Published on March 19th, 2012 | by James Francis Flynn1
Before I came to this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to see. Several friends had films playing; I knew I would go to those (more on that later). Other films maybe I missed at Sundance and wanted to watch here. Another group consists of those films that are completely new to me that seemed interesting, or had actors or a director whose work I admired. Plenty to see.
I did give myself a few guidelines this year:
- Try to see films that I don’t think will get bought by distributors or will have extremely limited releases. This means no “Cabin In the Woods” opening night, no “21 Jump Street,” no Will Ferrell movies–all films that I want to see at some point, just not now. Instead, I planned to see small movies, foreign films, documentaries. These are the stuff that film festivals show that deserve your support.
- Try to see at least one film that I know nothing about and didn’t plan to attend. The conflicts in the schedule almost always allow this, since you might have three hours with nothing to do, no movie to see. You go see that foreign film, you go see that peculiar documentary. You get out of your element.
- Try to see three movies per day. This isn’t always possible (or recommended for sanity), but I try to do it. I would indeed do more, see more, review more, but you’ve got to have time to eat, to sleep, to drink, to see those friends you only see at film festivals.
Consider this my feeble attempt to add to the over-saturated canon of travel writing. I’m hardly David Foster Wallace (“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”) or George Saunders (“The New Mecca”). But hell, South by Southwest ain’t Cannes, nor does it pretend to be. So you get me instead.
I arrived in Austin and got myself settled. I stood in the rain outside the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz to see the Charles Bradley doc. There are three lines for each screening:
2) Badge holders
3) Passholders and ticket holders
There’s a hierarchy to this stuff, and it mostly has to do with money. SXexpress and badge holders overlap: if you have a badge, you can go to the Austin Convention Center and get one of the limited number of Express tickets they have available, which are few and coveted because they ensure that you get into your screening, and allow you to be seated first. Badge holders are next, which means you’ve spent several hundred dollars for the privilege of attending the movies (otherwise “free”) as well as the official parties and all the conference events at the convention center. It also means you are basically required to keep your badge, which is attached to a lanyard, hanging from your neck at all times. I don’t follow this convention because it makes me feel like what I imagine large-breasted women encounter all the time: everyone just stares at your chest, never in your eyes. The satisfaction they get here isn’t from ogling, but from trying to find out where you’re from and if you’re “somebody.” Finally, there are the pass holders, who buy basically a voucher for any number of screenings, and ticket holders, who buy individual tickets to the screenings at the theater’s box office, and who, as far as I can tell, never get into anything at all, ever.
I was in the badge holder line, where they give you a little white square queue card that allows you to actually get a seat. Once they are out of queue cards, they are out of seats. The person in front of me got the last one, and the volunteer who wore the END OF THE LINE construction-worker-style vest stood directly in front of me, the stencil on her back with that message popping out at me. I asked her if indeed I would not be getting in. She didn’t know. Another volunteer joined her and told me that they were doling out reserved seats (for the filmmakers and other VIPs and the like) but that there would probably be room for me. She checked the reserved seats list again, and insisted there would be room for me. I offered the volunteers space under my umbrella. They agreed. Everybody talked about the long line, how crappy the weather was, what movie we were about to see.
Forty-five minutes later, we were funneled into the screening, and I wandered around the room looking for a seat, doing that thing where you point to a chair with a coat on it and say “Is that seat taken?” knowing it is, and watching the person next to that taken seat give a grimace and a nod. Another volunteer arrived, cupping his hands like a bullhorn to announce that they let too many people in the theater, they were over capacity, I’m sorry, and if you weren’t in a seat, you weren’t getting one.
My response in those situations is to shake my head a lot and mutter to myself, which I did while leaving the theater in a huff. The volunteer who had just been under my umbrella (the one not in the construction worker vest) was in the lobby.
She looked at me quizzically: “Thought you got in?”
“They let too many people in,” I said as I walked back out into the rain, onto Sixth Street, likely still shaking my head and muttering.
And so, knowing I would see no movies that night, I went on a whiskey quest, which is a quest to find whiskey. The first person to answer my text was Bill Ross, who needed whiskey as much as I did since he and his brother Turner had just gotten out of a SXSW Encore screening of their documentary “45365.” We met at a bar and drank a bit with the rest of their New Orleans and Ohio crew who had made the trip, until they had to go to a meeting with their producer, Michael Gottwald, and a distributor or agent or what-have-you. So I hung out with their dad in their absence.
And then there was the Buffalo Billiards party, the traditional opening night party at SXSW, which is always directly after the opening night film at the Paramount (in this case, the aforementioned “Cabin in the Woods”).
This is a popular party since you can safely assume that almost everyone you know who is currently at the festival will be there. Hence, there is so often a sight of someone seeing another person from afar, and then they rush up to each other, and then they embrace and the pitch of their voices gets higher as they greet (note: this isn’t something that only happens to women. The men’s voices get higher, too). Or you see a few people gathered in a lazy circle, catching up, talking, and another person comes up as sort of a gentle surprise and waits for someone in that circle to notice them, and then they do, and then there’s commotion as the hugging and the high-pitched voices commence, and the round of introductions occurs with handshakes and smiles all around.
This is where that happens, maybe more than at any other place else during the week. And that’s what happened to me.
I am staying with my friend Anna Margaret Hollyman. I am staying in the basement of her parents’ house. Her parents had never met me before I showed up at their house soaking wet Friday night (this was even before the Charles Bradley movie fiasco), and they took me in and showed me what serious Southern Hospitality looks like.
Part of that manifests itself by Anna Margaret’s mother giving me an almond croissant and a ride in her big ass truck (whose license plate has a Texas longhorn on it and is personalized: DHARMA) to the State Theatre on Congress Avenue in the morning. The first movie of the day for me was “Pilgrim Song,” which I watched sitting next to Matthew Campbell, a pal from the Denver and L.A. Film Festivals.
