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.
Also in competition, the Spanish drama “Long Distance” similarly involves a long distance romance operating under the constraints of 21st century communication. Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo’s first English language feature “Open Windows” funnels the possibilities of online relationships into classic genre traditions. His thriller stars Elijah Wood as a man forced to stalk a celebrity by an unseen figure who has access to innumerable webcams — and the entire story unfolds on a single computer screen, through a series of video chats, cell phone cameras, GPS technology and other gadgets used in extreme fashion but just familiar enough to avoid seeming futuristic, and crammed together in a running split screen device that would make even Brian De Palma’s head spin.
The documentaries are also fundamentally of the moment: “Vessel,” which tracks the experiences of a doctor who delivers abortions at sea, makes note of the technological developments that enable its subject’s advocacy. Festival favorite “Jodorworsky‘s Dune” brings to life cult director Alejandro Jodorworsky‘s unrealized adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel with dazzling animations based on concept art. “The Legend of Shorty” tracks the search for Mexico’s elusive drug lord, whose recent capture due to innovative research mandated that the directors reedit the project a few weeks shy of its premiere.
These movies will all offer up alternative visions, but the festival has never been exclusively a haven for low budget efforts so much as those that share their off-the-beaten-path ethos. Sight unseen, it’s easy to position the latest Seth Rogen vehicle “Neighbors” in that tradition, along with much of the television content that premieres at the festival in its own section. As a whole, these ingredients ensure that SXSW’s view of the moving image covers all the major bases without departing from its riotous counterculture brand.
The festival’s pathways mark a striking contrast to Sundance. In recent years, the January gathering in Park City gave us stunning new visions and emotionally fraught conversation-starters like “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Fruitvale Station” and “The Cove”; by contrast, SXSW delivered greater focus with smaller, innovative works including “Short Term 12,” “Tchoupitoulas,” and ‘Medicine for Melancholy,” not to mention this year’s keynote speaker Lena Dunham and a whole lot of Joe Swanberg movies. They aren’t for everyone, but their successes have proven that they do exist for a whole lot of someones.
Of course, since it rose to prominence around a decade ago, the festival has seen strong and weak years alike, but always maintains a healthy consistency — its environment is as much a part of the package as its contents, and together they present a compelling thesis on American filmmaking outside of studio constraints. As my colleague Anne Thompson writes in her newly published book “The $11 Billion Year,” the indie space is “on the one hand more corporate and risk averse than it used to be, and on the other more DIY and cooperative.” SXSW straddles both worlds simultaneously: It’s a for-profit endeavor that showcases work largely made for no profit whatsoever (or willing to take comparable liberties).
This year, it celebrates that sensibility with the homecoming of Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making “Boyhood.” The Sundance hit, shot over the course of a dozen summers and tracking the growth of a child into young adulthood, shows the ultimate potential for crafting profound statements about the world through the American vernacular. Opening in the past and working its way into the present, “Boyhood” brilliantly crystallizes the fragmented experience of daily life. It should provide a handy focal point for sifting through the big picture amid the mayhem of SXSW. Mimicking the arc of Linklater’s film, the festival is a place where emerging artists grow up, speak out, and try new experiences. It’s a party thrown by the same people who crash it — not just a haven for distinctive American creativity but an arena to unleash its id. Good times await — but we’ll only be able to comprehend its full significance in hindsight, when the music dies down and the aftertaste of barbeque sauce lingers.