Most disturbing of all, on several counts, was Just, Melvin, James Ronald Whitney's account of the systematic victimization of his entire family by his unrepentant grandfather, Melvin Just. With its stomach-turning revelations of incest and abuse, capped by a point-blank confrontation with Just, Just, Melvin is undeniably gripping. But it also raises discomforting questions about the way Whitney uses his relatives for material--especially since he congratulates his own survival instincts by showing clips of his triumphs on Star Search. I much preferred Christopher Wilcha's The Target Shoots First, which turns the filming of Wilcha's job at the Columbia House Record Club into a witty, affecting examination of punk precepts in collision with the demands of corporate America.
Still, the indie film scene must be in high cotton, right? Guess again. "There's not a lot of quality out there," opined Miramax acquisitions director Michelle Krumm at a morning panel. (And this from the company that released Down to You!) More than one SXSW panelist, from the Shooting Gallery's Eamonn Bowles to Film Comment's Kathleen Murphy, blamed the absence of scrupulous, scholarly, smart film criticism, as opposed to the endless spewing of blurb whores. Of course, they agreed, that's tough when many editors assign film coverage on the basis of ad dollars or conglomerate ties. "There's no such thing as a free press!" thundered Rosenbaum from the audience of a panel discussion titled "(In)dependent Film"--while, on the dais, New York Times reviewer Elvis Mitchell visibly gulped.
But signs of resistance came, appropriately enough, from two movies. One was Michael Almereyda's fascinating modern-day Hamlet, which essentially envisions Denmark as Time Warner, and its conflicted prince (Ethan Hawke) as Harmony Korine. The contemporary parallels fall apart at the end, but until then it's an inspired fit of rage against the corporate/cinematic machine, brought to you by the bomb throwers at Miramax. The high point of the entire festival, though, was Dark Days, Marc Singer's stunning black-and-white documentary about a shantytown of homeless people in the New York subway tunnels. The image of discarded people living off discarded goods resonates on countless social and political levels. But at this year's South by Southwest, which brought abandoned gems like Two-Lane Blacktop to light once more, it was proof that there is value, even beauty, in the things that others have thrown away.
Austin showcases the next wave of rock 'n' twang
by Anders Smith-Lindall and Jack Sparks
Conventional wisdom holds that the South by Southwest music festival was never the same after alt-rock broke, flooding the Austin-based biz gala's convention halls and barbecue pits with suits searching for the Next Big Thing. Like many gross generalizations, this one's partly true: Thirteen years after it was founded to expose unknowns, the millennial SXSW mostly hyped legends and major-label comers. None of them need our ink: not headliner Patti Smith, keynote speaker Steve Earle, and scenemaker Neil Young (who screened his new concert film but didn't play); not major-label beneficiaries like Shelby Lynne, Elliott Smith, Cypress Hill, and Gomez.
Fortunately, that's hardly the whole story of SXSW 2000. While biggie bands attracted speculation and spectators proportionate to their ad budgets, most rewarding was the horde of unsigned groups--including locals Atmosphere, Likehell, Love-cars, American Paint, Dillinger Four, and many more--that made up most of the 900 bands filling the festival's 47 sanctioned clubs. I saw just less than 50 of them between Wednesday night and Sunday--not nearly enough. Based on glowing reports and strong records, I already regret missing the likes of Beachwood Sparks, Tim Easton, Beulah, and Knife in the Water. What follows is a sampling of the unheard acts that impressed me and fellow City Pages contributor Jack Sparks during one long weekend in Austin.
Wednesday, March 15
The Road Kings, Stubb's BBQ, 11:00 p.m.
Perched atop a slight slope leading down to a creek, the outdoor stage behind Stubb's bar and restaurant is one of the larger festival venues--and one of the few to expose the crowd to the elements. The next day funnel clouds would descend north of town, prompting a well-circulated joke that the recently deceased Doug Sahm of the Texas Tornados is back and trying to participate. Tonight the weather is nice, though, so for 45 minutes Houston's Road Kings make a crowd (present mostly for the Damnations TX) sweat and yell. Jason Burns slaps, stands on, and jumps off his upright bass; the singer boasts it has a "Mercury paint job"--light blue with chrome molding on the front. The Road Kings' psychobilly would make the Reverend Horton Heat speak in tongues. It takes headliners the Gourds to outdo them. (Jack Sparks)
The singer is a saggy, baggy, slightly pudgy 38-year-old man in a rumpled suit. The boyish lead guitarist is exactly half the singer's age, someone tells me, but he looks even younger. The pair inspire interjections like "Oh, brilliant," in the pause after each song ends and before cheers begin. If that doesn't sound particularly Texan, credit a mostly Brit crowd, urging on their own--vocalist, rhythm guitarist, and Londoner Peter Bruntnell.