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SXSW 2016 Analysis: When Obama Comes to Town, Who’s Talking About a Film Festival?

SXSW 2016 Analysis: When Obama Comes to Town, Who's Talking About a Film Festival?

A few hours after President Barack Obama lands in Austin to deliver a keynote at SXSW, the festival rolls out the red carpet for one of its homegrown heroes: Richard Linklater, whose college baseball comedy “Everybody Wants Some!!” serves as the opening night entry for the film festival. While Obama and Linklater hail from different universes of productivity, they’re similarly effective at galvanizing a community. 

Obama, after all, sped his way to the White House on the wings of his “community organizer” past, while Linklater essentially built the Austin film scene that continues to sustain his career. Both men know how to get things done against difficult odds. Is it any surprise that the President singled out “Boyhood,” a seemingly impossible 12-year production, as one of his favorite recent movies?

The parallels don’t stop there. Obama arrives at the biggest convention for America’s professional class at a moment of tremendous cultural upheaval, in the midst of an election cycle where the very liberties of a progressive society are considered at stake. Linklater, meanwhile, remains doggedly committed to making movies at one of the most uncertain periods in the history of the medium. 

Linklater’s perseverance sends an idealistic message. “Everybody Wants Some!!” will receive a limited release by Paramount in a few weeks, which is a lot better than many of the films at this year’s festival can expect. They hover in the growing shadow of the television boom, not to mention a society increasingly committed to portable screens, and the many bright, distracting treats they contain. Over the past decade, as its Interactive section has ballooned to massive proportions, SXSW has reflected the increasing fragmentation of the entertainment landscape, which makes the whole idea of a feature-length movie look like a dated concept. 

The SXSW Film Festival is a microcosm of those concerns. The 20 films in its narrative and documentary competitions have no distribution and in most cases, limited commercial viability. Recognizing as much, the industry presence at the festival has dwindled in recent years; while SXSW remains a focal point for networking, anyone seeking an active marketplace should look elsewhere. Mainly, these days, these look to Sundance — and if they don’t make the cut there, the Tribeca Film Festival scores a lot of features in need of an atmosphere where they’re more likely to stick out to potential buyers.  

But the SXSW lineup has the leg up on Tribeca in one key regard: Sensibility. The films that stick out in the program, from the studio entries to the microbudgets, largely resist or subvert traditional storytelling formulas. Joel Potrkyus, a Michigan-based filmmaker whose anarchic movies (“Buzzard” was a SXSW premiere) continues to go against the grind. His latest feature, “The Alchemist Cookbook” — about a deranged man living in the woods — is reportedly even more defiantly offbeat than his earlier works. It’s in the “Visions” section for good reason. At this festival, a movie that intrigues a few people may do its job just as well as a universal crowdpleaser. 

Other unorthodox entries populate the rest of the sections. In the narrative competition, the anthology film “collective:unconscious” finds five different filmmakers adapting each other’s dreams, a tricky proposition that nevertheless reflects the collaborative bonds of America’s film scene, and the productivity that results from it. The half-animated documentary “Tower” offers a unique look at a mass shooting through bracing reenactments more surprising and innovative than any more familiar treatment could allow. 

Even the studio entries at this year’s festival don’t walk a familiar path. Hollywood may use SXSW as a marketing engine for some of its more off-kilter titles, but that’s not a knock on their ability to offer something different: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, two of the more iconoclastic comedy writers working in Hollywood today, will premiere a work-in-progress look at their R-rated animated romp “Sausage Party,” a Sony Pictures production; “Keanu,” a zany buddy movie about a missing kitten starring Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, arrives with similar expectations. 

Collectively, the program offers the opportunity to look at America through the movies from a slanted angle, whether by way of edgy humor or narrative invention. It’s place for the medium to look in the mirror and prove itself. 

But who watches movies these days, anyway? When I first attended SXSW a decade ago, Interactive was an intriguing sidebar for anyone excited about new technologies. I’ll never forget the first time I heard about this confusing new social network called Twitter, or the sudden onslaught of check-ins on Foursquare, both of which were unveiled by the Interactive conference with the glittery hype of a revolution. Later came the introduction of a television section in the lineup, which further hinted at the direction of the industry. 

But the movies have remained. Their marginalized position — not just at the festival but in society at large — only serves to heighten the intrigue surrounding them. The most exciting ingredients in this year’s program aren’t the anticipated titles, but the unknown ingredients yet to be discovered. Whether or not 2016 winds up as one of the better years, the festival’s continuing attempts to break through the noise retains a symbolic power. At least that much should survive the end of the Obama age. 

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