Before every movie, there is a “bumper.” It’s meant to be a (usually) funny little piece of short filmmaking, an inside-baseball thing to please the audience and congratulate them for getting the joke. Here’s what I mean: the one in front of “Pilgrim Song” is set in a bathroom at a movie theater. We see someone peeing in a urinal. Then we see a man (played by in-every-indie-movie-last year’s Robert Longstreet) complaining to the camera about the movie he just saw, about how the camera work sucked, about how there was a “forty-five-minute-long” shot of a ladybug. And then a woman comes out of the bathroom stall, zipping up her jeans, and addresses the camera: “Did you make that movie? That was a great movie. I mean, the ladybug thing…I cried.”
Here’s where it’s weird: the woman in the bumper? Anna Margaret Hollyman. And not only was I staying with her and her family, she was sitting right behind me at the screening.
Back to “Pilgrim Song.”
“Pilgrim Song” centers on James, a laid-off music teacher from Louisville who decides to spend his summer on the Appalachian Trail. James is one of the more inert and mute main characters I’ve seen in a while―when he talks, he mumbles; he lets his students clown around on the last day of school; he barely responds when his girlfriend comments that she doesn’t remember the last time they had sex.
This last is an important clue into the movie’s true concern, which is the strained relationship between James and Joan, his live-in lady. Their scenes are almost always shot with a tripod, the camera never moving, a subtext and an unspoken awkwardness permeating. And as we come to know James more through his travels and run-ins with locals―an old-timer who gets James stoned on Kentucky marijuana, a randy young woman at an impromptu bluegrass party, a metal head and his son who live in an RV―we realize that his trip is almost mythic, in a long line of men who travel and seek adventure and solitude as a way of escape their inability to deal with their feelings about a tragedy.
The movie is slow. Scenes are long, and often consist of a stranger being friendly to James and him mumbling something in return. There are pretty pictures, beautiful montages of the woods, the trails, the mountains, but they are in search of a story. A sense of the local color of the area pervades, but more troubling, there is an equal feeling of the filmmakers poking fun at these lower-class characters, of treating them more as types than as real people. There is a sense of condescension. James has an epiphany and finally opens up, drinks, fights, talks. Then the question at the end becomes: will James and Joan be able to reunite? My feeling is that James doesn’t deserve it, nor should we care.
After “Pilgrim Song,” I rushed over to the convention center for a panel called “Everything is a Remix, So Steal Like an Artist.” I was late. The volunteer standing guard at the door wouldn’t let me in. Usually I like the volunteers, go out of my way to be nice to them, to smile and thank them for what must be shitty work. But this guy had a headset on, an attitude of “I’m just doing my job,” a shrug.
“Someone is saving me a seat,” I said. That someone was Meghan Kleon, the wife of Austin Kleon, one of the panelists. The Kleons are friends of mine from college.
“There’s no way, because we don’t allow that, and also we’re at capacity.”
“I’m telling you―”
“I’m sorry, you’ll have to watch it on the monitor.”
Again, he shrugged. Again, I shook my head and muttered like I had the night before. I believe I also gave him death stares, cursed him, planning to make a voodoo doll of him when I returned home.
It’s one thing to do your job, it’s another to do it incompetently and simply wrong. Folks were filtering out throughout the panel, and he wasn’t allowing anyone else in. Then, for reasons I still don’t understand, in the middle of the panel (which I watched/listened to on an audio-only monitor directly outside of room 18ABCD, gathered in a semi-circle with others), he began doing a “one in, one out” thing, where anytime someone left, he’d let one of us semi-circle folks in.
Then, just as suddenly and arbitrarily, he stopped that as well, even as people were still leaving here and there.
So I was missing my friend’s panel, and it had largely to do with the whims of an untrained volunteer. The larger point is: there are some things about this festival that are unwieldy, often having to do with an inability to anticipate or accommodate crowds, often because of volunteers who are only doing this work because they want to see bands later in the week (locals who volunteer for a few shifts at the film festival can get a free music badge), not because they actually have any experience with crowd control. This, coupled with the Charles Bradley fiasco from the night before, made me want to rescind all those smiles, thanks yous, and kind feelings I had for previous volunteers.
When the panel ended, I shot off another death stare to my new nemesis, then went inside to see Austin and Meghan as they milled about. She had, in fact, saved me a seat. We chatted for a bit, then Austin had to do a book signing at the convention center bookstore for his new work on creativity, “Steal Like An Artist.”
I met with the Ross Brothers at a bar across the street from Ritz, on Sixth Street, where their new movie “Tchoupitoulas” was about to have its world premiere. Bill and Turner learned then that I had a press badge this year and was planning to write reviews of everything I saw, and we discussed this idea of “full disclosure.”
Here’s where things get tricky. What should I tell you about my friendship with the Ross Brothers? Should I tell you that I saw “45365” in 2009, and went to Turner Ross directly after the screening, shook his hand, and said “Holy fucking shit, man!” because I liked it so much? Should I tell you about all the times we’ve gone drinking together? Should I tell you about how I slept on a trundle bed at their dad’s house while visiting New Orleans last year? Should I tell you about attending Bengals football games together? Should I tell you that I saw “Tchoupitoulas” last November in a rough cut they privately posted on Vimeo? Should I tell you I was invited to go on their month-long boat trip last fall? Should I tell you how much I love them, and consider them dear friends, and am proud to have them as friends?
Should I also tell you that I know that I’m biased, but still I think “Tchoupitoulas” is great?
All I know is this is new for me. I don’t know how to reconcile being friends with someone whose movie I’m reviewing, other than simply telling you that I do indeed know them and let’s just get on with it. And that’s full disclosure.
“Tchoupitoulas” is a documentary about three young boys exploring the nightlife of New Orleans. We start with William, the youngest, being roughhoused by his older brothers in their dingy house, and escaping from his older brothers’ abuse by going upstairs to his room to play his recorder, which begins the film’s four main concerns: brotherhood, childhood, music, and New Orleans.
