Day 1 (Friday, March 7):
Yee-haw, dude! I am once again in Austin, capital city of Texas and hipster capital of the South, for the South By Southwest Film Festival. This is only my third time at SXSW, but it’s already one of my favorite annual events: fun movies, fun friends, and fun parties. And I don’t care what you’ve heard on the street, I like fun things.
I arrived last night without incident, but some of my friends weren’t so lucky. Scott Weinberg, Eugene Novikov, and Jason Whyte (all acquaintances from eFilmCritic.com and elsewhere) had connecting flights in Dallas that were canceled due to weather. Who knew they had weather in Dallas? Weinberg and Eugene rented a car to drive from there to Austin, while Jason hitched a ride with someone, and all of their luggage remained behind (as did Eugene’s driver’s license, which he left on the counter at the rental agency).
The only incident of note in my travels was when I landed in Austin and saw the usual line of hired drivers holding cards bearing the names of the passengers they were collecting, and one of the cards said “Brown Mary.” Not Mary Brown; not even Brown comma Mary; just Brown Mary. Naturally, my first thought was, “Big wheel keep on turnin’; Brown Mary keep on burnin’.” Whoever or whatever you are, Brown Mary, I salute you.
This alleged “weather” in Dallas had far-reaching effects, as we discovered today. We’d been invited to a special press screening of “Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay,” which is premiering in the festival tomorrow night, but learned upon reaching the theater today that the print had not arrived. The screening was pushed back to 5 and then to 6, which threw everything out of whack because some of us were planning to see other films at 5 or 6. And when you skip a movie, it sets off a domino effect, because you want to see it at a later showing, but then that later showing conflicts with something else, and so you have to look for another showing of THAT movie, and before you know it you’re sitting in the corner with a highlighter pen and a screening schedule, sobbing.
Nonetheless, most of us decided to go to the rescheduled “Harold & Kumar” press showing. We had a few afternoon hours to kill in the meantime, and as it happens, my Fat Brother Jeff was here! His company has sent him for SXSW’s Interactive Festival, which includes panels and workshops and a trade show related to tech-geek-computer-Internet-nerd things. (The “Interactive” label is odd, considering it is aimed at people who sit at their computers all day and never interact with anyone.) This was the first-ever juxtaposition of my family world and my movie world. Jeff and I ate lunch at Jack in the Box (mm-mmm, local flavor!) then went to the Austin Convention Center to get our festival badges. This massively chaotic and time-consuming process seems to have gotten slightly less chaotic and time-consuming than in previous years, so hooray for progress.
Jeff went about his computer-nerd business and I headed to the hotel room being shared by Weinberg and Erik Childress, which for some reason always winds being the base of operations for all of our associates. Sure enough, the room was already littered with movie critics: Weinberg, Childress, Eugene, Jason, Will Goss, and Erik Davis, who is Weinberg’s and my boss at Cinematical. A DVD screener of some festival film was playing, but whatever interest the group had had in it to begin with had waned by the time I arrived, and now there was mostly chatter and schedule-making and the sort of merriment you’d expect to find in hotel room crammed full of snarky, opinionated movie geeks. It was just like heaven, only smellier.
Weinberg and Eugene returned their rental car and came back with Liz, a friend of Weinberg’s who was going to give us a ride to the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar for “Harold & Kumar.” We love this venue, but we do not love its location, two miles south of almost all the other SXSW venues. Six of us crammed into Liz’s small sedan, a car that comfortably seats four, uncomfortably seats five, and impossibly seats six. The laws of both traffic and physics were broken in the process, but we made it to the Drafthouse.
The screening did not start at 6, nor even at 6:30. As the time approached 7:00, we calculated the very latest the film could start before we’d have to abandon it altogether in the interest of not missing our 9:30 film (which was taking place back in the downtown area and would require us to be in line by 8:45 at the very, very latest). Cabs were called and put on notice to collect us at 8:30, whether “Harold & Kumar” was over or not. If we had to miss what would surely be a mind-bending, super-secret surprise in the final few minutes, so be it.
Meanwhile, we took advantage of the Alamo Drafthouse’s cuisine. As you may know from reading previous SXSW reports or from simply being a cool, happening person, the Alamo is one of the best movie houses in the country. The programming at their several locations is a mix of new releases and goofy special showings, and they offer full food and beverage service delivered right to your seat. It’s good food, too, and an absolutely treasure for festival-goers like us who often don’t have time to eat between screenings. It was the first Alamo experience for Davis and for a couple of our other associates who we ran into there, and Weinberg took particular pleasure in sharing this Austin landmark with them, like an acolyte sharing the gospel with a new convert.
The film finally started at about 7 (we’d already finished eating by then), and it was … meh. I didn’t find it as funny as its predecessor, but it did have some very solid laughs. Worth the wait and the hassle and the agita and the tsuris and the other Yiddish words? Probably not.
We did indeed miss the last two or three minutes in order to catch our cab. It deposited us at the Paramount Theatre, an old movie palace within sight of the capitol building on Congress Avenue that is where all the big SXSW premieres are held. Eugene was already in line, and we were joined by Greg the Volunteer and his girlfriend. Weinberg and I met Greg here at SXSW two years ago and got to be friends with him. Greg was kind enough to let me stay at his place last year and again this year. He even picked me up at the airport last night. He was standing there with a sign that said “White Eric.”
The movie we were all seeing was “21,” about some card-counting math nerds from M.I.T. who go to Vegas on the weekends to make a killing at the blackjack tables. Some of the cast members were allegedly there, but I didn’t see them. Who I did see was Scott Porter, whose role as becrippled quarterback Jason Street on “Friday Night Lights,” filmed ’round these parts, has made him one of Austin’s local celebrities. He was wearing a fedora for no good reason, although I guess I’m not sure what a good reason would have been.
As the theater filled up and people milled around, Davis got out his camera and snapped some pictures of the crowd, causing an usher-slash-security-guard to come over and politely tell him photography is not allowed and they would have to take away his camera if he persisted. When Davis pointed out, also politely (despite being from New York City), that there were at least a dozen other people taking pictures right at that moment, that the theater was practically aglow in the light of camera flashes, the guy just said, “We can’t catch everybody.” I took this to mean, “We’re not even trying to catch anybody, but you happened to be sitting near the back and on the aisle.”
You know what might have helped reduce the amount of photography? A sign somewhere saying, “No photography.” I made this observation aloud, and Weinberg and Davis joked that maybe the rule is only that Jews can’t have cameras. Eugene said there was a sign that said, “No Jews with cameras,” and the reason I hadn’t noticed it was that it was in Hebrew.
SXSW festival director and suave personage Matt Dentler introduced the film, as always; we believe he is a “jumper,” like Hayden Christensen, able to introduce a film in one venue and then introduce another one on the other side of town five minutes later. He is everywhere at once. He presented us with the film’s director, Robert Luketic, who also made “Legally Blonde” and “Monster-in-Law,” and who seemed duly humbled and overwhelmed to have his movie kicking off the SXSW Film Festival.
