South By Southwest balances itself with a texture of networking and filmmaking, parties and professional tendencies, finding itself in the middle with an essence of undeniable energy. Whereas last year, the purity of SX Fantastic ruled the roost, the expanding perspective made itself prevalent this year, especially in the International section, ranging from Ireland to Israel to beyond.
Beginning with one of the first films opening night with Danny DeVito and Rosario Dawson in presence along with star Carla Gugino, “Girl Walks Into A Bar” stays in relevance with director Sebastian Guiterrez’s other “surreal world pictures” though this one seem decidedly more noirish as compared with his more telenovela-style predecessors like “Women In Trouble” and “Elektra Luxx”. While the plot itself is anything but full of depth, the dialogue and locations are what keep the plot moving. Shot with Canon DSLR camera with audio inputs, Sebastian has found an interesting balance because these cameras can use exceptional and far ranging lenses that the Red and others can simply not deliver on. The lighting and coolness of the bar sequences (each bar was shot in one day over a 7-day shooting schedule) merges well with the other great cameos ranging from Josh Hartnett to Robert Forster.
“Little Deaths”, part of the SX Fantastic sidebar at the festival, is a horror anthology from a group of UK filmmakers who frequent the festival and have played films individually at Fantastic Fest before. Each has their own sociological and stylistic progressions which make them specifically unique. The first segment follows a couple who brings in homeless people off the street in an attempt to make their life better but what is revealed is a twisted perception of masochistic sex reflecting the rich preying on the poor. The resolution highlights a supernatural comeuppance which though visually acute doesn’t quite have the bite needed. The second segment reflects a body altering vision progression of a more mech/historical bent involving a mechanical Nazi machine that creates a aphrodesiac/medicine that twists reality to a certain point. A young woman who has a peripheral connection to the bloodline finds herself in the middle of a would-be conspiracy. The play through reads more interesting than it functions. The final segment entitled “Bitch” involves a more “master and slave” idealism with a dog “role-playing” fetish. The girl of the relationship as the master takes the intention too far which causes a revenge of exceptional viciousness. What works within this segment is that what is not seen causes more impact than what is onscreen.
“Happy New Year“, using motifs of “Awakenings” and “Full Metal Jacket”, attempts to humanize and visualize many of the soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan in terms of the VA experience. The lead character here is a tortured soul who believes that he should not have survived his unit’s last onslaught. In keeping his head held high and trying to maintain a notion of discipline, he is slowly eating away at his actual identity. What happens ultimately involves the notion of what makes him a man leading up to a New Year’s celebration. While the performers work adequately, it is the friend of the lead soldier who himself suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome who really brings the grounded emotion home.
“Andante” as an experience is a little more abstract. Occupying a sector most often reserved for textured auteurs, the visual style plays to a mix of “Eraserhead” and “City Of Lost Children” swirled with certain elements of “1984” and “Brazil”. While the narrative sensibility goes in and out of focus at many points because of the overarching structure of dreams, the visual beauty and complexity of what is shown as well as the sound design is definitely intriquing. The language barrier (the film is Israeli) also adds to the luridness at times but also offers an intensity and reflection of that country’s psychological state from the perspective of its artists. The forced camera perspective and movement along with the balance of both the music and the brutality truly offers a cinema experience that can both baffle and consume an audience.
“No Matter What” functions from a much different basic structure of the spectrum. Made by a former Florida State University student, its portrayal of the Florida rural experience is both humorous but uninteresting. The cinematic basis is fairly bland in terms of what the boys in question are pursuing. While the existential qualities in regards to their necessity of being are definitely in question, the improv elements they are asking (much like the progression of Harmony Korine’s ideas) seem inevitably banal. The two teenage leads simply wander from house to house searching for a mother who infinitely doesn’t want to be found. While many could equate the tendencies of the boys to a mythic search, the intelligence reflected in that primal element simply does not formulate itself to any specific point.
“Charlie Casanova” by comparison is very aware of intelligence (almost to a fault). The lead character in question is such a cruel man, self-involved with an ego of infinite proportions, that he never apologizes for who he is, which is the point of the film. Made by Irish filmmaker Terry McMahon, the film possesses a claustrophobic feeling that forces people into Charlie’s world which as Terry himself says is “a dangerous place to be”. The aspect of Charlie that defines the rest of the film is the concept of “borrowed time”. After Charlie kills a pedestrian in a hit-and-run and realizes the finite nature of his life, he proceeds to completely take it overboard in terms of the concept of what is socially acceptable including the class structure where the rich punish the poor. As the narrative continues it becomes more and more severe. Most dark movies allow for a relief to the tension but Charlie keeps piling it on with no remorse for the inherent viciousness he keeps allowing. At the end, the palette paints a man that should be pitied because, even in the notion of “winning”, he is character apathetic in his life with no conscience of his being.
