Upending expectations is something South by Southwest does every year, and 2012 was no different. We expected sun, got rain. When the clouds parted, it was easy to see that the crowds at this friendly aggregation of humanity were happy to be taking part in this annual study in contrasts, where the friendliest film festival crowds the world over engage with the gnarliest genres, where barbecue is savored at a slow pace and lines move into theaters with stunning efficiency. For a talky town—and I’m using films of Richard Linklater as my ethnographic starting point—Austin’s theaters are, strangely, the quietest in the country. A result of Alamo’s well-publicized ban on rude patrons? Maybe. As for the vast array of films displayed, I won’t venture to summarize: What follows are a few key SXSW moments from two faces in the crowd.
10.March: Bearing the unseasonably (or so I’ve been told) rainy weather, I trekked out to the Long Center for the third feature from the Zellner brothers (David and Nathan), the locally shot Kid-Thing. The film follows the exploits of 10-year old Annie (Sydney Aguirre), a fearless tomboy who spends her days by herself causing mischief while being largely ignored by her father and peers, who resolutely reject her. The fun of watching Annie engage in a variety of boredom-induced shenanigans (shoplifting, prank calls, hurling Poppin’ Fresh Dough at oncoming traffic) is tempered by seeing the loneliness and anger she clearly suffers from. Reminiscent of Harmony Korine’s films, particularly Gummo and Trash Humpers, Kid-Thing differs in that it gives Annie, a not-by-choice outcast, a heart, which opens when she makes a personal connection to a woman named Esther trapped at the bottom of a well. Not used to being needed or paid attention to, Annie’s interactions with Esther are initially governed more by skepticism than pity. It isn’t until later that she begins to see Esther as the sole opportunity for a meaningful relationship in her life.
Post-screening, I headed over to the afterparty (sponsored by Fandor), where I chatted up Sydney’s parents. They described her as a bit of a tomboy but assured me she’s nothing like the character she plays. Indeed: No dough caught air here. We left with our wallets. And in a room filled with Zellner family and friends, Sydney could feel nothing but love. (SB)
11.March: The clouds finally parted on Sunday, prepping me for the sun-drenched look of the San Fernando-set Starlet, the latest from Sean Baker (you can watch his 2008 immigrant-smuggling drama Take Out on Fandor). Starlet received a lot of buzz at SXSW, and rightfully so, thanks in part to the performances of stars Dree Hemingway (as a budding porn star with a conscious) and Besedka Johnson (playing a testy octogenarian in her acting debut), plus strong supporting turns from Stella Maeve and The Wire veteran James Ransone.
Starlet is largely a story about the unlikely friendship between early 20s Jane (Hemingway) and mid-80s Sadie (Besedka). After unknowingly purchasing a thermos filled with cash from her at a tag sale, Jane forces her way into Sadie’s life partly out of curiosity but mostly out of guilt. Sadie initially rebuffs Jane’s intrusion into her life, but the perky Jane is not to be deterred and the two women end up filling a void in each other’s lives, taking turns playing the Mother figure.
Perhaps Starlet’s greatest accomplishment is its realistic portrayal of the banal, surprisingly normal life of contemporary porn performers. The porn stars in Starlet rearrange their rooms, play video games and struggle to pay their bills, much like the rest of us. The focus on everyday life affords a sense of realism that separates Starlet from films like Boogie Nights, Wonderland and (I’m assuming) the upcoming Lovelace biopic. This approach feels fresh, leaving ample room for humor and provides an easy entrance into the story for the audience. (SB)
12.March: The SXSW Gods must have been in my corner because I scored a front row seat for A Conversation with Willem Dafoe Monday afternoon. A favorite of mine ever since I saw the hotel room scene in Wild at Heart, Dafoe was joined by moderator Eugene Hernandez from the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Ostensibly there to promote his three latest projects (4:44 Last Day on Earth, The Hunter and the now infamous John Carter), Dafoe touched on a variety of subjects, from his humble beginnings in the theater to his experience working with maverick directors. He was pleasingly candid throughout, commenting on the effect sobriety has had on Abel Ferrera as a director and describing Lars von Trier as “incredibly bright” and “a tortured soul.” Nice.
