Eric D. Snider's 2006 SXSW Film Festival Diary
Eric D. Snider's 2006 SXSW Film Festival Diary
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 detypical, 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 Schlotzsky'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.
Day 2 (Saturday, March 11):
I snore. I'm registered in the National Snorer Database, and when I move into a new house, I have to inform the people in my neighborhood. Knowing this, I brought ear plugs to share with my roommates Scott and Erik, but they both declined last night when I offered them. They both said they were so tired, they'd be asleep before I was anyway.
This proved to be true, but they weren't counting on being woken up by my snoring as soon as I fell asleep. I've never heard myself, obviously, but those who have describe it as a frightful experience. Erik compared it to the film "Grizzly Man," in which a man is eaten by a bear. Previous roommates have likened it to a herd of giraffes galloping and snorting as they stampede across the Serengeti. (Never sleep with English majors.)
Whichever wild creatures you choose to compare it to, the point is, being in the vicinity is not conducive to a good night's sleep. I was deeply sorry for having disturbed Scott and Erik, though in my defense, I did offer them earplugs. I imagine tonight they will take me up on the offer.
First order of business for me and Erik was to see an 11 a.m. film at the Alamo Drafthouse. This is one of those places where you can order food and booze to watch during the movie, where every row of seats has a long, narrow table in front of it to accommodate dining while watching. Being no great fan of popcorn or other typical movie fare, I salute whoever came up with this business model, the one where you can eat a turkey club sandwich and fries while you watch "Big Momma's House 2."
Salt Lake City has a place like this called Brewvies that I used to attend regularly, but the Drafthouse has them beat. Where at Brewvies one must go to the lobby to order one's food and then return to pick it up when it's ready, the Drafthouse sends a waitstaff around to the seats to collect your order, then to bring it to you, then to collect payment before the movie is over. They operate quietly and with minimal interruption to the film, which is nice, and you get to enjoy food and drink without ever getting up. It is probably the single greatest achievement in the food service industry since the invention of the chicken finger.
So the food was great; the movie, not so much. It was "Bondage," a serio-comic tale of juvenile delinquency about a troublemaking Orange County teen trying to survive in juvenile hall. The kid is played by Michael Angarano, best known as Jack's son on "Will & Grace," and he's an engaging character. Everyone else is flat and under-written, though, and the film meanders. We didn't stay for the Q-and-A, but I suspect from the film's opening title card -- "This s*** really happened" -- that the filmmaker was hoping the film's basis in fact would sustain it.
Next I had to find the Dobie Theatre to catch another screening. Erik gave me directions, and I proceeded on foot, mostly uphill, about 16 blocks up Guadalupe Street. The Dobie is a three-screen arthouse theater in a sad little mall near the University of Texas campus, and I found it easily enough, though I was sweating like the proverbial whore in church when I arrived, what with the heat and humidity that are so powerful it is impossible not to complain about them constantly.
The movie: "Motorcycle," a low-budget little comedy shot on grainy black-and-white film that tells the story of a motorcycle and the lives of three people who own it, one after another. The characters all have a "Napoleon Dynamite"-style low energy and slight dorkiness about them, and the film's set in an unidentified medium-sized city with no distinguishing features. It's not quite funny enough to sustain itself and its intentionally low-key demeanor, but it's passable.
I had originally planned to catch a film at the Arbor Theatre next, but an examination of the map revealed that it is a 20-minute CAR ride uptown, and neither trusting the city buses nor wanting to hire a taxi, I decided to cancel all my Arbor-related screenings. (One way Sundance has SXSW beat is with its shuttle buses to take you from one venue to another. The attendance at "Motorcycle" was embarrassingly low, and I reckon it's because the only people who want to bother with the Dobie are the locals, who have cars and can drive to the venues. All the out-of-towners are staying downtown.)
I found a city bus that would take me back to Congress Avenue and was soon at the Paramount, where a film called "Maxed Out" was to commence at 4 p.m. I found Scott and Will in line, along with David Poland of Movie City News and Tim Ryan of Rotten Tomatoes. (SXSW doesn't do press screenings, but passholders do get let into the public screenings before everyone else.) There is a noticeable dearth of newspaper critics here. Except for Joe Leydon from Variety, I've seen only online guys -- though without separate press screenings, and with everyone's badges looking about the same, it could be that I've seen print journalists and just haven't realized it. Like vampires, they walk among us.
The Paramount is a huge theater, seating something like 1,200 people, and so I was surprised to see it so full. Last night's Robert Altman premiere, sure. But a documentary no one had ever heard of? Weird.
Let me be the eighth or ninth out of what will eventually be hundreds of writers to point out that "Maxed Out" does for credit card companies what "Super Size Me" did for fast food. (The filmmakers' names are even similar. "Super Size Me" was made by Morgan Spurlock, while "Maxed Out" comes from James Scurlock.) "Maxed Out" uses humor, pathos and outrage to show how "obscenely profitable" the credit card business is (to use one expert's terminology), how wicked screwed-up the FICO scores and credit-report system is (how do they determine your credit score? It's a big fat secret!), and how the government has only made things worse for consumers. The revision of bankruptcy laws last year that makes it harder for middle-class people trapped under a mountain of debt to file for bankruptcy, even when there's no other viable option for them? That bill was written by MBNA -- the second-largest provider of credit in the country, not to mention George W. Bush's greatest campaign contributor.
