Day 3: Sunday, March 11
Eight-thirty came much too early this morning, even earlier than it usually does. It usually arrives at about 8:30. But today, due to daylight-saving time having begun, 8:30 arrived at 7:30. We’d had only five hours of sleep, and Greg was somewhat worse for the wear.
In discussing the events of last night, Greg was still giddy about the two things he should have been embarrassed about, i.e., being kissed by Alan Cumming and doing his James Blunt impression for James Blunt. On the latter topic, he enthused, “Can you believe it?! I said I did an impression of him, and he was like, ‘Cool! Let’s hear it!’”
“Um, I was there,” I said. “And that is not quite the way it happened.”
Downtown Austin was pretty deserted at 9:30 on a Sunday morning. Only the Starbucks at 6th and Congress was hoppin’, and that is where I had a steamy chocolate beverage and did some writing before heading over to the Alamo Drafthouse for an 11 a.m. screening. Eugene and Jason met me there. We were in line by 10:30, which is the advisable amount of earliness to arrive for a screening, and we were just about the only ones. I suspect many festival-goers were partying last night (it being Saturday and all) and now suffered from the loss of an hour’s sleep.
That, or maybe they just didn’t want to see “Frownland.” Had I known then what I know now, I would have joined them in that.
“Frownland” has several things going for it, actually, not the least of which are the charmingly crappy 16 mm. film stock it was shot on and the general ’70s vibe that it has going on. After that, though, you have to look pretty hard to find anything likable about the movie, which is the story of a spastic, incommunicative, stammering wimp of a man named Keith. It’s been a while since I’ve been as actively annoyed by a character as I was by this one. When he was called upon to communicate with someone, he would open and close his mouth a lot, grimace, look worried, and bob his head back and forth for about 30 seconds, and then finally sort of spit out something indecipherable. His roommate summed up my feelings toward the movie: “I don’t have the energy to meet you four-fifths of the way, just to decipher what you’re trying to say.”
Or as the great satirist Tom Lehrer once said: “If you can’t communicate, then the very least you can do is to shut up.”
But there was no time to dwell, for next up Jason and I were seeing “The Prisoner, Or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair” over at the convention center. Erik joined us. It is a documentary about an Iraqi journalist who was held with his brothers in Abu Ghraib for nine months for allegedly masterminding a plot to kill Tony Blair — a plot that, if it ever even existed, had nothing whatsoever to do with these guys. It’s a well-made doc, but it would be better if its scope were wider. An examination of the Iraqi prisons in general would be more compelling, I think, than the story of just one man.
But there was no time to dwell, for immediately after this film, all the eFilmCritic gang convened in an upstairs conference room for a panel discussion about the current state of horror movies. (That topic isn’t as depressing as it sounds. You might think current horror is nothing but crappy PG-13-rated remakes of old horror films, but there are some bright spots, too.) Our colleague Scott Weinberg was on the panel, which is the only reason most of us were going. Personally, I’m not interested in panels at film festivals. I’m here to do two things, to watch movies and to prevent my friends from embarrassing themselves in the company of celebrities. And the more I fail at the latter, the more I need to work on the former.
The panel was supposed to include Eli Roth, director of “Cabin Fever,” “Hostel,” and the upcoming “Hostel II,” but he had taken ill (flesh-eating virus that turns you into a zombie, we assume) and couldn’t attend. They replaced him with two people (it takes two people to replace Eli Roth): Zev Berman, director of “Borderland,” playing at the festival; and Rider Strong, the porn-star-named star of “Cabin Fever” and “Borderland.” Also on the panel were a film producer and Scott Glosserman, director of last year’s SXSW hit “Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon” (opening in select cities this week!).
The moderator of the panel was Harry Knowles, the Jabba-esque fanboy behind the Ain’t It Cool News Web site. He’s based in Austin — I believe the city was actually constructed around him — and his breathless early reviews of incomplete films, junket-whore excursions to film sets, and grotesquely under-edited, over exclamation-pointed writings have helped give online film critics a bad name.
Knowles was the moderator of the panel, but something we discovered is that it is difficult to be a good moderator when the thing you are most interested in is hearing yourself talk. Knowles is infuriating because, his embarrassing writing skills and garish Web site design aside, he makes some good points and has some interesting things to say now and then. The problem with him in a public setting such as this panel was that while he had a couple of worthwhile insights, they were lost in his constant name-dropping and self-promotion. In a 50-minute panel — which had five other people on it, mind you — he managed to mention that he’s friends with Bryan Singer, and that he (Knowles) had been offered a lucrative job helping remake old horror films but he turned it down for reasons of artistic integrity. He also related an anecdote about what happened when he watched “Behind the Mask,” in case you were curious. He was the moderator, not the star, yet we heard his voice more than anyone else’s.