There’s no real plot to speak of, other than the three brothers and their dog taking a ferry across the river to the French Quarter to check out all the various vices that go on in that place. Beads thrown, street musicians, ladies dancing in windows. The main twist comes when they rush to make the ferry back at midnight and miss it due to William falling down. And thus, they are forced to spend the night wandering around town. “Have a safe and adventurous time,” says an ominous flute player dressed up like an angel.
There are some interesting (and possibly unsettling) stretches of the documentary form and the contract between filmmakers, subject, and audience, one being this: if they were truly trapped outside for the night, couldn’t the filmmakers have simply called them a cab? By tagging along late at night (and on a deserted boat), were the filmmakers putting these children at risk?
The film nevertheless captures moments, images, and feelings that are hard to define otherwise: the open-eyed energy of children experiencing what adults other than their parents and teachers do when they are trying to have fun; the music culture that permeates every aspect of New Orleans life, from car trunks to buskers to blues clubs whose walls and windows can’t contain their sounds; the migrant workers, drunken couples stumbling home, and the trash blowing in the wind that accompany a city going to sleep.
The ending of the film is a tension-filled walk through an abandoned riverboat that reminded me, more than anything I can remember ever seeing, of the feeling of sneaking out of the house with the kids in my neighborhood, complete with bogus scares and running away from an empty building when you’re done with your adventure.
After the screening, I went to their after-party and hung out with my Denver Film Festival friends, the aforementioned Matthew and his boss, Britta. Prior to the screening, Britta had been to a “Future of the Film Festival” panel, which discussed the increasingly common scenario of film festivals as distributors, teaming up with video-on-demand providers to do day-and-date releases of films in their competitions. That’s great news for small films that otherwise might not get bought by distributors, since a film festival is often where a film gets its greatest press exposure, and folks in smaller markets will then be able to see the film, even if it isn’t on the big screen (not to mention that this will likely provide another source of revenue for festivals, since I assume they will take a cut of the VOD sales).
On the bad side, this undercuts great regional festivals such as Denver, since there’s little incentive for locals to come out to those festivals if they can see a premiering movie on the small screen, and before it comes to their town. This is a perfect example of dramatic conflict: each side has its reasons, no one is wrong or has bad intentions, but someone is still going to get screwed. I’ve heard it succinctly described as “two dogs, one bone.”
My third and final screening for the day was at a new theater, Violet Crown, to see “Pavilion.” Violet Crown is part of this savvy movement to make theaters special again, and to cater to an older crowd: no kids allowed, they serve alcohol, the theaters are intimate, the front rows are lounge chairs, they play foreign and indie films.
The problem is, the place is cramped. The lobby is small, and lines forming to see a movie jut up against and mix with those simply trying to get a drink or to get a table at the restaurant. The theaters are small, forty to sixty seats or so, meaning many badge holders can’t even get in unless they come quite early, thus exacerbating the above problem even more. I had an express pass, however, so I confidently walked right in.
“Pavilion” is about youth: fireworks, skateboards, BMX bikes, weed, jumping off boats into lakes, girls with bare legs. We follow one boy in small-town upstate New York who is interchangeable from his friend Max, who moves in with his father in suburban Arizona and befriends Cody, with whom we end the movie.
The filmmaker, Tim Sutton, professed that not only does he love his own movie, but that he had “a hard time finding meaning in life, but found meaning in making this movie.” My reaction was that this was barely a movie, in that it consisted of little more than people and things being filmed and little else. There was no plot, no real story, no emotions evoked or provoked. It was an extended video postcard with pretty images. It did not pass the “So what?” test.
Sometimes how you see a film affects your reaction to it, so I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that I sat right next to two of the main characters in the film, Max and Cody. Cody insisted before the screening that I would “love the movie” and that he was glad that I was drinking a beer, since that would enhance the experience, and that he himself loves watching the movie drunk. This caused a knee-jerk resistance in me, which was made worse when the two boys talked through the entire screening, whispering to each other and ruining their own movie for at least one member of the audience.
On the way home, Anna Margaret and I discussed this idea of aimless indie films. The quality of writing in most of these films is bad, which is one reason the audiences are sticking instead with television, where the quality of writing has never been higher, and where the focus is on the telling of serialized stories. So many indie filmmakers don’t learn how to write, because writing is not fun: you must shut yourself off from the world, you must study, you must spend massive amounts of time in the service of a craft.
By contrast, the quality of direction and camerawork, the technical stuff, has maybe never been higher. So many films at SXSW contain images that are as beautiful as anything Terrence Malick could have done, and the quality of some of the improvisational and non-trained acting is very high. I’m guessing it is also a generational thing, a thoroughly modern thing based on filmmakers and audiences all having spent so much time watching both reality television and YouTube videos, so we’re used to the technical lapses, diegetic sound, and story structure that doesn’t fit traditional three-act rigidity. We’re also now used to a blending of fact and fiction; of video that almost unfold like hoaxes; “Borat” and “Catfish” and movies that make us wonder about the difference between “life lived” and “life documented.”
It is easier, due to cheaper technology, to make videos and movies than ever before. More are being made with little knowledge of how to construct them, so we have the glut that plagues many film festivals. Anna Margaret’s dad calls most of the films that play at film festivals “home movies,” and he’s not far off.
My first screening of the day was Amy Seimetz’s “Sun Don’t Shine.” Amy and I have hung out before and have attended parties together; I plan to cast her in my next movie.
“Sun Don’t Shine” starts in media res, with a couple fighting in the mud, dressed alike in jean shorts and white shirts, now covered brown. This is a “lovers on the lam” tale, about a young couple in trouble, trying to cover their tracks in the rural areas and small towns of Florida, the swampy, murky, ugly parts where the tourists don’t go. We know things are serious when the girl opens the glove box and we see a gun.
It plays like a fever dream, a nightmare. There are a variety of suspense and tension bits that play with the audience’s emotions, such as when a good Samaritan pulls over to help them with their overheated car, or when we watch a police car follow them in their rear-view mirror.