There are some flaws in the film, such as using extreme worst-case scenarios to engage our emotions (people so distraught over impossible debt that they commit suicide) and a complete failure to even bring up the subject of personal responsibility. But as to its major themes, of greedy credit card companies that will issue credit to anyone; that especially pursue people they KNOW are likely to go over their limits and fail to make payments; that sit there before congressional committees and say, with straight faces, that they have systems in place to make sure only good candidates are offered credit -- well, anyone who's ever tangled with a credit card company will come out of "Maxed Out" with boiling blood and a vow to get out from under their infernal thumbs once and for all.
I was to be back at the Paramount again an hour later, so after "Maxed Out" I ventured across the street to one of the 8,482 pizza-by-the-slice restaurants that populate downtown Austin for a little dinner. Upon my return to the theater, I watched a documentary that will make some people mad just by its very existence: "Al Franken: God Spoke." It's a rather unfocused account of the launch of Franken's Air America Radio network, along with his campaigning for Kerry in the 2004 election. It's entertaining in places, but it needs to have its scope narrowed.
Here's my problem with political pundits in general: Everything they accuse the other side of usually applies to them, too. Franken makes fun of how he has so rankled Bill O'Reilly that O'Reilly now mentions Franken almost every day. (This was during the launch of Air America.) Yet Franken is easily just as obsessed with O'Reilly as O'Reilly is with him. Name-calling, baiting, a condescending tone -- both sides dish it out. Yet somehow each side thinks it's only the other side that does it. Grr.
It was amusing to watch the film with what was obviously a very liberal audience. Whenever someone in the film would make a point they agreed with, they would applaud, and people applauding a movie always makes me laugh. (If the filmmaker is in attendance, it makes sense to applaud at the end. But failing that, there's no reason. And there's NEVER any cause for clapping DURING a movie. I mean, what are you saying? "Yes, movie! I liked that! Show me more things like that!" The movie's not being improvised, folks. It was shot and edited a long time ago.)
But scenes of Franken's run-ins with Ann Coulter were especially enlightening. Everyone's laughing at Franken's quips and verbal jousting, and much of it is very funny. Then he counters the right's claim that he and other lefties "hate America" by pointing out that he has done several USO tours. When it's Coulter's turn to talk, she says, "I did win the bet on whether it would take more or less than five minutes for Al to mention his USO tours," the point being that he mentioned it immediately, which apparently was predictable.
That's funny! She made a funny jab! And the only audible laughter at it in the entire theater was mine. I think Ann Coulter is infuriating, narrow-minded and an outrageous history revisionist -- but come on, a funny line is a funny line, I don't care who says it. If Hitler were to show up and tell the "Aristocrats" joke, I'd laugh, I'm sorry.
Next I dashed over to the convention center to get in line for an Andy Dick movie. (That's how you know film festivals are a bizarro world: People dash places just to get in line for Andy Dick movies.) I heard several people expressing anticipation for the film; to each his own, I thought. I've always thought Andy Dick was amusing in small doses, but an entire film? With him as the writer, director and star? It makes one nervous.
Scott joined me in the audience, and we both had the same reaction: This movie is funny for 20 minutes, and then it goes on for another 65. It's called "Danny Roane: First Time Director," and it's about a former sitcom star who sets out to make a film chronicling his battle with alcoholism. The movie we're watching is supposedly the behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of the film, which of course is a disaster. It's interesting how we get to watch two directors screw up their movies at the same time: Fictional Danny Roane ruins his by relapsing into alcoholism, and real Andy Dick ruins his with weak writing and an over-reliance on poop and puke jokes.
Scott and I fled as soon as it was over and figured, since it was 11:30, we might as well go to another SXSW-sponsored party. They have them almost every night, and while Sundance's official parties are usually lame, SXSW's tend to be much more "off the hook," as the kids say (unless the kids do not say that). We were both tired, but hey, SXSW comes but once a year. So party on!
We ran into Erik as we were entering Maggie Mae's, a large tavern on 6th Street. The SXSW party (again open to all passholders) was on the second level, which is completely outdoors -- the roof of the building, essentially. The weather was perfect for it, still warm even at midnight (and humid, but no one listens anymore when I complain about that).
And it was packed! We saw actress Clea DuVall with what someone alleged was her date, a very pretty woman about her same age. If Clea DuVall is a lesbian, and if that's common knowledge, I'm not going to be the one to mention it. Erik saw David Cross enter the party and later saw him leave, but we never saw him in the meantime. Xander Berkeley -- best known as tragic figure George Mason on the first few seasons of "24" -- was there, as he had been at last night's party (which I forgot to mention last night). And so was Kevin Corrigan, who everyone recognized from TV's "Grounded for Life" and who has been in several movies I've seen but who didn't look the least bit familiar to me.
Speaking of "Grounded for Life," Scott and I wound up talking to a couple of SXSW volunteers, pixie-faced Amber and her guy friend Greg, and we learned that Amber works for a WB affiliate. Greg said with the upcoming merger between WB and UPN, merchandise with the WB logo is being clearance-saled off the shelves, which led to Amber buying six "Grounded for Life" mugs for a dollar. I don't know why I thought that was so funny, but I did.
Greg also did an impression of Christopher Walken helping someone parallel park, and told me what the cool kids call Austin: ATX. So I was glad I ran into him.
We also met Tally Abecassis, director of the cute Canadian documentary "Lifelike," about taxidermists. I screened the film before the festival and had already posted a review, and Scott had interviewed her for HBS.com. She remembered him, and I mentioned I had written a review, and she said, "Oh? Is it ...?" She wanted to know if it was positive or negative. I panicked momentarily as I scanned my mental hard drive: What if I hated this movie?! But no, I liked it, and told her so. Whew.
After staying far too long at the party, we returned to the hotel, stopping yet again for a slice of pizza from one of the many vendors on 6th Street, which looked like Mardi Gras tonight. While Erik and I slept, Scott watched two screeners. And I tried to sleep on my side so I wouldn't snore as much.