But there was no time to dwell, for most of us had to scurry off immediately to the Paramount for “He Was a Quiet Man,” starring Christian Slater and Elisha Cuthbert (Kim Bauer on “24″). The line to get in was already very long when we arrived, and the screening was packed. Slater was there, and in fact he was being led into the theater just as I was coming out of the bathroom. We were standing right next to each for a couple seconds, and he said “Hey” in a friendly manner. I think he thought I was part of the festival staff that was going to take him to his seat, when in fact I was part of the jabbering crowd that the festival staff was there to protect him from.
Wanting to seize the opportunity, I quickly scanned my mind for something useful to say to Christian Slater. I have things already planned for certain celebrities, should I ever meet them — for example, if I’m ever that close to Jim Carrey, I’ll just slap him in the face — but I had never taken the time to prepare anything for Christian Slater. As Jack Bauer would say, I had no protocols for this scenario, and there was no one back at headquarters to download the schematics to my PDA. I only had about two seconds to think anyway, and literally the only thing my brain came up with was, “Hey! You sound like Jack Nicholson when you talk!” Thank goodness the part of my brain that prevents me from saying inappropriate and/or stupid things was working today. (Its functionality is intermittent.)
Anyway, the movie. The first half is absolutely fantastic. It’s a satirical, unpredictable comedy-thriller-love story about a lowly office worker (Slater, looking like Milton in “Office Space”) who constantly yearns for the day when he’ll finally get the courage to go on a shooting spree and kill the co-workers who plague him. Then there’s a certain sequence of events, he winds up a hero, and he starts taking care of a pretty co-worker who has recently become paralyzed.
The second half of the movie isn’t as stellar, and I’m not sure the convoluted ending works, but I really liked the thing overall. It was the directorial debut of a screenwriter named Frank Cappello, and he mentioned beforehand that this was the world premiere of the film, the very first time it had ever been shown on a big screen for anyone. I can’t even imagine the terror that must go through a director’s mind in a situation like that; as you know, we can be brutal when a movie is no good. It must be very gratifying, then, when the movie is a success. Imagine sitting there in a packed theater, hearing the audience roar with appreciative laughter at the gags you weren’t even sure were funny anymore, all these months after writing, filming, and editing them. That must be very rewarding. And, again, it must really suck when the gags fail and the audience hates your movie. I am confident that the only way I could ever succeed as a filmmaker, emotionally speaking, would be if were a hardcore drug user.
We didn’t really have time for the Q-and-A, and as we left the theater after the film, we saw that Christian Slater apparently didn’t have time, either, because he exited just after we did. He smiled at us as he hurried past, and I wondered, if I figured out a way to get him to kiss me, would that be a better or worse story than Alan Cumming kissing Greg? Probably worse, I figured. So I didn’t bother.
I went to Starbucks next, mostly to recharge my laptop battery in one of their many electrical outlets. Gene and Jason went to the Alamo Drafthouse to get in line for the 7:15 showing of a lesbian comedy called “Itty Bitty Titty Committee.” You don’t usually think of lesbians and comedy going together, but there you go. This was another packed show, and by the time I got there (6:45), Gene and Jason were inside and it was questionable whether I’d make it in.
While I was waiting, I learned via the cellular telephone that Erik and Weinberg were both at a party at Maggie Mae’s, our favorite local club. It would make a good Plan B if I couldn’t get in to the film.
Well, I got in (barely), but while waiting for the movie to start, I made an executive decision: I didn’t feel compelled to see this film, but I did feel compelled to eat. Now, I could order food here, because it was the Alamo Drafthouse, but food at the Alamo Drafthouse, while reasonably priced, is not as reasonably priced as the free food at the party would be, as the free food at the party would be free. So I gave up my seat to someone and headed for Maggie Mae’s instead.
Erik had left by the time I got there, but Weinberg was on the upstairs patio with our friend James Rocchi, a Cinematical writer, a fine critic, and one of the politest men you will ever meet. (He’s Canadian.) We ate and were merry for a while, and then it started to rain, which did not please us.
Weinberg and I killed some time after that, then went to the Alamo for “Exiled,” a Hong Kong action flick about which we had heard mixed things: James Rocchi loved it, while Erik Childress hated it. Whom to believe? They are both so right about so many things, yet they are both also so wrong about so many things. (For example, James is Canadian.)
