Beer and Movies are a Great Mix: SXSW 2004

By Chris Parry
Posted 04/06/04 21:31:05

It’s 106 degrees outside, we have 18 drink tickets, a bag of skanky weed, a $30 VCR, 25 screener tapes, it’s dark and we’re wearing sunglasses…. Hit it. Thus is the tale of South By Southwest 2004, another chapter in our annual pilgrimage to the movie geek Mecca of Austin Texas. To sum it up in highlights, Jim Jarmusch called me insane, Richard Linklater showed he’s blossomed as a director, Ron Mann bought lunch, Julie Delpy gave Scott the hairy eyeball, Morgan Spurlock became a rock star, Kevin Smith did his stand-up routine, Guillermo Del Toro talked about how he hasn’t seen his penis in years, Chris Gore forgot who I was (a tradition at every film festival I’ve ever attended), Adam Goldberg seethed (another fine long-standing tradition on the festival circuit), and John Sloss totally dissed me. Beyond that there was a freaked out bat, a wheelchair full of fat, and a grumbling Nicky Katt. And a drink-ticket-dispensing honcho named Matt. Good times, good times…

If someone crept out to the outskirts of Austin in the dead of night and stole the entire city, transporting it on a giant Halliburton truck to Washington State, I tend to think that neither the people of Austin nor those from the rest of Texas would object to the shift at all. The folks of Austin have a slogan that they put on everything from billboards to T-shirts – “Keep Austin Weird” – and it’s that attitude that makes the city the only place in Texas worth setting foot in. The Alamo Drafthouse, a combo bar/movie theater where you can watch a flick on a leather couch while eating pizza and drinking pitchers of beer, also helps make Austin a destination of note, but we’ll talk more about that later.

I’d been traveling since 5pm Thursday when I got on a bus in Vancouver headed for Seattle, where I would catch a red-eye flight to Minneapolis, then a connecting flight to Texas, finally getting to my Austin hotel room some eighteen hours after I’d started out on my trip. That’s a long journey in anyone’s language, but if you want to get from another country to the other side of the USA for less than $300, you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.

Unfortunately, a journey like that doesn’t exactly leave you in the kind of mental condition to sit through Michael Winterbottom’s opening night festival film, Code 46. A Gattaca-like story of a time in the near future when the landscape is barren and dead, and emotion is controlled entirely by pill consumption, this Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton-starring film is slow, understated, largely dialogue-free and entirely beautiful. At least what I saw of it. As much as I wanted to get the entire film through my head uninterrupted, my lack of sleep caught up with me after forty minutes and all I have from that point on is scattered five second glimpses of the film taken in between nods. Thankfully, I was awake for the last five minutes, and thus ‘got’ the message the film was trying to convey, which says to me that most viewers are likely going to have to work hard and be patient with Code 46 if they’re going to come away with the message intended. Scott and Erik were also there for the flick and confirmed that I hadn’t missed much – just a deliberately meandering, breathtaking piece of art that points out exactly how close our world is today to the apocalyptic controlled environment depicted on screen. If I was Rex Reed I’d have reviewed the film regardless of my partial attention to it, but as I’m not an aging relic with questionable ethics, you’ll just have to make do with Scott’s impressions here instead.

Next on the list was Adam Goldberg’s directorial outing, I Love Your Work. Goldberg is a definite original in Hollywood terms, and probably his own worst enemy in a similar sense. He’s grumpy as hell. You can see in his eyes, or at least in the black marks around them, that he’s spent a lot of time over the last decade in a real mood. When you watch him interviewed on say Jon Favreau’s TV series, Dinner For Five, you see that he’s a genuinely dark guy, a real cynic with a keen wit, but no patience for the games people play, especially in the filmmaking business. So it’s no surprise that I Love Your Work is a dark, funny, dark, tragic, dark, dark film. Giovanni Rbisi plays (for all intents and purposes) Goldberg; an aspiring director who somehow became an actor and now finds himself stuck in a world where everyone he meets is either a ‘friend’ or a critic. He’s married to a supermodel (Goldberg’s dating Christina Ricci, who in the film plays Rbisi’s great lost love, and he wakes up every morning with the distinct feeling that something’s just not right in his life. When he becomes friends with a fan, things begin to change as Rbisi’s character starts to take joy in doing to others what is done regularly to him, and that’s where I Love Your Work loses it’s way. While personally I really enjoyed the film, and truly appreciate both what Goldberg managed to do with the camera as well as his desire to make a film that’s different from most, I’m the first to admit it doesn’t quite come off. What was worrying, however, was Goldberg’s Q&A session afterwards, where he seemed to back off from his film and suggest he wasn’t sure what it all meant, and that Rbisi’s character wasn’t him at all. Or at least wasn’t all him.

