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.
* * *
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 with 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, Eugene 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 Eugene 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 Laura 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 Eugene 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; Eugene 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.
Day 2: Saturday, March 10
My slumber at International House of Greg was blissful, and Greg reported not being awoken by my superhuman snoring, even though his bedroom is in a loft that is not really separated from the downstairs area in any significant way. The apartment’s only bathroom is upstairs, too, which means if you have to tinkle in the middle of the night, you have to creep silently up the steps and tiptoe past Greg and then try to hit the back of the porcelain rather than shooting the stream directly into the water, as a urine stream shot straight into the middle of a toilet bowl at 4 a.m. is the loudest sound known to man.
But enough about my urine! The weather was sunny and beautiful today as Greg and I headed to the convention center. He went off to volunteer headquarters while I sought out the press suite. I had the option of seeing a movie at 11 a.m., but I had a dilemma: There were four choices, and they were all documentaries, and the only one that interested me even mildly — the one about a guy who set a “Donkey Kong” record — was at the least convenient venue, the South Lamar Alamo Drafthouse. So I solved the problem by not seeing any of them.
Instead, I camped out in the press suite and got some writing done, though I first stopped at the booth on the main floor of the convention center where Starbucks products are sold. I acquired a cream cheese muffin and a hot chocolate beverage, all for the low, low price of only $7.25!
The press suite is on the second floor of the convention center and is a comfortable lounge for journalist types to work, relax, doze, and/or drink coffee. It is also, unfortunately, a place for publicists to scatter fliers and posters, and for people to promote their films. Front and center today was a kilt-clad Scotsman making balloon animals. This was in conjunction with the documentary “Twisted: A Balloonamentary,” playing at the festival and apparently addressing the controversial hot-button issue of balloon-animal-making. The Scotsman was behaving in a very jovial and Scottish fashion, to the alleged amusement of bystanders, which included the festival volunteers who had to sit at the front desk the whole time and were thus a captive audience.
The kilt wearing I have no problem with, since he was legitimately Scottish. That is the only good reason to wear a kilt, of course. The guys who wear kilts as a fashion choice are the same types of guys who rode unicycles across campus when they were in college: They want to play it cool like they’re just being themselves and they don’t care what anyone thinks, but really what they want is for people to notice them and say, “Wow! That guy’s different! Awesome!”
But that is an unnecessary tangent, and I will probably delete it before I publish this. The point is, there was a balloon-twister in the press suite, and his merry jokes and corny patter as he worked the crowd were like daggers on the chalkboard of my heart.
Within the first 10 minutes that I was sitting there, writing, Weinberg, Erik, and Jason each separately stopped by, said hello, and asked if I was going to the Bill Paxton panel. Apparently Bill Paxton was sitting on a panel across the hall. The topic: How to tell the difference between Bill Paxton and Bill Pullman. I kind of wish I’d gone, as that sort of information would be useful.
But no! There was work to do. No panels for me! Then a bit later, without warning, a press conference broke out. It was for the film “The Lookout,” which opens theatrically March 30 and played last night opposite “Them.” I have heard nothing but good things about it, so I’m eager to see it when it’s released, but for now I was eager not to accidentally overhear spoilers while the journalists asked the cast members questions. A question like, “Did you enjoy filming the scene where we find out Bruce Willis was dead the whole time?” can ruin your day.
I needn’t have worried. From what I did hear, the questions were on the order of, “What was the hardest scene to film?” and “How did you prepare for your role?” and generic crap like that.
Actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Isla Fisher, and Matthew Goode were there, along with writer/director Scott Frank. I remained in my spot on the couch across the room, but from my vantage point the press conference seemed to be successful enough, especially when measured in terms of how many pictures the photographers took.
Also, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (he was the kid on “3rd Rock from the Sun”) is approximately 4’8″ and weighs no more than 75 pounds.
On the way over to the Paramount for my first screening of the day, I saw an amusing publicity spectacle happening. A red-robed gospel choir led by a white-suited preacher was dancing down the street singing about limiting our consumption and boycotting worker-unfriendly places like Starbucks. (The lyric/chant was catchier than that, but that was the idea.) They even had a live keyboard player, drummer, and horn section. They’re connected with “What Would Jesus Buy?,” a documentary playing here at the festival that I hope to see later in the week. I don’t always care for blatant attention-whoring (see prior comments), but what can I say, I’m a sucker for gospel music.
The first film was “When a Man Falls in the Forest.” Just before it began, Erik Childress said, “Is this movie about a family coming to terms with stuff?” He said it in a manner indicating weariness, which I share, though to feel that way on Day 2 of a film festival does not bode well. It’s like declaring you’re tired of childlike whimsy only five minutes after beginning a week-long stay at Disneyland.
I predicted, meanwhile, that the film would involve a car accident. This prophecy was based on experience: So far, “Disturbia,” “The Lookout,” and “Them” all had car wrecks, so it stood to reason.
“When a Man Falls in the Forest” is not about a family coming to terms with stuff; it is about three middle-aged men coming to terms with stuff. One of them is in a failing marriage, one has severe social anxiety, and one has never been the same since being involved in — yes! — a fatal car accident some years earlier.