But the most remarkable part of the movie is the way information is withheld and parceled out, how it takes a while to discover the connection between the two main characters, about why they are on the road together, about how they plan to cover their tracks.
Like Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” this is a prime example of a pulpy, clichéd story told with some heat.
Does it work? Not entirely. The characterizations fall into gender stereotypes, with Kentucker Audley as the strong, silent type, the man of action, contrasting with Kate Lyn Sheil’s hysterical and irrational female who spends every scene in over her head. And, as in “Pilgrim Song,” there’s a sense of strong local color that sometimes threatens to venture into looking down at poor, rural, supporting characters and settings.
I hustled from the Violet Crown to the convention center for Jeffrey Tambor’s acting workshop, which just so happened to feature Kate Lyn Sheil from “Sun Don’t Shine.” These workshops are always a pleasure, as you watch Tambor guide two actors through a short scene, molding them in ways that you wouldn’t normally envision. It shows you the power of acting, how a gifted performer can use her body and vocal inflections to make the written word mean anything, to make a dramatic scene a comedic one, to make agony into ecstasy.
Again, I was late and was shut out of the panel, resigned to watching it on the outside monitor. The ass with the headset was acting like a gargoyle again, until eventually they opened the floodgates and let me and my fellow floor-sitters in, where we stood and leaned against the wall.
Here are my unedited notes on the workshop:
• Basically have the actors just play
• Use accents
• Ask what’s holding them back
• He’s trying to get them to break down, to fuck it up, so that they can just be
• Constant affirmations
• Making adjustments
• Use their families
• Mold them, make adjustments
• “Most of us going thru the day want to be liked.”
• Never forget: it is collaboration
• “You gotta be a mensch.”
• Always say yes
• “This whole thing is ‘it all depends.’”
• Confront honestly & assertively if there’s a problem
• “Confidence is the game & if someone goes after your confidence you’ve got to take care of it.”
• Keep it light
• ”My training is: you listen.”
• “Preparation is not worrying.”
• To wit: this workshop is about life, not acting
• Uses various forms of “mother fuck” as emphasis
• Uses stories and anecdotes to illustrate points, uses repetition, humor, he’s loud & forceful & good in a room, mix of assertiveness & “I don’t know.”
• Fanboys asking about “Arrested Development” and “The Larry Sanders Show”
• He’s a guru – acting as self-actualization
• “Enjoy everything, adore everything.”
I had some free time between the Tambor workshop and my next screening, so I went to the press room.
The press room is splendid. There are a few cheap computers available for dorks like me who don’t own a laptop (as you might have guessed, that is what I am typing this on right now). There is coffee, tea, snacks. There are vases full of orange flowers on white table-clothed tables. There is information about every film in the form of posters, postcards, fliers, guidebooks. There is swag, goody-bags from films and sponsors. There are two masseuses, ready to give you a motherfucking back rub because you’ve had such a long, hard day watching movies.
As you might imagine, the volunteers in red shirts who man the entrances for the press room are eagle-eyed and vigilant. No one gets in save those with PRESS stamped on their badges.
And I thank them for it. This press room is a quiet oasis of sanity, of work. A score or so of fellow press hunched over laptops, typing away, filing their reports. It feels so good to come here to just sit and simply write for a while. It is a pleasure to be able to do in this bubble, which is surrounded by at least four other rooms in the convention center with hour after hour of panels, some of the noise of which bleeds into the press room but doesn’t burst it.
So write I did, then hustled off to my next screening at the nearby Alamo Drafthouse Ritz. Unlike Friday and Saturday, Sunday was sunny, so I didn’t mind the line.
Do you know about the Alamo Drafthouse theaters? If not, you will soon, because they are expanding rapidly. You walk into the theater, and instead of the commercials and trivia slideshows that occur before screenings at the multiplexes, the Drafthouse theaters show special clips that often correlate with what you’re about to see. An example is when I came to see “127 Hours” and saw snippets of “Cliffhanger” and James Franco’s “Funny Or Die” web videos.
You sit down and right away notice that there are long tables in front of your seat. The tables span the entire row, and have little lips on the back, pads of paper, golf-style mini pencils, menus, and small yellow lights. All of this is because you can eat and drink booze at the theaters, and these things allow you to order.
Another thing that sets these theaters apart is that they have absolutely zero tolerance for talking, texting, and tweeting. They want their audiences to have a great time, and those things ruin the experience for most. There are special bumpers that play even before the festival’s aforementioned bumpers that specifically tell you how serious they are about their zero tolerance policy, sometimes with guest stars like Ann Richards or Danny DeVito talking about how they’ll “take your ass out” if you don’t obey, and giving instructions on how to rat out those who don’t comply.
One thing about film festivals is that you often rush from screening to screening, unable to grab a sandwich or otherwise take care of yourself. While I always stock my messenger bag with a snack or two, the Drafthouse theaters are a godsend during film festivals, because you know you’ll be able to eat in peace, and you can be leisurely about it, and you can have a drink while doing so.
The movie I came to see on this Sunday evening was “The Do-Deca-Pentathlon.”
A corollary and easy double feature starring Mark Duplass, this “lost” film (shot in 2008 and just now completed) from the Duplass Brothers is about two brothers who have a long-standing feud after a dispute over the contested results of a private Olympics they participated in when they were kids.
They are kids no longer. Mark is married, settled with a wife, a kid, and a cute little house. His brother Jeremy is a single poker pro, and generally seems a mess. Jeremy unexpectedly decides to visit for Mark’s birthday weekend, and the two immediately jump back into their competitive ways.
This is a cinema of dares, of challenges, of not-backing-down machismo, although of the shaggy-dog variety, between two men who seem too smart to be this immature, and who are too old and out of shape to do justice to the sports they compete in.
The success of the Duplass Brothers formula (and I do believe it has solidified into that at this point) is based in their skill with directing improvisation, their economical premises and set-ups, and their extensive use of subtext and dramatic irony.
