FESTIVALS: SXSW 2001; Ramblin' Panels, Okie Noodlin' and the Demise of Film
by Brian Orsak
(indieWIRE/ 03.22.01) -- This year, one needed only to look at the faces of the panelists to determine which South By Southwest festival they were in Austin to take part of. On the one hand, there were the dot-commers -- young, sallow-faced, wanly smiling entrepreneurs in the midst of an economic beat down -- and on the other, the filmmakers -- young, sallow-faced entrepreneurs in the midst of an indie boom.
While the two groups walked the same halls, ate from the same overpriced snack lines and attended the same pay-per-drink after parties, the filmmakers and their entourage had the superior glow -- and with reason; by all accounts, this year's film showings was one of the festival's strongest, with 163 films and new works by the likes of Ted Demme ("Blow"), Christopher Nolan ("Memento"), Eric Schaeffer ("Never Again") and "South Park" creators Trey Stone and Matt Parker (co-producers of "How's Your News?").
"This year has just been outstanding," explained the festival's perennial head Louis Black while performing emcee duties at last Tuesday's film awards. "Just really about passionate filmmakers with really passionate films."
Though the festival was not without its share of stinkers, Black's assertion seemed right, particularly in relation to the festival's documentaries. That category's strongest showing was Brad Beesley's paean to hand fishing along the riverbeds of Oklahoma, "Okie Noodling." The film, which took the Audience documentary prize and runner up for the same award by Jury selection, was Beesley's second piece in two years to take home a plaque. Beesley accepted the award with a demur comment that seemed, at first blush, standard acceptance speech modesty. "There are just so many other great documentaries out there," he said, citing a fistful of competitors. "I'm surprised [I won]."
As it turned out, Beesley's modesty was justified. Heather Courtney's "Los Trabajadores" ("The Workers"), a film following the lives of illegal immigrant workers in Texas, took home a deserved First Film Documentary award, but left at the altar were Arthur Bradford's "How's Your News?" -- a strange, but rewarding film about a group of mentally challenged camp goers who take an RV cross country to ask random people a variety of aimless questions, often to their confusion; and Peter Sutherland's "Pedal," which follows the inarguably dangerous career of New York's bike messengers.
Though "Hybrid," winner of the Jury prize about a man's obsession with hybrid corn, received little buzz from the festival's moviegoers, it did, however, receive high praises from "Grass" director Ron Mann, who suggested (perhaps too) enthusiastically that viewers be stoned when they watch it.
As expected, the films took precedence over the festival's panels, which were billed under such tech-heavy and otherwise uninspiring titles as "Your Unseen Best Friend: Good Sound" and "Desktop Light and Magic." Other panels were peppered with their share of celebrity, however, and the festival banked on such B-grade stars as porn staple Ron Jeremy, New York Post gossip columnist Liz Smith, Rip Torn of The Larry Sanders Show and "Roger & Me" director Michael Moore.
Despite the showing, panel discussions often shifted from the ostensibly topical to longwinded non-sequiturs. Torn, who was ably foiled in his panel on Texas In Film by the more succinct Liz Smith, was particularly amusing, returning unaided to his allegation that Peter Fonda robbed Terry Southern of a screenwriting credit for "Easy Rider." "Terry was ripped off! And no one cared!" Torn ejaculated more than once.
Rick, Robert and No Show Tarantino
The big crowd draw of the panels, however, was the Q&A open forum with "Desperado" director Robert Rodriguez and "Slacker" director Rick Linklater. Quentin Tarantino, of "Pulp Fiction" fame, pulled the festival's big no show ("No show Tarantino," quipped Linklater early into discussions), citing an unavoidable engagement in L.A. as the reason for his absence (an engagement, according to Linklater, that has something to do with the completion of his new script).
Despite the notable absence, one which an attendee audibly lamented with a "This sucks," Rodriguez, Linklater and moderator Peter Biskin (author of "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock' N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood") managed to banter interestingly enough back and forth about everything from Austin's burgeoning film business to the predicted demise of film as a medium for movies.
Rodriguez, clearly the big DV proponent of the panel, relished in the latter and even took pains to show parallel footage from the set of his upcoming "Spy Kids" shot first in film and then with a digital camera.
"After I saw [the footage with film] I wanted to know who wiped their ass with the camera," joked Rodriguez, who says he used digital cameras while working at George Lucas' stronghold, Skywalker Ranch. "I'm never going to shoot a movie with film again."
At different points in the conversation, Rodriguez stopped to offer the crowd of mostly novice filmmakers his fatherly advice about the impact of digital cameras. "They're better, they're cheaper and they're really going to take the power away from the studios and give it to you," he said, later adding, "It's really up to you guys."
Bad Films, Good Films
If anything, the big surprises of the festival were in its disappointments. "Low Self Esteem Girl," which took home the Jury prize for Narrative Feature Competition proved disappointing, so much so that you could hear the audience members groan despite director Blaine Thurier's presence. "Revolution OS," a documentary on the free software movement that preceded the Linux operating system, received an unusual amount of hype for a documentary so blandly straightforward that one could imagine it as a primer for Linux Redhat employees.
Though Jonathan Parker's adaptation of Hermann Melville's classic "Bartleby the Scrivener" seemed generally unappealing to its viewers (rightly so for a movie that didn't quite know when to end), its quintessential line, recited in the movie by Crispin "George McFly" Glover, could be heard repeated by attendees over the course of the festival.
"Would you like to see Low Self Esteem Girl?" asks one. "I'd prefer not to," says the other.
"Southlander", Steve Hanft's comedy about one man's search for the perfect synthesizer, drew sighs from its midnight audiences despite cameo appearances by Beck, Beth Orton and country legend scion Hank Williams III. Though the movie showed potential in its few and far between highlights -- one of which was a futuristic L.A. party which ends with Beck pissing toward the sunrise -- its stilted dialogue and senseless farce stymied the script.
"I wanted this film to seem like it was made by someone four million years in the future looking back," Hanft's explained of the movie's (set in 2008) obvious liberal take on reality. "So if things seem a little wrong, that's why."
Another world premiere, "The Journeyman," James Crowley's sparse, "Dead Man"-esque western about two brothers on opposite sides of the law, received more than favorable reactions from its audience and managed to earn Crowley the Narrative First Film award. Though few grumbled about Crowley's win the next day -- mostly because the movie needed additional editing -- its solid plot, replete with an early cameo appearance by Willie Nelson, remained one of the festival's crowd pleasers.
John Ryman's black comedy about a moribund protagonist in search of his lost love, "The Zeros," took home both the audience top award for Narrative Feature and the runner up prize by Jury selection. Set in the first years of the 21st century (hence the name), the movie managed to prodigiously skirt what could otherwise have seemed a clich