Pretty good movie, really, with particularly good central performances by Dylan Baker as the socially messed-up guy and Timothy Hutton as the guy with the bad marriage (to Sharon Stone, so you can imagine the various ways it might be bad). The film is funny and melancholy simultaneously, and it’s a nice combination.
After that, Eugene and I headed south to the non-downtown Alamo Drafthouse. We had heard fanciful rumors of a city bus that goes past the original Drafthouse and takes you straight to the other one, and we had a few minutes to spare, so we thought we’d give it a try. Perhaps owing to our lack of scientific adventurousness, however, we gave up waiting after 15 minutes and took a cab instead.
The film was “Fall from Grace,” a documentary about Fred Phelps, that horrible Kansas preacher who goes around protesting at gay people’s and soldiers’ funerals with the “God hates fags” signs and so forth. He’s a fascinating figure insofar as EVERYONE, conservative and liberal, religious and atheist, thinks he’s repulsive. Even people who believe homosexuality is sinful think it’s awful to march around saying “Matthew Shepard is in hell” AT Matthew Shepard’s funeral. (Dude, at least wait until the luncheon.) And Phelps’ logic with regard to soldiers’ funerals — America has embraced homosexuality; thus God hates America; thus killing soldiers and sending them to hell is God’s way of punishing us — is so twisted that it would be hilarious, if it weren’t so outrageously inhuman.
The filmmaker, a University of Kansas student named K. Ryan Jones, got a surprising level of access to Phelps and his 80-member congregation, which consists almost entirely of his numerous children and grandchildren. (In the post-film Q-and-A, Jones revealed that there are two non-Phelps families at Westboro Baptist Church: one has been associated with the Phelpses for decades; the other is headed by a documentary filmmaker who began researching the Phelps movement in 2000, decided Phelps was right, moved his family up from Florida, and joined them [!!!!!].) The Phelpses believe all publicity is good publicity, that the more they’re opposed the more it proves they’re right, and that even if the film were nothing but an anti-Phelps screed, if it contained just one shot of a “God hates fags” sign, then at least the message would be getting out there.
There are a couple clips in the film of Phelps’ daughter and main supporter, Shirley, appearing on Fox News. In one, a female anchor whose name I didn’t catch is seen introducing Shirley; we cut away to some other clip of something else; and then we cut back to mid-interview, where the anchor is SCREAMING at Shirley Phelps, just completely losing her mind. It’s hilarious and unprofessional how out-of-control she is, and yet at the same time, the audience applauded what she was saying: that the Phelps movement is despicable.
The other Fox News clip is Shirley Phelps on the Sean Hannity show, and it ends with a similar (though more reined-in) smackdown. Folks, when SEAN HANNITY tells you that your particular brand of self-righteous moral crusading is evil and hateful, then you know you’ve really accomplished something.
The movie itself isn’t particularly brilliant; it’s a case where the subject matter is shocking enough that all you have to do is set up a few cameras and let the people speak for themselves. But we liked it enough — and we had enough spare time — that we stayed for the Q-and-A afterward. It was enlightening if only for this reason: I had thought Jones might have been interested in the subject because he was gay, but it turns out he was interested because he’s a Christian and even considered going into the ministry before becoming a filmmaker instead.
We had an hour to kill before the next film, also at the South Lamar Alamo, but that part of town is sadly lacking in places to hang out or even sit down. Lots of tire shops, Jiffy Lubes, and brake-pad stores, but no coffeeshops. So Gene and I thought, what the heck, might as well be first in line for the next film.
And it’s a good thing we were! The next film, “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane,” proved to be a sellout, my first completely full, we’re-turning-people-away screening of the festival. It’s a teen horror film with a distinctly ’70s look to it and a very cool visual style, which helps it overcome its rather pedestrian story of good-looking teens being murdered while staying in an isolated ranch house.
There’s a scene very early on in which a guy attempts to dive into a backyard swimming pool and cracks his head on the cement instead. The impact happens off-camera, but the sound effect they used is genuinely brutal. It felt like the whole audience recoiled in horror; I know Gene and I did. I really think that to get that sound, they’d have to have actually cracked someone’s head against a sidewalk.
We stayed for that Q-and-A, too, but nothing interesting happened, so I’m not even going to mention that we stayed for it.
It was back downtown for us next, and this time we managed to catch the mythical bus, which proved to be quite real indeed, and convenient besides. I was heading for a 9:30 screening of something at the Downtown Alamo, but I wasn’t completely sold on it. I was itching to do something non-movie-related, and I knew Greg the Volunteer and Christina, another pal from last year, were party-hopping. So I went to my 9:30 film with the provision that if I wasn’t loving it, I could leave early without feeling guilty.
It was “Everything’s Gone Green,” a Canadian comedy about a slacker 29-year-old who gets a job working at the lottery office. It was mildly amusing, but it was also yet another movie in which slacker 29-year-olds whine about how all their friends got steady jobs and got married after college while they somehow got left behind, and while I sympathize with that position, and while I can even relate to some of the sentiments behind it, I’M TIRED OF MOVIES ABOUT IT. You’re not profound anymore, Generation Y. Go smoke some weed and play Xbox and quit your belly-aching.