“Bad Fever” shows an ulterior side of the structure. While “Charlie” is about a man on a road to ruin, “Fever” is about a man whose identity is structured in the idea of who he thinks he is. But unlike “Napoleon Dynamite” which played its oddities against a notion of playful undermining, here the lead is lamented for what we wants to do: become a stand up comic. The problem is that he has no act to speak of. The characterization of Eddie however is quite riveting at times though hardly focused. When an seemingly unfocused girl becomes ensnared in his vision, he never stops to think whether or not her motives are pure. His agenda is hardly unselfish but there is a sense of hope to it. Ultimately he becomes mired in his own self loathing and finds redemption (or at least acceptance) by an unlikely companion who, unlike him, is almost what she seems.
“American Animal“, jumping back, works on the same tendencies of “Casanova” but revels in a kind of pop culture mismash which is more mind-play masturbation than a sense of actual intelligence. The writer/director who, by functionality, in his own words, took on the acting role of a would-be Dionysus in the film, has a wonderful theatricality about his performance but no sense of reality in what this character would consider righteous. The narrative revolves around two roommates who are basically trust fund babies who don’t have to work if they don’t want to. The more motivated and less leader-oriented of the pair thinks that it would be a interesting idea to actually get a job. This, of course, does not resonate well with his partner-in-crime who has the penchant of acting out his would be thoughts from a Victorian dinner to his monologue on being via “Gangs Of New York”. Two young beautiful ladies who obviously simply hang out because of the drugs and luxury involved, which seems more than a superficial paradox since they mostly just sit around, feed this notion of simple nihilism. When the motivation involved, which revolves around an unnamed life-threatening illness, takes center stage in the third act, the lead character takes on a cracked facade. Now granted the type of exposure that the lead actor entices really does show a commitment with a raging stream of consciousness notion of what “freedom” truly means but ultimately the entire episode seems empty because of a lack of empathy for what the character is going through. He wants for nothing and is beholden of nothing but yet he truly tries for nothing.
“Small Beautifully Moving Parts” balances itself out mostly in caring too much which can lead to boredom. This “girl finds herself” story is a little more modern and, while it tries to play, especially in its relationship perspective, against its idea of convention, it decidedly plays all the more normal. The narrative follows a NY artist-type who becomes pregnant but wants to learn why her mother left their family because, without that notion of self, how can she become a good mother? While the idea is one of existentialism, it comes off rather banal. While her boyfriend/husband is very supportive, he is not essential to the story. Nobody seems to have a clear read on the mother either, even the ex-husband who lives in Santa Barbara and carries out his relatioships via Skype. The one thing the movie does do is indicate the need for one-on-one communication which is infinitely true and is something more and more people are scared of these days. After a brief respite in Vegas with a sister-in-law which seems all too unneeded, our lead finally finds her mother in some meditative commune in the middle of Utah. It all plays very new age with ultimately the lady-in-question unable to explain why she left (except that it is better that she did). The boyfriend ends up finding his girlfriend in the desert and they go back to NY. The relevance only being that we are all alone and have to deal with our pain and joy in our own way which is universal but nonetheless basic.
“The Divide” provided the most gripping possibility with the genre functions of Xavier Gens (who directed the Fox movie “Hitman”) operating within a set structure budget. Having interviewed the director and his partner-in-crime Michael Biehn (best known for “The Terminator” and “Aliens”), the awareness of the process of how the movie was made distinctly informed its viewing. The narrative involves a group of people who are trapped underground in a vault of sorts after a nuclear attack decimates New York City. What transpires because of the leaking of radiation is a breakdown of the primal nature of man and, in a secondary case, woman. What begins as a waiting exercise turns into what one does when there is no hope left. The idea of primal and alpha takes on a interesting premise with a sense of law. Biehn’s character who was the superintendent of the building is a gruff man who brings to mind the psycho he played from “The Abyss” if he took his meds and tried to hold down a steady job. Milo Ventilmiglia (best known from “Heroes”) along with relative newcomer Michael Eckland plays the brothers who descend into a non-functional but sly pack wolf structure becoming more brutal as time goes on. Rosanna Arquette, plays a mother whose daughter is taken away by a strike team who ambushes the survivors. She loses the will to live and becomes almost a doll from which the men vent their rage and desires onto. The entire progression plays bleak save for a couple who, having broken up, keep their wits about them and don’t degregate themselves through necessity whether it be chopping up bodies or in other ways cutting away their humanity. Ultimately the resolution distinctly plays to the notion of survival and results in a texture of more hopelessness which plays well (harking back to “Aliens”). The way Gustav supposedly directed caused alot of tension on the set (in somewhat of a controlled chaos) allowed some of the actors to take the characters farther than they possibly should which was something that Biehn, as an actor, relished. “The Divide” is not for everyone but is that rare balance that mixes good character work within a structure of genre and paranoia without having to resolve to high priced tricks.
