Don’t Mess With Texas; SXSW Honors Homegrown Filmmakers
by Jacque Lynn Schiller
I rolled into Austin on opening day (March 7) of the 10th South by Southwest Film Festival. I was giddy to be home (I graduated from UT Austin in 1996) and anxious to see some great films, catch some much needed rays, and down some Shiner Bock and a bowl or 13 of queso. Mission accomplished, at least on a few levels.
Texas has never been short on pride, still thinking of itself as a country rather than a state, which may unfortunately explain President Bush’s cowboy antics and the festival’s overwhelming leanings toward the natives. While there were some fine showings in the narrative and documentary sections, most the brew-ha-ha centered on a Texas filmmakers retrospective, a distinctive director award for Robert Rodriguez (was Richard Linklater not available?) and the winner of the best narrative feature award, Austin-shot “sexless.” Several directors from different locales told me they felt a bit ignored, which could account for why they had time to speak with me at industry-sponsored parties instead of being wined and dined by acquisitions reps (although SXSW isn’t known as an acquisitions hotbed anyway).
I reserve my largest complaints for two particularly frustrating incidents (in addition to the rather pathetic swag bag not really matching the price of admission). While movies were shown through March 15, once the official film conference ended on March 11, the press office shuttered without warning. I had erroneously presumed that since I would be attending screenings throughout the week I would have a place to receive press releases and set up interviews. No such luck. Also, another headache was standing in line for more than an hour waiting not for Guffman, but Christopher Guest’s latest mockumentary “A Mighty Wind” only to find out that no reviews could be written about the film because it wasn’t a final print. Couldn’t have someone have made this announcement long before doors were opened?
Still, I am pained to say anything negative about SXSW, as I love Austin and found myself wondering many times why I ever left. Five months of New York’s harsh winter and sub-par Mexican food can do that to a girl. The event is extremely organized and the volunteers are knowledgeable and friendly (the same can’t be said of the locals, who bide there time making fun of anyone wearing black, sporting a shaggy haircut, or unable to quote “Slacker”). The venues (including personal fave, Alamo Drafthouse) provide ample seating With the bonus of alcohol consumption during screenings. There were several informative panels and the tradeshow was chock full o’ goodies for the aspiring filmmaker. Being familiar with IH35 traffic and the heinous lack of parking prevalent in the state’s capital, I didn’t have too much trouble Making it to the various screenings. There’s probably still some clueless festgoer standing on the corner of 6th and Congress trying desperately to hail a cab to the airport. Again, being in the know helps a lot when maneuvering this town.
On to the films…the experimental shorts were actually long on time, and as for experimental, I suppose if using filters, excessive editing, and distorted visuals deems a piece inventive these fit the bill. I did appreciate the jokes behind “Wonder Pain” and “Mark Set Burn” and the concept of “Ablution,” but all in all I felt subjected to playtime hour at Film School 101. Perhaps I’m just bitchy reviewer and all these directors should get kudos for making a film at all.
The music video segment I particularly looked forward to and highly enjoyed featured the always-fun Flaming Lips with “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” replete with strewn confetti and ever-smiling singer Wayne Coyne. Jason Archer and Paul Beck, animators on Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life,” applied similar stylings to David Byrne’s “The Great Intoxication.” Mr. Byrne is already something of a character and the artists managed to capture the spirit of both him and the song. “When You Heard You” by the French Kicks was cheekily brought to life by director Brett Simon while Floria Sigismondi provided the flipside to frivolity in an eerie adaptation of Sigur Ros’ “Untitled.” Jury award winner “Nutella and Gummi Bear Sandwich” by the Precarious Warehaus Dwellers received a well deserved laugh, the name alone is funny; while a few videos in the batch got some guffaws not for humor but for being just that bad. Think rejects from the early days of MTV.
The narrative feature competition offered several titles that I had not seen previously, and I was particularly enchanted with Greg Pritikin’s “Dummy,” the story of Steven, a shy ex-office worker (Adrien Brody), and his relationships with a foul-mouthed, hilarious high school buddy (Milla Jovovich), his unemployment counselor, and a dummy. While being a ventriloquist is probably not the most obvious route to a girl’s heart, Steven gains confidence through his “woody” and his friends and family grow up as well.
“Happy Here and Now” (Michael Almereyda) offered an interesting contemplation on how modern technology not only plays into our everyday lives but how it is also relied upon when our worlds get turned upside down. Shalom Harlow plays Muriel, a woman desperately seeking her missing sister in the seedy world of a New Orleans’ online community. As with “Nadja,” Almereyda has a trick up his sleeve, and his mixture of music, webcam video, and haunting settings led this one to be awarded with the special jury prize.