Anyway. I left at about 10:15 and found Greg and Christina at a nearby dance club, chosen because it was going to be home to Alan Cumming’s party. Now, I disliked Alan Cumming’s movie (“Suffering Man’s Charity,” from yesterday), but disliking someone’s movie does not preclude me from enjoying someone’s free hors d’oeuvres and beverages. Alas, there were neither, at least not free, but what can you do?
I found Greg in a state of inebriation and Christina in a state of perky cuteness — exactly the way they were when I first met them last year, in other words. Before long, we met a couple of ladies named Jackie and Jen, a lawyer and law student, respectively, from Philadelphia, in Texas for Spring Break. There was chatting and laughing and carrying on, and then Greg discovered that Alan Cumming had arrived.
Before I knew what was happening, Greg had bounced over to him, introduced himself, professed his fondness for the actor’s work — and been kissed full on the lips by Alan Cumming. Evidently the part I didn’t hear was where Greg said his girlfriend would be really jealous that he was meeting Alan Cumming, and Alan Cumming replied that Greg was very cute and that his girlfriend would be even more jealous if he kissed him. And Greg either did not protest or did not protest quickly enough — or, as Eugene later put it, perhaps Alan Cumming exercised the Alan Cumming Provision, wherein Alan Cumming is allowed to kiss anyone he chooses, period. It’s in the Geneva Convention.
Greg, intoxicated with giddiness and vodka, was both delighted and horrified at what had transpired: delighted that he had a great story to tell, and horrified that he had kissed a guy. I hustled him out of there shortly afterward, and we went in search of another party, hopefully one where celebrities would not be snogging random strangers. As we left, Alan Cumming was beginning his Q-and-A with the rowdy crowd, and while I didn’t hear the question, his answer was that circumcision is a cruel and barbaric practice. So there you go. Straight (tee-hee!) from the mouth (tee-hee!) of Alan Cumming (tee-hee!).
We had a place in mind for our next stop, but we ran in to Weinberg on the way, and he led us to the James Blunt party instead. Yes, James Blunt the singer. People kept saying, “Who’s James Blunt?,” and I would sing, “You’re BEAUtiful! You’re BEAUtiful,” really shrieking the “BEAU” part, and they would go, “Oh, that guy? Meh.” But again, a free party is a free party, and Weinberg is pals with the publicists who were putting this one on.
James Blunt is here because he has a documentary in the festival called “James Blunt: Return to Kosovo,” in which he, I don’t know, fights terrorism through song or something. We all got into the party, held at a club with patios in the front and back, with a dance floor in the middle. A live band was playing out back, while inside the song the DJ was spinning was, I kid you not, “Whoomp, There It Is,” because apparently it was 1993 in there.
Partitioned off from the main dance floor was a little VIP area where only certain color wristbands could enter and thus be granted an audience with James Blunt and his buddies. We did not have that color of wristband, but they weren’t being diligent in checking them, either, so before I knew what was happening, Drunk Greg was in the VIP area, chatting up James Blunt.
When I arrived at his side two seconds later, Greg was telling James Blunt how he, Greg, does a great impression of him, James Blunt. Now, I had heard this impression earlier, and it was no great shakes. I think James Blunt, due to his distinct singing style, is like John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart: Anyone can do a half-decent impression of him without even trying very hard.
But Greg, bless his vodka-soaked heart, was saying, “My friends are always telling me I do a great impression of you!”
“Oh, really? I’ll have to hear it sometime,” James Blunt said, being very, very gracious.
“I’ll do it for you now!” Greg said.
“Well, it’s very loud in here, so I don’t know….”
“OK, here goes!” And then he did his James Blunt impression while I did my best to be embarrassed on his behalf. I was pretty sure Greg was not the first drunk guy ever to corner James Blunt somewhere and sing a James Blunt song for him, so I said, “I’m sure no one ever does that for you.” He said, “Well, not so beautifully, they don’t!” Very nice guy, that James Blunt.
I asked him what he thought of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s parody of his song (“You’re Pitiful”), and he said it was funny but there’s an even better one, by some Australian guy, in which the song is sung from the point of view of the girl’s new boyfriend. Sounds funny, and it’s James Blunt-approved, so I’ll have to look for it.
Greg and I left not long after that, as it was very late, we were losing an hour of sleep due to daylight-saving time, and Greg had to be at volunteer duty at 9:30 the next morning. After some stumbling around, we finally found where Greg had parked his car, and I drove us home, where Greg was sawing logs in a matter of seconds. The li’l guy had had a big night, and he was all tuckered out.
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 is the charmingly crappy 16mm 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 a person can’t communicate, the very least he 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 some 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 other 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.” And then 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 of 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, that 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.