Day 3 (Sunday, March 12):
We were all late in arising this morning. Erik and Scott both reported that my snoring was better, which assuaged my guilt, though I confess my guilt is easily assuaged. (One good anagram of "assuaged" is "sausaged.") My first order of business was to drop by the press office, which I hadn't yet had occasion to visit.
Like the press lounges at Sundance and CineVegas, the SXSW one has computers for us to use, tables for lounging, and a few complimentary beverages. They don't have much in the way of press kits, though, which are often invaluable for writing reviews because they include cast lists and plot summaries (handy for when you see 30 movies in one week and your memory needs a nudge weeks later). All the films have publicists on hand, but what most of them do instead of providing real press kits is to just print up glossy full-color one-sheets -- advertisements, basically, which they strew around the press office in a reckless manner. I'm all for SXSW being cooler and less rigid than other fests, but sometimes it's better to be a grownup, you know?
One thing the press lounge had that was unique to my experience was free massages. There was a guy there, a professional (I gathered), with a chair set up and everything. I saw him but didn't pay attention to him nor realize what his purpose was until I heard someone approach him and say, "Are the massages complimentary?" (Even though everyone at film festivals wants free stuff, no one ever uses the word "free." They say "complimentary" or "open," as in, "Does the party have an open bar?" Which it does, by the way.) The massages were indeed complimentary, and you just have to plop down in the chair and let the guy go to town on your back, neck and shoulders.
Alas, he was soon occupied with the guy who said "complimentary," and I had to leave. But I hope to enjoy a complimentary rubbing before the week is through.
I bought a slice of pizza again as I walked over to the Paramount for a 1:30 screening of a film called "Gretchen." Erik joined me and fell asleep halfway through it; I stayed awake and loved it. I know I just compared something to "Napoleon Dynamite" yesterday, but it's even more applicable here. In fact, about 15 minutes in, I thought: I'm watching this year's "Napoleon Dynamite." It has the same quirky vibe, the same small-town characters, quiet tone and semi-absurdist view of high school. The festival's printed film guide, I later noticed, compares the title character to a cross between Dawn Wiener from "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and Deb from "Napoleon Dynamite," and that's exactly right. I look forward to seeing this one again.
Erik and I walked back to the convention center and festival headquarters, stopping on the way to eat at a restaurant we couldn't find, which means we didn't eat there after all. I had noticed a Jimmy John's sandwich shop in my travels, and I have fond memories of that chain as a good cheap place to eat. But when Erik and I looked for it, it was nowhere to be found, gone like the city of Brigadoon. So we just went to headquarters, where I wrote for a while.
Scott was there, and he and I wound up at the Registrants Lounge, which is a completely useless place for all festival-goers to hang out. It's outdoors under a tent, so it's hot and humid, and the complimentary beverages consist of beer and water. Scott ran into a couple publicists and a filmmaker he loves and kindly invited me to join him as he chatted with them, but I was feeling hungry and anti-social, so I went in search of a place to eat. (One time I used the term "anti-social" in that context and I got an e-mail from someone pointing out that the way we use "anti-social" colloquially is highly inaccurate. He said what I mean to say is "non-social" or "unsocial." So to make "anti-social" more apropos, I killed him.)
6th Street is crawling with eating establishments, so I chose one at random called BD Riley's Irish Pub. The only available seating was at the bar, where I deposited myself and asked the bartender for a menu. The bartender, who looked just like Mike Novick on "24," produced it cheerfully and asked what I'd like to drink. I ordered a Diet Coke, which he brought me and thereupon ceased to acknowledge my existence.
It was truly strange. He brought new drinks to the guys next to me, took the food order of two girls next to them, and refused to even make eye contact with me. The only thing I can figure is that since I wasn't having big-boy drinks, he wasn't going to waste his time with me. Finally I left $2 on the bar to cover the Diet Coke and left in search of an eatery that actually wanted my business. BD Riley's Irish Pub: the first Austin restaurant to get on Snider's List.
Next I tried the Jackalope, a pub that has menus on the tables yet requires you to walk to the kitchen to order food, and possibly to make it yourself. Maybe it's only certain days it's like that, but I wasn't having any of it. I was going to sit somewhere, have someone ask me what I wanted, and then allow that person to bring it to me. None of these stipulations were negotiable.
At last I found what I was looking for in a 6th Street pub called, fittingly, Paradise. A cheerful girl told me to sit wherever I wanted, and then she brought me a menu and took my order. The food was decent, it was reasonably priced, and I was able to read my book ("Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" by Jonathan Safran Foer) in comfort. Thus Paradise earned a spot on Snider's List (the other one).
(Side note: You know what I keep seeing on menus in Austin? Fried pickles. Someone told me I really need to try them. I disagree with that position.)
I saw two movies at the Paramount next. First was "The Cassidy Kids," an uneven blend of comedy and intrigue about the reunion of five people who, as children, solved a local murder. That event was the inspiration for a (fictional) kids' sitcom that ran from 1982-86, but even now certain questions about the original mystery remain unanswered. The film stars Kadeem Hardison, who you may remember as Dwayne Wayne on "A Different World," or possibly as the guy who asks for change outside of Hardee's. It's a great idea -- the reunion of people who watched fictionalized versions of themselves on TV for four seasons -- but the mystery element is ridiculously handled.
Will had joined us at some point, and next we watched "Even Money," an Afterschool Special sort of melodrama that explains why Gambling Is Bad. Reason #1: It makes you lose money. Reason #2: It apparently makes you overact, too, though it's possible you're only susceptible to that if you're Kim Basinger, who plays a casino-addicted wife. Kelsey Grammer wears a fake nose and plays a hard-boiled homicide detective. You should probably see the movie just for that, actually, and for no other reason.