Too bad it ain’t that good a movie. The card-counting hook is interesting, but the rest of it is generic and ordinary: a nobody becomes a somebody, forsakes his friends, then learns What’s Really Important. YAWN!!
Kim Voynar, another Cinematical editor, had gotten into town just in time for the film, and she’s sharing a hotel room with Melanie, whom Kim and I met in Oxford, Miss., last month. Post-film, the whole lot of us traipsed over to Buffalo Billiards, a 6th Street bar where the official opening night party was being held, but we didn’t stay very long. Kim, Melanie, and I wound up driving off in Kim’s rental car in search of food, and we ended up at the delightful Taco Cabana. As always, eating Mexican food at 1:30 in the morning proved to be a poor decision, but poor decisions are part of the fun of a film festival.
Day 2 (Saturday, March 8):
Though the accommodations at Casa de Greg were hospitable, there was no denying one fact: My Fat Brother Jeff was staying in a nice hotel in the heart of the SXSW district. So last night I had Kim drive me to Greg’s so I could get my stuff, then drop me off at the Marriott Residence Inn, where I slept on the pull-out bed in Jeff’s room. I’m pretty sure this was the first time Jeff and I had shared a bedroom in at least 20 years. Passersby would have heard a symphony of snoring.
Today’s activities commenced with me taking a cab down to the Alamo Lamar for a documentary called “Secrecy,” about the CIA’s obsession with keeping things on the D.L. There are two points of view on this issue. On the one hand, some things need to be kept secret as a matter of national security. On the other hand, the public must be informed in order for democracy to work, and sometimes “national security” is just code for “we don’t want you to know about this because it’s illegal and/or we really screwed it up.”
I like that the film doesn’t take a strident tone one way or the other, and people on both sides — former CIA executives, Washington Post journalists, etc. — make good points. I think we can all agree that on certain matters, secrecy is a must. For example, if Congress were planning a surprise party for the president.
Eugene was at the screening, as was Laremy, my Film.com overlord. Afterward we three attempted to get a cab back to downtown but were intercepted by a stylish-looking older woman asking us if we needed a ride there. You’re not supposed to get into cars with strangers, I know, but there were three of us, and she was old. Plus, she was going the same place we were, which I believe is the exception to the “don’t get into cars with strangers” rule. (Pay attention, kids!)
She was obviously well-monied, well-educated, and well-coiffed, with one of those short haircuts that upscale ladies of a certain age often get. She pointed out important Austin landmarks are we drove (“That’s where the hippies live”), and when Laremy noticed the Obama bumper sticker sitting on her dashboard, politics became the subject of conversation. She loves Obama! She hasn’t actively campaigned for a candidate since George McGovern in 1972, she said, and some of her Hillary-supporting lady friends currently aren’t speaking to her. I say if you have any Hillary-supporting friends who aren’t speaking to you, count yourself lucky.
(In the interest of equal time, I should also point out that John McCain is a creepy old warmonger.)
Our new best friend dropped us off downtown and we all went separate ways. I was headed to the Alamo Ritz, the new downtown location of the legendary movie house. Apparently the original location, a few blocks east, lost its lease last year and this old theater/concert venue became the Alamo’s snazzy new home.
And whom should I see in line but Obama Lady again! She must have followed me over after parking her car. She waved to me and said to save the seat next to me when I got inside. I didn’t like where this was going. When we got inside, she sat by me, and she started discussing her movie schedule for the rest of the day. Evidently we were destined to be seatmates forevermore.
As she talked and I didn’t listen, something dawned on me. There was an incident last year where I was watching a documentary about the appalling conditions in Darfur, and a woman sitting near me kept vocalizing her horror with audible gasps and tut-tuts, and when the frustrated Marine in the film said all he could do was write reports about what he was witnessing, this lady said, aloud, “To who?!” It wasn’t enough that she should be appalled about Darfur; she wanted to make sure everyone knew how appalled she was. Well, I’m 95 percent sure Obama Lady is that woman.
When I realized this, I casually asked if she’d seen SXSW films last year, and if she’d seen “The Devil Came on Horseback” specifically, and she said she had. I wanted to follow that up with, “Did you constantly express your horror with vocal reactions in order to let everyone around you know how socially conscious you were?,” but I thought that might be pushing it.
The movie we were seeing now was called “Wellness,” a documentary-style sad comedy about a hapless middle-aged guy who has poured all his money into a multi-level marketing program. Like 99 percent of all people who get involved with MLMs, he’s getting a sucker’s deal, and the film follows his fruitless attempts to recruit other investors even as he starts to see the handwriting on the wall.
The director introduced the film by saying it wasn’t produced the normal way, that the story grew “organically,” i.e., there was no script when they started. As he described the intentionally haphazard filmmaking process, Obama Lady said what I was thinking, which was, “This doesn’t sound like a very good movie.” She wound up leaving it halfway through, perhaps to do some canvassing.
While I admire the natural, realistic central performance, I had trouble enjoying the film because it’s just so bleak. I love awkward, uncomfortable comedy; this just isn’t funny very often, and the poor fellow never catches a break.
I had only a few minutes turnaround before the next movie, also at the Alamo, a moody dramedy called “The Lost Coast.” I believe it qualifies as mumblecore: listless twentysomethings spend Halloween night wandering around San Francisco and being angsty. In particular, there are two friends, a gay guy and a straight guy, and the straight guy is engaged to be married but is grappling with the fact that back in high school he and the gay guy (who was “straight” then, too) engaged in some shenanigans, if you know what I mean. (I mean gay sex.) Apparently this is unacceptable. I mean, it would be one thing if they’d been in a college fraternity together, as the straight guys there fool around with each other all the time. But not high school, dude. That’s not cool.
During this film I was seated next to two quintessential fat movie geek Kevin Smith-looking types. They shared a giant plate of nachos and saw nothing wrong with speaking to one another during the film. Usually that annoys me, but I didn’t mind too much with these guys because the things they were saying were really insightful. Like when a character in the movie dressed as a Frenchman for Halloween and carried around a baguette as a prop, the guy right next to me laughed and said, “He’s got a baguette!” That sort of remark quelled my anger, because I was getting more out of the film than I would have on my own. It was like watching a DVD with a director’s commentary, only instead of the director it was two chubby social retards who COULDN’T SHUT THEIR FAT STUPID MOUTHS. I gave them a few warning glares and finally resorted to saying, “Could you not talk, please?,” and then they actually shut up for about 45 minutes. I don’t know what the lesson of that story is, except maybe that you should get the nachos at the Alamo because they’re awesome.