Day 4: Monday, March 12
Today began too early, just like yesterday, and once again I began it at the Starbucks on Congress Avenue. I’ve noticed some people hanging around the entrance, hipster college student types carrying three-ring binders. I don’t know what their agenda is, but my experience with 20-year-olds carrying binders on busy street corners is that they want you to donate money to something, and that they don’t take no for an answer. Thus far I have avoided any engagement with them, not because I don’t wish to sponsor starving orphans in far-off lands, but because I can barely afford to sponsor myself in this land, especially when I’ve apparently decided to eat at the Alamo Drafthouse twice a day.
My first film was at 1:30 at the Paramount, and it was a comedy called “Skills Like This.” It deals with an aimless 20-something who wants to be a writer, realizes he sucks at it, and robs a bank instead, on a whim. This gives his two friends, a corporate drone and an idiot, the confidence to take control of their own lives, and yada yada. It’s very funny, highly improbable, and so lightweight that I will probably have forgotten its existence before I’m even done writing this.
Jason, Gene, and Erik were with me, and apparently Will and Laura were there, too, though we hadn’t seen them. (Were they up in the balcony, necking????? No one knows for sure!) We all met up afterward to plan our next course of action. The decision we reached? To stand in line for several hours.
At 6:45 was to be a special screening of “Knocked Up,” the new comedy from the people who brought you “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” due out June 1. This was the film everyone at SXSW wanted to see, and we knew we needed to stake out a place in line early to guarantee we’d get in. With nothing terribly interesting on the schedule for the 4 p.m. slot anyway, we figured we might as well start waiting outside the Paramount now.
Gene, Laura, and I got in line (actually, we started the line), grateful that last night’s rain-predicting cab driver had turned out to be a false prophet and that today’s skies were sunny, warm, and beautiful. After a while Weinberg showed up, along with some other friends, and we began to take turns wandering off in various directions while someone stayed behind to keep our place at the head of the line.
Eventually, the entire eFilmCritic crew was there, the first time since we picked up our badges on Friday that all seven of us had been in the same place at the same time. Photos were taken to preserve the occasion, though I’m pretty sure that, since we were facing the sun, all seven of us look squinty.
Speaking of the sun, Congress Avenue runs north and south, with the Paramount on the east side, which means as the sun started setting, it began to shine directly at us as we lined up against the wall outside the theater. It didn’t help that as more of our acquaintances joined us (soon our volunteer friends Greg and Christina had arrived, along with a husband-and-wife publicist team we know), our cluster grew larger — but since we were at the front of the line, we didn’t have much room for growth, which means we basically just had to stand really close to each other and sweat.
At last we were admitted to the theater, which was eventually as packed as we thought it would be. I’m certain it was full; how many were turned away, I don’t know. The movie began at 7:00, and friends, let me tell you: “Knocked Up” is hysterically funny.
It’s the story of a woman who gets pregnant after a one-night stand with a guy who’s cuddly and lovable enough, but perfectly worthless as a provider, or even as a responsible adult. (He lives with three of his stoner buddies, and none of them have jobs.) The two are tied together now thanks to the pregnancy, but they have little in common. What’s a girl and her slacker baby daddy to do?
The woman is played by Katherine Heigl, with Seth Rogen as the guy. Leslie Mann (the hilarious drunk driver in “40-Year-Old Virgin,” and writer/director Judd Apatow’s wife) plays the woman’s sister, with Paul Rudd as her brother-in-law. The film’s humor is similar to that of “40-Year-Old Virgin,” particularly in the realistically vulgar way that adult male camaraderie is portrayed. Surprisingly, there is a lot of depth and truth in the battle-of-the-sexes angle, too, and it’s a movie that is not only wet-your-pants funny, but also effortlessly sweet. It will deservedly be a huge hit when it opens June 1.
Now, a slightly longer cut of the movie played at a private screening in Austin last December, and the one we saw tonight was 134 minutes — incredibly long for a comedy. We figured SURELY the studio will make them trim it down before it’s actually released. As we all left the theater and headed for the big party several blocks away, we raved about the greatness of the movie, admired its multi-layered characters, and wondered what they could cut without doing damage to the story.
The party, at a music venue called La Zona Rosa, was sponsored by the Austin Chronicle and was to include live performances by Loudon Wainwright III (who did some songs for “Knocked Up” and appears briefly in it) and bands called We Made Milwaukee Famous and Voxtrot. I know nothing about the former, but Greg and Eugene had both raved about Voxtrot and were eager to see them play.
A few hundred people were at the party, but it’s a big venue, with a large outdoor patio area away from the bandstand, so it didn’t feel crowded. Will is under 21 and couldn’t attend, and Jason went to a screening, but the other five of us from eFilmCritic were there, as were Greg and Christina and many of our other festival pals. There was ample free food and drink.
And there were celebrities! One of the things that makes SXSW infinitely cooler and more fun than Sundance (as much as it pains me, a longtime Sundance lover, to say that) is that in Austin, the people in the films actually go to the official festival parties. In Park City, the stars go to secret, special parties that only they know about, while the official Sundance parties are populated only by nobodies and posers.
Several “Knocked Up” cast members were there, including Paul Rudd and Jonah Hill. David Wain (from “Stella,” and one of my comedy idols) was around. I spoke to all of them, at least long enough to express affection and take pictures and make sure they didn’t kiss Greg. Various directors of various SXSW entries were on hand. It was a true party, with everyone mingling and chatting and drinking and smoking, and without a lot of pretension.
