Sunday, March 24, 2013

My SXSW

SXSW has grown to this gigantic amorphous thing that is not the same for any two people. Oh, you discuss other peoples' experiences as these two gents are doing on the escalator at the Convention Center. And you find lots of common ground. You may even find yourself on a wave length that puts you in line next to the same people over and over. But no one person experiences the thing the same way, not even close. Not even if the others are concentrating on the same sorts of things. Not even if you see all the same programs. (Like FFP and I did.)

We bought film badges. Our music experience was limited to the entertainment at the one party we attended (The E Flat Porch Band at the Austin Film Festival alum party at Star Bar) and the bands playing a set at Lenoir's backyard on Sunday so Todd Duplechan could use up the goat he ordered for a SXSW party that canceled.  (Smoked and served with sunflower sprouts, cilantro, etc. in sturdy lettuce leaves.) Oh, maybe he was planning the event anyway but the cabrito was from a canceled party. ("It's SXSW, that's what they do," he said, cheerfully.) Oh, there was music leaking out everywhere...crashing up from the La Zona Rosa and Austin Music Hall and Cedar Street, around every corner from street buskers, out the doors of bars. And we walked by South by San Jose and Guero's on Sunday, hearing a few bars of music. Indeed, there were musicians playing at Ruth's Chris when we sought solace there. They were playing regular weekly gigs, though. Free to attend.

But movies were our concentration and music was a side light although, since it's SXSW, some films were about music and one showing even featured a brief performance.

We bought film badges back in September. They cost $450 each then, the cheapest price. Pretty pricey to stand in long lines and see 20 movie programs and one panel discussion and wander through a trade show. Over 20 dollars an event. We stood in slightly shorter lines for some shows but only because we stood in a long line to get another pass (the SXXpress pass or some such).

The only panel discussion we went to was "A Beginner's Guide to SXSW Film." We weren't beginners but someone we like was on the panel and so we thought, why not? And we heard from director Yen Tan whose movie we later saw ("Pit Stop.") We did learn a little. In any case we knew more than 99% of the volunteers.

So, yes, we saw 20 movie programs. I couldn't name them without a cheat sheet. I'd always forget one or two. But I'm going to round them up with this cheat sheet provided by the SXSW schedule thing. Links may disappear and I plugged in Short Game where we didn't really see it because the link wouldn't work from the one where we saw it (a TBD). If that makes sense. (And it doesn't make much to me now. The SXSW scheduler and app are great except when they are not which is frequently.)

We did not drive our cars to any venue for a SXSW event. We attended movies at all the 'walkable' venues: the Vimeo Theater in the Convention Center, Alamo Ritz, Stateside, the Paramount, Rollins at Long Center, Violet Crown and Topfer at the Zach. There was a little rain at first but mostly the weather and the walking were pleasant. We did not get a single free drink nor any free food. Just the idea of free signals to us crowded and untenable. We ate popcorn and drank sodas and beer and coffee in some of the theaters and we treated ourselves to meals at Bess, Garrido's and Henri's and snacks and meals at Ruth's Chris in the lounge.

We didn't get turned away from any theater but we did give up getting into one movie at the Paramount, now out in general release. The line almost wrapped back from Congress and Eighth to Congress and Seventh. I believe we went to Ruth's Chris and had food and I drank a Manhattan. Below I've collected my thoughts on movies and people and general stuff. These aren't reviews. I'd be a terrible movie reviewer. They are more like 'impressions' and thoughts and likes and dislikes.

Shorts Program 1
Of particular interest was the Kat Chandler short Black Metal. Our friend Kelly Williams was a producer and Kat Chandler wrote and directed. I was very impressed with how much they were able to do with a short to show the multiple sides of a heavy metal artist who is also a husband and father. No preaching, just showing. Another short in this program stood out for me: Natives. I was particularly captivated by the actors playing the parents. Stoic, deadpan, unaffected. This film had at its center a lesbian couple. Gay characters abounded in the offerings, it seemed. Whether this is just a general trend (I tend to think so) or SXSW is trying to gobble up the local GLBT fest is a question I asked myself.

Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction
Harry Dean. And, and Wim Wenders and Kris Kristofferson. David Lynch. Sam Shepard. Clips from movies we all love. Harry Dean doing music and more music. Kris singing. Lovely film that I'll try to watch again someday. Must see for the film buff.

