Well, the general thing I can say after my first SXSW experience is that I feel like I've gone through a blender. I am, undoubtedly, spoiled by kinder, gentler nonfiction festivals, with manageable programs, a highly-navigable experience (meaning convenient to get from place to place, preferably on foot or plenty of free transportation to get a visitor from hotel to films, parties, etc.), and easy access to everything, especially film screenings. (Pictured, the ultracool Highball--restaurant, bowling alley, karaoke lounge--modeled on the spot in the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski, adjacent to the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, a main festival venue.)
I would say that I spent about fifty percent of my time at this festival waiting on line. For coffee, for food, for films, for parties, for rides, everything. Even as a first-timer, I knew this was due to growing pains. The staff and volunteers were trying their valiant best to accommodate the floods of people at their festival, and I mean floods. I almost fainted when I saw the line at registration which was about a mile long.
In her intros to films, festival producer, Janet Pierson, after the event had kicked off in earnest, took to asking audiences if people were having trouble getting into films. After hearing a resounding yes!, she courteously suggested people make an alternate plan and to really make space for line-standing time into their schedules. Not all of the cinemas suffered from this glut, but the smaller main venues certainly did. "A good problem to have," as Pierson said, but hard going when one is trying to see as many films as possible every day. After desperate suggestions from guests that have been attending for a while to provide a shuttle service (which they charged for), there were only two vans making the main loop, which meant waits of up to 30-45 minutes to get to another spot in town. The only other option was a taxi ride and a few of those a day really add up and make your pocketbook empty out pretty damn fast.
Anyway, enough bitching, it was fun and fabulous and a great new experience. With enough sunshine, margaritas, great Tex Mex food, loads of parties, friendly, hospitable Austin-ites, music pouring out of every orifice on 6th Street, and lots of lovely programming comrades on tap, it wasn't half bad. I'm sure they'll be better prepared for next year and I hope they get the same kinds of crowds they did this year. It was heart-warming, I tell you, to see lines snaking around the corner for films nobody knew anything about except from a description in a catalog or on the web site. A personal thanks to new programmer, Jim Kolmar, (also film conference coordinator and web content), a man with great taste, for including The Living Room of the Nation in the SX Global section for its North American premiere.
I, admittedly, didn't see as much as I had planned due to above-described circumstances, but I tried my best. And as at most festivals, I did see one film, in particular, that no one's ever heard of and that played exactly once at the smallest venue there (thanks, Mark Rosenberg)--and it's my fave, oddball that I apparently am. I also attended panels and conferences, the trade show, etc., so I wasn't a total slacker. Although I did spend a lot of time in the sun drinking beer and munching on chips and salsa. I've been living in Finland; I was overdue for some sol. So, without further ado, a few cinematic things worth mentioning:
Futurestates: ITVS commissioned eleven filmmakers to make short narrative films that examine current events by extrapolating them into the future. SXSW world premiered six of them, including films by Greg Pak, Garret Williams, Ramin Bahrani, Tze Chun, Aldo Velasco and Annie Howell. Standouts were Bahrani's Plastic Bag with Werner Herzog as the rapturous, yet ultimately disenchanted, title hero; Tze Chun's Silver Sling about a struggling career surrogate--a woman who is hired to produce babies for high-ranking female workers of a corporation--who has to decide to give away yet another child or keep it, her last chance at motherhood; and Annie Howell's Tio & Marco, about a pregnant border patrol agent who finds an illegal immigrant child hiding in her house. See more Season 1 selections here.
Tiny Furniture: This was the only film I manged to see in the narrative competition of eight films. It also walked away with the jury prize at Tuesday night's ceremonies. As well, its creator was bestowed with Chicken & Egg Pictures' Emergent Narrative Director award. There is no doubt that 23-year-old filmmaker, Lena Dunham (fellow Hammer to Nail contributing writer) has a very bright future. This accomplished feature which Dunham wrote, directed and stars in, had one of those crazy lines where not one pass holder got in since the badge holder line was so long. Meaning the audience consisted mostly of industry supporters and friends, so there was a lot of excitement. The story is about the recently college-graduated, heartbroken and very confused Aura, played by Dunham, returning to the nest and trying valiantly to live comfortably in the (very antiseptic) family homestead, a giant loft in Tribeca peopled only by her mother, Siri (played by Dunham's real mom, renowned photographer, Laurie Simmons in a fine performance) and her sister, Nadine (played by Dunham's real sibling, Grace). Taking a dead-end job as a day hostess in a small restaurant around the corner from where she lives, she meets and courts two ne'er do wells, Jed (played by filmmaker, Alex Karpovsky in a sly, subtle performance) who moves into her house and refuses to touch her, and Keith (David Call who gives a superb and, oddly, endearing performance) who fucks her in a huge pipe in a playground. Dunham creates precocious characters who interact with one another in that numb, detached way people do when all, to a person, are disaffected and lost in some way, their own pain or preoccupations making them only partway "there" for their loved ones. Or they live a life completely in an alternate universe, like that of her "best friend" since childhood, Charlotte, played by the luminously beautiful and very quirky, Jemima Kirke, in the film's most charming performance. Dunham has the writing chops for good television and the film has a patina that isn't really conducive to dark and depressing themes. This left me somewhat emotionally detached, but perhaps I could also say that this is possibly the film's strongest point. Like Woody Allen, she can easily find humor in painful angst and presents her plump, misshapen body and hangdog expression to great affect. The scene where she sits on a deflating mattress staring off into the middle distance says it all. You do want to cuddle her and tell her everything will be all right. But you also want to slap her pretty hard. Jody Lee Lipes steps in as DP and does his usual glorious work--he shot the whole film on a still camera. This might be one of those festival breakout films that will do decent box office given the right marketing spin. I just hope it doesn't take a bloody year or more--get it out in theaters this summer would be my recommendation. It's a great seasonal film and millions of graduating college seniors will find the movie that speaks directly to them.
More from SXSW in a bit.