And “Do-Deca” makes good use of sports montages, that hoary, outdated convention that usually is employed to show a passage of time, to show training, and to indicate that the main character is getting better, is ready for the challenges ahead of him (it’s almost always a “him”). Here, the sports montage is shown as a thing of despair, of compulsion, as a way to be better than your competitor in the worst way. And yet somehow, they are often also funny.
One concern is Mark’s long-suffering wife, who is meant to be a voice of reason in Mark’s life, but who comes off simply as a nag. This is a familiar trait in the Duplass Brothers’ films, the woman who holds the men back, who is there to roll her eyes as her man-child. When will one of these women stand up for herself?
The sadness began. I don’t know exactly where or why it started, but it always comes at least once during a film festival. It feels like weight, settled around my shoulders and in my stomach, as if I’m heavier than I was before but in a weird way. I think it’s a mix of being exhilarated and crushed, by simultaneously loving the movies I’ve seen but also knowing the fact that I myself haven’t made a movie in several years.
Here are the fears: that in my own filmmaking “career,” I am not good enough to make something that could play at SXSW, even though I dream of doing so. That I am friends and acquaintances with many folks who have played their movies at this festival, and in certain ways, I am and have been on the outside looking in. Do they see that the same way I do? Do they look at me with that mix of pity and head-patting that accompanies someone you think is beneath you? I don’t know if they do, but I did at that moment, which made me eschew the shuttle and walk from the Alamo Ritz to the Alamo South Lamar (which Google Maps says is 2.1 miles and takes forty-three minutes and that I should use caution―this route may be missing sidewalks or pedestrian paths), if for no other reason than to clear my own head.
I walked along Sixth Street, that famous strip full of bars and clubs where music has no choice but to spill out. Last year I posted this on Twitter: “Being on Sixth Street is like having the shittiest iPod shuffle ever, and not being able to turn it off.” I stand by that.
The street was blocked off, from Brazos to Red River, so hordes of Big Time Fun seekers are walking about. I joined them, but in a haze. The bands and the music were omnipresent, but also inescapable were street food vendors, police on foot and bike, homeless people, and buskers (who somehow hope to compete with the bands).
I continued, down Congress Avenue, over to Barton Springs Road, and finally to South Lamar, where I took in a fire show at a tobacco/smoke shop, and ended up at the next Drafthouse for the screening of “V/H/S” by my friend Joe Swanberg. (Joe and I both live in Chicago, and I often go to parties that he hosts. I also acted in his web series “Young American Bodies” a few years ago. And Sofia Takal, who acts opposite him in a segment, is a fellow housemate at Anna Margaret’s parents’ place while we are in Austin. Again, small world.)
“V/H/S” is a found-footage anthology horror film, which follows a group of young, dumb twentysomethings who make breaking-and-entering videos. They are hired by a mysterious man to break into a house to get a particular VHS tape, which they will be paid handsomely for. This doesn’t seem like difficult work for them, but when they get inside, they discover three things: the man who owns the house is there but dead in a chair, they can’t find the tape they are looking for, and there is a stash of several other curious tapes. They watch those tapes, and that is what we, the audience, see.
The first follows a group of frat boys with a camera hidden in a pair of thick black glasses, and their night out, picking up girls. The second is a young, newly married couple on a road trip to the Grand Canyon. The third involves a group of high school kids going to a lake house. The fourth, a series of Skype chats between a couple, one of whom is worried there’s someone in her house. Finally, a group of young men go to an abandoned house and witness what looks like a human sacrifice.
All contain at least one effective twist, all put the found footage gimmick to great use, all contain genuine shocks and scares. The main drawbacks are that the shaky-cam stuff gets somewhat nauseating as the film goes on, and the series of setups, twists, and payoffs get a bit repetitive when they are strung together in this fashion.
Still, this is an impressive collection of genre shorts, linked by a common thread, and should be a good addition to most horror film fans’ cult collections when released later this year.
Sometimes a horror film will affect you. I got out of the screening and, along with a dozen or so others in the parking lot, tried to call for a cab. The cab situation in Austin is miserable, with too few cars and even worse service. It took ten minutes to reach an operator, who told me they would dispatch one, but that if one didn’t come in twenty minutes, I should call back.
Someone from the parking lot group told me that he heard my phone call, and could he split the cab when it came? My first thought was that this guy was going to murder me.
It was a fleeting thought, true, but still I had it.
A few minutes later he hopped into a friend’s car and took off, so I escaped my fate. And then my phone died. I couldn’t call the cab company back, so I wandered around the perimeter of the theater to find an outside outlet to plug my phone in.
When I came back, the rest of the parking lot group was gone. I looked around, confused. I won’t lie: I was scared.
The theater manager came outside for a smoke. We chatted about how he got his job, I told him about my cab situation. He offered to give me a ride.
Sometimes a horror film will affect you: my first reaction was that this was the man who would murder me.
But the ride was uneventful. We pulled into Anna Margaret’s parents’ house and said goodbye. I walked to the door as he drove away, and my first thought as I opened the door was: now he knows where I’m staying. (A twist in the horror plot?!)
I didn’t sleep very well that night.
Film festivals are damaging to your body. This was the day, now that the weekend was over and my trip halfway through, that I started to really feel it. You’re sedentary for so long, watching a movie. You’re not taking the time to work out. Your diet is irregular and often consists of whatever can be grabbed on the go; you’re drinking more than you normally would. You hardly sleep.
I got a ride to my first screening of the day, and I noticed a few things while looking out the window. The scads of sponsors at the festival, such as Chevrolet, which does test drives around the convention center block; Miller Lite, which provides beer for after-parties; IFC, whose sponsorship seems vaguely curious given that they are a distributor of independent film; Monster Energy Drink, whose big black cans sit in rapidly warming buckets of ice at the parties, undrunk.