It wasn’t long before Weinberg had located Brent White, the editor on “Knocked Up” and thus a definitive source to answer our question regarding the film’s length. And Brent told us that what we saw was the theatrical cut that will appear in theaters June 1, all two hours and 14 minutes of it. He said the version that screened a couple months ago in Austin was about five or 10 minutes longer and didn’t really have any extra scenes; it was more a matter of the scenes being longer due to extra dialogue or alternate dialogue that occupies more time. They like to improvise a lot and shoot multiple takes and multiple punchlines, and some punchlines are wordier than others, you know?
If Brent hadn’t won us over already with his friendliness and good humor, he would have when we heard what other films he’s worked on: “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Talladega Nights,” and “Anchorman,” to name a few. Now, consider the work of an editor on “Anchorman,” a movie with SO MANY deleted scenes that they constructed a straight-to-DVD sequel (of sorts) made entirely from them. Imagine the nightmare of taking hundreds of hours of footage and boiling it down to the best, funniest version you can come up with. How do you decide which of the 10 punchlines Will Ferrell tried will be most effective?
On that point, Brent said that for “Knocked Up,” they’d do test screenings of different versions of the film and record the audience laughter. Then, back in the editing room, he’d compare them: “This joke got this laugh, but when we used this other joke, it got THIS laugh,” and so forth. The science of comedy!
We had a million more questions for him about the process of film editing, and he seemed genuinely happy to talk to us. (It’s probably not very often that a film editor is greeted so enthusiastically.) At one point he excused himself because his cell phone was ringing. He held it up to me so I could see: Judd Apatow was calling, presumably to find out how the screening had gone. He took the call and came back several minutes later to report that Apatow was thrilled that the SXSW audience had loved “Knocked Up” so much.
There had been some talk of leaving the party in time for a midnight screening, but since Voxtrot wasn’t going on until 11:45 — and since we were having such a good time anyway — everyone wound up staying.
Voxtrot is one of those bands populated by really skinny, shaggy-haired 22-year-old guys. They look kind of emo, but their sound is upbeat and catchy, sort of pop-punk-retro, I think. I’m not very good at describing music. That’s why I don’t review CDs. You kids and your rock ‘n’ roll! Anyway, I liked them.
Day 5: Tuesday, March 13
The biggest problem I have at SXSW is finding time to write these updates. At Sundance, I’m usually doing coverage for Salt Lake City Weekly’s special daily issues and thus have a deadline of 11:30 or so each night. At SXSW, I have no such deadlines, and there’s a lot more fun stuff to do late at night, and so I wind up not getting back to Maison de la Casa del Greg until 2:30 or 3 a.m., at which point I’m too exhausted to do anything other than undress and fall into bed, and sometimes I can’t even manage that. Sometimes I remain fully clothed and just pass out in the doorway.
It was a festival of documentaries for me today, five of ’em, and not a bad one in the lot. It’s funny that just yesterday, I was commenting to someone that I hadn’t been in the mood for the docs this year, and then today I see five in a row. That’s what we in the writing profession call “dramatic irony,” especially if we are not very good writers.
I started at the South Lamar Alamo Drafthouse at 11 a.m. with “Steal a Pencil for Me.” The description in the film guide mentioned the word “Holocaust,” which is one of the reasons I hadn’t been that keen on seeing it at what has otherwise been a fun, upbeat festival. But then I overheard two different strangers in two different places say it was one of the best documentaries they’d ever seen in their lives, and I became intrigued. You gotta follow the buzz at film festivals. It’s how you find the hidden gems.
“Steal a Pencil for Me” is a love story, really, about a Dutch couple who survived the war together and have now been married for 60 years. At the time, however, the man was married to a bitter shrew, even as he was falling in love with this other woman, thus creating a romantic triangle in the Nazi concentration camps.
I concur with the strangers: This is one of the most extraordinarily lovely documentaries I’ve ever seen. It has the Holocaust stuff that will make you cry, and then the sweet, gentle love story on top of that. Is there anything dearer than two 90-year-olds who are still as much in love now as they were 60 years ago? It almost makes you not hate old people anymore, just for a few minutes. On top of that, the film has gorgeous cinematography and a beautiful musical score. It makes you cry big, happy tears over and over again, or at least it did me.
I had planned to go downtown for my next film, a documentary called “Helvetica” — yes, a documentary about fonts, and yes, I was nerdy enough to be excited about it. But I would have to come BACK to South Lamar after that, so rather than hassle with all that traveling, I elected to just stay at South Lamar. Besides, the next South Lamar film was a doc about Darfur, and I thought that between that and “Steal a Pencil for Me,” I’d have myself a nice genocide double feature.
“The Devil Came on Horseback” is the film, and it’s about an ex-Marine who went to Sudan in 2004 to help oversee the recently declared ceasefire that was supposed to end that country’s lengthy civil war. While there, a new problem emerged, as the country’s super-poor western region known as Darfur became the target of systematic torture, rape, and murder by squads backed by the central government. The mission then is to let the world know what’s going on, because the Geneva Convention says that if there’s genocide a-happenin’, everyone’s supposed to butt in and do something about it. We’re all for sovereign nations handling their own affairs, but you’re not allowed to slaughter your own people by the thousands, sorry.