There were shenanigans aplenty as the film began. First, during the opening credits, I saw the name “Maylie Ho” and giggled inappropriately. “Maylie Ho!” I whispered to Gene and Weinberg, like the third-grader I am. Then more credits appeared for people with the same last name, and Weinberg said, “There sure are a lot of Hos in this movie.” That’s when I completely lost it. But the credit sequence was really quiet, so I couldn’t really laugh out loud the way I wanted to. I had to stifle myself, which only made it worse.
Once the movie got going, we realized they had the wrong lens on the projector. The image was elongated, with people looking really tall and skinny, and the subtitles were cut off. The projectionist was alerted to the error within a few moments and they turned the movie off while they changed lenses. (Modern multiplexes have projectors on which lenses can be changed in two seconds without stopping the show, but the Drafthouse does not.)
While we waited for things to get going again, Jason (who knows a lot about the technical side of exhibiting movies) said if he could, he would just kick in the door to the projection booth and fix the problem himself. This led to two very geeky jokes, and I am not going to explain them for non-geeks. First, I made reference to a superhero called Aspect Ratio Man (a mediocre joke at best), and then Gene topped it with that superhero’s tagline: “2.35 times the action!” Trust me, it’s hilarious. We laughed like the geeks we are.
(Sigh. OK, fine. The aspect ratio of a movie is the measurement of its width versus height. A basic TV set has an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, meaning it’s 1.33 inches wide for every 1 inch tall. Most movies [especially comedies and other films where the size isn't particularly important] are 1.75:1, and most action flicks and other spectacle-oriented pictures are 2.35:1, meaning the picture is 2.35 times as wide as it is tall. Hence, “2.35 times the action” for Aspect Ratio Man. Get it?)
Weinberg, Gene, and I did not particularly care for “Exiled.” I had no idea what was going on most of the time, with these gangsters shooting each other one minute, decorating an apartment and cooking dinner the next. The action scenes were few and far between (though admittedly very cool when they did occur), and frequently featured people doing odd things for no apparent reason. At one point, in the middle of a shoot-out, they rolled a guy up in a sheet and slid him out an upper-story window. When that happened, Gene sat bolt upright and said out loud, “What?! Why?!” The movie did not answer him, however.
The film had begun late and was going to end at about 11:30. However, we all wanted to see “Borderland” in the same venue at midnight, and we worried that not getting in line for it until 11:30 would put us at risk of not getting in. Bored with the film anyway, Weinberg and I left “Exiled” at 11:15 and got in line.
It was pouring rain, and no one had an umbrella. Weinberg asked a passerby if these squalls usually end quickly, and the guy said, “I don’t know. It never rains here.” We were able to wait under an awning, though, and it wasn’t cold, so it wasn’t too bad. The others joined us when “Exiled” ended (with everyone shooting everyone else, came the report).
While we waited for “Borderland,” the director of it, whom Weinberg knew from the panel earlier, came by and thanked everyone for braving the elements to see the world premiere of his movie. He handed out coupons good for a free drink at the Drafthouse, and most of us readily accepted his token of gratitude, eager to be bribed in any way possible.
“Borderland” is based on the true story of some Texas teens who went to Mexico for a weekend of debauchery, only to fall into the hands of a satanic cult that practices human sacrifices, which is exactly the kind of satanic cult you do not want to fall into the hands of. A satanic cult that practices random acts of kindness, or aromatherapy, would be OK. The basic set-up is reminiscent of “Hostel” and “Turistas,” though possibly better than the former and definitely better than the latter. I didn’t love it, but it’s OK. Lionsgate is releasing it later this year.
When we got out at 2 a.m., the rain had become a torrential downpour, narrowing the already-narrow list of ways that Portland and Austin are different. Weinberg no longer had his van, Jason and Eugene never had transportation to begin with, and my ride, Greg, had left me a voice mail to say he’d gone home early to avoid passing out from lack of sleep and collapsing in a heap in the middle of 6th Street. He said I could call him if I needed a ride, but I didn’t think that would be very cool of me, and I’m usually pretty cool.
While huddled under an awning, we called a cab company and told them to send two cars, as among the four of us, there were two general parts of town we needed to get to. Ten minutes later, a car arrived and Weinberg and Jason snagged it. Twenty minutes after that, another cab finally came by, and Gene and I were saved from a wet, shivery death. He went to his hotel, I to International House of Greg, and Day 3 ended with me falling comatose onto my air mattress at 3 a.m.