SF Indiefest 2023 – Circus of the Scars, Poundcake, Murmur

2023 SF Indiefest logo

“I can’t write about the movies for I don’t know anything about them, and I don’t think anybody else knows anything about them. It’s the only business in the world that nobody knows anything about. Being in them don’t give any more of an inkling about them than being out of them.”
– Will Rogers, 1928 essay (reprinted in his 1949 autobiography)

I really do miss going to the movies. Three years into a still-ongoing pandemic, part of me misses the experience of gathering in a dark auditorium with strangers to watch 24 moving images on a screen. Hell, part of me even misses the inconvenience of over-priced/low-quality snacks, chatty fellow patrons, and technical errors. I know I could probably go out to a cinema any time I wanted, but – as SF Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle recently said – I know the microscopic danger that still exists out there and I won’t pretend otherwise. I’ll say it again: the pandemic is not over, and pretending that it is just exacerbates the problem.

I’m grateful then that orgs like SF Indie have embraced streaming screeners. When monopolist corporate chains decide that the best way to cut costs is to raise the price of seats, it makes me glad that I’ve spent the past three years only watching films from the comfort of my mattress on my HDTV.

Spending the past two years observing the digital offerings of SF Indiefest has been an experience that is equal parts enlightening, frustrating, and confounding. But since I’m not goin’ to a proper cinema anytime soon, let’s see what we’ve got this time.

Circus of the Scars: The Insider Odyssey of the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow (Opening Night film)

Slug the Sword Swallower at Lollapalooza ’92 (Photo by Jan Gregor)

This documentary opens with a disclaimer straight out of the heyday of carnival barking, advising anyone with “a heart condition or weak constitution” to avert their eyes. I am here to tell you, dear reader, that this warning is not hyperbole. There are acts in this film that are so outrageous that they regularly cause the live patrons to faint. I can’t recall the last time I’ve recommended a film for which I spent most of the viewing with my face turned away.

The film – based on the book of the same name by Jan T. Gregor – documents the early-‘90s throwback-style sideshow conceived by Seattle resident Jim Rose and consisting of his “Four Marvels”: Slug the Sword-Swallower; Mr. Torture; Tube; and Mr. Enigma. Their rise in popularity coincides with – and, in fact, parallels – the rise of Seattle’s grunge scene to the mainstream. This is cemented when the troupe wind up bringing their stomach-churning antics to Lollapalooza 1992, where they become breakout stars.

It also chronicles the ups and downs of working under a megalomaniac like Rose, who’s a great hype man, but rules his underpaid troupe with an iron fist and antisocial behavior.

Circus of the Scars is one of the best grunge-era documentaries I’ve seen since Hype! in 1996. It’s a perfect time capsule of one of the defining artistic traits of Gen X, shot and cut in a way that feels all the more immediate for those of us who remember the era clearly. (Seriously, all the credit to the film-makers who chose to show the old footage in its original 4×3 aspect ratio, and to not edit it all together in a way that would provoke a seizure.) It was the era when we slackers felt that we could change the world without changing ourselves. The craziest part was when we actually did.

Although it runs a bit too long, narrative moments keep it interesting. Mr. Torture saying that he didn’t do his act to cause pain, but to escape it linger in the mind. The documentary – featuring contemporary talking heads from Rose and all the surviving members – feels “cheap” in the best way possible: it truly mirrors the low-budget/high-ambition spirit that made Rose’s troupe so unique and popular. That’s something you never want to lose.

GRADE:                              B


Poundcake by Onur Turkel

Essentially a remake of Crash for the podcast era, this painfully unfunny “satire” is about a serial killer in a gimp mask sexually assaulting and murdering cishet white men. This brings up many conversations about whether the men had it coming, pondered by a series of air-brained podcasters from various backgrounds.

It repeats valid talking points from marginalized groups in an apparent attempt to have them cancel one another out, like a milquetoast answer to the genuine satire of Donald Glover’s Atlanta.


Murmur by Mark Polish

The opening screen should have been my cue. Found footage movie? Fine – every now and then I find one of those that’s actually good (Hell House, LLC). Making the characters Gen-Z YouTubers? I’m willing to give it a chance, even if it just reminds me of Tonya Narvaez’s play Clickbait.

But that opening goddamn screen – where they show a PC desktop through achronistic analogue video as the mouse clicks on, I shit you not, the VLC icon – that should have told me that I was in for a terrible time. That’s the sort of shit I’d expect from folks who think modern digital devices have static like old CRT televisions.

This flick follows 18-year-old stars of the YouTube show Wait for It – #W4IT (don’t ask what happens in the show because all we see is the “stars” kvetching at one another in front of a greenscreen) downloading a new AR mobile game called Murmur, which has users travel around and fight(?) an undead killer… or something, it isn’t really clear? Our crew drive from SF to Redwood National Forest (though it isn’t named) to get their Blair Witch on with digital enemies that may be literally supernatural. I’m not kidding about the ripping-off of Blair Witch, this film takes all of the worst traits of the ’99 film and cranks them up to deafening levels. Hell, one scene straight up plagiarizes Heather Donahue’s weepy apology video. And, like The Blair Witch Project, these characters are all unbearable prigs whom you can’t wait to see die.

This film feels like product of a lost bet; as if someone with lots of tech connections (hence the AR graphics looking spot-on), but no imagination bet they could make a film that makes some grand comment about the digital generation. I imagine the script was shit, but the person who lost the bet had to finance it anyway. That’s the only scenario I can imagine resulting in a film that takes shaky-cam to its most annoying lengths, has epileptic flashing graphics, and features less character development than an issue of Archie.

This flick is as aesthetically ugly as it is nihilistic. It has no commentary to make or innovations to show off. Worst of all for a horror film: it isn’t the least bit scary.

GRADE:                              F

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