More Than Just Music: SXSW Film Festival Review
There are many lessons I learned at my first SXSW festival, such as: the Southwest part of the festival does not exist in Austin. Every time I mentioned South by Southwest, whoever listening to me nearly passed out from boredom at hearing an extra two syllables. Aberrations aside, I feel compelled to share some more of the SX goodness.
For not being a documentary festival, SXSW had the most documentaries I’ve seen at any festival. My schedule for the first half of the festival was accidentally made up completely of docs. These weren’t hope-will-find-away-through-extreme-poverty-and-cancer documentaries, these were beyond-enjoyable-entertaining documentaries. From “No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson” to “The People vs. George Lucas” (Starring our own Sid Pink) the line-up of documentaries made the festival. The crown jewel was “American: The Bill Hicks Story”. Leave it to a couple limeys to put together a perfect portrait of the artist using nothing but voice-over, old photos and key frames.
Storytelling Through Improv:
In the Scottish film “Crying with Laughter” screenwriter/director Justin Molotnikov took a different approach to improvisation. The current trend to set up a camera, give characters names, and call action can lead to some insightfully deep characters and a fresh look at boundaries of cinema, but it doesn’t exactly keep you on the edge of your seat with plot. Molotnikov moved the improv back a step and worked with actors to improvise and create the script. “Crying with Laughter” is a tight film that still has the fresh feel of an improvised film.
“This Movie is Broken”:
When I saw the Broken Social Scene mentioned in this “narrative,” I circled this film as a must see on the schedule. When I read the plot was about unrequited love and a plan to get BSS tickets at a last attempt to win a heart, I did the unthinkable and got up before noon to see the film. I was gravely disappointed. The film was a concert film structured around three characters’ experiences at the free Broken Social Scene concert. Who knows, maybe the characters and their story would’ve been interesting on its own, but when it’s interrupting terrific footage of an epic show, I lost patience with them very quickly. Their whining and pining was keeping me from enjoying a great show. If director Don McKeller tried to duplicate the experience of when you’re standing behind a drunken couple fighting at a show, then he succeeded.
In midst of all the booze, celluloid, and mayhem, it’s easy to forget that SXSW is a huge industry conference where independent connections are made and where wise networking can lead to funding on that feature script about teen-aged heroin addict bank robbers. But even for the most amateur filmmakers, the panels are a goldmine of knowledge. The panel discussions themselves are informative, but the real wisdom doesn’t come out until the Q&A session. In fact, every Q&A, whether it be at a panel or post-screening, was extremely insightful. So kudos to you SXSW, for putting an intelligent audience in front of your product.
The Alamo Drafthouse:
If you claim to love cinema, you need to book a flight to Austin and see a film at the Alamo Drafthouse. In the history of the world, no cinema has perfected the movie watching experience like the Drafthouse. From the hilarious and bizarre pre-screening entertainment to their flawless food and bevy delivery technique, seeing a film at the Drafthouse is a treat. Despite having to leave the festival hub to view films at the South Lamar Alamo Drafthouse, I tried to plan my last film of the day there so I could work up a nice screening buzz before officially trying to kill my liver downtown.
“Mars” is a film where “labor of love” is an understatement. “Mars” is an independent animated film, and while the techniques may be similar to Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life”, this film was not preceded by the Fox Searchlight logo. The graphic novel style, while time-consuming, is perfect for the subject matter. The film is the story of reality TV generation’s exploration of space. With reality television and a thousand other elements claiming the destruction of society, will there be anything left worth saving twenty years in the future? That question is the launching pad for “Mars”. This film begged to be cuddled up to and hugged all night long. Best film at the festival.
“Dance With the One”:
At a festival with such innovative and original films, “Dance With the One” felt starkly out of place. The film was part of the University of Texas’ program to produce a feature film, and with such a vibrant film making community in Austin, I had high hopes for this film. But sitting through this film felt very much like sitting through a 90 minute student feature. The film was by the numbers, and I’m sure if I were a professor at the UT Austin, I’d have to give it an A. The techniques were all there, but it was made by a production team that has not found their voice yet. If this were the NBA Draft in the early aughts and I was a GM drafting on potential, this film would be a lottery pick. Let’s hope this program continues and turns into a Joe Johnson instead of a Kwame Brown.
The Sunday after the film festival ended I found myself riding around in a rental car with a bomber of Coors Light, trying to accomplish the near-impossible task of meeting friends during SXSW. We had finally locked down plans to meet on South Congress and we found a parking spot in the adjacent neighborhood, but we couldn’t leave the car because the public access radio station in Austin was playing Joe Frank’s monologue, Bible Salesman. We couldn’t pry ourselves away from the story of a man traveling the country selling phony bibles that had been padded with pages from technical manuals and pornography. We sat through a number of station identifications in silence, shocked by this surreal story we’d stumbled upon. It turns out Joe Frank has been around for years, but at a festival claiming to be where tomorrow happens, Joe Frank was the find of the week for me.