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.
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.
None of Bruntnell's three albums is widely available in the U.S. yet, but he has developed a sturdy reputation across the Atlantic, mostly on the strength of last year's Normal for Bridgwater (slated for imminent stateside release on Slow River/Rykodisc). Twin Citians Jim and Dave Boquist and Eric Heywood of Son Volt fame play on the album, and when Bruntnell sings "Lay Down This Curse" it sounds like he's trying on Jay Farrar's flannel. But elsewhere he forges a more engagingly original identity, particularly with the cryogenics ode "By the Time My Head Gets to Phoenix." (Smith-Lindall)
Thursday, March 16
Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys, Yard Dog Folk Art Gallery, 2:20 p.m.
Kansas City twang-gang Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys lend an air of hard-country credibility to the cow-punk looniness that is the six-hour, ten-band Bloodshot Records tent party. Hobart's voice is mellower than Buck Owens's, but his Boys have polished the Buckaroos' country dancehall sound to a fine sheen that reminds me of countless Wednesday nights spent twirling to Trailer Trash at Lee's. Though the Yard Dog's straw-strewn back yard is too packed to two-step, no one seems to mind. The free beer makes everyone that much more appreciative. Have I been bought? (Sparks)
The Forty Fives, Stubb's BBQ, 9:00 p.m.
Forty Fives keyboardist Trey Tidwell's doughy face is the scariest thing I've seen in Austin so far. Capping his 300-pound frame, the visage matches the abandon of his mates, who look like the Ramones but dress like Buddy Holly and the Crickets. It's starting to rain at Stubb's, and the temperature has dropped 20 degrees in the twister's wake. But everyone is transfixed by the hard-driving band onstage and Tidwell's manic tongue wagging between chain-smokes behind his Hammond B3 organ. (Sparks)
Ryan Adams, Stubb's BBQ, 11:00 p.m.
The saggy, baggy guy in the rumpled suit standing next to me looks familiar. When Peter Bruntnell isn't sucking pink drinks through a straw, he listens intently as Whiskeytown frontman Ryan Adams struggles to follow the fiery Philly quartet Marah with a sit-down set of new solo material.
Adams seems to have outgrown his infamous self-destructive phase. Hair cropped and neatly combed, he jokes with the crowd and makes eyes at co-vocalist Kim Richey, whose wispy harmonies don't quite match Adams's whiskeyed tone. Right now he's upbeat, for a guy mired in label limbo (Outpost folded before they could release Whiskeytown's album). At his band's showcase the next night, Adams would introduce his new songs as "from our album called It's Never Gonna Fucking Come Out." (Smith-Lindall)
Supagroup, Millennium Events Center, 3:05 a.m.
Rumor had it earlier in the day that the Mekons would play an invite-only after-party at this windowless warehouse, which is distinguished only by a plastic banner above the door stating the venue's ill-fitting name. Inside, the air is chilly and dank, and that's not the Mekons onstage. But much to the credit of the New Orleans-based Supagroup, I'm quickly drunk on their heady punch, which is equal parts Van Halen bombast and Buzzcocks levity. Who can resist the insistent thrust of two-minute, two-chord anthems like "Humpy Joe"? Not Sweden's Backyard Babies, who are crowded down front, waving the sign of the beast. (Smith-Lindall)
Friday, March 17
Tom House, Cactus Café, 8:00 p.m.
A mix tape containing only songs by Supagroup and Nashville songwriter Tom House would be the perfect soundtrack for bipolar disorder. Old enough to be Supagroup's weird uncle, House barely moves onstage, leaning over his acoustic guitar and into the microphone much as the crowd cranes to catch his words. House's three albums (the latest is Til You've Seen Mine, released this year on Catamount) are cantankerous and densely wordy. But here in the basement of the University of Texas Union, House's finely cut tales are given breath through fingerpicked figures and a trembling half-yodel. (Smith-Lindall)
The Flametrick Subs, Stubb's BBQ, 10:00 p.m.
Austin's Flametrick Subs have the unenviable task of opening for twang-heir-gone-punk Hank Williams III. If only they sounded as good as they look: The male lead singer is decked out in a leopard-skin smoking jacket, and dancing amid the band's raunch 'n' roll are five buxom twentysomethings clad in vinyl cheerleading outfits and equipped with pom-poms, the number 666 sewn onto their chests.
One of the girls dances on an amp behind the drummer, high above the stage. Bad move--that's Hank's amp, and when he comes out for his set, he's not happy. Grousing that he can't get the right kind of distortion for his acoustic guitar, he plays three songs and storms off stage, trailed by boos from the crowd. (Sparks)
Saturday, March 18
Anna Fermin's Trigger Gospel, Antone's, 9:00 p.m.
Trigger Gospel's sound may be country, but their comportment is slick, onstage and off. The band delivers a fast-paced set drawn mostly from the Chicago band's Lloyd Maines-produced debut disc, Things to Come (self-released). Industry types are everywhere, but I'm chatting with a bearded, bespectacled fellow named Hayseed, a No Depression-approved singer-songwriter who tells me he's Anna Fermin's biggest fan. She has the bold voice of a young Wynonna, and the group has trouble breaking down their set because of all the postshow attention and mixing in the wings. (Sparks)
Tift Merritt and the Carbines, Opal Divine's Freehouse, 12:05 a.m.
A day earlier, I'd been crowded down front at the Austin Music Hall when a miniature blonde asked to bum a smoke. She introduced herself: Tift Merritt, down from Raleigh to support her hometown pals in Whiskeytown. At Opal's tonight, Merritt is as tiny as I remembered--the guitar over her shoulder is at least as big as she is.
But her voice is bigger. She's wedged with her band, the Carbines, at one end of the bar's open front porch, but even the traffic humming by a few feet away can't mask her swooping cry. The songs are average at best, but Merritt's pipes and charm are rare. If we're trading country futures, you can keep your Shelby Lynne. (Smith-Lindall)
Sunday, March 19
Alejandro Escovedo, Continental Club, 1:00 a.m.
The saggy, baggy guy in the rumpled suit standing a few feet behind me looks familiar. When Peter Bruntnell's not sucking his drink through a straw, he's listening intently as Alejandro Escovedo and friends bring the weekend to a close.