It was dinnertime now, and I’d been invited by Laremy from Film.com to join him, a Film.com corporate boss, and our Austin correspondent C. Robert Cargill for dinner somewhere. Cargill drove us up to a place called Ruby’s, reputed to have some of the best barbecue in town. We ordered giant piles of meat and feasted like carnivores while having animated (and, if I may say, intellectually stimulating) conversations about movies. It was interesting to meet Cargill in particular, simply because he was a co-worker I’d never actually met before. And it was nice to meet Mike the corporate guy, too, in particular because he paid.
Cargill got me back to the Alamo Ritz in time to hop in line with my regular posse for a world premiere called “Explicit Ills.” We were within 10 spots of the front of the line, so we had a great vantage point when no fewer than 120 people associated with the film entered ahead of us and almost filled the theater. I’m not exaggerating. The theater seats 165, and I’m certain no more than 35 actual festival-goers got in.
We noticed that at “21” last night, a few rows were reserved for people associated with the film, only instead of taping or roping them off or putting up signs, they just had a squad of the Paramount’s austere old-lady theater staff — all of whom look like former Texas Gov. Ann Richards — stand guard and not let people sit there. Seems like rope or tape or signs would have been easier, but who am I to criticize local custom? Anyway, maybe the “Explicit Ills” people solved that problem by just reserving the entire theater. Our group found seats only in the very front row, and I had to leave after a half hour because I was getting a headache.
I rejoined the gang for the midnight movie, back at the Alamo Ritz again but this time not quite as overly populated with film folk. It was a horror flick, “Shuttle,” in which an airport shuttle van taking people downtown late at night turns into a NIGHTMARE RIDE FROM HELL!!!! While I was willing to give that weak-sounding premise a fair shake, the film proved to be laughably stupid. You accept that the characters in movies like this will occasionally make poor choices that prevent them from escaping, but these people were complete idiots. There would be a thousand possible ways they could escape or at least turn the tables, and many of these ways had very strong chances of success, and they would choose to throw a bag of ice at the guy’s head. It reminded me of that joke in the first “Scary Movie” where the victim passes up a gun and knife and chooses to fight with a banana.
But oh well! You can’t win ’em all. Something I’ve said about SXSW all along is that it doesn’t particularly matter whether the films are any good, because the experience is a blast either way. I drank a milkshake during the movie and managed to limit myself to one “There Will Be Blood” reference, so it was a good night.
Day 3 (Sunday, March 9):
It is cruel irony that Daylight Saving Time should begin — and that we should thus lose an hour of sleep one night — during a film festival that prides itself on keeping people out late. I got back to the hotel room a little after 2 a.m., which was now 3 a.m., and found it quite difficult to arise at 9 this morning. I got up at 10, made an executive decision to blow off the 11 a.m. movie, and took my time getting ready, stumbling around, bumping into things, and doing some writing (some of my best, no doubt).
It is funny to walk around Austin at almost noon on a Sunday and see people shuffling and yawning like it’s 6 a.m. on a Monday.
My first screening, at 1:30 p.m., was “Up With Me,” a verite-style drama about a kid from Spanish Harlem who gets a scholarship to a fancy prep school and is torn between his old world and his new one. Sounds awfully generic, but the naturalistic acting and photography give it an engaging sense of realism. It also practically reeks with the aroma of Spanish Harlem, and you can well imagine how great that is.
I next trudged to the Convention Center for a screening of “Super High Me,” a documentary in which a man smokes marijuana pretty much constantly for 30 days to see what effect it has on him. Of course, he already smokes a lot anyway, so first he has to spend a month NOT getting high, for comparison’s sake.
The subject of this experiment is a stand-up comedian named Doug Benson, who was there to introduce the film to a capacity crowd. It was, shall we say, a receptive audience. I don’t think I’d seen that many stoners assembled in one place since … well, since I’d stood outside earlier and glanced around downtown Austin.
Anyway, Benson pointed out that he blatantly stole his film’s premise and title from Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me.” Since Spurlock has a new documentary called “Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?,” Benson said his own next film is going to be “Where Is Osama Bin Laden with My Weed?”
The movie is funny, if not particularly revelatory — except, maybe, for the fact that a month of being high 18 hours a day has virtually no impact on Benson’s health, lung capacity, sperm count, or overall mental acuity (his SAT scores actually go up a little). I was somewhat hindered by Benson’s self-professed status as a “pot comic.” I don’t usually care much for comedians whose acts consist almost entirely of jokes about one subject: black comics who only talk about the differences between black people and white people, fat comics who only talk about being fat, etc. Weed is funny, I get that, but come on.
Most of my SXSW pals were at that film, and the entire gang was at the next movie, scant moments later: “The Promotion.” I had no idea this film existed until I saw it on the SXSW schedule, but my interest was piqued by seeing it was a comedy starring John C. Reilly and featuring Jenna Fischer, Seann William Scott, and Fred Armisen. If I’d known up front that it had a cameo by Jason Bateman, I’d have been even more excited.
The Paramount Theatre was packed. This is usually the case for big-name premieres whether anyone knows anything about the movie or not, and Reilly has established a lot of comedy street cred in recent years with “Talladega Nights” and the little-seen but much-admired “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.”
I sat with my Austin pal Greg and his girlfriend in the center section, where I quickly realized there was going to be a problem: The man sitting directly in front of me had a giant head that blocked much of the screen. My other friends were toward the back and off to the side, where the sight lines are better, and while I hated to abandon Greg — whom I’d seen very little of since moving to my brother’s hotel after the first night — I also hated to only see the top half of the movie. So I moved, and Greg pretended to be horribly offended, and the circle of life continued.
My move proved to be fortuitous in more ways than one, as two seats down from me was Mary Jo Pehl, known to nerds the world over as Mrs. Pearl Forrester on the latter few seasons of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” (Of course, the REAL nerds know she had once appeared as that character prior to her full-time run, too, in episode #607, “Bloodlust.”) I said hello and told her I was a huge fan of the show, and that I actually interviewed her on the phone for my college paper back in 1997, not that she would remember, and indeed she did not. She was very nice and friendly, though.
And then “The Promotion”: the funniest film I’ve seen so far this year. Granted, the year is only 2 1/2 months old and hasn’t really had any good comedies, but still. It has Seann William Scott as a normal guy with a supermarket managerial job who vies for a promotion against John C. Reilly’s character, an impossibly nice Canadian. The film consistently goes against expectations for a movie like this — you actually root for both guys — and the script is loaded with running jokes and visual gags.
It proved to be one of the rare instances where all of us in the group loved a film. Usually there’s one guy who’s gonna be an orndorf about it (orndorf: n., from Brian Orndorf, eFilmCritic reviewer whose opinions are consistently the opposite of everyone else’s). But there were no orndorfs among us this time, and we skipped merrily into the night chattering about the film’s hilarity.
Most of us planned to reconvene for a midnight movie, but in the meantime we split up to go find places to sit down and write. Eugene and I walked over to Halcyon, which appears to be both a coffeehouse and a bar, and possibly also a nightclub. And why not, really?