“Last Days Here”, the only documentary viewed, tells the volatile story of the lead singer of the metal band Pentagram from the early 70s. The film follows this man as he is completely decimated by the demons that control him. When the crew first meets him, he is a crack cocaine addict living in his parent’s basement in squalor. While this seem like a basic “phoenix” story, it plays with alot more depth than that. This man is a fuck-up prone to both creative whims and crushing blows of ego. However what transpired in the early 70s with the band still speaks to many today, both with certain fans and musicians. The docu explores interestingly enough how the lines sometimes merge which they inevitably do in any industry. What this vehicle does though is not pull the punches. A fan and would-be music producer [Ferret] tracks down the metal frontman and tries to help him get his life together to make another record. Ferret puts his reputation and personal life on the line. The great aspect is that you see that this man believes that a comeback for this lost talent is possible after the forward momentum is cut down again and again. The frontman even hooks up with one of his fans which gives him the ability to see the light at the end of the tunnel but that collapses as well. The devil (in his case: crack) is always waiting in the wings to mess it up. The documentary crew checks in every couple months to document the reality but it is an inherent rollercoaster. What is also interesting to see as the band makes it way to Webster Hall in NYC is how much the singer pulls back the curtain on the backstage structure of this kind of metal and the show it becomes. More than many other music documentaries which simply become promo tools for the band, this was nothing of the sort. It was a character study of a man who could have easily died during the making of the film and somehow didn’t. The relevance is showing his humanity despite the reality of this man’s demons.
Now the parties at SxSW are also reflective of the movies they promote and inherently of Austin but life tends to function that way.
The Opening Night Party again found its home at Buffalo Billiards, wrangling its way throughout the upstairs structure. Miller Lite followed as the wraparound bar belied a sense of clandestine tendency. The beers drank in tandem before the late night screening at the Alamo Drafthouse proceeded with “Little Deaths” and the inevitable and heavenly chocolate peanut butter shake.
Celebrating a new deal between Fandango, the ticket buying entity and the Alamo Drafthouse, owner Tim League blasted out an exceptional and cool blast-off at Highball, which is literally yards from the theater. Usually reserved as a more upscale cocktail spot with some definite old school swing, entering in, the venue permeated energy with a cool color palette that truly amped the vibe. As the local and exceptionally diverse draft beers flowed, the karaoke interaction in the back balanced out to rock star potential. While individual rooms can be rented for private function, the full rock band was on hand on-stage which League doing his best AC/DC full throttle. As the night continued on with baskets of fries and Guinness shots, the bowling alley built in gave a true feeling of symbiosis.
Across the street at The Trailer Park, a few nights later, League himself paid homage in structure again at the kegger/donut eating shindig to celebrate the premiere of “Bellflower” replete with fire spewing muscle cars and cricket eating contest. While jerry-rigged spotlights highlighted the shadows and the beer flowed freely, the Glendonough trailer served donuts galore with everything from bacon-opped concoctions to dark southwestern fried demons which seemed remarkably accurate considering the movie is about a girl on a vendetta in a “Mad Max”-type wasteland.
Quick parties gave a visceral feeling and intimate interaction with the people that made them especially in a launching pad such as SxSW. Some are simple ways for cast and crew to celebrate their accomplishment while others become magnets in terms of pure networking. The reality is that across the boards all became magnets for discussion in one way or another.
For “Dish & Spoon” whose party was held at Paradise Cafe, the red ale flowed strong and smooth while the queso dipped heartily as star Greta Gerwig, fresh off “No Strings Attached”, chilled with her filmmaking partners in a nearby booth. “Charlie Casanova” commenced their premiere shindig at Mother Egan’s bathed in dark shadows and a little bit of Dropkick Murphys as Guinness pints flowed with incandescent flow as twilight set in. “American Animal” by comparison chilled outdoors just across Congress from the State Theater at Hickory State Bar & Grill where a discussion with a nurse at the local mental institution over many frosty beverages encouraged any interesting balance about the film between psychology, connection, emotional electricity and what fulfillment means.
SxSW is always a smorgasbord of ranging ideals, thoughts and celebration. While the genre underpinings continue to structure many of the programs, the expanding discussions offer a grand vision of greater American idealism and character work stretching beyond the SX Fantastic sidebar while continuing to highlight all that is Austin.