It’s a horrific story and a harrowing film, and no one was more horrified and harrowed by it than the well-dressed, Upper West Side-style 50-year-old woman sitting next to me. She was an audible reactor: Whenever some particularly awful bit of information was presented in the film, she would say, out loud, “Oh my G–!” At one point, the Marine is talking about how all he could do was take pictures and send reports. This prompted the woman to say, loudly, “TO WHO?!” It was apparent that she was sickened and frustrated by what was going on, and that she wanted to make sure we all knew how sickened and frustrated she was. No sense in being socially conscious unless your neighbors know about it.
This was two movies in a row that I’d watched by myself (that is to say, with no friends next to me; I wasn’t alone in the theater), which I think is the first time I’d been alone all week. Fortunately, I was joined for the next one by Eugene, who had just come from watching movies by himself downtown. Apparently it was the day for that.
Documentary No. 3 was “Manufacturing Dissent,” in which a Canadian TV journalist stalks Michael Moore throughout 2004, attempting to get an interview with him. In the process, she tells us about Moore’s background, his life, and some of the shady ways he has manipulated facts in his films.
It’s not an anti-Moore film, really; it’s more of a “let’s pay closer attention to the way our messengers present their messages” thing. I got the feeling the woman feels the same way about Moore that most liberals do: She agrees with a lot of his positions, but she disagrees with his methods.
Of course, if you’re supposed to take Moore’s documentaries with a grain of salt, what are we supposed to do with “Manufacturing Dissent”? I guess next someone has to make a documentary exposing all the things “Manufacturing Dissent” got wrong, and so on and so forth. And the circle of life continues!
Next up: “Lost in Woonsocket,” a pretty solid doc about a good-deed-doing reality TV show that got much more involved with a particular case than they usually do. The case had two men who had lost their jobs and homes to alcoholism and were now living in a tent in Woonsocket, R.I. The do-gooders helped them get sober, then found they kept being drawn back into their lives as things progressed.
Elements of the film are stirring and inspiring, though there is just a bit too much self-congratulatory “look how much good we’re doing!” for my tastes. But only a bit. Mostly I really liked the film, and I was delighted that one of the alcoholics (now sober) was on hand to take questions afterward, as were some other people who appeared in the movie. And it’s only a little ironic that the screening was at the Alamo Drafthouse, where beer and wine are served in abundance and the drinking of them encouraged.
(A friend reported later seeing some of the people involved with the film’s production — but not the alcoholics — at a bar, buying drink after drink. In fact, they tried to use drinks to ply a good review from my friend. I guess it makes sense that after their experiences with the Woonsocket guys, the filmmakers would truly know the power of alcohol. Although I guess they were probably joking about the beer-for-review thing.)
I finally left the South Lamar Alamo Drafthouse and went to the other one, the original, downtown. Movie No. 5 was “Confessions of a Superhero,” which tells the stories of four of the would-be actors who make their living dressing as superheroes on Hollywood Boulevard and posing for pictures with tourists. A Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Hulk were featured, but there are plenty of Spider-Men, SpongeBobs, Ghost Riders, Elvises, and Marilyn Monroes out there, too. Clearly they filmed more characters than they needed and chose the four most interesting ones for the film, and the ones that made the cut are hilarious and fascinating. They all want to be movie stars, the Batman guy has serious anger-management issues and claims to have committed murders in his past, and Superman is straight-up crazy. He also looks remarkably similar to Christopher Reeve and is the same height. His name is even Christopher. He’s not as buff and muscular as Superman was, but I guess he’s probably about as buff and muscular as Christopher Reeve is now.
I had a couple options for the midnight slot, neither of which particularly appealed to me. Besides, seeing one would have made this a six-movie day, and that sort of marathon should not be entered into lightly. There was a party at Maggie Mae’s celebrating the end of the film conference and the beginning of the music part of SXSW, and Maggie Mae’s is usually a good time, so I headed over there. Found Erik Childress, talked to him for a while.
Also ran into Spencer Berger, writer and star of “Skills Like This,” which won the audience award for best film in competition. That surprised me — I thought the film was really funny, but not all-time-favorite funny — and then I looked at the other movies in the category and thought, “Yeah, I guess that’s about right.” Anyway, Berger was cool, excited to have won the audience prize, optimistic about the film’s future. Nice guy, good to see him having success at the festival.
Then I saw Ryan Jones, director of “Fall from Grace,” the Fred Phelps documentary. I told him I’d enjoyed the film and asked if I could ask him a question that had occurred to me later. In the movie, Phelps never talks about love and heaven; he talks exclusively about what God hates (fags, and anyone who isn’t actively persecuting fags) and who’s going to hell (pretty much everyone). I asked Jones, “In the time you spent with him, did he EVER talk about God’s love, or who’s going to heaven, or was it only hate and hell?”