There was a long line for the midnight film, attributable to its being a horror flick and also to the director having arranged with the Alamo Drafthouse to give everyone in the audience a free beer. That kind of news travels fast around here.
The movie was “Dance of the Dead,” a horror comedy in which zombies arise on the night of the high school prom and a group of hapless teens must save the town. We had a terrific time with this movie. Some of the dialogue is corny and not all of the acting is good, but the zombie scenes: WOW. So much energy and excitement, so many creative kills, so many very impressive tricks and special effects (especially given the small budget). There’s a cemetery scene where the zombies are literally launching themselves out of the graves, and it’s one of the flat-out coolest things I’ve seen in a while. And at the film’s climax, which involves an explosion, they fired a cannon of confetti from the back of the theater to make us all part of the action. There are no confetti cannons at Sundance, I’ll tell you that.
Day 4 (Monday, March 10):
Today was chilly and rainy — wholly unacceptable weather for Austin. Something called Zappos.com was promoting itself by handing out free plastic rain ponchos, so we saw a lot of people walking around in them all day, their hoods up and their bodies covered with a white plastic sheet. These ponchos have the unfortunate (and presumably unintentional) effect of making the wearer look like a Klansman. Evidently Zappos.com did not think its cunning plan all the way through.
My first movie of the day, at 11 a.m., was at the Paramount Theatre, a large venue anyway and one that’s particularly difficult to fill when you’re showing a documentary at 11 a.m. on a rainy Monday. A publicist for the film I was seeing was out on the sidewalk handing out fliers, inviting one and all to attend. It was downright evangelical!
The movie was “Crawford,” about the tiny Texas town that became famous when George W. Bush chose it at his adopted hometown right before he ran for president in 2000 — just in time to show voters how folksy and rugged and ranchy the Connecticut-bred, Yale-educated man-of-the-people is. It’s an interesting look at how intense scrutiny — every time Bush is in Crawford, it’s on TV — can affect a small, rural town.
Eugene and I were at that film, and we joined Goss and Melanie at the Alamo Ritz next for “‘Bama Girl,” a documentary about a black girl running for homecoming queen at the University of Alabama. She wouldn’t be the first black queen in the school’s history (she’d be the fifth), but she would be the first one to be elected without being endorsed by “the Machine,” a secret cabal of fraternity and sorority higher-ups who control all the school’s elections.
The young woman who introduced the film referred to the Alamo as “a movie house and a house of restaurant,” a construction that amused us to no end. She also inadvertently referred to the servers as “servants” before quickly correcting herself. I don’t know which I prefer, the unpolished introduction by an enthusiastic festival staffer, or Matt Dentler’s smooth intro that always begins, “The minute I saw this film, I knew we had to get it for South By Southwest.” (We love you, Matt! In fact, the minute we saw you, we knew we had to get you for South By Southwest!)
It stopped raining at some point in the afternoon, and after I’d spent some time writing and walking around, I figured I might as well get in line for the evening’s big premiere of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” This is the new film from uber-producer Judd Apatow, written by Jason Segal (who was one of the friends in “Knocked Up”) and starring him and Kristen Bell (aka Veronica Mars). It was at the Paramount at 7:00; experience suggested that someone from our group should be in line by 5:45 or so if we wanted to get good seats. Usually we make Jason or Goss or even Eugene be the line-waiter, but I thought I’d take one for the team. Surely I would not have done this if it had still been raining, Klan poncho or no.
Melanie joined me soon, and then Eugene shortly thereafter. He had just seen “Explicit Ills,” the movie whose premiere audience had consisted almost entirely of people who worked on it. Eugene reported that the director, Mark Webber, referenced the Cinematical piece I’d written about that incident and apologized to the Cinematical crew for not getting in. Of course, we DID get in; it was all the people after us who got screwed. But hey, it’s cool that Webber read my article and gave Cinematical a shout-out, even if it was sarcastic (which I think it was).
We also got news that The Hollywood Reporter and Variety had published their reviews of “The Promotion” from last night — and they both hated it. Mind you, neither publication actually sent a critic to SXSW. Since “The Promotion” is a studio film being released theatrically soon anyway, they’d had a press screening back in L.A. to coincide with the SXSW premiere, and that’s where the HR and Variety critics saw it. HR’s Kirk Honeycutt said it “must be one of the unfunniest comedies ever.”
We were all flabbergasted. As I mentioned in yesterday’s entry, it’s rare that EVERYONE in our group loves a film equally. I can understand someone not liking it — comedy is subjective, after all — but “one of the unfunniest comedies ever”? Come on. Weinberg was particularly outraged (his job is to be more outraged than anyone else), and he immediately began compiling a list of 101 terrible comedies that Kirk Honeycutt apparently hasn’t seen if he’s calling “The Promotion” one of the worst ever made.
Speaking of Weinberg, he and Jason and Greg and many others were just coming from the “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” pre-show party. Some of the cast had been there, and so had, apparently, a lot of bartenders and liquor bottles. Attending the party (which I hadn’t heard about) entitled you to sit in the special roped-off section of the Paramount, so that was pretty awesome for those guys.
And the movie? Funny! There has been some concern that the Judd Apatow comedy juggernaut will run out of steam, and it probably will eventually, but it doesn’t happen with “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” It’s about a guy who takes a vacation to Hawaii after his TV-actress girlfriend dumps him, only to find that she and her new boyfriend are staying at the same hotel — an absurdly contrived situation, now that I spell it out for myself, but that thought didn’t occur to me while I was watching it. The movie deftly combines show business insider jokes, meta-references, situational comedy, and relationship humor. I think I laughed more frequently at “The Promotion,” but I laughed harder at “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” And of course some of the funniest lines are ones I can’t repeat here, not when my mother might be reading.
“Knocked Up” played in this same slot last year, and was immediately followed by the Austin Chronicle/SXSW party where Loudon Wainwright and Voxtrot performed and several “Knocked Up” cast members hung out. We still talk about the coolness of that party. Sometimes at night we dream about it. So naturally we wanted to attend it again this year, in the desperate hope that lightning would strike twice, but that it would be the good kind of lightning, the kind that makes you have fun at a party, not the kind that kills you.
But first Eugene and I needed to see “Battle in Seattle,” which was playing at the Paramount immediately after “Sarah Marshall.” I’m not sure why we “needed” to see it, but we did, or we thought we did. It’s about the riots that occurred at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999, with fictional characters — cops and protesters alike — drawing us in to the drama and tragedy and tear gas.
The funny thing about this real-life incident is that I was alive and well and conscious and even working at a newspaper in 1999, and yet I have no memory of it whatsoever. I’m guessing I read the news stories, saw “World Trade Organization,” had no idea what that was or why people were protesting it, and stopped reading before I got to the good part, i.e., the part where cops were busting hippie skulls.