The director, Mark Rydell, was sitting just across the aisle from us, which made it very awkward when we laughed at the unintentionally funny parts of his movie. It also makes it awkward when, as everyone's leaving the theater, we're walking past him saying, "HOLY CRAP WAS THAT BAD!!"
It was then time for, yes, another party. Three nights, three parties. This one was at Maggie Mae's again, but on the ground floor. Apparently the upper level was reserved for some magical special party for special people only, and scum like SXSW passholders weren't allowed. But on the plus side, we ran into our new best friends Amber and Greg, as well as their friend (and our third new best friend) Kristina. This time we took some pictures, in case you didn't believe us that we have new best friends.
Rumors were spreading that Wednesday's to-be-announced slot would be a screening of "A Scanner Darkly," Richard Linklater's new film based on a Philip K. Dick story. This makes the third time at SXSW that I have had to mention a celebrity with the last name Dick. The rumor couldn't be confirmed, but it seemed reasonable, especially considering Linklater is a Texan.
This party was sponsored by the movie "Darkon," which I have not seen but which Scott says is fantastic. The subject matter didn't interest me: It's a documentary about a group that engages in live-action role-playing games. In other words, rather than just sitting around playing Dungeons & Dragons, they actually put on homemade costumes and pretend to fight with homemade weapons.
I should choose my words carefully here, I think, but let me just say that I think role-playing games are stupid and the people who play them are losers. Wait, wait, that totally came out wrong. What I mean is, I hate those people. No. Shoot. I'm sorry. I don't have a point. But I wasn't planning to see the movie until I went to this party, which made the film seem fun and which was heavily attended by people who had already seen it and were raving about it. Does it count as "buzz" if the only place I've heard it is at a party sponsored by the film being buzzed about? Or is that more like propaganda? Eh, whatever. I decided I'll see "Darkon" tomorrow. It's playing during the slot where I was going to see "Summercamp," a documentary about kids' summer camps, but forget that. Those kids can all go to hell.
Day 4 (Monday, March 13):
In all my years at Sundance, I've never seen more than five movies in one day. Four is typical, and five is occasional. But six? Madness.
But today was it. Today I accomplished the elusive six-movie day.
It actually wasn't that hard. Screenings were at 11 a.m., 1:30, 3:45, 6:15, 9:15 and midnight. There was enough time between them to get from one venue to the next, and occasionally enough time to eat food. And I didn't have to force it, either: All six movies were ones I was actually interested in seeing.
Which isn't to say they were all good. First was "Live Free or Die" at the Alamo Drafthouse, which is fast becoming my favorite place in the world. (Our new best friend Greg mentioned that Entertainment Weekly named it the best movie theater experience in America. I recall the feature where they listed their top 10, but I had forgotten that an Austin landmark was at the top.) The movie started late due to a random press screening for "The Notorious Bettie Page" (which I've already seen) being held at 9:30. Why they didn't foresee a 9:30 press screening interfering with an 11:00 public screening, I don't know. Maybe they thought "Bettie Page" was only 60 minutes long.
Anyway, while we were outside (in beautiful weather, the first nice, pleasant day we've had in Austin), a festival volunteer came by to inform us that it would be an extra 20 minutes or so before we were allowed in. He said if we wanted to, we might mosey over to a nearby coffeehouse and grab a snack. That suggestion led to this conversation between a man and his female friend, in line behind me:
WOMAN: I want a cupcake, but I don't want to walk three blocks to Starbucks.
MAN: Lady, if you won't walk three blocks for a cupcake, you don't deserve to eat.
Truer words were never spoken.
"Live Free or Die," as it turns out, is a lukewarm comedy set in New Hampshire, where a cowardly wannabe nicknamed Rugged (played by Aaron Stanford) tries to maintain a reputation as a hardcore gangster criminal without actually committing any significant crimes. Paul Schneider is funny as Rugged's dumb sidekick/goon, but the film never rises above average.
I exited the Drafthouse and got right back in line for "Darkon." I wasn't alone. Apparently the buzz had spread beyond the confines of that "Darkon"-sponsored party, because the line was already stretched around the corner. Erik joined me in line -- no one has any compunction about letting one or two or 12 of their friends join them, regardless of where they are in line -- and we got to see the much-discussed "Darkon."
These live-action role-playing guys (and girls, though they are much less plentiful) are about the way you'd expect them to be. In the documentary interviews, several of them state plainly that the fantasy game is appealing because it gives them a chance to be something they never are in real life: powerful and successful and not living in their parents' basement.
How does it work? It's a cross between Dungeons & Dragons and those guys who re-enact Civil War battles in meticulous detail. The players make their own armor and weapons (soft, round-edged representations of swords, cudgels and maces), and there are color codes to determine what kind of injury you suffer if you are hit during a battle. There are a lot of off-battlefield negotiations between rulers, too. When the documentary was being shot, the imperialistic kingdom of Mordom was being challenged by the smaller, more peaceful Laconia, because the Laconians didn't like how Mordom was always throwing its weight around, the big jerks.
The best line in "Darkon" comes when a man whose character is that of a dark elf is trying to buy potions from someone. He buys a couple -- agony, paralysis, etc. -- and then says, very seriously, with great intensity, "One thing I do need, and will pay greatly for, is a supernatural death poison." Don't we all, dark elf. Don't we all.