Before You Know It
Aging and its perils have been on my mind for quite a while. Nearing Medicare myself, ushering aging parental units on the long final slog from 2000-2011, watching friends die. P.J. Ravel's focus here is aging people in the GLBT community. He focuses on three men and the people around them. They are quite different people leading disparate lives in different places. I found all the people engaging. Only knock on this one is that it is too long and gets repetitive. One of the ones where you start mentally making the cuts yourself. ("I'd cut the bar's mardi gras footage right here. I'd lose part of this gay wedding. We don't need to see them arguing over that shopping bag.") But great insight into these people and their very real lives. I felt like I knew them and felt for their struggle.

Before Midnight
Richard Linklater, Julie Delphy and Ethan Hawke return to their riff on contact, communication, attraction and chance. Tour de force acting. Just people revealing through talking. Which I love!! Great scenery, too.

When Angels Sing
Turk Pipkin must have always dreamed of turning his little book, a homage to Christmas, into a movie. A movie with deep roots in music and Austin. He did it and we saw it with most of the people in the movie. Marcia Ball, Sarah Hickman, Willie Nelson as Santa. Sappy but fun and good for Turk, living his dreams.

Linsanity
Jeremy Lin says it's all about God. I say it's chance and talent and desire meshing. Still, great doc and the man himself was there. Not a sports fan, really, but enjoyed the film.

Getting Back to Abnormal
Beautifully put together. Telling a pretty big tale of NOLA politics and history, Katrina and the lore of the Crescent City using the seemingly small lens of one city council race. The scope ends up being pretty sweeping and the even-handed way the people and issues are handled sings.

Rewind This
This doc is about video tape, the experience of watching movies and other material in this medium and current collectors of those clunky plastic cassettes. Entertaining and informative in the same way that those TV shows are that are about guys who are antique or toy experts and go around collecting things. It didn't make me sorry I tossed a multiple tape set of "Titantic" but it did make me glad I saved my cassette of "Pink Flamingos" signed by John Waters.

Muscle Shoals
All that music from a litle spot in Alabama called Muscle Shoals? If you wrote this doc as fiction, it would seem fantastical. The Fame Studio and the risen from poverty Rick Hall, backup musicians called the Swampers and their offshoot Muscle Shoals Studio defined the sounds we were weaned on. Most people leave home to make something grand happen. The world came to this spot on the Tennessee River and took the sound away. If you can't enjoy this one, you don't like Blues, Rock 'n Roll or a good tale.

Sofia's Last Ambulance
The grimmest thing I've seen on film in a long time. Follows a ambulance crew in Sofia, Bulgaria with shaky handhelds keeping patients out of the picture. Sometimes you just see a few points of light and hear the dialogue with the patient and those around them while a dog barks mournfully somewhere. Sometimes you are just watching the weary faces of the driver and the crew from a dash cam as they discuss their calls and their lives. In the middle of SXSW where emergency help is only minutes away you watch as the crew struggles with calls that end with decomposing bodies, long frustrating searches for unknown addresses, snarled communication and struggles to keep patients stable over roads that rock the ambulance with deep potholes. Definitely not the place to fall ill on vacation. It's amazing to get this close to people's lives in another place.

Continental
This doc by Malcolm Ingram is astonishing. If only there had been better film shot inside the baths. No, no, not that sort of film. I mean the entertainment that miraculously appeared there. Bette Midler for example. At this movie's center is a man so interesting and complex that his own sexuality is a footnote. Steve Ostrow now teaches in Australia. His operatic voice is still credible. But his Continental Baths in New York City became a beacon that attracted not only gays for sex at a time of barely emerging freedoms but a series of unbelievable musical acts, a famous DJ and many celebrities. It must seem like fiction now to all involved. And more so to us.