Stand behind your film, bro. If it confuses the masses, so be it; it was supposed to. Don’t wimp out.

Nicky Katt doesn’t seem to be a big fan of I Love Your Work, even though he’s in it. He never appeared for the Q&A of the film, and when I spoke to him at a party later in the festival he told me how he only wanted to direct now. I asked why and he replied that he was “sick of people who think they know how to direct.” I pushed for names, but he wasn’t talking, but his attitude throughout the festival told me he was far from a happy camper, and when I suggested that Goldberg’s directorial style reminded me of Coppola (Sr), he laughed out loud. Of course, he was also six sheets to the wind when we spoke, and I’m sure that putting two uniquely cynical individuals like Goldberg and Katt in the same room is a recipe for conflict regardless of the quality of the film their making, so take it with a grain.

Someone I used to think was way overrated was Richard Linklater. The writer/director who kicked off the indie movement with Slacker and kept going against the grain with Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, Suburbia and Waking Life never really impressed me as a huge talent in the early days. Sure, Slacker was different and funny in parts, and okay, Dazed and Confused has a faithful cult following, and yeah, some people think Waking Life is fantastic stuff, just as every woman in the world thinks Before Sunrise is the most romantic film that doesn’t feature Colin Firth - ever. I was just never of the same mindset. Until recently, that is.

It started with Tape. Linklater and regular collaborator Ethan Hawke shot this microbudget stageplay talkie in a hotel room with a consumer video camera, and I loved every second of it. The film works just great with a near zero production budget and proves that EVERY good stage production should be put to camera, not just for history’s sake, but also because it really doesn’t need to cost very much. Questions I had as to whether Linklater could handle the mainstream were also answered recently with the very much above average family comedy School of Rock, starring Jack Black. It was truly a shock for me to find myself thinking so highly of a Linklater film, especially as last year’s SXSW had run a screening of an early Linklater flick, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, which was nothing short of painful, but two great Linklater films in a row? To me, this was unprecedented.

So this year at SXSW, I made it my mission to watch Linklater’s annual hometown roll-out of new product with an eye as to whether the guy had truly evolved, or whether maybe I was just missing something for all these years. I rewatched Dazed and Confused the day before I set out for SXSW, and though I enjoyed it more than I had when I saw the film many moons ago, it wasn’t enough to shake me.

Before Sunset, however, was. This beautifully conceptualized, perfectly written, magnificently performed sequel did exactly what I didn’t think it could possibly be capable of – it not only outdid the original by a long way, but it made the original better. Before Sunset brings Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy back to play the characters they last inhabited back in the early 90’s, and they’ll never be any better than here. I. Loved. It.

Scott did too, and when he tried to tell Julie Delpy, hanging around for the Q&A that he did too, she gave him a look like he had three heads. Maybe in French, “Hey, I loved your movie,” means, “Hello, you have lovely breasts.” We may never know exactly what Julie was thinking, though I suspect it can be explained with the theory that she’s not a fan of the Philadelphia Eagles.

A few days later, Linklater showed a TV pilot he’d shot last year for HBO, called $5.15/hr. And once again, the guy floored me with his excellence. A very funny show that reminded me in more than a few ways of Kevin Smith’s classic convenience store comedy Clerks, Linklater spoke openly of how the show was dumped by HBO after a whole lot of work, a whole lot of money and a whole lot of applause from those at the network, only for some doofus in a suit to suggest that people don’t want to see people on screen “doing their job”… presumably unless they’re Mafioso, or upper middle class white women talking about their vagina.

A day later, Linklater was having a ‘one on one’ discussion with my personal favorite director, Jim Jarmusch. The interview format left a little to be desired, but the two of them talked openly about their thoughts on film and filmmaking, enhancing the respect that I have for each of them greatly. As far as Jarmusch is concerned, however, the best was yet to come. Later at a party on 6th, I came face to face with the great white haired auteur, and told him how much I dug Ghost Dog (and boy, do I love Ghost Dog) – a story that involved mentions how I bought multiple copies of the film for family members and delivered each with a note saying ‘this is why I do what I do’. Jarmusch said “You’re insane!”, to which I said “I’m insane? You remade a 1960’s Japanese B gangster movie about a guy with cheek implants, using a large black American samurai who lives in a pigeon loft - and I’M insane?!”