The film is kind of terrible. It makes almost no effort to explain the protesters’ grievances against the WTO, instead assuming that we will be on their side regardless. One of the characters even makes a joke about how the general public doesn’t know what the WTO is; all they know is that it’s bad. So, OK, ha ha, interesting comment, but it kinda undermines the WHOLE POINT OF YOUR MOVIE.
Also undermining the movie: the terrible, terrible dialogue. I quote some of the more generic examples:
“The press would have a field day!”
HE: “You know nothing about me!”
SHE: “I’ve been around men like you all my life.”
(Spoken to a pregnant woman.) “You want adventure? You just signed up for the greatest adventure of all!”
“You’re gonna turn downtown into a war zone!”
“How do you stop those who stop at nothing?”
So … yeah. “Battle in Seattle.” The minute I saw this film, I knew it was poo.
Eugene (who shared my sentiments) and I got out of there around 11:30 and headed over to the Austin Chronicle party to see if it was still swingin’. Security guards were checking bags outside to prevent people from bringing in any beverages, because if you bring in your own drinks, it decreases the likelihood that you’ll buy them inside.
I had a bottle of water, as always, so I drank what was left of it, and the guard gestured to a garbage can so I could dispose of the container. I asked if I could keep the empty bottle, as I don’t actually BUY bottled water; I get a new one every few weeks and just refill it. (People who drink bottled water exclusively are suckers who might as well be throwing their money into a fire.) The guard said no, I can’t bring a bottle into the venue, even an empty one. Why? Because I might fill it with booze and smuggle that booze out with me when I leave, and they don’t check bags when people exit, only when they enter. I pointed out, in a well-reasoned and rational argument, that this was a stupid rule. He said it’s a Texas state law — which is good to know, because it means every single other venue I’d been to in the last four days was violating this law, since no one had ever checked our bags before.
So I tossed the empty bottle into the garbage can, which was just inside the venue gate. Then, once we entered, I took the bottle back out of the garbage can (it was just lying on top of a bunch of other empty water bottles) and put it back in my bag, which I knew it was safe to do because the guard had just told us they don’t check bags when you exit. I considered my act of civil disobedience to be an excellent way of messing with Texas, which I’ve wanted to do ever since I saw a bumper sticker telling me not to.
The party was still packed with people, but all the food was gone and the band was not one we were interested in watching. We saw only one person we knew, a mildly (read: extraordinarily) inebriated Childress, who was getting around the rules about smuggling alcohol out of the venue by hiding it in his stomach and bloodstream. Stick it to the man, Childress! Then fall down!
With the party failing to dazzle us sufficiently, Eugene and I left and soon ran into Weinberg, Davis, and Goss, who were wandering the streets of Austin in search of food. The five of us wound up at Jimmy John’s, a sandwich shop that’s open late, where we ranted about the Hollywood Reporter review some more, concluding that if you think “The Promotion” is one of the unfunniest comedies ever made, you must not have seen anything with Larry The Cable Guy or Martin Lawrence. I mean, honestly.
Day 5 (Tuesday, March 11):
Jeff and I had to check out of his hotel this morning, and I’d already made arrangements to head back to Casa de Greg for the duration of my stay. There would prove to be complications in this, but as they are not the kind of complications that would amuse you, I omit them.
I left my bag with the front desk and walked across the street to the Convention Center, where I wrote for a while and then caught a screening of a documentary called “Frontrunners.” It’s a very amusing story about the student body election at Stuyvesant, the most competitive public high school in New York (it’s for gifted students), where some of the kids take their politics VERY seriously. Sometimes these docs have universal themes that can be extrapolated; this one is pretty much only about these kids at this school, but that’s fine. We got a kick out of it anyway.
“We” consisted of me, Eugene, and Melanie, and while Eugene then wandered off to meet some alleged other friends who were allegedly in town for the alleged SXSW Music Festival, Melanie and I went to the Alamo Ritz to meet Kim for another movie. (We eschew the kids and their rock ‘n’ roll.) This movie was called “Yeast,” and I was very eager to see it for the simple fact that it was written and directed by the wife of the guy who made one of my least favorite movies from last year, “Frownland.” I was genuinely eager to see what her style would be.
“Yeast” is yet another mumbly thing about twentysomethings who can neither communicate nor shut up, this time starring the filmmaker herself, Mary Bronstein, as a woman whose roommate and friend are maddeningly immature, irresponsible, and idiotic. I note that Kim described the movie from the opposite point of view: “a mumblecore chick-flick about Rachel, a maddeningly annoying control-freak dealing with her fractured relationships with two friends.” Yeah, the main character becomes annoying in the second half, but her two friends are complete morons the entire time. By the end of the movie, I hated all three characters. Hated, hated, hated them. I note that this is the exact same reaction I had to the main character of “Frownland,” so if the Bronsteins seek to be in the business of creating fictional characters that make the audience want to strangle them (the characters), then they are off to a good start.
Next I met up with Jeff, who gave me a ride in his rental car over to Greg’s apartment so I could drop off my bag. This is where the aforementioned unamusing complications occurred.
Soon thereafter I found several others of our group lounging in Childress and Weinberg’s hotel room. Weinberg and Erik Davis were live-blogging the SXSW film awards ceremony. (The awards and “closing night” party are on Tuesday, even though the festival continues through Saturday. It has never been adequately explained to me why this is.) How could they live-blog the ceremony from the hotel room? By sending Goss as an unpaid Cinematical intern to the ceremony and having him text-message the results as they were announced. At one point Davis and Weinberg went outside for a cigarette and delegated me to monitor the text messages in their absence, thereby removing themselves from the process entirely. I admire their managerial skills.
The awards were not especially noteworthy except for one point: “Explicit Ills” won the audience award. The way the audience voting works is they hand out ballots at each screening, and you indicate your score for the film on a scale of 1 to 5. The film with the highest average vote wins. (They take the average rather than the cumulative because different films play to different sizes of audiences.)
Well, you may recall that at the first screening of “Explicit Ills,” people connected to the film comprised literally 80 percent of the audience, and I’m guessing every single one of them gave it a 5. Neil Miller at Film School Rejects points out something I didn’t know: that by the time they’d handed out ballots to everyone in the film’s entourage, there were none left for the 30 or so regular people who made it in to the theater. So not only was the theater packed with ringers, but those ringers were the only ones voting. I’m not saying this was all part of some evil master plan to win the audience award, but it’s definitely an unfortunate outcome. Between this and Hillary Clinton’s inexplicable primary wins, I’ve pretty much lost all faith in democracy.
Most of the gang went to see a documentary about World of Warcraft next, while Childress and I returned to the Alamo Ritz for “Nights and Weekends,” the latest from mumblecore godfather Joe Swanberg and his regular muse, Greta Gerwig. Gerwig was in “Yeast,” too, as one of the annoying friends, and it’s a testament to her skill as an actress that I was able to hate her SO MUCH in that film while loving her a lot in “Nights and Weekends.” These mumblecore things are typically light on plot, so one’s enjoyment of them depends on one’s interest in the characters and their situations. I was quite taken by this film’s emotional depth and its honest, funny characters. I don’t think all viewers will consider it their cup of tea, but those who do will find the tea has a rich aroma and a pleasant, bittersweet taste, with the tea bag of acting steeped for just the right length of time in the hot water of directing, and a nice dollop of the honey of cinematography added for flavor.
