Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on March 17, 2013
My attempt to do the SXSW film festival last year on a small budget was a remarkable fiasco. The round-trip drive had me spending 40 hours on the road, aided in part by a GPS device that would set itself to a default destination every time its suction-mount failed and it fell to the floor by the passenger seat (which was often). I almost lost my car to high waters in a freak deluge three hours before arriving to Austin in Brownwood, Texas. Although I arrived safely my bike was stolen on my third day in Austin, and the return trip saw me hiding out at the Trail’s End Trinidad motel hoping I wouldn’t be robbed by nearby meth addicts. Side-note to readers: don’t pick up hitch-hikers with tear-drop tattoos. I realize this is a rather broad statement, one that does not take into account which eye the tattoo falls under, or whether the tear drop is unfilled, possibly meaning simply that the person’s friend was killed, or whether the tear drop is inked in, thus symbolizing that the person has killed the killer. Either way, it does seem to point toward some degree of poor judgement regarding the friends the hitchhiker likes to hang out with. I tried not to dwell on their peculiar views involving vigilante justice – focused as I was on dropping them off at the nearest corner I could find. Ironically, what almost killed me that night was a so-called air-freshener, one that had been hidden under a night-stand by the bed and opened up full-throttle, saturating my small room with near-lethal toxins. It was hard to breathe, much less sleep, and it left me nauseous and sick for days afterwards.
The good news for me about attending the SXSW 2013 film festival was that there was no car to lose, no bike to have stolen, and no meth-addicts to hide from. This trip was cheap and easy. The bad news: I had no Platinum Badge (a given), I had no Gold Badge (again: a given), and I didn’t even have the Joe Shmoe SXSW Film Pass (okay, in previous years I’d ferreted out an early-bird purchase for this one – but not this time). No biggie, I thought, as I had a strategy to only hit the big theaters and take my chances with rush tickets. With a good chunk of the people attending the interactive component of the festival gone, and so many others focused on the music, a felt my chances were pretty good. To paraphrase the bandits in John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre: “Passes? We ain’t got no passes. We don’t need no passes. I don’t have to show you any stinking pass.”
At this point, a look at last year’s fact-sheet provides some sobering numbers:
Bottom-line, even those with marginal math skills can deduct that if you’re going to have some 60,000 people attending the SXSW Film Festival alone, yes, yes you do need a pass – at least you do if you want to optimize your time inside a theater instead of waiting a long time outside the theater only to get shut out anyway. Still, I did get in to half of the films I tried to watch, and the good news is that you see festival films for $10 a pop, which is a steal. The first film I got into was one that I’d missed at Sundance: Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer (Mike Lerner/Maxim Pozdorovkin, 2013).
Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer snagged the Special Jury Prize at Sundance and is being released by HBO Documentary Films. It looks at members of the Russian agitprop punk group that were arrested in February of 2012 after storming the altar at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior to perform their song “Mother of God, Drive Putin Away.” Their time on the altar lasted less than a minute before they get hauled away by security, but that footage, and much more, is all here. The two directors introduced the film and warned the audience of some explicit footage (mainly a nod to a very brief scene showing one of the arrested members of Pussy Riot having sex while pregnant, as part of an earlier performance art piece). You don’t have to be a fan of punk music to appreciate the brave offensive being staged here by the young women that dare to speak truth to power and challenge the oppressive patriarchy and political regime that dominate so many lives. A bonus, for me, was being able to catch this doc at the Stateside Theatre. It adjoins the historic Paramount Theatre,which has deep roots in the community that extend as far back as 1915 – then known as the Majestic Theatre:
My next favorite film, also a doc, had almost nothing to do with music but made much ado about politics: Our Nixon (Penny Lane, 2013). The director introduced the film by first making it clear that the film we were about to see was essentially a found-footage project. The idea was to look back at one of America’s most notorious presidents largely via the prism of Super-8 home-movies shot by his devoted aides. Most of this silent footage was shot by H.R. Haldeman and was donated to the Nixon Library by the Haldeman estate. Filmmakers Penny Lane and Brian L. Frye whittled down hundreds of hours worth of footage (most of it rather mundane) and weave in period news footage, excerpts from the Nixon tapes, and some contemporary interviews to revisit both the highlights and low points of Nixon’s presidency. Policy wonks will be disappointed as this is not a detailed analysis of the Nixon administration. (“What? How could there be no mention of the disastrous Controlled Substance Act of 1970?!”) There are no shocking revelations, a lot of surprising omissions and many missing key players, but none of that was the point anyway. The point was to grant viewers a front-row seat, mostly from Haldeman’s privileged position, to show us an altogether very human being wrestling with some the problems that come your way when you sit in The Oval Office.
I was curious to check out a new venue that cost over $10 million to build and that SXSW was using: the new Topfer Theatre at ZACH. In terms of seating, it’s spacious and comfortable. However, it was clearly built by architects focusing on staged productions attended by people who place a premium on well-lit aisles. As a film venue, the overzealous way the aisles were illuminated posed a major hurdle for any customer wishing to enjoy a film in comfortable darkness. Sitting on the side, I was distracted by the excessive brightness that made my twitching foot and all its attendant shadows a show of their own. Shifting seats and going to the very back, I found myself feeling like I was watching a movie screen astride two airport runways. On the plus side, it was far enough from all the downtown craziness, and also large enough to accommodate over 400 patrons – so even if you didn’t have a pass you’d still have a great shot at a seat. When vying for those precious few cash tickets made available to the plebes, you can’t be too picky. You are also forced to pick your poisons, and in my case that meant watching Drinking Buddies (Joe Swanberg, 2013), an ambling romantic comedy about co-workers at a Chicago brewery, followed by You’re Next (Adam Wingard, 2011), a horror film that revels in black humor. Both films featured strong female protagonists, but oddly enough Olivia Wilde’s performance in Drinking Buddies was far more riveting to me than Sharni Vinson’s lead role in You’re Next, and this despite Vinson being seen doing things like making pulp out of a bad-guy’s brains with a blender.
Speaking of blenders… If you think about films like food, the film programmers become the chefs, and the film venues are restaurants. Some restaurants are very conscientious about their image and seek out five-star honors, attracting only the most discerning clientele. Others shoot for a theme, be it high-or-low concept. The variations are endless. Telluride is a small house owned by the chef with only 13 tables and high standards, providing customers with a small and very selective menu that you only get to see once you sit down at the table. Sundance also has high standards, but is both high-concept and high-traffic. They’re more like that glitzy L.A. eatery that has been visited by all the superstars and always has a long line of people waiting to get in past the bouncers. It’s prone to fads that allow some rather strange plates to be served (what’s this Twinky filled with squid parts?) and loves publicity.
SXSW? It sometimes feels to me like a parking lot with a wild array of food trucks adjoining live music pubs and a ridiculously busy conference center. A little bit of everything is easily had, some of it exceptionally good when considering the price. Other times you look down and see a mish-mash of indiscernible things covered in melted cheese and bacon bits. Messy and maybe delicious, but you can’t help but feel that maybe the person who put it together was either drunk while working the grill, or simply juggling too many balls in the air at the same time.
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