal beefs?
“Looks like somebody wasn’t in on the joke.”
These are words a colleague said after the Fantastic Fest Debates this weekend, about an hour after critic Devin Faraci’s clock was cleaned by filmmaker Joe Swanberg.
The Debates event followed the same format this year as it has for the four previous: a verbal debate, followed by a physical fight in a boxing ring. There's an announcer and entrance music. The Badass Digest mainstay and the mumblecore director exchanged some academic barbs and name-calling on the very subject of mumblecore, and then they fit boxing gloves on their hands, put in mouth guards and tried to beat the piss out of each other.
I can see why the Debates may be taken as a joke on their face. For one, the night’s six combatants’ outfits largely looked like they were homemade with Sharpies, bought at a thrift store or purchased from a Halloween pop-up shop. “Rocky” and "Karate kid" jokes abounded, as did cinematic self-referentials fueled by the granular genre knowledge of a few hundred Fantastic Fans. WWE sumptuousness pairs with the non-athleticism of such a nerd gathering in a multitude of naturally hilarious ways.
But my friend was mistaken when he insinuated Swanberg v. Faraci was a joke that went to far. To the contrary, all of the combatants did some level of physical training, revving up in the gym day-of, and five of the six combatants actually fought hard. (The odd-man-out was an odd man, Y.K. Kim, a grandmaster of Tae Kwon Do and mastermind behind 1987 B-movie “Miami Connection,” a film Drafthouse Films acquired for re-release. Kim was supposed to tangle with fest and Drafthouse co-founder Tim League, but the bout mostly turned into an extended skit with a tea party at the end).
Attendees at this Austin gathering take their blood-sport pretty seriously, or rather, as serious entertainment. During film festival screeners, action is dramatized onscreen and edited to fit within the fake blood budget. Afterward, attendees here don’t mind intellectualizing what they’ve seen, and then the Debates bring them that much closer.
The shock isn’t just that a friend or film critic got hit in the head a few times by a director whose films he taunts. It’s the recontextualization of genre movie memes, beefs, tropes and triumphs, in real-time, and it’s happening nowhere else in the country in such a way. It’s what Swanberg (a decidedly and admittedly un-Fantastic Fest director) referred to as “some next level sh*t” in our pre-fight interview.
Last year, the novelty of Elijah Wood jabbing at Dominic Monaghan for a hobbit-on-hobbit and actor-on-actor fight had starpower in the mix. Faraci’s fight with a local comedian two years ago had live-action improvisation. Another debate from this year featured “American Mary” co-directors Jen and Sylvia Soska, who’s next-level thing included the fact they are twins, woman-on-woman, traditionally good-looking, trained sport kickboxers and dressed as characters from “Mortal Kombat.” At the moment Jen’s glove met Sylvia’s face, a great number of gamer and male fantasies were fulfilled, but it was also preceded by three minutes clearly indicating that these girls are friends and, as Jen said afterward, "wanted to put on a good show."
“The schticky fighting is cute for a second, but then they [the audience] turns on you real fast,” Faraci warned before his meeting-of-the-minds. “And I’m a real ham. Give the people what they want. Put your heart in it and put up a real fight.”
Ain’t it just like the movies?
As Fantastic Fest and small, fan-focused festivals like it surgically improve or expand, their signature events get an overhaul too. For the Debates, they get pushed out on YouTube (via Fandango) so that a lot more than those 1,500 in attendance can join in the dialogue, even as passive viewers. This year, the promise of “real beef” heightened that conversation. And it’s seriously entertaining.