Day 1: Friday, March 10
Austin! Capital city of Texas, and one of the least Texas-y cities in the state, from what I’m told. You don’t hear as many Texas accents as you’d expect, nor see as many cowboy hats and giant belt buckles, nor witness as many lynchings and public hangings. Austin is becoming known as a hip, cool city, with a lot of young people and a vibrant music scene.
I am here to ignore all of that and watch movies, of course. The South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW to you), celebrating its 13th year, has been lauded as a fresher, more fun version of Sundance. There are still sobering documentaries about transsexuals in prison and poor children without access to proper dental care and all the other social issues that populate much of Sundance’s slate. But SXSW also has premieres of movies like “V for Vendetta” and (in previous years) “Phone Booth” and “A Mighty Wind.” SXSW is almost as big as Sundance, but just a little less serious.
Today was the festival’s first day, with the first screenings at 6 p.m. Having arrived in town yesterday — the plane ticket was $100 cheaper that way, and even with the $40 I had to drop on a hotel last night, I was still saving money — I spent today checking in, getting my pass, and walking around downtown Austin. It was very warm (in the 80s) and more humid than the west-of-the-Rockies atmospheres I’m used to. I asked the cab driver on the way from the airport to the hotel yesterday if it was typically this warm this time of year and he said, “I wouldn’t say it’s typical, but it’s going to be. The whole world is heating up because of global warming.” That seemed like an odd way to respond to a casual question about the weather, so I didn’t talk to him anymore after that.
The main avenue running the length of downtown is Congress, with the Texas state capitol building at the top of it. Most of the SXSW movie venues are on or near this street, as are the other sorts of things you’d expect to find in a large city’s downtown area: hotels, offices, restaurants, amputees in wheelchairs wanting change, men asleep on bus stop benches, and so forth.
At the Scholtzsky’s Deli where I had lunch, there was a teenage boy wearing a black T-shirt that said “Water Valley Wildcats” on the front, presumably the name of his school’s sports team. On the back it said, “We pray before we play!!,” like that, with two exclamation marks. Because praying before you play is AWESOME!! I guess they skipped the part of the Bible where Jesus said not to go around bragging about how much you pray. That, or they’re a Muslim team, and all their games take place just after 5 p.m. But that seems unlikely, considering this is Texas.
HollywoodB****slap.com has a strong presence at SXSW this year. Scott Weinberg and Erik Childress are veterans (this is their fourth year); Laura Kyle is a student at University of Texas, so she’s nearby; Chris “Oz” Parry, another regular, will be here Monday; and making our SXSW debuts are myself and Florida’s own William Goss. Scott, Erik, Laura and Will were hanging out at the Austin Hilton when I found them, in the room reserved for Scott and Erik in which I would be camping.
We five went to dinner at some BBQ/beer place then split up. They all went to see “Thank You for Smoking” (which I’d already seen at Sundance), and I went back to the hotel room to watch a screener DVD of a movie called “S&Man.” It’s pronounced “Sandman” (get it?) and it’s allegedly a documentary about underground horror films, the particularly grisly and horrific ones shot on video and distributed within small circles of aficionados. I say “allegedly” because there are elements of the film that seem to be fictional, in a way that I think we’re supposed to catch. There’s a filmmaker interviewed whose manner is shifty and whose movies are a little TOO realistic. I haven’t quite made up my mind about “S&Man,” but I think I like what director JT Petty is doing.
Then I walked to the Paramount Theatre on Congress Avenue for the premiere of Robert Altman’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” Scott, Erik and Will were there, too, and we sat in the balcony of this beautiful, ornate theater for this rather amusing film. It’s set onstage and backstage at a performance of Garrison Keillor’s famed radio show, with Keillor playing himself and people like Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin playing fictionalized versions of Keillor regulars. (If you saw Tomlin and Streep at the Oscars last week, seeming to be drunk, they weren’t. They were introducing Altman’s lifetime achievement award by doing a scene in the style of his movies. Although I guess they could have been drunk, too.) The movie’s a bit funnier than Keillor’s real radio show, which I don’t think is particularly funny at all. Maybe you have to be from the Midwest.