Actually, I didn’t say that at all. I should have, but shit, man, I was talking to JARMUSCH! What I actually said was, “if you ever need anyone to lug cables for no pay in return for food and a desk to sleep under, I’m there.”

He duly asked for my card and said he’d give me a call.

Well, slap my ass and call me a fanboy, but that made my darn day. Until the next day, when John Sloss, a guy that I used to occasionally talk to on the phone back when he was a mere entertainment lawyer and had yet to land the job of Indie Film Producer God, turned his back on me mid-conversation and left me hanging when I went to shake his hand goodbye. Burn.

That would have really pissed me off, had not Toronto-based documentary filmmaker Ron Mann seen me outside, remembered my name after a twenty second conversation the night previous, and invited me to come eat chili with him and two other journalists. This guy had nothing to sell, nothing to hype, no agenda, he just remembered my name and invited me to hang. So I hung. Ron’s got a film coming out in Canada soon, Go Further, a documentary about Woody Harrelson’s hemp-supporting political adventures, which I’m yet to see but have heard numerous good things about, and he was also the guy that made the comedy drug doco, Grass, and the classic doco, Comic Book Confidential, which I have both seen and loved. But today Ron was a fellow filmgoer in need of food. So we chilled out and chili’ed up.

Seems Ron is a pal of Jarmusch, and the two of them will shortly be making a film about mushrooms together. Ron wanted to know if any of us had contacts in the field of mycology (the study of mushrooms), so if you happen to know someone who can help, do let me know, dear reader, and I’ll pass on the details.

In the midst of a fevered film festival, it was nice to sit and chill out for a while. I discussed our problems getting accredited to the Toronto Film Festival over the last few years (don’t get me started), we talked about great documentaries that we’ve seen (Ron has started a distribution company, FilmsWeLike, to give small films like The Weather Underground and Neil Young’s Greendale a little theatrical push), and we discussed the coolness of Austin, ad nauseum.

Later, Ron got Scott and I into a packed showing of Jarmusch’s new film, Coffee and Cigarettes, where we luxuriated in our VIP section seats while most of Austin sweated outside on getting one of the few seats available to non-VIPs. The film was great, and Jarmusch was hilarious at the Q&A. And John Sloss spent a good portion of the film checking his cellphone. I never did get that handshake.

Harry Knowles reportedly ‘arranged’ for a secret screening of Hellboy at the luxurious Paramount Theater. Because he’s friends with director Guillermo Del Toro. Or something. Anyway, the ‘secret’ screening had a queue going right around the block, so it’s probably good that it was a secret, eh? The film was great, or at least pretty darn good, but the highlight had to be the bat that the madding crowd woke up in the back of the theater, which duly buzzed the heads of a good portion of the crowd. Kind of apropos, I’d think.

Not so apropos was Greg Pritikin, director of last years Dummy and this years Surviving Eden. Our own Erik Childress does festival reports for WGN Radio in Chicago, and had the job of letting WGN host Nick Digillo know that the reason Pritikin wasn’t on the phone at that moment doing an interview was that he was in the theater watching Hellboy.

The first time we met Pritikin was at SXSW a year ago, when he was a timid first time director happy to talk to anyone and everyone, happy just to be there, and handing out flyers in the street to strangers. A few months later, in Seattle for the film festival up there, Pritikin was well on his way to learning how to be a director when he hit on every woman he saw, went home with a bunch of strangers after closing a nightclub, and woke up the next morning to find that his new friends had cleaned out his (very expensive) mini-bar. Now, with a new film under his belt, it seems Pritikin has concluded that his own press is accurate, to the point where he doesn’t need to do anyone else’s press. Good for him. Such people are generally rewarded by Hollywood with everything they don’t deserve, and nothing they do. Here’s hoping the Woody Allen shtick doesn’t wear too thin, too quickly, Greg.