William and the Windmill
This is a doc about a young man in Malawi who had to drop out of school during a drought and famine. Hungry for knowledge (and food) he tried to cadge school notes from friends still enrolled and finally resorted to borrowing books from a sad little library. One on energy encouraged him to try building a windmill and he succeeded in doing so. His story gets into the TED vortex and he is mentored by Westerners, eventually co-writing a book, going to a prestiguous PanAfrican prep school and enrolling at Dartmouth. Every moment you feel afraid that someone will take advantage of this bright, lovely young man. Or already has. You were never sure it wasn't already happening. It was a bit hard to figure out at the end of the movie if the story will remain a bright spot among many sad tales of this continent. One hopes so. This won an award and it's indeed a good story but the story drags a little in places and seems mired in waiting for something more to happen.

Pete and Toshi Get a Camera
It's 1963. People (especially free spirits like Pete and Toshi Seeger) did things like this: pack up the whole family and wander around the world. Toshi (mostly) used her 16MM movie camera while their teenage son recorded sound and Pete interacted with musicians: listening, asking questions, playing stuff himself. There are also family shots but this is mostly an amazing trip through our world told through ethnic music and dancing from fifty years ago. The original film and other artifacts are now in the Library of Congress, I believe. William Eigen has done a magnificent job of using these materials and modern day interviews to pull together this adventure into an amazing film. Makes one so glad that Pete's conviction for refusing to testify for Joe McCarthy was overturned and his passport returned.

Pit Stop
A friend is a producer. The blurb said 'small Texas town' and 'gay.' How could we not go? (Sorry for that LGBT fest, whatever it's called now, but your mission is compromised.) Very polished, sophisticated, great character development and...John Merriman...Austin's favorite character actor, playing straight and nerdy as only he can do.

Brothers Hypnotic
A father wants a band so he has lots of kids and teaches them music. A bunch of sons (one is not actually his child, three mothers involved) start a brass band called Brothers Hypnotic and take it all over. They do what they have to do. They don't sell out. Still...it's not how Pop thought it would be. Really quite fun and very interesting people.

Hawking
A brief history of the man who brought us the brief history of time. An interesting tale, narration by Stephen Hawking in his well-known computer voice. The movie is straightforward and revealing and the reenactment was not too sappy. (Even Stephen comments on how strange it was to see himself portrayed by an actor.) Hawking wasn't there but Stephen Finnigan, the filmmaker, took some photos and a video of the audience to share with him.

Loves Her Gun
How do we react when our feelings of safety are shattered? Is everyone who might protect us and comfort us merely in it for something for themselves? We end up with an ambiguous yet satisfying ending with none of the questions really answered. John Merriman, Austin's busiest character actor, plays against type and does so excellently. The lead (played by Trieste Kelly Dunn) is very good. The film borders on mumblecore (whatever that is, I've never really figured it out) but maintains too much story drive and character development to fall into that trap. (Although there are plenty of party and bar scenes with that usual vibe.) Great indie effort. We had to see this one because the writers are Laura Modery (who waited on us at Foreign and Domestic and used to write for the local Culture Map) and Geoff Marslett (who may have many credits but is most famous to me for starring in what is possibly the funniest 'bumper' (pre show short short for the fest offerings) of all time.

Twenty Feet from Stardom
I learned that my husband of many decades always wanted to be a backup singer. Really? This great film followed many of them (who are mostly, but not all, women). Darlene Love and Judith Hall performed live afterward. A real treat.

Good Ol' Freda
Some gals are just good ol' girls. They don't use their serendipitous position as the secretary for wildly successful musicians for evil. They do the drudgery and then, when the Beatles split up, they just go on, being a mother and a secretary in less of a limelight. That is the story of Freda Kelly and it seems to be a fantasy. Even to her, now, as she goes through a few boxes in the attic and reminisces. She swears that she won't do it again after this. A wonderful film. We saw the last showing and therefore, I'm told, missed seeing Freda here.  A very unique perspective on the story of the Beatles and their ten years together that we've been told so many times before.

The Short Game
This documentary follows a group of very small golfers (6-to-8-year-old kids) through the paces of preparing for and playing in a world championship. This effort took the filmmakers all over the world and was incredibly involved but it is a stunning film. It won an audience award for documentary films and was thus being shown in a bonus showing when we saw it. I would have definitely given it a high score.

People at the Fest

It seems we were constantly having long discussions with people in line (after all there was almost as much line time as movie time).  These are precious to us when they turn out to be engaging people. This is where we've met some great people who have become life-long friends or just acquaintances that enriched our understanding of life a bit.

