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March 26, 1999 2:00 AM
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Slacking at the SXSW Film Festival

Slacking at the SXSW Film Festival

By Rebecca Sonnenshine



For better or worse, most of my impressions of Austin came from Richard
Linklater's brilliant indie ode-to-slackerdom, "Slacker." They were
good impressions, mind you, and after renting that film two dozen times,
I made plans to visit this promised land. After spending years braving
the crushes of various film festivals and markets, i.e. Cannes,
Sundance, MIFED, LAIFF, etc., the SXSW film festival in Austin, Texas,
seemed like the perfect place to take my newly freelance (read:
unemployed) self for a few days of festival fun. For the first time in
my professional life, my festival agenda wasn't dictated by what I
should see, but what I'd like to see. At least half of my stay was
cheerfully dedicated to prowling Austin's art museums and galleries,
hanging out at the Magnolia Cafe (both locations), browsing through
Waterloo Records, and sipping Vanilla Stoli in various bars around
town.


The heart of the festival is located in the Austin Convention Center, a
solid, easily navigable launch pad with plenty of helpful volunteers.
In the main hall, the Interactive Trade Show hummed with the sound of
festival go-ers checking their e-mail on the latest Apple creations.
It's a bit like a mini ShowBiz Expo, with local film vendors showcasing
their services and products, internet providers proclaiming their
efficiency, equipment rental houses displaying their wares, and software
companies demonstrating the latest in digital film technology. Perhaps
it is much more useful for local filmmakers, but I spent most of my time
gathering free candies and magnets and looking up the California surf
report on the Internet. As for the impressive list of panels,
workshops, mini-meetings, and mentor sessions. . . I skipped those,
too. Tired of listening to film people talk about themselves, I left
the film conference to those far less jaded and bitter than myself.
Also located in the Convention Center was a huge screening room,
definitely one of the nicest improvised venues I've ever visited. The
screen and projection system were flawless, and the Dolby sound system
is nothing short of amazing. Perhaps this is where the merging of a
music and film festival really DOES pay off.


After seeing two disappointing films in the Narrative Feature
Competition -- "Spent," a mannered glimpse into the life of an aspiring
actor with a gambling problem, directed by Gil Cates, Jr. and "Standing
on Fishes
," a disjointed series of overwrought scenes that centers
around an LA-based sculptor -- my little group decided to seek out films
that were set well-outside the film industry. Note to aspiring
filmmakers: By all means, take to heart that old artistic adage, Write
what you know! UNLESS all you know is struggling to "make it" in Los
Angeles/Hollywood as a writer/director/actor. In that case, do us a
favor and make something up. Anything. Spare us the tired insider's
take on the dog-eat-dog world of breaking into showbiz.


David Riker's "La Ciudad," a film currently making the rounds as a
well-deserved festival darling, took the prize for Best Narrative
Feature. Comprised of four vignettes about immigrant life in New York
City, it is a film of exceptional, unsentimental storytelling. From the
austere beauty of the black and white photography to the small,
unexpected twists that resolve each story, "La Ciudad" is an exercise in
pure, honest filmmaking and should not be missed by anyone. When will
some heartfelt distributor pick this movie up? I didn't have the
opportunity to see the runner-up in the Narrative Feature category,
Cauleen Smith's "Drylongso," but the film drew raves from several
festival go-ers I spoke with.


In the Documentary Feature Competition, Cass Paley's "WADD: The Life and
Times of John C. Holmes
" took home the prize for Best Documentary.
Okay, I'll admit it: I didn't make it to most of the documentaries. But
I did hear great things about Xackery Irving's "American Chain Gang" and
Reed Paget's "Amerikan Passport." And Variety seemed to give high
praise to Aviva Kempner's "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg." I
actually made it down to the Dobie Theater to see Joseph Lovett's LAIFF
bound "The Accident," an oddly engaging examination of family and
destiny. Though the "hook" of the film centers around a freak accident
that killed Lovett's mother when he was only thirteen, the heart -- and
cinematic strength -- of the documentary is Lovett's use of brutally
honest interviews with his siblings and family friends, who recall the
pain of growing up with a volatile father and an emotionally distant
mother.


As usual, though, most of the really interesting films were lurking in
the Narrative Special Screenings. "Desert Blue," the festival's opening
night film, is Morgan J. Freeman's off-beat follow-up to his Sundance
sensation, "Hurricane Streets." Happily, it is a sly, quirky,
surprisingly warm little film brimming with fine performances from Kate
Hudson, indie-darling Christina Ricci, Casey Affleck, and Brendan Sexton
III. It's also heartening to note that Freeman hasn't lost his touch
for exquisite visuals and genuine sweetness, qualities that are sorely
lacking in many of the independent films flooding the market.


Eleanor Gaver's "There's No Fish Food in Heaven," a sparkling, wacky
comic gem driven by sharp dialogue, outstanding performances, and sheer
visual energy, was a genuine delight. Beneath its strange little love
story, the film is actually quite a tender meditation on the nature of
love and death. Employing a host of eclectic visual devices, from
animation to artwork, Gaver emerges as an entertaining and highly
imaginative director on the indie scene.


