From Politics to Pornography at SXSW 2004
by Marjorie Baumgarten
The rain that off-and-on darkened the skies all week did not appear to dampen attendance at the 11th annual South by Southwest Film Festival, held in Austin, Texas, from March 12-19. The multiple distractions caused by SXSW's other simultaneous Music and Interactive Festivals also did little to deter crowds, and in fact, seemed to create a unique synergy among the various festivals. Examples of this can be seen in the inclusion of Michael Ferris Gibson's "24 Hours on Craigslist," a look at the website that helps turn cyberspace into neighborhoods where anything can be found, and a whole sidebar called 24 Beats Per Second, devoted to movies that "use music to make the motion pictures truly move." Some titles in this section included the world premieres of Dan Karlok's "Antone's: Home of the Blues," about the legendary Austin club owner Clifford Antone; Michael McNamara's "Radio Revolution: The Rise and Fall of the Big 8"; and Luciana Pedraza's "The Portrait of Billy Joe" a portrait of the musician Billy Joe Shaver, which was produced by Robert Duvall.
In all, nearly 200 features and short films screened during the nine days in several venues. The SXSW programmers made their selections from more than 2,300 submissions this year and the range and quality of the movies in this year's program may be the best ever. I should know: I've been to all 11 festivals and, in the interest of full disclosure, here note that I also serve as a non-paid consultant to the festival.
Films about politics were a particular focus in the always-exciting documentary program. In "Last Man Standing," Paul Stekler examines the distinct beast that is Texas politics. The film focuses on two recent electoral races. One is the last gubernatorial race in which former governor George W. Bush's Republican replacement Rick Perry squares off with the Democratic nominee Tony Sanchez, who is an unusual candidate for the party since he is a millionaire businessman. The race highlights some of the shifting demographics of the Democratic party, which can no longer take for granted the Mexican-American vote in the Rio Grande Valley. The other contest takes place in LBJ's old Hill Country district between a staunch conservative and a young newcomer. It's a very close and acrimonious race whose outcome is probably decided by the scandal that envelops the conservative during the waning days of the campaign. As such, the race may prove to be more idiosyncratic than illustrative. But the film is nevertheless entertaining and informative.
"Bush's Brain" by Michael Paradies Shoob is a documentary about the president's chief strategist Karl Rove, and was one of the most highly anticipated films of the festival (judging by the line of people who stretched happily around the corner in the pouring rain waiting to get in to the film's first screening). The movie is based on the book of the same name by journalists Wayne Slater and James Moore and relies heavily on interviews with these two. However, the film is a poorly focused account of the strategist's bag of dirty tricks. The film's opening is fantastic: Shots of President Bush fade to black and the question, "How did this happen?" then appears on the screen. Unfortunately, "Bush's Brain" bogs down in the details of a couple of particularly pernicious incidents in the annals of Texas politics. Though both incidents are fascinating, their recitation becomes the film's subject matter more than any thorough exposure of the quotidian nature of Rove's deceits -- which now reside in the White House. The film's concluding section is a mystifying tangent about a couple who feel betrayed by the Bush White House. Granted, it's difficult to make a film about a subject who won't agree to participate, but a sharper focus would have helped. Some of the other political documentaries that screened were Harry Thomason's "The Hunting of the President," Jonathan Demme's "The Agronomist," and Shola Lynch's "Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed."
Opening night of SXSW featured the U.S. premiere of Michael Winterbottom's "Code 46." That and screenings of McDonald's nightmare movie "Super Size Me" were predictable hits. Winner of the special jury award for Narrative Feature, "Mind the Gap" by Eric Schaeffer, proved to be an audience favorite. Schaeffer's sixth film is his most accomplished yet as it interweaves stories of five individuals at a crux in their lives. The audience award for narrative feature went to "Blackballed: The Bobby Dukes Story," directed by Brant Sersen and stars Rob Corddry (of "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" fame). It's a fun story about a shamed paintball champion who returns to the sport after a long absence and is filmed in mockumentary fashion.
"Able Edwards," the directing debut of industry veteran Graham Robertson, is an ambitious stunner. Shot entirely with green screens using composited backgrounds, this science fiction effort belies its computer-generated origins. The story's structure borrows heavily from "Citizen Kane" and the life story of Walt Disney, but manages to create something completely unique. Other world premieres included "Blind Horizon" from director Haussman and Lions Gate, a low-key "Manchuian Candidate"-style thriller starring Val Kilmer, Neve Campbell, Faye Dunaway, and Sam Shepard; "Killer Diller" by Tricia Brock, which tells a predictable story about a group of teenage misfits who find unity and salvation through making music together; and movie maverick John Landis' entertaining foray into documentary filmmaking, "Slasher," which offers a compelling look at the world of high-powered used-car salesmen.
Lone Star States was another sidebar that featured several homegrown treats. Among the entries here were Tommy Davis' audience award-winning "Mojados: Through the Night," in which the filmmaker accompanies a group of men illegally crossing the border from Mexico into the U.S. and brings his camera to document the ordeal. "Dreams of Her" by Salvatore Botti is a visually stunning account of anguished love, and Bryan Poyser and Jacob Vaughan's "Dear Pillow" is terrific-looking provocation about pornography, obsession, and the concept of sexual gratification. Richard Linklater, a Lone Star filmmaker in a category all his own, screened two unannounced works during the festival. "Before Sunset," which will be released this summer through Warner Independent Pictures, is everything a fan of his earlier film "Before Sunrise" could want. Smart, funny, and resolutely romantic, Linklater's film re-matches Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (who was in attendance at the screening and also performed in a showcase during the SXSW Music Festival). The real treat, however, was the screening of "$5.15/Hour," the pilot that Linklater and Rodney Rothman made for HBO (the channel didn't pick it up). Set in the world of a cheesy chain restaurant, the pilot introduces a number of the regular employees. The show's potential is clearly in evidence, and the pilot's rejection by the network can only be explained by television's aversion to average-looking people in average situations.
[Marjorie Baumgarten, a writer based in Austin, TX, is the film editor at The Austin Chronicle.]