We met a gal who makes short documentaries for a Whole Foods sponsored WEB site.

There was a guy and gal from Poland who were couch surfing and attending the film fest. They were translators for a Polish film fest. They had flown to San Francisco then Austin and planned to rent a car and drive back to SF, seeing sights along the way. Someone had said they should to go to Marfa. I didn't encourage it.

A photographer we met on line for the biopic "Senna" last year explained a lot of F1 stuff to us. (Because he's an F1 fan.) We greeted each other like old friends when we saw each other this year. I've been following his exploits on twitter all year. He enjoyed the race, he said, and we told him we watched it on Speed TV which we only discovered we had on our cable that day. He said it's moving to a network, NBC I think.

An older couple (even older than us?) who live in the Monarch three months a year (or was it six?) and were taking their first whack at SXSW.

Many leading citizens such as Tom and Lynn Meredith and Deborah Green. Of course, those film-involved like Turk Pipkin and the many people in his movie like musicians Sarah Hickman and Marcia Ball.

We always visit a bit with Jette Kernion, of Slackerwood fame. She knows were to find us in the Paramount since we always gravitate to the same two seats. (We have now chosen two seats as permanently ours in the Topfer, too, so if we go to SXSW film again and if they use the venue we will become predictable there. The seats bear the names of some friends and are, indeed, their seats for Zach events.)

We saw Ruth Pennebaker a few times, once with her husband James Pennebaker. They are local treasures: authors and doers. We saw Jim Ritts, the ED of the Paramount and State, enjoying a few showings himself and Stephen Janisse who directs the film programming at Paramount and State, fussing about the venue as well. Ruth wrote this brilliant blog entry about her SXSW which makes me wince at my own and wish I could write like that. (Or knew that much trivia!)

We saw our friend and Austin's favorite waiter (although he's been unemployed for a year while Jeffrey's is renovated) Johnny Guffey at the showing of Before You Know It.

Of course, we saw other people involved with movies we saw: John Merriman, Kelly Williams, and Geoff Marslett and Lauren Modery.

We saw a lot of people who thought a lot of themselves, too. People with Platinum badges (access to film, interactive and music) who thought they should go to the front of lines. People who simply jumped the lines. (I'm looking at you fellow from Irving Texas.) We saw lots of interesting people on the street and very fantastical tattoos and fashion especially once music started. One homeless guy sang some songs for $1 donations. (FFP 'bought the movie rights' and made a video of him for $5.) One volunteer took her duties so seriously ("stand on this line" "you must curve around this way") that it must have been exhausting. She handed out queue passes in a line that couldn't have had twenty-five people for a 400 seat venue. Other volunteers were simply clueless. FFP encountered some who would minutes later be trying to set up intricate lines for Paramount and State who didn't know where the theaters were! (He'd gone for coffee for me and had to give directions from a block or less away.) Some volunteers were so busy discussing where to go with the free badges they'd 'earned' that we were answering questions about those intricate lines.

The Trade Show

We walked through once, but somewhat carefully. We didn't understand a lot of the stuff on display. We encountered a gal in the Duracell booth who was a fantastic salesperson. She was peddling power mats and these little gadgets to hold a charge for your phone. (We bought two of the latter.) We asked her if she sold all the time. Nope. She was just a temp they hired and was in nursing school. She has a great future getting patients to take their meds and get out of bed after their operations. We also picked up some tourist info about Montreal. Need to go there.

The Bottom Line

Was it worth our money and time investment? Hard to say. But we did see a number of films we might have otherwise missed forever and we enjoyed walking around ATX in the nice weather.

We took off one evening to see the staged reading of a friend's play. A welcome break and what fun seeing it come to life with a bunch of our friends.

It's entertaining to see these people from all over the world. It is good to force yourself into a different routine without leaving town. I only drove my car and played tennis once during the fest. FFP drove only to get to the play venue, I think. We caught a ride in one of the Chevy rides they give to advertise their cars.

Will we do it again? At the beginning of the fest I would probably have said  'no' but now that it's over and I'm sort of recovered? Probably.

2 comments:

G C said...

I've been wanting to attend SXSW. Maybe next year.

Forrest Preece said...

Brilliant work, LB. What a terrific summation of our experiences.