SXSW’s official opening night party, open to all press and passholders, was at a bar a few blocks away, so Erik, Scott and I headed over after the movie. Austin doesn’t allow smoking in bars, which was VERY nice, I don’t care what Scott says. We saw actor John C. Reilly (who has a hilarious supporting role in “Prairie Home Companion”) almost immediately. It was pretty cool that a celebrity was actually hanging out at the official SXSW party instead of some invitation-only soiree, and the fact that he left within 10 minutes of arriving didn’t lessen our esteem of him in any way.
A few minutes later, I spotted Kirby Dick, the documentarian behind “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” which we enjoyed very much at Sundance and which is playing here, too. I went up to him, told him how much I admired his film, introduced myself, and chatted with him about the movie. He seemed distracted, though, and then he said, “Didn’t you write about the film for EFilmCritic?” I said a few of us had, including me. He said, “Are you the one who said I was gay? Because I’m not.” I told him I HAD thought he was gay, but that I didn’t think I had mentioned it in my discussion of the film, and that whoever did, I apologized on behalf of them.
Scott and Erik came up then and engaged him in conversation, and that’s when I realized: Holy crap, I DID say he was gay! I mentioned it as being the probable reason that he’d included a somewhat irrelevant scene in his movie: The scene dealt with gay rights, and since he’s gay himself, it made sense that he would feel sympathetic enough to include it even though it didn’t really fit. Except apparently he ISN’T gay. So now I don’t know why he used the scene.
The point is, I had made a huge mistake in something I’d written. Here I am, the guy who e-mails Roger Ebert when he makes an error of fact in his reviews (which is like three times a week, seriously), and I’d outed a gay who isn’t even gay. I was certain I had read it somewhere; somehow I “knew” it as a piece of background about him, the same way I know Schwarzenegger is from Austria or that Tom Cruise is a Scientologist. I would never double-check those facts, because I KNOW them. And somehow I had “Kirby Dick is gay” filed away as one of those facts, and it proved to be wrong.
By now we had moved away from Kirby Dick and were mingling in the party. We smelled marijuana, and I noticed several people’s noses in the air like bloodhounds, trying to determine where it was coming from. SXSW has a music festival going on, too, and if there’s a group of people who love pot more than film geeks, it’s music hipsters.
Having eventually enjoyed as much of the party as we could stand, we headed back out into the moist night. It was after midnight, but it was still in the 70s, and the humidity was intense. It was probably the moistest place I’ve ever been, except maybe for the womb. Kirby Dick was outside, so I hurried over and said, “After I talked to you, I realized it WAS me who said you were gay, and I’m sorry!” I explained myself and apologized some more and said I would fix the error online. He seemed more amused than offended — I doubt it’s the first time someone has thought he was gay; I’m just sayin’ — and we parted amiably.
East 6th Street in Austin (the numbered streets run east and west, with Congress as the divider between east and west addresses) is the equivalent of Park City’s Main Street during Sundance. Several blocks are barricaded to traffic, which is wise, because the street is lined with bars, clubs, restaurants, and hundreds of revelers. What’s more, unlike Park City, all these establishments are actually open after 10 p.m. We were able to buy slices of pizza on our way back to the hotel, where we collapsed for the night, Erik and Scott in their beds and me on the roll-away bed-like structure that had been brought up.
The hotel clerk had initially said we couldn’t have a roll-away bed because it was a “fire hazard,” but we dismissed this as the ravings of a lazy clerk, because seriously, “fire hazard” is everybody’s excuse for everything when they don’t feel like doing extra work. We talked to a higher-up and got the bed, only to discover it really is a fire hazard: The only place in the room where the bed will fit is immediately in front of the door. Which means if there’s a fire, Erik and Scott had better hope I stand the bed up on its side before I flee.