“Nights and Weekends” let out at around 10:30, and Childress and I walked over to the film festival closing night party, which was scheduled to blend into the music festival opening night party at around 11. I was once again stopped at the entry point by a security guard who made me drink the rest of my water, after which he gestured to a garbage can for me to throw the bottle away. But then he failed to continue watching me, and I put the empty bottle back in my bag like I intended to. Snider 2, Texas 0.
This party always involves live music, and we arrived just as Moby was finishing his set. If you have never seen Moby perform, what he does is he plays records. He is very good at it. I mean, I can play CDs OK, but records are trickier because you have to choose 33 or 45 rpm, and then you have to put the needle in just the right place and make sure it doesn’t skip. So it’s really cool to see a professional record player.
Weinberg, Davis, Kim, Melanie, and all the gang were already at the party, which was in the backyard of a bar called Stubbs. This is the only joint event of the film and music festivals, so people from both worlds were there, intermingling and trying to understand one another’s languages.
Promptly at 11, they stopped letting people into the backyard party. I knew this because Eugene texted me and said he was being denied entry. I told him it was because the “film” party was over and the “music” party was going to start inside the bar, and that if he went to the bar’s actual indoor entrance, they’d let him in. Seems like the people telling him he couldn’t get into the backyard could have told him this, but whatever. Their primary concern was looking for water bottles.
Eugene successfully entered Stubbs, then went out the back door into the backyard, which you’ll recall is where he wanted to go in the first place. We were all still out there, though a feeble attempt was being made by party officials to funnel us inside. For some reason most of us decided that rather than stay at the party, we should go watch “Dance of the Dead” again at midnight.
I believe this was a first for me, seeing the same film twice in the same festival. It wasn’t that it was the best movie we’d ever seen, though we certainly did like it a lot. It was more that it was the only thing playing that we had any interest in, and we wanted to eat at the Alamo Ritz, and we’d become friendly with some of the cast and crew, and heck, why not? You run your life, we’ll run ours.
A reported 175 people were turned away from the packed screening; we should probably feel bad for whoever the first six of them were, since we essentially took their seats. No free beer for the audience this time, but they did repeat the trick of firing the confetti at the film’s climax. Really, more theaters should do this with more movies. It doesn’t even have to be an explosive climax. Just fire the confetti.
It was 1:30 a.m. when the film ended, and it seemed like a good idea for us all to go back to the hotel room and hang out for a few hours. Again, why not? Apart from needing sleep, I mean. Kim and Melanie hung out with us for a while before saying their farewells — they were leaving the next morning — and departing. Then a few guys associated with “Dance of the Dead” showed up and the merriment continued while Childress — whose ride to the airport was picking him up at 6 a.m. — slept in bed, seemingly oblivious to the chaos around him. I don’t know if Childress has always had this skill or if he learned it when he started sharing hotel rooms with Weinberg at film festivals, but it’s definitely a handy talent to have.
It was around 4 when I crashed on Weinberg’s bed while Weinberg stayed up writing and doing whatever it is Weinberg does (I don’t ask, and neither should you). At 6, when Childress left, I moved over to his bed and slept for real. It was probably a quintessential SXSW day: some good movies, some raucous adventure, a party, and not nearly enough sleep.
Day 6 (Wednesday, March 12):
Today was unusual, and I have very little to report. Finding myself grotesquely behind in my writing assignments, I had no choice but to forsake most of the films I’d planned to see today and devote myself fully to writing. It may sound odd to hear a writer complain that he has been forced to write, but the truth is that most writers spend about 90 percent of their time looking for excuses not to. That is probably why so many of them are driven to drink.
As it happens, today was going to be a light day anyway, as most of the films on the schedule either didn’t interest me or were movies I’d already seen. I did catch “At the Death House Door,” an impressively well made documentary about a man who was the chaplain at a Texas penitentiary for many years and as such ministered to 95 inmates on their final days before being executed. It invokes important questions not about the rightness or wrongness of capital punishment, but about the haphazard way it is administered in the United States.
This screening was at the Convention Center, and as I walked across the main pavilion afterward I saw people gathered around the Dell Lounge, a glass-encased room built by the people at Dell Computers. I do not know what the general purpose of the Dell Lounge is; one assumes it was built cheaply and flimsily, and that we won’t be able to get tech support when it collapses. But at this particular moment, everyone was gawking at the event occurring within the Lounge, which turned out to be Billy Bob Thornton being interviewed. So you can add that to your list of celebrity sightings.
I headed over to Weinberg’s hotel room now. Childress went home early this morning; Weinberg was in there working. He and I were in the same boat of needing to pile up stacks of words sufficient enough to appease our editors. We vowed to stay in the room and write write write write until 11 p.m., when we’d be allowed to go to a movie.
What this actually meant, of course, was that we would spend the next seven hours distracting one another. We would chit-chat for a few minutes, then say, “OK, back to work,” then get very studious for a few minutes, then talk again. Weinberg was particularly good at interrupting me, engaging me in conversation for a while, then saying, “Quit interrupting me!” And since he was coordinating Cinematical’s SXSW coverage, and since I was writing reviews for them, he had to frequently interrupt me to say, “Have you finished that review yet?,” when he knew full well that I had not, and that the reason I had not was that he kept interrupting me. Then he would ask again, this time in the Staten Island accent of our Cinematical boss Erik Davis, and I would respond with an impression of Weinberg’s Philadelphia voice. Both of our impressions are very good, though Weinberg refuses to admit how well I do him.
At 11 p.m., I went to the Alamo Ritz to catch at least the first part of “R.S.O.: Registered Sex Offender,” a mockumentary about a skeezy guy just released from prison. I was only partially interested in the feature; mainly I wanted to see the short that was preceding it, entitled “I Slammed My D*** in the Drawer.” The program said it was based on a true story, and the title and concept made me laugh. As it turns out, I could have watched it on Funny or Die, but eh, whatever. (Warning: It contains some salty language.)
Weinberg, Goss, and Jason were seeing a horror film called “Otis” at midnight in the Alamo Ritz’s other auditorium, and I left “R.S.O.” early to join them for that. (“R.S.O.” was fine, but I didn’t feel compelled to stick with it.) “Otis” seems like a bland semi-parody of “Captivity” or “Hostel,” and the first hour of it is just awful — over-acted, under-written, and half-baked. I don’t know what the last 30 minutes are like, because I left. I was really tired, and the movie was sucking. I’m told it gets into some very obvious Iraq War parody stuff later on. Oy vey.