I noticed, too, the other companies hocking their products, using young same-shirted girls to give out free samples of whatever: beer koozies with their products’ logos, buttons, cards with website addresses on them. And so many of these companies have no real reason for being at a film festival, such as Nike SB, whose skateboarders, such as Omar Salazar, I like and follow, but whose presence here is met with a question mark.
These companies are often in big white tents or camped out in reborn storefronts around the downtown area, music blaring, people milling about. Sometimes it’s a little too much, which is what I was feeling at that moment, as we rolled our way over to the State Theatre for “Gayby.”
“Gayby” follows old friends Matt and Jenn. She is straight, he is gay, and they decide to have a baby together. There’s no back story save an opening credit montage of old photos of them together, and the premise is the set-up, so it’s economical. Both Anna Margaret and Sofia Takal are also in “Gayby”—does the indie film world seem a little incestuous at this point?
Some hilarious set-pieces abound: an awkward sex scene on the first night the friends are trying to conceive, a passive-aggressive yoga session when a one-night stand comes to class, a spontaneous dance off when Jenn is given an Eastern medicine fertility drug that she doesn’t take to.
The film is refreshing in that it simultaneously confirms and subverts what we think we know of gay characters in mass media. For example, Matt could be considered the Gay Best Friend, yet he has his own Gay Best Friend; Matt, although handsome and single, is a shy, monogamous comic book nerd; the film treats straight and gay characters as completely equal, their relationships and concerns valid if separate.
“Gayby” builds an insular world in modern-day New York, one instantly recognizable and yet distinctly director Lisecki’s own. We feel at home with these people and the urban tribe they’ve created, which revolves around long-time friendships, dating, and work (and how often do we see characters in indie films spending so much time at their jobs, and actually enjoying them?). If indeed it takes a village to raise a child, then when the titular “gayby” comes at the end, it’s a feel-good moment that is earned, because we know that the child will be in good hands with this cobbled-together group, who’ve made their own village in the middle of the biggest city in the country.
Garet gave me a ride to my next screening. Who is Garet? Remember: the cab situation is awful in Austin. So as I was trying to flag one on Congress Avenue after getting out of my screening at the State Theatre, a Jeep Cherokee pulled up and the man inside told me to get in. My horror film jitters from the night before had worn off, so I did.
Garet told me his story: in 2007 he was riding his bike and got hit by a drunk driver. He flew thirty feet in the air and almost died, so now he spends his free time during weekends, holidays and special events (like SXSW and the multiple other film festivals hosted here) giving free rides to drunks so they don’t endanger other people’s lives.
I wasn’t drunk, but I was late, so away we went. Garet wore a big ten-gallon cowboy hat and a toothpick in his mouth (and although I didn’t see his feet, I assume boots), and proclaimed himself the hay baron of Texas. So I asked him about hay. He gets his shipped in from Alabama, where apparently the hay is great. He drove with his right hand, since his left seemed to be still in bad shape from his accident. He dropped me off at the Long Center for my next screening, where he gave me his number in case I needed a ride while I was in town, and I gave him five dollars for his troubles.
My favorites of the “Documentary Shorts 2” bunch were “Cat Cam” and “Family Nightmare.” “Cat Cam” is about an engineer and his wife who adopt a stray cat, which they name Mr. Lee. The cat spends days away from the house, and the engineer gets curious about what the cat does, so he builds and attaches a tiny camera to the Mr. Lee’s collar.
The photos and video that have emerged caused a stir online, both because they show a side of the private life of cats that we normally don’t see (cats are surprisingly social), but also because it has begged the question: is this art? More interesting to me is the idea of using engineering as a method of satisfying curiosity and as a way to understand your pet better; using engineering as an act of love.
Whereas “Cat Cam” is a bright, often funny, and certainly heartwarming short, “Family Nightmare” is by contrast grainy, often confusing, and unsettling. While that might sound pejorative, it’s not meant to be. The film consists of home video footage of the director’s family with overdubbed voices, and what we see at first seems rather bland, but quickly we realize how twisted this family really is. A group of men in a bedroom together seem to be watching sports; instead they are watching porn. A woman reaches into a refrigerator to get some food, but comes out instead with a beer, which she calls her dinner. A baby in a diaper sits on a couch, playing with a knife.
This film is a microcosm of one particularly dysfunctional family (the extent of which is shown in a haunting final few title cards) but extrapolates that to everyone: we are the product of our families, like it or not, and this is a reality we are unable to wake up from or escape. If we are lucky, we, like the director, will have an artistic outlet to work through those childhood traumas.
My final screening for the day was at Violet Crown for “Dollhouse.”
“Dollhouse” follows a group of delinquent teenagers who break into a fancy house on the Irish coast and proceed to completely wreck the place: they throw food fights, they build a fort with sheets and couch cushions, they turn an entire room upside down by nailing furniture to the ceiling. And then they play games: drinking games, truth or dare, spin the bottle. The characters are at first sketches, but come to obtain distinct personalities by their actions in the house. The one set apart is Jeannie, who, unlike her counterparts, who are more interested in partying and breaking things, seems to get a bigger kick out of exploring her surroundings and living vicariously through this wealth.
What at first seems to be a juvenile lark by turns becomes something much more serious. This film is based around a serious of twists, almost any of which described would give away too much.
The technique employed is a modern one, with handheld camerawork throughout, improvisational acting by non-professionals, and jigsaw editing that often falls into the abstract or hallucinatory. Furthermore, and seemingly rightly so for a movie based on teenage criminals, the tone shifts crazily between fun and fear, and we’re constantly left wondering: what’s next?
It doesn’t completely work. By the time the sun comes up and the party is over, we’ve been through a lot with these characters, led through constant tension-filled near-violence, massive amounts of drugs and liquor, stunning revelations, and a character with a big secret whose life has changed for good (and for the better). But other than giving the impression that this was the craziest party ever, in the end it doesn’t amount to much.