Jones said that was pretty much right. In Phelps’ view, his Westboro Baptist Church is the only one doing God’s will, and thus only they are going to heaven. They’re the only ones God loves. I was glad to have it confirmed that Phelps, consumed with hate, anger, and obsession, is probably the least Christ-like Christian I know of. Jones and I agreed that if heaven will be pretty much just the Phelps family, we probably don’t want to go there anyway. Hell’s where all the cool people are.
Day 6: Wednesday, March 14
The film festival continues through Saturday, but the film conference — the panels and booths and so forth, which I don’t pay attention to — ended Tuesday. Today is the start of the music festival and conference, so a lot of the filmgoers are filtering out of town, and they’re being replaced with music people. Austin’s streets are even more flooded than before, now with skinny, shaggy-haired guys and foul-mouthed chicks who have tattoos on their lower backs. Everyone is either in a band or looks like they should be in a band. At 32, I am now the oldest person in Austin.
My first film of the day was at 1:15, and it was “Orphans.” Weinberg met me there. It was in the convention center’s theater, which seats a few hundred and was maybe 20 percent full. I took a seat, went to the restroom, then came back to discover the Audible Reactor from yesterday now sitting in front of me. What social injustices might “Orphans” address that she would have to gasp loudly at in order to make sure we knew how appalled she was? I didn’t know what “Orphans” was about — orphans, I figured — so I moved several rows away, just to be safe.
The film quickly rose to the top of my list of Worst Films I’ve Seen at SXSW. It is the “story” of two sisters whose parents died when the girls were young (in a car accident, of course), and now the girls are grown and they sort of talk and sort of have fights and sort of passive-aggressively harass one another, but they really don’t do anything. The dialogue is stilted, badly written, and badly delivered, and the film is nothing but dialogue. It’s the longest 80 minutes ever captured on digital video.
Weinberg and I next found a city bus going to the Dobie Mall. I went to the Dobie once last year and found it grossly inconvenient, being located far north of downtown. This year, when I looked at the schedule of films, the first thing I did was cross out the ones I’d already seen at Sundance, and then the ones showing at the Dobie.
But we wanted to see “Cherry Valley,” which purported to be a thriller about a haunted house, and there wasn’t much else showing at this hour anyway. The bus proved to be reliable enough, and we ran into Greg and a buddy of his at the theater, along with Mike Cerda of The Film Lot, whom we met in Park City back in January. Lo and behold, Christina and her boyfriend were there, too. It was an impromptu party at the Dobie!
Too bad the movie totally blew. And you know, I might have guessed. It was playing in SXSW’s “Emerging Visions” category, which is the equivalent of Sundance’s “Frontier” or “Spectrum” groups, i.e., “movies that aren’t good enough to be in competition, but we have to pad out the schedule, so we dump them over here at the crappy venue in the crappy category.”
“Cherry Valley” is first and foremost a “Blair Witch Project” rip-off, except that I never actually believed it was a real documentary. What’s more, it’s not creepy, scary, interesting, or fun. Every single one of us loathed it, possibly even more than I loathed “Orphans,” a mere two hours earlier. This day had not begun well.
Mike had a rental car at the Dobie, so he transported me and Weinberg from there to our next destination, where the three of us saw something that I’m not allowed to tell you about. Sorry. It was really fun, though. Sorry. 🙁
[Edit: OK, now I can tell you. It was a promo screening for “Blades of Glory,” unconnected to the festival but showing in Austin. Press wasn’t invited, so we had to keep it hush-hush that we’d been there. Now that it’s opened, though, the coast is clear.]
Then I had to dash over to the Paramount for “Reign over Me,” which opens in a few weeks and stars Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle. Sandler plays a guy whose family died in 9/11, causing him to completely shut down and live like a hermit. Cheadle plays his college roommate who finds him after all these years and tries to help him.
It took me 45 minutes to get from where I had been back to the Paramount; lucky for me, the film started a half-hour late, so I arrived just as it was beginning. I had missed the live introduction by Cheadle and Sandler, but they would be back afterward for the Q-and-A. The stench of Sandler still hung heavy in the air.
Now, the problem with showing an Adam Sandler film at a film festival, apart from the damage that the Horsemen of the Apocalypse do to the theater carpeting, is that it causes Adam Sandler fans to attend the film festival too. There were several loud brayers in the audience, hyuk-hyuk-hyukking every time Sandler said or did anything intended to be funny, whether it actually succeeded or not. Someone brought their little kids, too, which is incredibly stupid, given a) the film’s R rating, and b) the film’s utterly non-kid-friendly subject matter.
The movie isn’t bad. Sandler seems like he’s auditioning for the lead in “The Bob Dylan Story” at first, all crazy-haired and mumbly, but he’s surprisingly good in his dramatic scenes later on.
More dashing next, and no time to stick around for the Q-and-A. The late start on “Reign over Me” had made me dangerously close to missing my midnight movie at the South Lamar Alamo Drafthouse, “Grimm Love.” (Actually, the film’s onscreen title is “Butterfly: A Grimm Love Story,” and I’m told it will have yet another title when it’s actually released.) It’s based on a true story from a few years ago in which a man killed and ate another man. The twist was that the entire thing was consensual: The “victim” WANTED to be eaten. Two facts of the case that probably go without saying are that they met on the Internet, and that this occurred in Germany.