"Darkon" turns out to be pretty fun, though by no means revolutionary or particularly insightful. The filmmakers don't exactly make fun of the subjects, but they don't exactly take them as seriously as they take themselves, either. I suppose you could either laugh at or laugh with the participants, depending on your opinion of fantasy role-playing games. I laughed at. But then, this is coming from someone who watches 350 movies a year, so maybe I'm not one to talk about moderation.
Erik headed up to the Dobie for something next, while I went to the Paramount to join Will, Scott and Laura for "95 Miles to Go," a documentary that follows Ray Romano on a stand-up tour through Florida and Georgia. He hates to fly, so after his initial trip to Miami, he drove a minivan to all his destinations, accompanied by long-time friend and opening act Tom Caltabiano and an "Everybody Loves Raymond" intern named Roger. Roger's in charge of filming their every move, and while the film has maybe 15 minutes of total footage of Ray's shows, it's mostly about everything else: the driving, Ray's petty neuroses, and his pleasantly bickersome relationship with Tom. It's a very funny movie, again serving no greater purpose or offering insight into anything, but providing many hearty laughs.
Ray and Tom were on hand for Q-and-A afterward, so we stuck around. They continued to be very funny, and they were soon joined by "surprise" guest Brad Garrett, Ray's "Everybody Loves Raymond" co-star. He harassed Ray, made fun of his ego, and provided general merriment. It was a most enjoyable Q-and-A.
They don't let you bring outside food into the Paramount, though they are more than happy to sell you candy bars for $2. Not the movie-theater-sized candy bars, either, but the regular ones you can get in a vending machine for 65 cents. You expect to pay a dollar for those at film festival venues, but TWO dollars? No sir. Because I don't like The Man telling me what I can and can't bring into theaters, I was more than happy to hide Scott's leftover stromboli in my backpack, which the people at the door were going to make him discard. After the Ray Romano thing, he stood in line for the next film and ate his stromboli while I dashed across the street to a restaurant called Hickory Street, where our new best friends Amber, Greg and Kristina were dining. I ate Greg's french fries and bought a cookie and called that dinner. I'm thinking of writing a book called "The Film Festival Diet," if only because I'm reasonably sure it's no less healthy than Atkins.
The next movie, for which we were joined by our new best friends, was "The Oh in Ohio," starring Parker Posey as a woman who, despite all the efforts of her husband Paul Rudd, can't seem to achieve the, um, ultimate, er, destination in their marital collaborations. (The "O" in Ohio is the Big O.) (Not Oprah, the other one.) The movie's pretty dirty (or "sexy," as they say in Hollywood), and while it's funny for a while, it takes an odd detour in its last act. This detour involves Danny DeVito, so I guess I don't need to tell you that "sexy" is not the word people should be using to describe it.
It was then time for me and Scott to join Amber and Kristina in piling into Greg's bird-crap-covered car and driving to the other Alamo Drafthouse. This one's new, has two screens, and is on the south side of town. We were to see "Bickford Shmeckler's Cool Ideas," and maybe it was "The Oh in Ohio" influencing us, but we thought "Shmeckler" sounded like an obscene job description. ("What do you do?" "Oh, I'm a shmeckler. I'm in charge of all the shmeckling.")
The movie is an up-and-down comedy about a brainy college student (Patrick Fugit) whose notebook of Stephen Hawking-style brilliance goes missing. I like certain elements of the film -- it was shot in a very nice-looking high-definition digital video, for example, and Fugit is almost always a fun actor to watch -- but it's not as amusing or entertaining as it wants to be, nor are Bickford Shmeckler's cool ideas actually all that cool.
That's five, if you're counting, and one to go. We drove back downtown to the original Alamo Drafthouse, and actually had an hour to kill before we needed to get in line. (We killed it by sitting in the sports bar next door and drinking Coke. Don't let anyone tell you Austin isn't a party town.) The midnight movie was "Population 436," a washed-over "Twilight Zone" story about a weird little town where the population is always exactly 436. We realize within the first couple minutes that every time someone is born, someone else dies, so the question I have is why the filmmaker decided to drag it out for so long. How do you make a film like this and not realize how unoriginal the idea is? Have we forgotten Shirley Jackson's classic short story "The Lottery"? Or any of the various TV episodes and movies about strange burgs with ancient superstitions that involve human sacrifice? I mean come on.
When Scott and I got back to the hotel, we found our HBS.com pall Chris "Oz" Parry had arrived from Vancouver. That's four people sharing this hotel room, if you're counting, and fortunately none to go. We called for another roll-away bed to be sent up, and we wondered how many times we could do that before they started asking questions.
We also showed Oz a DVD of our favorite short film, an animated music video called "Washington." It's a slow-grooved hip-hoppy song about the Father of Our Country, with his achievements exaggerated to Paul Bunyan proportions. "He ate opponents' brains / he invented cocaine" is one couplet; "He has a wig for his wig and a brain for his heart" is another. We've watched it two or three times every night since getting it.
After the nightly "Washington" screenings, Erik wanted to sleep, Oz and I wanted to write, and Scott wanted to watch a screener of something. What we settled on was ordering room service. It was the first time I had ever had room service, actually. Every time I've stayed at a hotel, it's always been the cheap kind that doesn't have room service, or the expensive kind where I'm spending so much on the room that I can't afford to spend $15 for chicken fingers. But it was 3 a.m., we were starving, and so I forked over $9 for a club sandwich. The sandwich wasn't worth $9, of course -- the only way a club sandwich would be worth $9 is if it came with fries and four dollars. But what could I do? You watch six movies in one day, you deserve a treat.
Day 5 (Tuesday, March 14):
None of us went to bed until 4 a.m., so we slept in until 11. Then there was a lot of lingering and loitering and farting (mostly Oz), and finally Oz and I headed to the convention center so that he could pick up his credentials and so that I could finally get some serious writing done. And by "serious writing," I mean blog entries with juvenile shmeckler-related jokes.