Day 7 (Thursday, March 13):
I made up for seeing only one full movie (and parts of two others) yesterday by seeing six of ’em today. Yes, SIX! And three of them had to do with Iraq! Wheeeee!
I began my day with a heaping helping of nerdery, thanks to “Second Skin,” the aforementioned documentary about World of Warcraft players. It is very interesting to me that there are 50 million WOW players, and I don’t know a single one of them. Or at least if I do, they have kept their WOW involvement secret from me. The film does a nice job of showing us the lives of several players without making fun of them or treating them like jokes. Of course, I still think they’re all losers worthy of ridicule, but I think that about a lot of people. You can’t blame the movie for that.
After “Second Skin” is when my Iraq marathon began. Initially my plan was to see one film and be done with it, in and out, easy-peasy. But I realized after the first one that I should probably stick around for the second one, and then that led to the third one, and even though my resources were drained and I really wanted to do something else, I was stuck and had no choice but wait until it was all over, no matter how lengthy or costly it became. When it was all over, I questioned whether I should have ever started in the first place. I’m sure you know the feeling.
First up was “Body of War,” a documentary directed by Phil Donahue and somebody who isn’t Phil Donahue (don’t feel like looking it up), about an U.S. soldier who came home from the war paralyzed from the chest down and is now involved with the Iraq Veterans Against the War organization. I think the film has some fundamental flaws, not least of which is the fact that its subject, Tomas Young, joined the Army on Sept. 13, 2001, specifically because he wanted to do something in the aftermath of 9/11. If he’d already been in the military and THEN was sent into a dubious, ill-conceived, disastrous war, then I think the film’s point would be stronger. As it is, well, you did sign up with the intention of fighting a war, and that’s what you got. Would you be any less paralyzed now if the Iraq invasion had turned out to be a really great idea? I just think the film’s point would have been better made if Donahue and not-Donahue (seriously, too lazy) had chosen a different poster boy.
One thing the film does well is to intercut Tomas’ story with C-SPAN footage from October 2002 in which one senator after another parrots back President Bush’s message about the dangers of Iraq in the run-up to the war. Much of what these men and women, Republicans and Democrats both, said at the time now sounds hilariously naive and inaccurate, which of course was the point of including it. The film seems to ask: How could so many people have been so wrong?
What amused and annoyed me — annused me? — was the audience’s reaction. When a particularly vile senator such as DeLay or Frist would appear on screen, many of those in attendance at the Paramount Theatre would boo and hiss. Yes, actual hissing, as if they were watching a silent melodrama in which a mustache-twirling villain had tied a woman to a train track. When someone spoke out against the war (such as Sen. Robert Byrd, who emerges as something of an ignored prophet), they would applaud him.
Mind you, I agree with the sentiments here with regard to the Iraq war. But it’s silly to applaud a movie. It’s filmed images being projected against a screen: The performers aren’t actually there to soak in and respond to your admiration. And in this case, not only are the performers not there, but the footage of what they’re saying is 5 1/2 years old. You’re applauding or hissing something that happened half a decade ago. Laughing, gasping, crying — those are natural, spontaneous responses to a movie, done almost unconsciously. Clapping, booing, and hissing are conscious decisions, and the only reason you do it in a situation like this is to let everyone around you know what you think. “Look how civic-minded and outraged I am!” is the subtext. And guess what? No one cares what you think. Shut up and watch the movie.
Next in my Iraq marathon was “Bulletproof Salesman,” a documentary about a man who sells armored vehicles in Iraq. Is he a war profiteer? Um, probably. He says he’s no more a profiteer than the people who sell toilet paper and other necessary supplies to war zones, and maybe he’s right. Maybe I’d agree with him more if he didn’t come off as such a b-hole in the movie.
In truth, it’s not a very good documentary anyway. It’s very short (70 minutes), and it lacks any kind of story or arc. It’s basically, “Well, here’s this guy, and here’s what he does, and the end.” It was disappointing because I’d had several people tell me the film was great. Turns out my intel was faulty. It was the best I had at the time, and I took the appropriate action by seeing the movie, but now I knew differently. To make up for it, the only option I had was to keep seeing more Iraq movies.
Luckily, there was another one showing! It was “Stop-Loss,” a fictional film in which an Army staff sergeant with pouty lips is angered to learn his tour of duty has been extended beyond its original expiration date. It will be released in theaters in a couple weeks, and it has some big names in the cast (Ryan Phillippe, Channing Tatum), but I cannot imagine it will break the trend of Iraq-themed movies failing at the box office. Nor do I think it should, as it’s emotionally flat and unengaging. If you want to see a great movie about the effects of war on young soldiers, rent “In the Valley of Elah.” If you want to watch a shallow treatment of the subject — co-produced by MTV, for heaven’s sake — watch “Stop-Loss.”
Having finally found my way out of the Iraq movies (well, OK, there weren’t any more), I hit a midnight screening next with several of the regular gang. The film was “Southern Gothic,” a horror flick in which a preacher becomes a vampire and views it as a blessing rather than a curse — the fulfillment of God’s promise of “eternal life.” I think that’s a fantastic idea for a movie, but this one squanders it with terrible, terrible acting and dialogue. It was no “I Slammed My D*** in the Drawer,” I’ll tell you that much.
It was now 1:30 a.m. You’re thinking that surely this was the end of my day. But no! Weinberg had a DVD player back in his hotel room, and he and Goss and I elected to watch more movies. Our selection was “[Rec],” a very, very frightening Spanish film about a virus outbreak that turns people all killy. That’s nothing new, of course (“28 Days Later,” etc.), but man alive does this thing ever sizzle. It’s filmed by the characters themselves (like “Blair Witch Project” and “Cloverfield”), and that device continues to be a scarily effective way of drawing the audience in to the action. The film has not been released in the United States and is already being remade as “Quarantine,” to be released in October. I can only assume that the remake, in keeping with the trend of American remakes of foreign horror films, will suck. In the meantime, here’s what Weinberg had to say about “[Rec]” at Cinematical.
Goss and Weinberg and I collapsed into the loving arms of sleep shortly after the film concluded, with Goss on the floor between the hotel room’s two beds. Visions of zombies and soldiers and World of Warcraft nerds danced in our heads.
Day 8 (Friday, March 14):
We figured that a good way to spend our last day at the festival would be to go watch “Doomsday” at a multiplex somewhere. It opened in wide release today without having been screened for critics, and it had to do with a deadly virus and a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and what the heck, why not? It’s not like we were already at a film festival or anything.
I suggested last night that we catch today’s noon showing, as this would enable me to be back downtown in time for a 3:30 SXSW film I wanted to see. But Weinberg insisted noon would be far too early, considering we were about to stay up too late watching movies, so we planned on the 2:30 showing instead. Indeed, noon came quite early after our 4 a.m. bedtime. Honestly, even 2:30 was pushing it. Also honestly, why were we in such a hurry to see “Doomsday”? We make no sense.
