Not Your Accountant's Film Festival
South by Southwest provides a court of second opinion on Sundance
by Jim Ridley
It says a lot about the South by Southwest Film Festival--and the city of Austin, Texas, which hosts it--that the hottest ticket was a 30-year-old movie all but scrapped by its studio. The movie was Two-Lane Blacktop, director Monte Hellman's 1971 cult sensation about a road race that ends in existential oblivion and a solar flare of burning celluloid. Even after Easy Rider, the film's enigmatic portrait of car-culture alienation left Universal's marketing execs dumbfounded.
But at Austin's Alamo Drafthouse, a sort of indoor drive-in devoted to the principle that any kind of movie goes with beer, a full house cheered as Austin-based filmmaker Richard Linklater introduced Hellman and his film. For the occasion, Linklater had used whatever chits he had with Universal (the clueless distributor of his own Dazed and Confused) to secure a pristine new Cinemascope print of Blacktop. Linklater's voice shook as he read a list of reasons why he loved it. "Because Dennis Wilson gives the best performance ever by a drummer!" he shouted. "Because a god once walked the earth named Warren Oates!"
Every March, Austin supplements its Mardi Gras-sized South by Southwest music festival with five days of features, docs, retrospectives, and panel discussions. South by Southwest has become a sort of court of second opinion on the festival circuit, positioned to catch some of Sundance's worthier entries without the din of cell phones and acquisition stalkers. Unlike Sundance, though, the SXSW film festival makes few simple indie-good/studio-bad distinctions. This year, for example, it greeted brand-name horrormeister John Carpenter as warmly as underground visionary Craig Baldwin, and rightly so.
At the same time, Austin's reputation for hardcore cinephilia entices even those who shun Park City. "I've never been to Sundance, and I can't see any reason to go," said the Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum, perhaps the last working film critic who provokes the kind of passionate response that Manny Farber and Pauline Kael inspired among the film generation of the early Seventies. Yet here was Rosenbaum at SXSW, engaging Linklater in a lively Q&A about his overlooked period piece The Newton Boys, and the ways it defies the Disney World diminishment of America's past.
If Austin's music scene has established itself as a renegade alternative to Nashville's honky-tonk hit mill--just as its booming computer industry has challenged the gigabyte hegemony of Silicon Valley--its movie scene takes its cue from auteurs such as Hellman, who emerged from Roger Corman's chop shop to make a series of intensely personal films in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Even so, the legacy of the outlaws and outcasts of Hollywood's so-called last golden era was in constant question at this year's South by Southwest film conference, held March 10-14. Hellman, the subject of SXSW's "American Mavericks" tribute, bristled all weekend at the term maverick, citing John Cassavetes's axiom that the label eventually overshadows the work. "I always thought I was making real Hollywood movies," said Hellman, an unjustly marginalized talent who has long deserved a wider audience. "I see myself as a conformist, not a nonconformist."
After seeing some of the narrative features at SXSW this year, though, it was clear who the real conformists were. By itself, Robinson Devor's The Woman Chaser, the trickily structured tale of a bored used-car salesman-turned-ruthless would-be filmmaker in 1954 Los Angeles, was a clever, creepy noir distinguished by silvery black-and-white camerawork and a perfectly pitched lead performance by beefy Patrick Warburton (a.k.a. Seinfeld's Putty). But it (literally) paled beside the palpable rotgut milieu of Hellman's unsung 1974 masterpiece Cockfighter--based, like The Woman Chaser, on a novel by pulp legend Charles Willeford. The difference between The Woman Chaser and Cockfighter, with its authentically grubby Deep South locales and leathery supporting players, is the difference between a film-school hothouse and a genuine melting pot.
But The Woman Chaser seemed more substantial than John Swanbeck's The Big Kahuna, a more humane (if less cinematic) entry in the Mamet/LaBute salesmen-on-the-make sweepstakes, buoyed by some of Kevin Spacey's cherry-bomb line readings and a poignant turn by Danny De Vito, but not much else. Kwyn Bader's eager-to-please romantic comedy Loving Jezebel, the festival's audience favorite, played like an African-American homage to Truffaut's The Man Who Loved Women, with Hill Harper in a star-making role as a self-professed "bluejay" who enjoys stealing other men's birds. As slight as it was, it looked like Jules and Jim compared to Shafted, an abysmal blaxploitation parody that stretched a 90-second idea (white mental patient thinks he's John Shaft) into an hour and a half of Tromaesque torture.
While other features included the U.S. premieres of Stephen Frears's High Fidelity(reviewed on p. 38) and Peter Greenaway's 8 1/2 Women, the documentaries were, on the whole, more compelling. And no wonder: As the market for docs has expanded, they've become increasingly dependent on the selling tools of narrative films--star power, high concepts, hot-button issues. Hence a kid-gloves handling of the WWF (Barry Blaustein's Beyond the Mat); a dismayingly facile portrait of former white supremacist Gregory Withrow (Elizabeth Thompson's Blink); insufferably smug pro-pot propaganda (Ron Mann's ditchweed-strength Grass); and Allen and Albert Hughes's entertaining American Pimp, which is nevertheless as aggrandizing and uncritically adulatory as it sounds.