After the screening, I had a few drinks with the Ross Brothers and their family and assorted crew for their movie, where they told me about the schedule they’ve been keeping. This is a side of the filmmaking world that doesn’t get much notice but is indeed the reality. Bill told me they haven’t seen any movies while at the festival because they take meetings from 9 or 10 AM until about 7 PM. The meetings are with press, distributors, their sales agent, etc. That’s in addition to the introductions and subsequent Q&A’s for the two screenings of their film, which means that they have little free time for themselves.
This is just one film at the festival. Imagine all the filmmakers throughout the entire town, busily running from breakfast meeting to coffee meeting to lunch meeting to coffee meeting to dinner meeting to drinks meeting, and you’ll get a sense of the hurried existence that dominates those who are premiering their films here.
We went to the “Gayby” party at Cheer Up Charlie’s on East Sixth Street. The parties are important.
The parties are where you can find out what movies you missed and will have to catch later in the festival, when they are released, or at another festival. They are where you get to see and interact with friends you really only see at festivals. They are where you can talk about what you’ve already seen, to solidify or perhaps change your viewpoint, to argue. They are where you can, if you were unable to get a coveted massage in the press room, otherwise unwind.
Still, the parties can be nerve-wracking. Here’s an example: I’m great with faces. This is something I’ve realized in the last few years, where I can remember people’s faces for eons, even if I only met them briefly. Since you see a lot of the same people at these festivals, I may have been introduced to someone before, and I remember them, but they don’t remember me. One of the more powerful things you can do in a social situation is to not remember somebody, because it instantly puts that person at a disadvantage: if you don’t remember someone, it implies that he or she is not worth remembering. Another example: what if you are introduced to a filmmaker whose movie you didn’t like? What do you say? Do you tell the truth? Do you act like you haven’t seen it? Do you admit that you have seen it but refuse to offer an opinion? Do you offer an opinion, but only a vague one? Or do you get drunk and hope that whatever choice you make is the right one?
Over night, the city has changed. Tattoo sleeves color arms, khaki pants become tighter and turn into dirty denim or leather, the hair grows longer and unwashed, dyed. This is the change that happens when the folks from the Interactive portion of the festival fly away and the Music Festival patrons arrive.
The truth is, I dislike the music portion of the festival. You can’t escape it. I’ve seen bands unload their equipment quickly on the sidewalk on Sixth Street, the blinkers of their big white van on, to play a few songs next to the stoplight and electric pole until a cop realized what was going on and kicked them out. I’ve been to taco shops and pizza joints that had live music from noon until close, a chalkboard next to their menu with the day’s music line-up. And you can’t help but hear the music coming from everywhere, always, eternal.
The convention center was choked with folks that morning. Everyone was arriving and in line to get their badges, the queue literally out the door, spilling out onto the sidewalk. I was there to get a little breakfast and then watch a movie in the special press screening room, which I found hard to find.
The room seems like a secret. To access it, you have to go to a special mezzanine floor, the stairway to which is located behind a food kiosk. There’s a bored, middle-aged volunteer who checks your badge, then two more volunteers stand guard outside the room with bins of screeners and a list of the same. When you get your DVD screener, you have to give up your badge, and then are led into the room.
The first thing you notice is that it is dark. The contrast is noticeable from the bright lights and floor-to-ceiling windows of the hallways of the convention center. There are sixteen small monitors, four for each wall, with DVD players and headphones set up on tables, high-quality desk chairs in front of them. You pick a screening station and watch your screener there. The reason you must watch there, instead of at the main press room or in the privacy of your own home or hotel, is to prevent piracy.
I popped in my copy of “Sunset Strip” and, as it loaded, took a look at my fellow members of the press. They were watching “The Sheik and I,” “Pilgrim Song,” “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” “Girls,” “Tchoupitoulas,” and “Sunset Strip.” A few people were drinking coffee, a few were compulsively checking Twitter, one guy was passed out in front of his monitor, head lolled to the side as if he was sleeping in class.
The documentary “Sunset Strip” is about the history and significance of Sunset Boulevard, a stretch of road that connects Hollywood to Beverly Hills. It started out as a dirt road, became a poinsettia farm, then quickly transitioned into the height of glamor and glitz. The street now features a few famous hotels, infamous rock venues, comedy clubs, and has been a hangout for decades for actors, rock stars, mobsters, and more. “Sunset Strip” features a mix of archival footage, concert footage, pictures, and talking head interviews. The interviews are star-studded, including but not limited to: Johnny Depp, Billy Corgan, Slash, Hugh Hefner, Ozzy Osbourne, Mickey Rourke, Sofia Coppola, Kenneth Anger, Alice Cooper, and Lemmy.
The Strip is where the stars are. It has been that way for a long time, and it will continue to be that way, because it’s now a mythological place. But that begs the question, “Who is this movie for?” The reputation of this location precedes it. The movie glorifies and cements the myth of this street, but that’s a myth that’s already been made. Is it meant to explain those myths or to perpetuate them? So many of the interviewees talk about this idea that The Rumors Are All True, that all the craziest stories you’ve heard about your favorite bands and actors and comedians, especially in regard to drugs and sex, really happened, and they happened here. Those times are talked about in a nostalgic way, but take on a different tone in relation to two of the most famous deaths on the Strip, those of John Belushi and River Phoenix.
The film focuses mostly on the music, particularly that of the 1960s. More interesting, and less explored, are the worlds of stand-up comedy and the mafia. Still, “Sunset Strip” lives up to its title, giving an overview, if a curiously cursory one, of one of the world’s most legendary lengths of road.
My afternoon screening was at the Paramount. This theater is in the style of an old opera house, with a real red velvet curtain, balconies, and frescoes on the high ceilings. It’s the kind of place where watching a movie feels special, as if you should dress a little bit better than you normally do just to go there, where the ushers still wear bow ties.
Another film I caught was the stylish and slippery documentary “The Imposter,” which tells the story of a missing Texas boy and the young French man who impersonated him. Shades of Errol Morris abound: dramatized reenactment footage, beautiful cinematography, dark humor, a subject that deals with the nature of truth itself.