Weinberg, Eugene, Goss, and I took a cab to a multiplex a few miles south of downtown. We did indeed watch “Doomsday.” This happened without incident.
Afterward we sauntered over to the nearby Barnes & Noble to do some browsing, the other three in the sci-fi/fantasy/nerd section, me in the magazine aisle. (Long-time readers may recall that I get kind of obsessive about finding the current Entertainment Weekly when I am away from home.) Then we walked to Arby’s for lunch — not because any of us particularly like Arby’s, but because it was the only reasonable choice within our immediate field of vision. I would guess this is how Arby’s gets a lot of its business.
It was after our meal that we began to discover the pickle we were in. You can’t hail a cab anywhere in Austin except right downtown, and even then your prospects are dicey. Your best bet is to call the cab company and have them dispatch one to you — but when we called, one company told us it would be at least an hour, and the other company didn’t even answer their phone.
We started walking up South Lamar Boulevard, figuring we might see a taxi that way. At the very least, we knew we’d come to a bus stop eventually and could get downtown by means of public transportation (as if we were common poor people!). We found a stop, and a woman waiting there said a bus should be along in about 15 minutes. Goss called Austin Cab Company again and was met with great annoyance when he could not provide the exact street address of our location. Giving the dispatcher five obvious, unique, unmistakable landmarks and an approximate address was insufficient for Austin Cab Company, an outfit that, despite its name, apparently has no knowledge whatsoever of the streets of Austin. Maybe “Austin” is just the name of the guy who started the company. At any rate, Austin Cab Company refused to do business with us and has thus forever earned our scorn and condemnation. Their competition, Lone Star Cab Co., shall be our sole taxi service in Austin henceforward. SUCK IT, AUSTIN CAB COMPANY. We hate you, and we hate your ass face.
The four of us were grumpy and sweaty by now. I sat in an abandoned shopping cart and read Entertainment Weekly while we waited for a bus to show up. When it did, we learned that it would only take us up South Lamar, leaving us to walk another mile or so east to the SXSW venues. We accepted this as the best offer we were going to get, exited the bus at 6th Street, and trudged toward our final destinations. Weinberg’s fury at the bus’s failure to stop at 3rd Street (where he wanted to get off), and then at his inability to hail a cab, grew to Incredible Hulk proportions. We feared he would lay waste to the city of Austin with his wrath.
Eventually we made it to Congress Avenue, where Eugene went to secure a place in line for the 7:00 movie while Goss, Weinberg, and I headed to the hotel near the Convention Center. Goss and I had left our festival badges there, thinking we’d be back from “Doomsday” with two hours to spare rather than 30 minutes. We retrieved our badges and trudged back to Congress Avenue. Weinberg stayed in the room to write and pout.
SXSW’s music festival was in full swing by now, with 6th Street closed to automobile traffic so that the hundreds of skinny identical-looking hipsters could wander aimlessly and drunkenly from one music venue (read: bar) to the next. 6th Street takes on a carnival-like atmosphere during the music fest, with bands competing with each other for the eardrums of passersby and the streets clogged with revelers. It strongly resembles Mardi Gras, only with less boob-showing and bead-acquiring.
Goss and I were weary and cranky and in no mood to be jostled by indie-rock fans. Someone representing Dentyne Ice was handing out free samples of the gum to anyone who passed him. We took some. Then the guy wanted to take our picture holding the gum. This seemed like a strange thing to want to do. Had there been some question back at Dentyne headquarters about whether people would accept offers of free gum? Did this intern need proof? “See, guys?” I imagined him saying when he got back to the office. “I told you people would take free gum if you offered it to them!” Goss and I dutifully stood still long enough to have our photo taken, but we did not smile or in any other way indicate that the free gum had brought us any amount of pleasure. I do not think these photos will appear in any Dentyne promotional materials.
At this point in the film festival, it is easy to get a seat, even for big premieres. Many of the festival-goers have gone home already. We joined Eugene in the Paramount Theatre and watched “Assassination of a High School President,” a film-noir-detective-comedy-drama about a school newspaper reporter investigating the theft of some SATs. Childress saw it at Sundance and HATED it, but it turns out he was orndorfing us: We all found it quite suitably funny and entertaining — not a classic, perhaps, but certainly not bad.
(By the way, the new Rolling Stones concert film “Shine a Light,” directed by Martin Scorsese, was allegedly screening at SXSW tonight at 7:30. However, all the SXSW website and printed film guide had to say about its location was that it was on an IMAX screen. There was no indication where this alleged IMAX screen was. Was it like a treasure hunt? Did anybody find it? Were the raisiny, emaciated corpses of the Rolling Stones in attendance? I have no idea.)
I went back to Weinberg’s hotel room after “Assassination” to write my “Doomsday” review and hang around until our midnight movie. It was a documentary called “Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie,” about a couple of very devoted Bigfoot researchers who live (of course) in the Southern backwoods somewhere. They have lots of “pictures” of Bigfoot that are actually pictures of various wooded areas in which there are shadows that sort of look like the shape of something that could be Bigfoot, if they weren’t just shadows and if Bigfoot existed. I never tire of watching documentaries about idiots. Never.
This was a very short documentary (62 minutes!), which is nice for a midnight film. Afterward a whole bunch of us wound up at party headquarters, aka Weinberg’s hotel room, with some of the people from “Dance of the Dead,” which had its third and final screening tonight. The screening went well, and the filmmakers have been in talks with some people about getting it distributed theatrically. They couldn’t tell us anything definite, but it seems promising. It’s definitely a film that could do good business with the horror crowd.
At around 2:30, I was pretty tired and wanted to head over to Casa de Greg to get some sleep. I made my farewells with everyone and headed downstairs to catch a cab. None were to be found. The woman at the hotel’s front desk said that with the music festival in full swing, getting a taxi would take at least an hour. I gave up and went back to Weinberg’s room to doze for a while. Finally, at about 4, I went down to the street to try again and was glad to find a Lone Star Cab rather than the hated Austin Cab Company. At this point, I probably would have forsaken my principles and taken whichever one showed up first, so I’m glad it was Lone Star.
* * *
And thus ended my 2008 South By Southwest experience. I can’t overstate how much I love almost every aspect of this festival. I love the programming, which includes some serious movies but mostly focuses on fun, non-stuffy titles like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” (Sundance would program something like that only over Robert Redford’s dead, leathery body.) I love the Alamo Drafthouse. I love seeing my friends. I love the SXSW audiences, which are generally good-natured, well-behaved, and fun to interact with. I love SXSW’s tireless producer Matt Dentler, even if he does introduce every film by saying, “The minute I saw this film, I knew we had to get it for South By Southwest.” His vision of the festival — of its identity and its place among other film festivals — is perfect.
Long live Matt Dentler and SXSW! Long live the Alamo Drafthouse! And long live me, Eric D. Snider! I’ll see you in 2009.