One thing was clear throughout the conversation: Dafoe is motivated by the craft of acting itself, always on the lookout for the next challenging role, the next invigorating project. It wasn’t surprising, then, when during the Q&A someone asked him about the best and worst acting experiences of his career and he frankly replied, “I don’t give a shit.” (SB)
13.March: Adjusting to South by Southwest is not a matter of altitude, like it is in Park City, Utah. It is, I became aware in my first minutes, about attitude. The vibe is chill, and though the lines are long to obtain the credential that would help me gain access, there is never a reason to worry with such an abundance of friendly helpers with what seem to be sincere smiles on their faces pushing me through the turnstiles. A Day One of film fest-going that begins on Tuesday of the SXSW Film Festival—which already follows most of the SXSW Interactive sessions, when many heavy duty cinephiles are packing to leave—should portend good things in terms of access and lines. But choose a border-themed comedy with SNL writing for its star, Will Ferrell, and you may find yourself making friends while you wait three hours for a seat in an Alamo Drafthouse for a film you know will already be opened on your home screens upon your return. The “draft” will be required. A sketch stretched perhaps a little too thin, La casa de mi padre, with its satirized telenovela dramatics and purposeful bad Mex-Western Spanish offered as many forced laughs as it parodied, but went down well with fries and pale ale. (SG)
14.March: I wasn’t the only fest-goer who found SXSW’s most exciting moments occurring inside a screening of Caveh Zahedi’s The Sheik and I. (Zahedi is, of course, a familiar face in Austin, well known for his featured philosopher role in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, and was engaged by Fandor to interview filmmakers for Keyframe while at the festival.) Fireworks reportedly occurred inside the Sunday screening of the film; by Wednesday, the audience reaction to the story of Zahedi’s interaction with the Middle Eastern nation of Sharjah was mixed but civilized.
As told in this film, curators for the Sharjah Biennial had decided on the theme of “art as a subversive act,” state they are interested in “treason,” “collaboration,” and “conspiracy,” claim familiarity with the work of Caveh Zahedi (I Am a Sex Addict, In the Bathtub of the World, and A Little Stiff are a few titles), and commission a piece from him for the show. Are they sane? When Zahedi asks if there are any “constraints” on his project, he’s given a basic “no,” although the list of exceptions (beginning with one to keep the Sheik of Sharjah himself out of it) grows to the point of absurdity. If you know Zahedi’s work, you would expect that he would create a self-reflexive, somewhat confessional narrative story that would indeed tickle all available taboos.
The surprise is not in how far Zahedi goes to encounter said “taboos,” but in just how little he needs to do to create controversy. His style is less ugly American than otherworldy observer; the mood was, to me, very Jacques Tati, with physical comedy-infused refraction/reflection on the clashing of contemporary cultures before him. Acts of treason? Zahedi organized a small dance number in a museum; created a fictional hijacking for a fictional film; recorded a citizen saying the government might be racist; choreographed a group of children kicking off their shoes while praying. Seemingly every action taken by the director is questioned by his funders in a ridiculously no-win situation Zahedi was clearly savvy enough to catch onto early.
Positive reviews from key corners of the press (Indiewire, for starters) would indicate many got Zahedi’s humorous approach in what may be the filmmaker’s most accomplished project yet.
Evening of the same day, on another planet altogether, an audience of friendly Texans would celebrate a murder in Bernie, Richard Linklater’s latest ode to the forward-thinking sidewalk philosophers of his state. Jack Black stars as the title character, who wins hearts and a life conviction for ridding the town of its greediest widow. A true story, and uncontroversial at that. (SG)
15.March: Watching the excellent documentary Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters—which showed not only the fascinating large-scale-yet-pin-point process behind Crewdson’s Beneath the Roses show but also revealed Crewdson’s own daily dips in a Massachusetts lake—whet my appetite for a very non-cinematic experience: a swim in Austin’s infamous Barton Springs. On my final day of the festival, I found my way there, walking over mossy rocks and back to the Alamo Drafthouse ready for Texas-sized portions only to realize that on the film menu would be Jeff, a documentary about one of the world’s most legendary cannibals. As filmmaker Chris James Thompson would himself note: Not the most appetizing combo. Thompson cooked up a truly incredible documentary on well-bulldozed material, concentrating on Dahmer’s other victims—his friends—interviewing the neighbor “Jeff” made man-meat sandwiches for as well as the police detective who got full confessions from the twisted killer by “relating” to him, eventually finding himself leaving the comfort of his own family to a single life in a barren apartment. Chilled in mind and body, I needed the friendly Texas humidity to re-calibrate my moral/physical compass before bidding my first SXSW adieu. (SG)