Day 1: Friday, March 9
Yee-haw! Throw a saddle on your cousin and paint a fence post! It’s time for Austin’s South by Southwest, the rootin’-est, tootin’-est film festival this side of the Mississippi!
Actually, as I discovered last year — and as the locals are quick to remind you — Austin is the least Texas-y city in Texas. It’s home to hipsters, musicians, college kids, and normal people, as opposed to cowboys, rednecks, and oil tycoons. In fact, apart from the heat and humidity and the unfortunate plight of being surrounded on all sides by Texas, Austin is very much like Portland, where I live.
I arrived late last night and was collected at the airport by Greg the Festival Volunteer, a local guy whom several of us made friends with last year and with whom we’ve kept in touch since then. He is volunteering again this year, and he was awesome enough to offer his apartment to me as a place to stay, complete with an air mattress laid out on the living-room floor. I readily accepted because, as you know if you know me, I’ll sleep anywhere, with anyone.
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Today began in an unfortunate manner, with botched transportation arrangements, a bus ride, an aborted cab ride, a different cab ride brought to full term, and an almost-missed 11 a.m. screening. The details of this story would bore and frustrate you, so they are omitted.
The important thing is, I did not miss the screening. It was a press screening of “Disturbia,” which opens nationwide in April. As a general rule, and unlike most major film festivals, SXSW doesn’t do press screenings. It’s public screenings only, to which your press pass will grant you admittance. But an interview session with the cast of “Disturbia” was planned, and thus a press screening was set up for the press who were to be involved. And then the interviews were canceled for some reason, but the screening remained, and apparently any member of the press who happened to know about it was allowed to attend.
Anyway, it’s a not-very-good “Rear Window” rip-off (and I mean close enough to where royalties should be paid) starring Shia LeBeouf as a kid on house arrest who comes to believe his neighbor is a murderer. The finale is fairly suspenseful, but the whole thing’s just so derivative. Bleh.
At the screening with me was Scott Weinberg, longtime eFilmCritic.com friend and now a proud resident of Austin after living his entire life in Philadelphia. Jason Whyte, an eFilmCritic writer from Canada making his first trip to SXSW, was also on hand. Weinberg had a van for some reason — Weinberg is the type of person who might occasionally have a van for some reason — and he used it to take us to the airport to pick up fellow EFC’er Will Goss of Florida. Why Jason and I had to go wit him to do that, and thereafter to pick up Laura Kyle, another Austin-resident EFC writer, was not sufficiently explained to me.
But the important thing was, we were all together! Well, almost. We went to the convention center, where SXSW headquarters are, and there met up with Chicago’s Erik Childress (a SXSW veteran) and Eugene Novikov, a buddy of Scott’s from Philadelphia who has recently joined the EFC team and is making his first trip to Austin. And NOW we were all together!
In case you weren’t counting: eFilmCritic.com (and its sister site, HollywoodB****slap.com) has seven writers covering SXSW. That is more than any other outlet, print or online, period. I’M JUST SAYIN’.
We all stood in a very long line to pick up our press badges, a line so long that when we finally reached the front, it was actually the 2008 film festival. Badges in hand, we then moved to a different, much shorter line to pick up our festival bags. These are nifty tote bags filled to the brim with festival-related paraphernalia: fliers, postcards, notices, magazines, advertisements, and the thick film guide. What you do is, you pick up your bag, then you stop at the nearest garbage can and throw away everything except the film guide. Maybe you keep a couple of the magazines, too, as they can be useful for browsing during downtime.
It was about 4 p.m. now, with the first official SXSW screening beginning at 6. We all congregated at a coffeeshop for a few minutes before Weinberg, Jason, Gene and I headed to the Paramount Theatre for “Suffering Man’s Charity.”
The Paramount is a beautiful old movie house on Congress Avenue, which runs down the center of Austin and is the dividing line between west and east street addresses. The theater has a friendly staff of old-style ushers, complete with tuxedo shirts and red bow ties, and they very smilingly tell you that you cannot bring the slice of pizza and Diet Coke that you bought at the place across the street into the theater with you, which helps you remember that next time, you need to hide those things in your bag. And by you, I mean me.
“Suffering Man’s Charity” was directed by and stars Alan Cumming, the flamboyant Scottish actor who played Nightcrawler in the second “X-Men” movie. He was present to introduce the film, and actress Karen Black was in the audience. Co-star David Boreanaz (TV’s “Angel”) was supposed to be there in time for the Q-and-A afterward but was not there for the film.