A good film tends to teach you something, and here, the con man tells how he carried out faking that he was someone else. He describes how and why he did it: because he was from a horribly broken home and had no one to care for him save the state and its foster homes, and decided he wanted a new life, wanted to be an American. When the police pick him up, he spends the night alone at the precinct, and uses that time to search for a missing person whom he can become.
Plot twists emerge, as they tend to do in the modern documentary form, and the second half of the movie becomes a question of will they or won’t they get the man who had the gall to go across the Atlantic pretending that he was someone else?
Like several other films in the festival, this one has a local Southern color, this time of Texas yokels, including an over-the-top private detective, that seems queasily as if the filmmakers are poking fun at their supposedly dumb subjects.
Yet the film is not necessarily about the mystery of the missing boy, but about the ways in which we deceive ourselves into believing what we want to believe. It is about confirmation bias, the tendency of individuals to remember information selectively in a way that favors their preconceived notions.
How else do you explain a dark-skinned, brown-eyed twenty-three-year-old of Algerian descent who speaks with a French accent passing himself off as a pale, blond-haired, blue-eyed sixteen-year-old from San Antonio?
My last screening of the day was Matthew Cherry’s “The Last Fall.” The film follows an NFL player, freshly cut from his team, who, at twenty-five years old, must figure out what to do with the rest of his life, even though, as he says, “I’m not ready to retire. Football is all I know.”
This is a new take on a familiar story, one that discusses what happens to those who have goals, achieve them, and then lose them. It’s not a sports movie, but a movie about life after sports, and about the relationships one must repair after neglecting them due to following one’s dreams. The subplot involves the main character reconnecting with an old prom date, a woman he still cares for and who cares for him, but who has a child with another man whom she might still be involved with.
Adjustments to ordinary life are made, but then a final workout with an unnamed team comes. The workout scene in Jacksonville, the first time we see our main character on a football field, is shot with energy and flair, which makes one wonder what these filmmakers could have done to inject more of the sport they know into the narrative.
The film is handsomely shot, generally well acted, and constructed with care. The fatal flaw, however, is that there is no subtext to any of the characters’ action or dialogue. Characters say exactly what they mean, all the time. They do exactly what others say they do, all the time. There is no way or reason for the audience to engage with these characters, because everything is given to the audience, from the characters’ motivations, to their back stories, to their problems with one another.
And then, that was it. Sure, I went to a few bars and parties that night before leaving the next afternoon, but nothing of interest happened, nothing worth describing at least. Instead, I offer a montage: watching Jenn from “Gayby” doing Whitesnake at live band karaoke at Stage on Sixth, giving and receiving piggyback rides on Sixth Street, meeting someone you’ve only traded emails with, wandering around a party aimlessly trying desperately to find someone you know, a pizza place with death metal blaring from the speakers and slices named after metal bands, someone asking me “What’s the funniest thing―in real life, not in a movie―you’ve seen this week?,” a long walk home in the middle of the night with the glow of my rapidly dying phone my only light.
This is, of course, one man’s biased account. I have my own predispositions to certain types of movies, to certain types of people. I know some of the filmmakers, which makes me untrustworthy. I stayed in a house outside of town, which contained my mobility and ability to see what I did. And, of course, I wasn’t able to write about everything that I saw or that happened. There are things that I have unwittingly omitted, like watching people booty dance at The Hideout, or the long talks I had in the mornings with Anna Margaret’s dad about the bleak future of the film business, or the myriad ways that my experience this year differed from those of the previous years I was here, in ways that were interesting to simply note and then let go.
Have I complained too much, been too negative? I worry about that. The truth is, this is the fourth consecutive SXSW Film Festival I have attended, and I love it. I repeat: I truly love coming to this festival. I feel full of hope and anticipation when I’m about to arrive, which manifests itself by my endless scrolling through the list of films on the online schedule, and packing days before I’m ready to leave. I feel at home while I’m there, talking with friends I almost only see at festivals, drinking the local beers, eating breakfast tacos, seeing so many movies, walking around Sixth Street, and laughing at the fact that so many goofballs have congregated in one place. And I feel excited when I leave, remembering with beautiful exhaustion as I try to sleep in my small airplane seat everything that I’ve seen, everyone I’ve met, all those things that I learned from all those people and those things they created that I was lucky enough to experience.
I watched “Girl Walk // All Day” on my computer back in Chicago the day I flew home, and it gave me more pure joy than anything I’ve seen in months. Essentially in the same spirit as the end credit sequence of Whit Stillman’s “The Last Days of Disco,” and an ideal double feature with “NY Export: Opus Jazz,” this feature-length music video pairs a Girl Talk music mash-up (often rock with hip-hop or R&B, such as the mix of Fugazi’s “Waiting Room” and Rihanna’s “Rude Boy”) with dancers running wild through New York City. In this way, it reminds one of skateboarding, in that both activities involve an act of repurposing public places for artistic means, and photographing the results.
The results here are glorious. A Staten Island Ferry commute, a parade, a playground, a Yankees game, a Harlem barbershop, The Highline, an outdoor market, the subway, and, of course, streets, sidewalks, and public parks. All are shaped to the performers’ needs. Here’s something this film does right: the filmmakers use wide-angle lenses, which provide a clean, large, open frame with few close-ups. This does two things: it shows the dancers’ entire bodies, allowing use to admire their technique (in contrast to recent musical films such as “Chicago,” “Dreamgirls,” and “Moulin Rouge,” which employ fast cutting to get around their movie star performers’ lack of dance skills and to generate fake excitement); it also roots the dancers squarely in their environment, showing the effect these performances have on those around them.
And there are ample shots of confused/surprised/amused onlookers, their days enlivened and made memorable for those watching simply by someone moving their bodies to music.
“Why are you dancing?” asks the Hasid to the girl.
“Because I’m happy.”
And I was happy watching it. Nothing else at the entire festival made me tear up with joy, to shake my head in wonder and delight.