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by Eric Kohn
March 13, 2012 10:36 AM
6 Comments
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Critic's Notebook: SXSW is Where the Crazy Movies Call Home

"Los Chidos."
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.

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6 Comments

  • Joe | March 13, 2012 3:39 PMReply

    ZZZzzz. Puhlease.

  • james | March 13, 2012 3:32 PMReply

    Ah, those old reliable brands "crazy" and "extreme." I suspect to be crazy these days, you have to prove your viability as a rock star or some other socially sanctified role...then you can be crazy.

    This article feels like it was written by the SXSW PR team.

  • Rommy | March 14, 2012 12:49 PM

    It turns out that in comparison with the other festivals, this festival takes risks with the films it includes. This is Eric's main point.

  • Eric | March 14, 2012 12:31 PM

    Well, I think I got the point but maybe you're right that I didn't address it sufficiently. Certainly I didn't intend to write a puff piece. What I was aiming to do here is to tell you about a really incredible movie, "Los Chidos," and I wanted to contextualize it because I think it's worth noting that it would have a hard time finding positive reception at other festivals. A critic can write good reviews of movies and festivals alike; in this case, I was aiming to do both. If anyone wants to contest the notion of the audiences here being "amazingly openminded and hip" as opposed to Sundance's "stuffier" crowd, by all means go for it. But I actually think that's an accurate characterization worthy of consideration since the festival climate is such a fragile place for certain movies. We'll get into this topic at greater length in this week's Critical Consensus column.

  • Arch | March 14, 2012 12:08 PM

    Eric, no offense but your response kind of missed the point of James' comment that this piece felt like a puff piece for the amazingly openminded and hip crowds at SXSW as opposed to the stuffier Sundance. Basically you just condensed this article into two sentences and used that as a response even though it doesn't address the criticism.

  • Eric | March 13, 2012 4:59 PM

    But it wasn't written by the SXSW PR team...it was written by me as a response to the way the specific atmosphere at this festival can help certain movies that have a harder time finding their audiences at other large festivals. I certainly don't see a movie like "Los Chidos" getting the same enthusiastic response at Sundance that it did at SXSW.