The film is shot in a dark, beautiful way, with much attention focused on lights and shadows to create haunting images. Unfortunately, the story is not very well told in other respects. We never really do understand why the man wants to be eaten; we know he has guilt issues with his mother’s suicide, but that’s about it. Moreover, the whole story is told through the eyes of a grad student (Keri Russell) who’s investigating the incident years later, and she proves to be a completely superfluous character. You keep waiting for there to be some reason for her presence — maybe she’ll become obsessed with it; maybe she’ll become a cannibal herself; maybe someone from the cannibal community will eat her — but nope, nothin’.
It may seem a little perverse to be eating chicken strips and French fries while watching “Grimm Love,” but that’s what I did. It’s the Drafthouse. You gotta eat.
Day 7: Thursday, March 15
My last full day in Austin began with Greg and me running some errands, jump-starting a friend’s car, and finding a copy of Entertainment Weekly to keep me from going through withdrawal. You’d think this task would be easily accomplished by popping into a Barnes & Noble or some such, but finding a bookstore in Austin proved difficult. We passed shopping center after shopping center featuring such names as Chili’s, PetCo, Target, Office Deport, and Old Navy, yet with none of the accompanying Barnes & Nobles that one normally finds in those locales. Seriously, have you ever seen an Applebee’s where there wasn’t a Barnes & Noble within a quarter mile? (Corollary: There is always a Denny’s within walking distance of a Motel 6.)
We finally found a bookseller and then we made our way downtown, where traffic and parking were ridiculous, and to the Paramount Theatre for a 2 p.m. screening of “638 Ways to Kill Castro.” This is a tongue-in-cheek documentary about the various assassination plots against the Cuban dictator, and why all of them thus far have failed. I liked the light tone and the stock footage used to illustrate some of the would-be assassins’ stories. Also, I like the idea of Castro dying.
The whole gang was there except for Eugene and Erik, who both left on Wednesday. We scattered a bit during the break then returned to the Paramount for “A Lawyer Walks Into a Bar…,” another fun documentary, this time about America’s fascination with lawyers, and specifically following a handful of recent grads as they study for the bar exam. It comes from the director of “Word Wars,” the doc about Scrabble tournaments from a couple years ago that we all enjoyed.
And the movies just kept a-comin’! With only a slight break, we were at the convention center for “Helvetica,” a documentary about the world’s most ubiquitous font. Yes, fonts! How nerdy is the SXSW movie crowd? “Helvetica” was the first sold-out film I’d been to since “Knocked Up.”
It’s actually a pretty interesting movie about the Helvetica font specifically, and how its simplicity, neutrality and basicness make it appropriate for all sorts of things. I was surprised to realize how many corporations use it in their logos: American Airlines, Target, JC Penney, Jeep, American Apparel, the IRS tax forms, and countless others. Graphic designers in the film talk about the principles of design, and how it has evolved over the decades. It’s quite geekily fascinating.
Weinberg and I hung out after that, killing time and getting a little work done before our next appointment. We had to go to the Dobie again, and while our first plan was to take the bus, laziness finally won out and we took a cab instead.
I am glad we did, because our driver was a piece of work. He was a white, 40-ish, long-haired Texan who was blasting — I mean BLASTING — a CD when we got in the car. It was a song about doin’ it to you like a Texan should, whatever that means. (A subsequent Googling reveals it to be “Good Texan” by Stevie Ray Vaughan.) When the song ended, he said, “Gotta hear that again!” and replayed it, even louder than before. Midway through the second time he said, “Is it too loud for you guys?” Amused by how obviously stoned he was, we replied that it was not, and encouraged him to do whatever pleased him.
We met Greg at the Dobie, where we saw “Cashback,” a very good British comedy with melancholy fringes about a young man who gets dumped by a girl, develops insomnia, and takes a job working the graveyard shift at a supermarket. It’s like an artfully shot “Clerks.”
Greg had his car there, which was useful because we had to dash to the other side of town next for our last movie of the day and my last movie of the festival: a midnight screening of “Severance,” in which several office workers go on a “team building retreat” and are killed by maniacs in the woods. Its blend of comedy and horror is not always successful, but it’s a solid and gory entry in the genre.
And that’s it. Seven days, 30 movies, not enough sleep, and lots of fun stories. My thanks to the festival organizers and publicity personnel who keep things running smoothly, and my love to the friends new and old that I got to spend time with. It’s a testament to a thing’s funness when you find yourself saying, “This sure is fun!,” as if you can’t believe what a good time you’re having. And that’s the conversation that many of us had over and over again during the week. Eugene says he’ll definitely back next year, which is what I said after my first experience last year. Jason says he wants to move here. Weinberg DID move here.
I worry that as SXSW grows, it will of necessity become slightly more rigid and controlled. That’s what has happened to Sundance, to the point where many people don’t enjoy it as much as they used to. I hope SXSW can stay the way it is: well-organized but loose and free-spirited. As long as it does, I’ll be back every year.