Outside of plain old good times, the chief feature of SXSW seems to be overwhelm. There are more great films crammed into a ten-square-block area than I could possibly hope to see in 30 days, much less four. (The 2006 SXSW Film Festival stretches from March 10 to the 17th, but The BF and I were only there for the part that overlapped with SXSW Interactive.)
Then there's the waiting time that eats into your movie consumption. Some of the theaters are tiny, and even with the magic badge that grants you first access, you need to queue up at least an hour in advance to gain entry. (Film passes, at $65 each, get you into a separate queue that gains admission after the Badge People enter; individual tickets put you at the very back of the bus.) The weather was lovely for the festival this year, unseasonably warm for the first three days, and we met some terrific people waiting in line, but still: every minute you're standing in line is a minute you're missing another panel or meetup or film.
Which brings me back to one of the Real Things I Learned at SXSW: a festival, much like money or alchohol, brings out the truth in people. My particular truth? I lack the easygoing gene. I'm not particularly good at going with the flow, and when faced with the possibility that one of my plans might fall through, I react with a mix of anxiety and crushing disappointment. I do not know why I didn't learn this particular truth about myself 10 years ago when I would break out in hives everytime I had to improvise at a Groundlings Sunday Show performance, oh, wait...yes, I do. I am an uptight control-freak asshole.
Anyway, what was fascinating to me about the film part of the SXSW equation was that it was my first experience with buzz, or the first time I was able to watch buzz play out in almost real time, because of the compacted time frame the festival provides.
Example: we were fairly interested in seeing Darkon, the feature documentary on a Baltimore-based live action role playing group, when we first looked at the schedule. (Well, The BF was, anyway. He's got better film-dar than I.) But after two days of hearing people talk up Darkon, we put it on our must-see list. It did not disappoint. The filmmakers, who spent a year filming the players on and off the battlefields of Darkon, winning their trust and gaining access to some pretty intimate details of the players' lives. As a result, the film offers a fascinating look both on the nature of the outsider (live action role playing is hardly a mainstream pursuit) and the basic human need for drama, connection and expression. There's a sideshow factor, too, of course, it's hard for most of us to relate to a group of grownups spending their weeks duct-taping their plywood and styrofoam shields for a weekend of ye olde combat and a chance at grabbing an imaginary slice of land in an imaginary realm. On the other hand, it's no weirder than scrapbooking, shopping or, let's face it, blogging as sport, so maybe I should lay off.
There was more fine, outsider action at The Last Western, a feature documentary about the rise and fall of a small "Western" town on the edge of the Mojave desert. Pioneertown was a fully-functioning Western movie set built by the Hollywood studios to facilitate filming. It was abandoned by the studios with the falling fortunes of the B-Western, but a number of inhabitants stayed on, creating a sort of Western Island of Misfit Toys. While a bit incohesive as a film, The Last Western does a fantastic job telling the stories of the individual dreamers, outcasts and iconoclasts who populate Pioneertown.
The residents of Small Town Gay Bar are outsiders for a different reason. Choosing to remain in their small, Bible Belt towns for whatever reason (this is never really explored or explained in the film), these gay men and women are (barely) tolerated at best, persecuted or killed at worst, and severely isolated at all times. Small Town Gay Bar is a fascinating look at the need for community and how it will out (no pun intended). The filmmakers do an incredibly thorough job interviewing the various denizens of small town Bible Best gay bars past and present, as well as showing the pressures they face from the community at large and a few especially vocal, intolerant entities in particular.
There are mainstream outsiders, too, of course. In the 2004 U.S. presidential elections, they were called "Democrats", and they struggled mightily to find their collective voice and make it heard. Al Franken: God Spoke documents the plight of American liberal Al Franken, as he worked to save the American people from four more years of tyranny, lies and land-grabbing by the administration in power. I won't lie to you: while often outright hilarious, Al Franken: God Spoke was the most depressing movie I saw at SXSW by a long shot, and I saw movies about gay men in the Bible Belt and transgender males in prison.
Oh, yes, what's more fun than being a liberal in new millenial America? Being an enroute, transgender male in the U.S. penal (!) system. Cruel and Unusual is a look at the special degradation and horror the pre-surgical transgender male undergoes in prison. Aside from the obvious nightmare of having to be some bad man's girlfriend, incarcerated transgenders are routinely denied treatment for their medically-recognized condition, suffering physical withdrawal and severe depression as a result of going off their hormone meds cold turkey. For its important message, I wish I could give Cruel and Unusual the unqualified thumbs up. Unfortunately, I came away feeling that while the subject matter is compelling, the film itself didn't have a point of view other than "this is really awful." I hope it finds life on public television as a special, where its mere reportage quality would serve the community, but I can't really recommend it as a film.
I can, on the other hand, heartily recommend The Life of Reilly, a filmed version of actor/teacher extraordinaire Charles Nelson Reilly's electrifying one-man stage show. Most of us of a certain age know Reilly as a mainstay of 70's crap TV. (Most of the rest of you don't know Reilly at all, which a funny montage in the movie takes pains to point out.) But Charles Nelson Reilly had a major career as an off-Broadway and Broadway actor before his TV years, and an active life during and after as one of America's preeminent acting teachers (he took over Uta Hagen's class when she died). Reilly is smart and funny and a consummate performer; while there are a few awkward "openings up" in The Life of Reilly, for the most part it is a hilarious, breathtaking telling of a fascinating life and a great insight into what makes performers tick.
My chief issue with Tales of the Rat Fink, the story of kar kulture icon Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, has to do with the opening up of its story. Director Ron Mann is known for his iconoclastic takes on documentary subjects, but there were so many crazy elements in Tales, animation, talking cars, strange interstitial bits, the end result felt a little disjointed. According to Mann, there was virtually no archival footage of Roth; when Roth died shortly after Mann started the project (it was shelved for some time), the director had to come up with some alternate way of telling the story. To be fair, the cut we saw on opening night had been rushed through to make the premiere, but I think there are structural issues beyond tightening up a few odd editing gaps. To be even more fair, I am on my third Toyota Corolla, which is to say I am so not a kar person. If you like kars, or cool illustration, which Ed Roth is also known for, you'll probably love it.
The only narrative film we saw during our entire SXSW trip was The Notorious Bettie Page. We were mainly interested in seeing films that we weren't sure would get distribution, and Bettie is scheduled for release in April. But we thought it would be fun to see at least one biggie before the general public, since that's part of the thrill of the festival. For a thrill, and a fairly risque, fairly thrilling subject, The Notorious Bettie Page was pretty disappointing. The acting was solid and the cinematography was gorgeous (at least, I thought so, The BF was less impressed). But the script was pretty lame, lots of bad dialogue and a cringe-inducing first fifteen minutes, and the whole thing came off as more of a made-for-TV biopic than a great narrative film.
The BF saw another picture or two without me while I was geeking out at the SXSW Interactive panels, but no big recommendations, so we'll let them lie. I may post some mini-reviews from our new Austinite unicyling friend, Steve Wiswell, if he grants permission. And if you're into it, there are more great mini-reviews on some of the pictures I didn't see at SXSW by Andrew O'Hehir at Salon.com.
Of course, you can always just go to Technorati and hit the SXSW and film tags. SXSW is the nexus of all things arty and geeky.
I miss it already...
PHOTOS of the exterior of the fabulous Alamo Draft House and a kustom kar outside the Rat Fink premiere taken by me and The BF with my spiffy new Razr.