There are moments in Omar Rodriguez Lopez's "Los Chidos" so extraordinarily vulgar you can't describe them without sounding as loony as the movie. The bastard love child of John Waters and Alejandro Jodoworsky, The Mars Volta frontman's batshit-crazy spin on the telenovela includes a graphic scatological meal, incest, severed penises in jars, inexplicable cannibalism and intentionally amateurish dialogue that's obviously dubbed. It's littered with ugly stereotypes delivered in the service of crude satire. And at the SXSW Film Festival this week, it played through the roof.
A lot of major festivals showcase bold and provocative work. But SXSW has the rare ability to put a spotlight on wildly subversive creativity for an approving crowd. At the Sundance Film Festival last month, I noted that the more interesting movies generally provoked mixed reactions and walkouts. At SXSW, the movies that might inspire that kind of response in more restrained settings instead receive a very special sort of welcome.
"Los Chidos" ostensibly follows the impoverished Gonzalez family, whose daily routine running a tire repair shop gets complicated when a stranded American wanders into their midst and falls in love with one of the locals, a woman secretly carrying on with a demented cross-dresser. One thing leads to another, tensions rise and eventually the outsider finds himself up to his neck in dirt, covered with tarantulas and dreaming of a burning bush. It's that kind of movie. By comparison, "Los Chidos" makes another tongue-in-cheek appropriation of telenovela conventions premiering at SXSW this week, the Spanish-language Will Ferrell vehicle "Casa De Mi Padre," look downright tame.
SXSW caters to the young and hip, the art nerds and fanboys, the tech geeks and the party-seekers. "The Cabin in the Woods" opened the festival last week to a more extreme wave of enthusiasm than the deconstructive horror movie could possibly have found anywhere else.
And then there's the positive reception for movies that have already screened elsewhere: "Compliance" and "The Comedy" both faced mixed reactions at Sundance last month, but found appreciative crowds in Austin. The Austin-based Zellner brothers' surreal oddity "Kid-Thing" remained under the radar at Sundance but landed a lively homecoming at SXSW. Bobcat Goldthwait's violent spoof "God Bless America" arrived in the U.S. following its Toronto premiere to eager fans. The vibe at SXSW is so explosively celebratory that any competent movie with outlandish intentions can find an audience willing to groove with it.
Of course, not every great SXSW entry is entirely nutty. Last year's breakouts "Weekend" and "Natural Selection" weren't aiming to provoke angry reactions. In the 2012 lineup, Adele Romanski's delicate romance "Leave Me Like You Found Me" and local filmmaker Bob Byington's tenderly surreal "Somebody Up There Likes Me" don't push extreme buttons. But SXSW keeps the door open for movies that do, which is partly why it continues to stand out on the increasingly fragmented festival circuit.
A few weeks ago, a SXSW virgin asked me if I could explain the hype. At least part of it has to do with the way the festival's brand informs the programming and vice versa, a feat that few other festivals can pull off. SXSW offers a steady stream of parties, concerts and networking opportunities — but unlike those ephemeral experiences, the movies that gain momentum coming out of SXSW can run with it. "Los Chidos" may not land a wide release, but wherever it turns up next, one can imagine the SXSW logo will turn up with it.