Oh yeah. Surviving Eden was pretty funny, but if you thought Dummy was a little patchy in parts, Surviving Eden is even patchier, in even more parts. The cast keeps it afloat, but at times it really struggles. Greg asked us not to review it because his music wasn’t cleared yet, so I won’t say another word.

I will talk about Jersey Girl however, where Kevin Smith turned up and laid his comedy Q&A on the crowd to much applause. Kevin’s been doing the same routine in colleges across the country for the last few months, and after reading our transcript from his Philadelphia appearance, his SXSW turn left me with a hefty sense of de ja vu. It’s one thing answering the same old questions with the same funny answers, but it’s another to move new questions back towards the ‘same old’ questions because you have funnier stories to answer those with. Hey, I’m not going to pound the guy for giving the kids what they want, and they do indeed want ‘funny Kevin’, not ‘poignant Kevin’, at least judging by the box office of Jersey Girl. But I used to work for the guy way back in the day, and I know that deep down he’s a smart, deep thinking guy with a little more to offer than stories about Jay Mewes’ drug use and plastic poop monsters, and it’d be nice to get that side of the guy a little more often.

Anyway, after the screening, as I was lining up for around the block for Hellboy, I spotted the Jersey boy in the back alley behind the Paramount getting into his ride back to the hotel. So I moseyed on down to have a reunion of sorts.

I’d last talked to Kevin back in 1998, and we parted ways on somewhat strained terms. I’ve never really known whether I did something to make that happen or not – one second I was part of the View Askew family, and the next second I wasn’t. It was weird, but Kevin’s producer, Scott Mosier, had given me good advice as I tried to make sense of it all: “Don’t worry about this place, just walk away and go make your own mark. Use what you learned here and do it yourself.”

Mosier’s the shit, so I did as he suggested and never looked back But, damn, here was Smith standing in front of me, seemingly as unsure of whether we were supposed to be friendly as I was. It was an uncomfortable few minutes, shaking hands, making small talk and nervous conversation. He asked where I was living now and what I was doing, I asked how the old gang was and whether he was hitting the Jersey Girl after-party (he wasn’t, as he “had to be up early”). I had a lot more questions to ask him, but I decided to walk away before it all got too creepy. Not that I didn’t want to chat, I’d love to catch up after all this time, but it’s hard to have an emotional reunion with an old friend when there are a dozen fanboys standing around grinning from ear to ear that they’re within earshot of a Kevin Smith personal conversation.

Added to that, I had Mosier’s words ringing in my ears – “Just walk away and make your own mark.” So thanks for the start, Kevin and Scott. I never thought I’d end up in the film industry when I first met you both, but you guys attracted me to it, taught me how it works, and cut me loose at just the right time. If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Okay, dry your eyes, you bastards. Documentary time.

Why is it that every second documentary I see nowadays is about how the Bush government is the most evil thing in the world? I don’t remember there being so many documentaries about Bush Sr, and nor were there lots of docos about Clinton, but I’ve seen literally dozens of earth-shattering documentaries about the current US government and it’s evil relationship to the corporate world, from Orwell Rolls in His Grave to The Corporation to Control Room to Life After War to Horns and Halos to The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. At this year’s SXSW, two new entries to the genre emerged, The Hunting of the President and Bush’s Brain.

Neither of these two documentaries are well made. In fact, both suffer from filmmakers who are way too close to their subject to be considered impartial, but that doesn’t detract from the devastating nature of the information contained in their work. The Hunting of the President talks of the backroom machinations that saw the US media go crazy for the taste of Bill Clinton’s blood, including a group of lawyers who called themselves ‘the elves’ who funded extensive and ongoing investigations into Clinton’s past, digging up a host of women who claimed they had sex with Clinton only to be rebuffed when it came to proving it. That is, until they found Monica Lewinsky. The maze of relationships and secret arrangements that went into dragging Monica out of the woodwork will amaze you, and the depths to which these guys sank to find something, anything, with which to take down Clinton will disgust you, no matter what party you vote for. When Republican apologist Anne Coulter is seen on CNN as a supposedly unbiased ‘analyst’ or ‘expert’ ‘syndicated columnist’, just remember that she’s also an ‘elf’ who invested a lot of money, contacts, and time in bringing down the last Democrat President.