There was a massage therapist on hand in the press lounge again, a cool young gal named Jennifer. I forced myself to get some work done and then allowed myself the treat of a complimentary 15-minute massage. It was heavenly. Jennifer said she's moving to Portland soon, and that's where I live, so we're totally best friends now. Later, after I left the press lounge, I realized I should have tipped her, and I cursed my stupidity.
My first film of the day wasn't until 4:30, and it was "Patriot Act," by comedian Jeffrey Ross. He joined Drew Carey's USO tour to Iraq in 2003 -- just after the fall of Baghdad and before Saddam was found -- and videotaped the trip with his camcorder. Afterward, he thought the footage might make for an entertaining and/or informative movie.
Turns out he was right. There's a few minutes of footage of him and the other comics performing for crowds of enthusiastic soldiers, the way Bob Hope used to do. But like the Ray Romano film, this one focuses on the behind-the-scenes experiences, not on the gigs themselves. Ross and his buddies are funny, awestruck, frightened and humbled as they meet soldiers, hear harrowing stories, and crack jokes about the war-torn areas they visit. Humor is how people deal with tragedy, after all, and it's genuinely touching to see how delighted the troops are to have some entertainment.
I was very impressed with the film. Ross is a scathingly funny comedian, known as one of the most hilarious contributors at the Friars Club celebrity roasts. ("Drew Carey is to comedy what Mariah Carey is to comedy," he once said. He is also fond of making references to Bea Arthur's penis.) But the film shows him and his compatriots as regular Americans who, whatever their attitude toward Bush's Iraq policies, are grateful for the dedicated men and women in the military who are doing the tough jobs over there.
Ross was on hand to introduce the film and to take questions afterward. He was in fine form. I've never seen his act live, but apparently one of his skills is making quick-witted, off-hand references to audience members, particularly those coming in late or leaving early. During his intro, he interrupted himself several times to acknowledge people just coming in, often noticing them before we did. "Are you a natural two-tone?" he said to a woman with multi-colored hair. "Good, my pot dealer, Joe-Joe, is here," he said of a guy who looked the part. "You got some good s*** for me? We're seeing the Strokes tonight." When a very heavyset woman with a butch haircut entered, he said she was his high school gym teacher.
He was funny in the Q-and-A, too, but given the serious undertones of the film (which is also uproariously funny, I should add), some of the Q's led to more somber A's. Still, I like what he said when someone asked him whether he'd seen the other Iraq documentaries playing at the festival, including one called "My Country, My Country": "I thought that one was about Garth Brooks, so I didn't go." He explained that since he's been over there (and has since returned on another USO tour), it's difficult for him emotionally to watch movies about the crisis. "I couldn't (even) watch Lauren Bacall make her Oscar speech," he said.
I had to skip out of his Q-and-A a little early, though I managed to escape being commented on as I did so. (When one woman got up, Ross instantly said, "Ma'am, I'm going to have to ask you to leave." So simple, but so funny.) I had to get to the other Alamo Drafthouse, the one down the road a couple miles, and that meant taking a taxi. I had hoped to share the cab with Scott, but I couldn't find him at our designated meeting place, and he doesn't have a cell phone (yes, he's the one; you probably read about him), so I had to shell out the $10 myself.
The movie I was seeing was "The Lost," and it was an atrocious piece of crap, without question the worst thing I've seen at the festival so far. It's a horror film, sort of, about a young sociopath in the style of "American Psycho's" Patrick Bateman who kills a couple women and then, four years later, flips out again. But in the meantime, there's a whole lot of nothing. The film keeps introducing characters and spending scenes with them for no reason, and the lead psycho's psyche is given only a cursory glance. (He hates his mother, obviously, and has to help her run a Bates-esque motel.) Also, with his cowboy boots, big belt buckle, sleeveless T-shirt, and slick black hair, he looks like k.d. lang, which you'll probably agree is never a good thing for a lead actor.
I didn't want to pay another 10 bucks for a cab, so I walked back downtown after the film, a distance of probably a mile and a half. I was good and exhausted by the time I reached the Paramount, where there was no one checking passes at the door, which means anyone could have walked in. Good to know: As the week goes on, security gets more lax. Maybe next time I'll sneak some friends in.
The film: "The King," starring Gael Garcia Bernal as a young man who shows up in Corpus Christi, Texas (though the film was actually filmed in Austin), to find the father he never knew. The father in question is a holy-roller minister played by William Hurt, and the tryst he had with the young man's mother was before he became a Christian, so he wants nothing to do with the fruit of that relationship. Behind his back, the kid starts dating the minister's teenage daughter -- and yes, I mean the teenage daughter who is the guy's half-sister. It gets even yuckier from there, but it's an intriguing film. There comes a point where everyone has so many lies and secrets floating around that it's only a matter of time before they're all going to be revealed and the stuff's gonna hit the fan. And hit the fan the stuff does!
It was nearly 11:30 when "The King" ended, and the SXSW closing party was already in full swing. Why have the closing party on Tuesday when the film festival runs through Saturday? I dunno. Beat the rush, I guess. No, it's because the conference part of the festival (with a trade show, panel discussions, etc.) ended today, and the music part of the festival begins tomorrow. The party is a way to bid farewell to one group while welcoming the other.