If there was an accolade for “Head Scratcher,” Jeffrey Erbach’s “The Nature of Nicholas” would have won hands down. The film is gorgeous to look at and the two young stars, Jeff Sutton and David Turnbull, turn in superb performances, but what the hell is this picture ultimately about? Scaring the pants off of anyone with homosexual leanings? Please somebody explain this one to me and the dozen or so confused people I polled after its screenings. What starts off as a sweet coming of age story with a special bent quickly spirals into a “Night of the Living Dead” remake. Strange.
The narrative first features section housed some of the more promising films, with the directors producing skilled works belying their experience. “Robot Stories” by Greg Pak ties together four separate stories, each involving a mechanical character but in a surprising, extraordinary fashion. Bob Odenkirk, of “Mr. Show” fame, turns in a subtle comedy with “Melvin Goes to Dinner.” The story chronicles four not-so-good friends as they drink, philosophize, and spill their guts. The cast is compelling, with Michael Blieden nailing the role of Melvin to such a degree that I wouldn’t be surprised if his dialogue was improvised from his own life. Odenkirk throws in nice cinematic touches, such as use of stills and hilarious cameos from David Cross and Jack Black.
The big guns mixed with the little guys in the narrative special screenings section. Robert Duvall’s “Assassination Tango,” Peter Fonda’s “The Hired Hand” and Guest’s supposedly unfinished “A Mighty Wind” all made good showings and undoubtedly will soon be packing theaters. indieWIRE alum and screenwriting wunderkind Mike Jones’ “EvenHand” played to great reviews. Directed by Joseph Pierson, “EvenHand” is a cop story not typical of its genre. We’re not talking a Murphy/Lawrence buddy flick, but the tale of two ordinary cops on patrol. Humanity and drama — who’d have thought? “Nosey Parker,” helmed by John O’Brien (who was mistakenly referred to as “a sheep farmer from Vermont” during a panel which included Eamonn Bowles and Bob Berney) was one of my favorites of the festival. A couple moves from suburbia to the comforts of rural Vermont and causes quite a stir in the little town. O’Brien cast locals who convincingly portray confounded neighbors, but the scene-stealer is the late George Lyford as a wise old handyman who assists the new arrivals as they transition to country life.
As with Sundance, the category which garnered most of my notice and praise was the documentary section. “Flag Wars,” which won the jury award for best Documentary feature, records the gentrification of an Ohio neighborhood over a four-year period. Gentrification is also a theme in “156 Rivington,” the history of an artists’ commune in New York City’s Lower East Side cleverly named ABC No Rio. Mention should be paid to “girlhood,” “Jon E. Edwards Is In Love” and “American Dancer” — all equally compelling and solidly produced.
Finally I get to my own category, which I’ll dub “Riveting and Thought-Provoking.” Rarely does a film galvanize the audience to audibly groan or express disgust by yelling at the figures on the screen, yet I sat through two during this fest. “The Flute Player” and “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” both elicited such response due to the political nature of the films and the knowledge America is taking that sad trip towards war. Haven’t we learned anything? It’s never comfortable realizing you’ve been lied to, or that information has conveniently been manipulated or left out. These two exemplary examples of “the other side of the story” made me want to rush out, rent a van, and go on a road trip to all high schools and colleges across the U.S. in order to get their message out.
“The Flute Player” introduces Arn Chorn Pond, a survivor of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime, who while struggling with his own guilt for still being alive, manages to initiate something positive — in this case resurrecting the music of his country’s few remaining masters. He also became an advocate for Amnesty International. Pond’s story is excruciating at times and it made me sick to understand the military’s murderous campaign was occurring at the same time that I was enjoying a carefree childhood on a Texas riverbank. Likewise, “Revolution” unveils the media corruption and public gullibility behind last year’s (thankfully short-lived) coup of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Irish filmmakers Donnacha O’Briain and Kim Bartley originally set out to interview the enigmatic Chavez and were given unprecedented access to his daily routine, palace life, and trips to the countryside (where he listened to his poverty stricken citizens’ problems and encouraged them to read and learn the constitution). After 9/11, he called on the U.S. not to “fight terror with terror” and suddenly Colin Powell was on CNN claiming that Chavez was mentally ill. Chavez was already in trouble with oil interests for calling on controls that would benefit the financially burdened people of Venezuela. Obviously his opinions were not appreciated. The media (Chavez only has access to one television station) immediately began a disparaging campaign against Chavez and the filmmakers found themselves witnessing an overthrow attempt. Thankfully, the people overtook the palace declaring their constitutional rights to speak out and be represented by the leader they voted for. And for once, a happy ending. Chavez was reinstated and Colin Powell returned to state that America had no involvement in the uprising. Judging by the “Fuck You’s” hurled at his image, I don’t think anyone in the audience believed him.
This is what film fests are all about. The petty inconveniences and parking woes seem irrelevant when you see something that knocks you so hard. With films there can be entertainment and there can be education, and in the end, SXSW satisfied both.