At any given moment, it's impossible to comprehend the scale of South by Southwest. On Monday morning, American refugee and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden will loom above audiences at Austin's Convention Center for a highly anticipated conversation certain to focus on the resistance of institutional control; nearby, one producer will discuss the possibilities of developing a major film industry in Argentina; in an adjacent room, economic experts will debate the merits of Bitcoin.
But what about the movies?
There will be plenty of those, too. With so many activities taking place at once, it can be easy forget that SXSW remains a significant American film festival, trailing only Sundance in terms of prominence in the first quarter of the year. The current edition of SXSW contains 133 features, including 89 world premieres, most of which will premiere during the festival's packed opening weekend. Come Tuesday, juries for the documentary and narrative sections will anoint a handful of titles with accolades that may help them find audiences beyond the Texas event. By then, the beastly music portion of the festival will have cranked up the volume in the downtown area, launching another burst of energy just when the initial wave of activity starts to die down. This is the SXSW rhythm: An amorphous blob of creativity and networking, it just keeps moving ahead, and in the best case scenario it maps out the next steps of the communities that flock to it.
Cinema at SXSW tends to display these conditions especially well. The best selections of the festival offer observational, economically produced and intimate snapshots of modern society. This is also generally true of the worst titles of the festival, which sometimes benefit from the context of their placement in the lineup. With its confluence of technology, music and movies, SXSW's contents reflect its attitude irrespective of their quality (although there's generally enough of that to go around). Though the film program may now seem dwarfed by the industrial heft of the interactive gathering unfolding concurrently, the two ingredients actually adopt the same language: SXSW Interactive provides a context for certain types of people and outlooks; the film festival speak to them.
By virtue of its program's topics, SXSW's 2014 edition already looks like a vintage year: The lineup is riddled with movies that deal with the personal ramifications of technologies as well as the anxieties of youth — elements that naturally overlap. If the Sundance Film Festival outlines the direction of American cinema in general terms, SXSW boils it down to the zeitgeist. That tradition has already been confirmed, to my eyes, in the handful of titles that I've already managed to see. The best of these is Joel Potrykus' surreal workplace satire "Buzzard," the ultimate post-recession lament, about a desperate young embezzler whose sloven attempts to steal from the bank that employs him ultimately drive the man insane. The image of the character speeding down the street while wearing a homemade Freddy Krueger glove, at once fleeing the authorities and inexplicably free of them, perfectly epitomizes the chaotic instability and constant forward motion of contemporary young adulthood. It's the SXSW identity incarnate.
Other entries capture more particular details of today's society, including several that deal with the impact of technology on communication. The New York-set romance-turned-detective-story "The Heart Machine," from first-time director (and sometime Indiewire contributor) Zach Wigon, focuses on a man engaged in a long-distance relationship suddenly afraid that his lover may be lying to him; tracking her whereabouts around town, he relies on clues via Facebook, text message and emails, all of which are fluidly woven into this alluring and tenderly enacted narrative.