For some reason, this party was held outside of a meat-packing plant on the east side of town, I guess because maybe the paper mill and the oil refinery were booked. Scott, Erik, Oz and our new best friends Greg, Amber and Kristina were already there when I arrived, and we had a joyful reunion. For some reason Oz has taken it upon himself to find a girlfriend for Erik, who is a decent enough fellow that he ought to have no trouble finding a girlfriend without the help of a flatulent Australian. But Oz got married recently, and getting married is like becoming a zombie: You stumble around in a daze, you're sort of the same person you were before but not really, your looks go downhill, and all you ever do is try to get people to join you. Married people look at single people the way zombies do at the living: fresh meat waiting to be converted.
The band Sleater-Kinney was playing, very loudly, at the party. I text-messaged this fact to a friend who I thought would be impressed, and he responded, "kewl."
I told Greg I'd been to the Jeffrey Ross movie, and he was jealous, because he loves the guy. Alas, Greg had been busy helping to run a panel that Charlize Theron (who produced a documentary) was involved with, so he was stuck looking at her porcelain beauty all afternoon.
A few minutes after learning of Greg's fondness for Ross, whom should I see across the way but Ross himself! Greg was conversing with someone, so Amber and I scurried over to Ross to say hello and get a picture with my digital camera. I then showed that picture to Greg, who became enraged with jealousy, which was exactly my plan. Luckily, Ross was still around, and we were able to get a picture of Greg with him, too. All the celebrities here -- the stars at night really ARE big and bright deep in the heart of Texas -- and the one I get my picture with is Jeffrey Ross. But hey, you take what you can get. And sometimes what you get is a schlubby-looking Jew.
Speaking of schlubby-looking Jews, Scott got us all invited to an after-party with the "Darkon" guys back at their hotel, and if there's anyone who knows how to party, it's people who dress up like Renaissance Faire soldiers and roll 12-sided dice. With the SXSW party ending at 1 a.m. (it had begun at 9, right after the awards ceremony), we still had an hour before our customary bedtime, so we figured we'd go. Unfortunately, we got the location wrong, and by the time we found out the correct locale, we were back in our hotel room and it was 2:30. Scott still went, though, and returned at some unholy hour, just in time to throw things at me to make me stop snoring.
SXSW, like most major film festivals, has a jury to choose awards for best documentary and best narrative films, and there are audience-voted awards in the same areas. They hand out ballots at screenings of eligible films, and you can rate the film on a scale of 1 to 5. I never vote, though, because I feel like since I got in free, I shouldn't be allowed to have the same input as people who paid for their tickets. Also, not voting takes less effort than voting, as my generation proved in the last presidential election.
For documentaries, "Maxed Out" won a Special Jury Prize (whatever that means), and "Jam," about 1970s roller derby competitors, took the main prize. "Darkon," predictably, won the audience award.
Among fiction films, the jury gave an award for Outstanding Ensemble Cast to "Americanese" (which I hope to see tomorrow), and another one for Outstanding Visual Achievement to "Inner Circle Line" (which I know nothing about). The main jury prize went to "Live Free or Die," which astounds me, considering how average it was. The audience chose "Americanese." Luckily, "Crash" didn't win anything.
Day 6 (Wednesday, March 15):
This was it, folks. My last day at SXSW (or South By, as the kids abbreviate it in conversation). The films continue through Saturday, but Erik and Scott were leaving today, and thus my hotel gravy train was ending. (Note: The hotel contained no actual gravy. Or Internet access, for that matter, unless you paid $10 a day.)
After checking out of the hotel, I ran into Will and we went to the Alamo Drafthouse for an 11 a.m. showing of "The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael." The people who made "The Lost" should be grateful for this movie: Because of it, "The Lost" is no longer the worst thing I saw at SXSW.
"The Great Ecstasy" has a large cast of characters in a series of plot-less fly-on-the-wall scenes. It seems to be going in no particular direction, with no point whatsoever, but only for 80 minutes. In the last 10 minutes, it suddenly becomes shockingly violent and exploitative, moving from the realm of the merely boring to the genuinely deplorable. I suspect filmmaker Thomas Clay would say that if he provoked a strong response, then he considers himself to have succeeded. But I say it's easy to do something shocking or taboo. What's hard is to do it in a way that is thematically, artistically and cinematically justified -- in a way that doesn't seem to be doing it just for the sake of doing it, in other words.
Will and I both hated this movie, and we raged about our hatred for it as we walked back to Congress Avenue to a cafe called the Hideout, which had caught my attention earlier with its promise of free wi-fi and gigantic cookies. (It delivered on both promises in splendid fashion.) Will eventually left me to my writing as he went to stand in line at the Paramount for the 4 p.m. "surprise" screening of "A Scanner Darkly." If there was ever an official announcement of the title, like a press release or an e-mail, I didn't see it. Yet somehow everyone knew about it, and we anticipated that the lines to see it would be lengthy.
We were right. Everyone with a SXSW pass congregated in that line, but before any of us were let in, the 400 people on the "guest list" (i.e., Austin film industry types, their friends and families, and people tangentially connected with the film) were admitted. Thanks to Will staking out a spot early, we were at the front of the pass-holder line -- and still, by the time we got inside, the theater's main level was two-thirds full, with only the back rows and the balcony still open.
Nearly all of our crew was there. Erik had flown back to Chicago and Laura was goodness-knows-where, but Scott, Oz, Will and I snagged a row, and our new best friends Greg, Amber and Kristina joined us, as did a girl I didn't know. We made her sit on the end, next to Oz.
The movie is the latest from Richard Linklater, whose previous films include such diverse fare as "Dazed and Confused," "Waking Life," "School of Rock" and "The Newton Boys." "A Scanner Darkly," based on a Philip K. Dick novel, is animated the same way "Waking Life" was: Scenes were shot in the usual fashion, and then artists colored over the frames. There's no particular reason for this except that it looks cool, and therein lies the rub. Without the rotoscoping (as it's called), the film would be completely undistinguished. The story, a futuristic thing about surveillance and identity, is nothing special, and neither is the acting (though it's always fun to see Robert Downey Jr. play a crazy person).