Bush’s Brain suffers a similar fate to the Hunting of the President in that it really isn’t well made, but contains devastating information that should leave anyone who values democracy astounded at what is going on in the White House today. Bush’s Brain focuses on Karl Rove, Presidential kingmaker, dirty tricks expert and a guy who was sacked from the Reagan administration for a deliberate leak to the press that was supposed to damage the Democrats. Sound familiar? It should, if you recall what happened to a certain CIA agent last year who was ‘outed’ by someone in the White House as punishment to her husband for suggesting there was no evidence of WMD component sales from Niger.

Bush’s Brain charts the rise and fall and subsequent re-rise of Rove as he supplanted the democratic process to get his boy into the White House, even though he didn’t have as many votes as the next guy. I saw this film with a packed house of Texan folks, and they exploded in applause for the thing. That would leave me thinking that Bush will lose Texas this coming election, if not for the fact that Austin is weird. I imagine there wouldn’t have been many folks from Abilene and Amarillo in the crowd… ya know what I mean?

The two largest groupings of human flesh at SXSW were two individuals, one that I respect greatly, and one that I wouldn’t pee on if he were aflame. Forest Whitaker has always been a little bit different. Even back in Fast Times at Ridgemont High he stood out as an ominous presence, and in Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, he made a black, rooftop-dwelling, wannabe Samurai not only believable, but empathetic, honorable and tragic. When I walked out of Ghost Dog after the first time I saw it, I was supposed to write 300 words on it for a magazine in Australia. I ended up writing 3000 and could have written much much more. At first glance it’s simply a fun, quirky dramedy. But upon further reflection, it is a multi-layered work that is as much history lesson as social commentary, art as action, and farce as drama. And here was Ghost Dog himself, standing outside the Dobie Theater with his family, signing an autograph. I wanted to say hi and tell him how great I thought it was that he did Ghost Dog and was trying to resurrect the Twilight Zone franchise. I wanted to gush, and let him know that some of us get, and appreciate, his work in a big way. But he was with his family, and so I thought it would be a much higher form of respect to just let his group walk on by, undisturbed.

The second ‘great gathering of flesh’ was Harry ‘The Orange Crush’ Knowles. He’s a local boy and the festival loves to pander to his audience at Aint It Cool News by including Harry, at least at arm’s length, into proceedings as best they can. I understand this thinking, though I think it’s a little weak. Knowles is treated like a min-celeb (no irony intended) in Austin, which kind of plays into his belief that he doesn’t need to improve himself as a commentator on all things film. When I see good writers walking about, ignored and anonymous, as Knowles is fawned over by teenagers who want their photo taken with him because he has a website, it seems to me that such things do nobody in the business any favors. It’s like Walter Cronkite being pushed aside by kids who want an autograph from William Hung, the running joke on American Idol. But hey, Harry is still alive, so he outlived my predictions from last year by six months, though that wheelchair is starting to show a little wear.

Morgan Spurlock, however, has never looked better. The newly trim filmmaker who turned himself into a fat ass as part of the great McDonalds experiment that is Super Size Me was perhaps the most backslapped guy at the festival. Spurlock not only made a great film, but he seems to have a great bullshit detector, as is evidenced by how he turned his back on a well known ‘film journalist’ who rudely interrupted a conversation between the filmmaker and Scott to try to hijack the scene. Props to you, Morgan, and may your film not only change the American public’s eating habits the same way it changed mine, but may you keep on keeping it real as your star climbs even higher.

There were dozens of other filmmakers we met while in Austin this year, and dozens of fantastic films that accompanied them. Even the films I personally disliked at the festival (such as Small Ball and Gozu) had their fans among our group, so you have to come to the conclusion that maybe, just maybe, this festival was programmed REALLY well.

In fact, apart from the screenings starting late with an astonishing regularity, and the terrible sound quality at the Paramount, and the lack of easy public transport to far-flung theaters, this was one of the best times I’ve ever had at a film festival. Big props to Matt, the head programmer of the fest who seemed to spend the entire week sprinting back and forth, solving problems, and ensuring my fist was always filled with drink tickets. Similarly big props to the volunteers who, though nowhere near as jovial this year as in past years, managed to keep everything working well.

But the biggest props go to Austin itself, which seems to me to be one of the most pleasant burghs in the south today. This is one city that I could quite comfortably live in, easily work in, and am consistently entertained by. Sure, the men folk seem determined to kill me with their damn pollution-spewing pickup trucks, but the women are striking and the beer is cold and they all seem to like movies… and seriously, what more could you ask for?

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