Cumming earned appreciative laughs from the crowd in his introduction, and then he found the perfect way to make the laughter cease: He showed the movie. It’s a dark comedy about a gay cello teacher (Cumming) who’s been taken advantage of by a street hustler (Boreanaz), leading him to finally put his foot down and get rid of the guy. The idea has potential, and I think the script might actually be OK — but Cumming’s over-the-top campy performance doesn’t quite work, especially when he’s the only one in the film playing it that way.
As often happens at premiere screenings, the crowd applauded during the first couple of opening credits. Some of the producers and other behind-the-scenes crew were there, so they applauded at “a film by” and “written by,” as well as at the first few cast credits (Alan Cumming, David Boreanaz, Anne Heche, Karen Black, etc.) The amusing thing was that it became clear after a handful of credits that the audience was regretting its decision to applaud. How do you decide when to stop? If you clap for guy who did the music, can you just NOT clap when the costume designer’s name comes up next? How will that make the costume designer feel?! And so the applause grew weaker and less enthusiastic, until it was obvious that we were simply going through the motions out of politeness. It was some of the best awkwardness I’ve seen in a while.
So the movie blew, and we hightailed it out of there as soon as it was over, skipping the supposedly Angel-attended Q-and-A. (General rule: Stay for Q-and-A if you liked the movie; skip it if you didn’t, or if you don’t have time, or if you have to go to the bathroom.)
Jason and Gene got in line immediately for the Paramount’s next film, while Weinberg and I met up with Laura and killed a few minutes before heading to the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar for a 9:30 screening.
The original Alamo Drafthouse in downtown Austin has been called America’s best movie theater in various polls, and I have no argument with that. It’s a bar and restaurant, too, with service directly to your seat; each row of seats has a long counter in front of it for food and beverage purposes. (That means plenty of legroom, too.) The waitstaff is careful to avoid disrupting the movie, quickly and quietly moving in with your food and to bring the check later.
The Drafthouse is especially prized by us festival-goers because we often don’t have time to eat between screenings. And the food is good! Salads, sandwiches, pizzas, appetizers, the whole works. If it sounds like I’m pimping the Drafthouse, that is because I am pimping the Drafthouse. If it were possible, physically or legally, to marry the Alamo Drafthouse, I would have proposed such a union a year ago.
The downtown Drafthouse has spawned a child (apparently without benefit of clergy), and that’s where we were actually headed at this point. It’s a couple miles south of downtown, and it’s a six-screen multiplex — still with the full Drafthouse food and drink service.
We were joined by Erik and Will for “Them,” a French thriller in which evil forces besiege a country house and terrorize the inhabitants. The movie appealed to us for these reasons:
– It is a horror movie, and we like horror movies.
– It is 77 minutes, and we like short movies.
It’s a pretty solid one-act movie with a very, very basic story: A married couple lives in this house; one night bad guys show up and cause mayhem. The idea of having your house invaded is scary, and the film does a nice job creating the tension and dread necessary.
Though the film is French, it is set in Bucharest. This was problematic for us, as we could not quite remember what country Bucharest is in. We settled on Hungary, but this proved to be wrong; it’s Romania. (We were thinking of Budapest. Come on, Europeans, enough with the confusingly similar capital cities! Am I right, folks?!)
Next we headed downtown to the original Drafthouse for a midnight screening of “Mulberry Street.” It’s another horror flick, this time about New York City rats that carry a virus that makes it so when they bite you, you start acting like a big ol’ rat, up to and including attacking and devouring other people (or, in one instance, a cat: How the tables have turned, kitty!).
While we stood in line outside the theater beforehand, a publicist came around and gave everybody little rubber rats, about two inches in length. I asked if they were edible, and she said no, don’t eat it. That made me want to eat it, but it turns out she was right, and they were not edible. So instead Gene and I re-created the final shot of “The Departed,” where the rat runs across the balcony railing and there’s a church in the background; Gene was the church. It was a pretty realistic re-creation.
It was 1:30 a.m. when the movie let out. The other six EFC’ers headed to their various hotels and lodgings, driven by Weinberg and his questionably acquired van, while I waited outside the Drafthouse for Greg the Volunteer to pick me up after finishing his official duties (which evidently included bathing in beer, by the smell of him). Unfortunately, Greg thought I was at the OTHER Drafthouse and went there first, thus bringing a certain symmetry of miscommunication to my day. I like symmetry.