The first showing of "The Book of Stars" packed in an enormous crowd at the
elegant, lovingly maintained Paramount theater in downtown Austin. No
doubt it was Austin screenwriter Tasca Shadix that brought in an
enthusiastic hometown crowd (all screenwriters should be so lucky to get
the biggest cheers of the night!); nonetheless, the entire audience was
treated to a lyrical, delicate, visually stunning drama. Director
Michael Miner weaves a strangely futuristic, metaphorical, moving tale
about the boundaries of love and imagination. Featuring luminous
performances from Mary Stuart Masterson and Jena Malone, the film
apparently has an all-too-familiar problem: finding a distributor.
Heavens forbid anyone release a non-violent independent film that
appeals to women! Let's hope someone ponies up the cash and marketing
skills to get this film out to a wider audience.


Also screening was Tony Goldwyn's charming feature debut, "A Walk on the
Moon
," which Miramax will release later this week. A warm, quietly
beautiful drama, the film wisely eschews sticky sentimentality and
features outstanding performances from Liev Shrieber, Anna Paquin, and
Diane Lane, who finally gets a chance to show off her considerable
acting chops. "With or Without You," by Wendell Jon Andersson, another
fine offering in the First Narrative Film category, is a small, honest,
lovely drama that showcases the talent of actress Marisa Ryan.


SXSW 1999, as in past years, featured a big bunch of films fresh from
the Sundance boat. Despite whines and grumbles from a snobbish few,
this really isn't a problem: even if one has seen all the films at
Sundance, there are loads of films to choose from. I heard great things
about a mockumentery from Jeff Abugov called "Mating Habits of the
Earthbound Human
." Festival go-ers either loved or hated Gregg Araki's
new offering, "Splendor" (would you expect anything else?); "A Slipping
Down Life
" seemed to evoke the same polite response it commanded at
Sundance. "Treasure Island" was brave, perhaps even visually
stimulating, but I didn't get it (I'm not sure anyone in the audience
did). Nick Broomfield seemed to be all the rage this year; accordingly,
a retrospective of his work was on the cards. A tribute to Jack Hill,
hosted by none other than Quentin Tarantino, seemed like good fun --
until one was forced to sit all the way through one of his movies. We
decided to leave "Switchblade Sisters" and "Foxy Brown" to the mystical
creatures who just can't get enough of Pam Grier.


Thankfully, SXSW is a much less frenetic festival than Sundance.
Attendees and organizers are easy-going, friendly. I find it much more
pleasant to amble around a sunny, funky, mid-sized university town than
a cold, slushy, ski resort with no affordable accommodations and not one
decent record store. If the SXSW film festival continues to grow,
organizers might want to think about providing a shuttle service between
the theaters (parking can be a bitch), and wrangling crowds a bit more
forcefully at the smaller venues (like the Dobie). They also might
leave a couple of film festival representatives at the Convention Center
after the film conference ends and the music hipsters overrun the
place. When I arrived at the Convention Center on Wednesday morning,
there wasn't a shred of evidence that the film festival ever existed,
even in the press room (a little irksome, to be sure).


As we fell into bed at our swanky Motel 6 room on Tuesday evening, we
caught an amusing segment on the local Fox affiliate. The news anchors
were babbling excitedly about the upcoming "Big Hollywood" premiere of
"EdTV," starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, at the
Paramount Theater. "And the cameras will be here, and the stars will
walk here..." an on-the-scene correspondent announced breathlessly,
showing the television audience the red carpets and rope set up in front
of the theater. The anchors went on to tell us about the new projection
and sound system in the theater, as well as the hopes that this might
lead to even MORE Hollywood premiers in their very own town. Note to
Austin: stop beckoning Hollywood. You've got your own thriving movie
scene, complete with a renowned film festival, a small indie industry,
and screens that boast a range of off-beat movie titles. You've even
got genuine movie stars lurking around town. Trust me, you don't need
Hollywood. And when they come, you'll be sorry you ever called.


[Rebecca Sonnenshine is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.]


A complete list of the winners of the 1999 SXSW Film Festival is as
follows:

BEST NARRATIVE FEATURE:


"La Ciudad," Dir. David Riker

NARRATIVE FEATURE RUNNER UP:


"Drylongso," Dir. Cauleen Smith

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE:


"WADD: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes," Dir. Cass Paley

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE RUNNER UP: (Tie)


"Secret People," Dir. John Anderson


"Hill Stomp Hollar," Dir. Bradley Beesley

BEST NARRATIVE SHORT:


"Culture," Dir. Ari Gold

NARRATIVE SHORT RUNNER UP: (Tie)


"Mutiny," Dir. Henry Griffin


"Peep Show," Dir. Charlie Call

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT:


"The Last Guy to Let You Down," Dir. Rolf Gibbs

DOCUMENTARY SHORT RUNNER UP:


"Gimme Some Larry," Dir. Elisabeth Sikes

BEST MUSIC VIDEO:


Clem Snide, "Your Night to Shine", Dir. Erica S. Federman

MUSIC VIDEO RUNNER UP:


Solex, "Solex All Licketysplit", Dir. Birgit Rathsmann & Bruce Alcock


BEST ANIMATION:

"More," Dir. Mark Osborne


ANIMATION RUNNER UP:


"The Song About the Spirit of Cheese," Dir. Irina Smirnova


BEST EXPERIMENTAL:

"Seven Days Til Sunday," Dir. Reynold Reynolds & Patrick Jolley


EXPERIMENTAL RUNNER UP:

"5 Seconds," Dir. Eric Komoroff

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