My friend Michael arrived from Houston not long after "A Scanner Darkly" ended. After checking in at the Motel 6 where we're staying tonight, we searched downtown for a place to park so we could eat dinner. We found a spot, and at the very moment we saw it, a homeless man pointed it out to us. I was unfamiliar with this scenario, but Michael was experienced. Apparently you have to tip the homeless man for his unnecessary service or else run the risk of having your car vandalized. Michael forked over a dollar and thanked the gentleman for his keen work in gesturing at a huge empty parking space, and I counted myself grateful to live in Portland, where our gigantic homeless population has not yet become so industrious.
Michael and I ate at 6th Street's Iron Cactus, a decent restaurant that was ridiculously busy and probably understaffed. The music part of SXSW was now in full swing, and the streets, pubs, tattoo parlors and restrooms of Austin were thronged with people. At 31, I was older than almost all of them. Every time we walked past a bar from which loud live music was emanating, Michael worried whether he should have brought earplugs. No, he's not an old man; he's just a wuss.
It had been my hope that we would see the 9:30 screening of "V for Vendetta," but the more I examined the situation, the more I realized the idea was futile. I would have no problem getting in with my pass, but Michael would have to stand in the regular-people line, and those losers only get in if there are still seats left once the pass-holders are in. At 8:30, the pass-holder line was already lengthy, and the regular-people queue was stretching around the block, too. So we said goodbye to Scott (who was already in line), abandoned the "V for Vendetta" plan, and joined Greg, Kristina and the new girl at a watering hole several blocks away. Amber had ditched us for a party to which she was invited but we were not. (Is Amber a snob???????? You decide.)
At around 11, Michael, Greg, Kristina and I, now joined by a different new girl -- Greg has lived in Austin long enough to have acquaintances everywhere he goes, and I've started making a conscious effort not to bother learning their names -- went to the ATX Magazine party, being held in a gravel parking lot on the southeast edge of downtown. Bands were doing their sound checks when we arrived, and about 30 people were milling around waiting for something to happen.
After a few minutes, the event's organizer approached a group of would-be revelers and said we all had to go out the gate, have our IDs checked, and then be re-admitted before they could begin the festivities (and by "festivities," as with most SXSW-related things, I mean the serving of complimentary alcohol). For some reason, he was looking directly at me when he made this announcement, like somehow it was my fault the party hadn't started yet, or my fault that they had left the gates open and let people wander in before they were ready for them. Accepting my apparent position as ringleader, I led us out of the gate, where our IDs were checked and we walked back in.
Unfortunately, we five were the only people to do this. So 10 minutes later, the organizer made the announcement AGAIN, and about 20 people -- us included -- exited, got carded, and re-entered. That still wasn't everyone, but at this point the organizer gave up and returned his attention to getting the kegs tapped, a process with which I confess utter unfamiliarity. (It's a big barrel of beer. Can't you just drill a hole in it and let it pour out?)
It was a tragically lame party, probably the lamest party in America after Ralph Nader's Green Party. The gravel parking lot didn't exactly exude elegance, there were no restrooms, and the only beverage available was beer. Don't drink beer? Too bad. They didn't even have water. The weather turned drizzly, too, which I guess wasn't ATX Magazine's fault, but they didn't really do anything to stop it, either.
I realized it was time to say goodbye to SXSW. Michael and I are heading to Houston tomorrow, where I'll spend a couple post-film-festival days before returning to Portland. With heavy heart I bade farewell to my new best friends, and Michael and I found our way back to his car, pleased to see his payment of $1 had been enough to prevent the bum/extortionist from keying it.
Sundance is legendary for its parties, but my experience has shown that reputation to be undeserved. There are raging parties, no doubt -- but they are exclusive and secretive. The official, Sundance-sponsored ones are always worthless, poorly attended and mostly ignored by the regular festival-goers. At SXSW, the official parties were great -- in fact, the only bad one I went to was an off-the-record one -- and everyone from filmmakers to actors to film critics to regular pass-holders attends.
This turned out to be an important distinction between Sundance and SXSW. At Sundance, if the movies are mediocre, you really feel it. At SXSW, the films were occasionally sub-par, yet I didn't notice. Why? Because I was having fun anyway. Eating at the Drafthouse, going to SXSW parties, watching "Washington" back in the hotel room, getting caught up in one another's personal dramas, making fun of Harry Knowles -- these six days were outrageously entertaining whether the movies were any good or not. And several of them were very good, of course.
My thanks to Matt Dentler, the suave "conference and festival producer" who is the de facto face of the fest. He introduces almost every screening, using some kind of time-space portal to travel all over Austin, and has been good to the HBS.com crew. Elizabeth Derczo is the festival's publicist, and she was instrumental in getting me credentialed and making sure members of the press had what they needed. My friends and colleagues Scott and Erik were lovely to let me occupy space in their hotel room, and it was good to see them again so soon after Sundance. Nice to see Oz again, too, and to meet Will and Laura in person for the first time. The Internet makes it possible for us to be friends, but I'm glad we have occasional chances to hang out in real life, too, if only to see what one another smell like.
I don't think I could live in Austin. It's too sprawled out for my tastes, and I'm not sure how much fun it is without the festival. I know I don't want to be here in July, when it's 110 degrees and there are armies of scorpions patrolling the streets. But I'll definitely be back next March for SXSW, even if I have to sleep in the street and disturb all of downtown with my snoring.
Copyright © Eric D. Snider.
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