What a difference six weeks, 1,400 miles, and a healthy dose of sunshine, beer, and BBQ make. If the chatter at January’s Sundance Film Festival focused on the surprising surplus of quality films screening under an independent film (and global economic) falling sky, this week the conversation was reversed at the SXSW Film Festival, the ten-day conference/bacchanal that overfills Austin each year with thousands of hipsters drawn by movies, technology presentations, marathon concerts, and parties, parties, parties. The theme of SXSW Film 2009 has been one of optimism for the future, mixed with momentary disappointment. At the vibrant film conference, attendees are walking out of panels confident in the notion that, where the old-school indie-film world is paralyzed with fear of new technology and evolving viewing practices (with former innovators now doing little but business as usual to diminishing returns), the new guard is actually actively experimenting toward solving the various problems in the ways films are made, delivered and consumed.
SXSW Film historically excels at programming and presenting three types of films: micro-budgeted American indie dramedies, sometimes shot on video, sometimes partially or fully improvised, often pejoratively branded “Mumblecore” (see Hannah Takes the Stairs), the unscripted ensemble romcom directed by increasingly controversial digital auteur Joe Swanberg; quirky documentaries prioritizing entertainment over didactic argument (see Spellbound, as well as a number of music docs); and big studio comedies (see Knocked Up—which screened in here in March 2007, months before its $150 million domestic gross changed the comedy game and made Judd Apatow a household name). Once again, the standouts of SXSW 2009 mostly fall into these three groups:
Joe Swanberg has premiered a new film at SXSW every year since 2005. This year, his Alexander the Last, produced by Noah Baumbach ( The Squid and the Whale) and starring indie-darling Jess Weixler (Teeth) and Justin Rice (from the band Bishop Allen), premiered simultaneously at the festival and on IFC video on demand, skipping theatrical distribution altogether. Considering his long, strong relationship with the festival, it makes a certain kind of sense that Swanberg’s film would be the guinea pig for the distribution experiment. Happily, the film itself is good enough to stand up to the buzz around its stunt distribution. It tells the story of a young actress (Weixler) who develops a crush on her studly co-star while her nerdy musician husband (Rice) is on tour, which complicates her already too-close, Bergman-esque relationship with her sister. This entirely improvised, closely observed relationship study benefits greatly from the work of its super-smart lead actresses. Some of Swanberg’s riskier conceits of staging just don’t work, but every time Amy Seimetz and Weixler are on screen together the film crackles with a fascinating energy.
Swanberg’s films have often reveled in frank sexuality—including full-frontal nudity from both sexes and highly realistic, unprettied depiction of sexual acts, and also tending to take as their partial subject the cruel ambiguities of contemporary sexual mores. In Swanberg’s previous films, women have sex with exes they can’t stand, men complain that the sexy cellphone snaps they goad out of their girlfriends aren’t sexy enough, and the only way to validate an interpersonal connection is by making out. In other words, no one in a Joe Swanberg film has ever said no to sex. But though Alexander has its share of bare breasts and simulated stimulation, for the first time the director has cast his eye on young, pretty people struggling under the constraints of relationships, and has focused on that struggle, without allowing the tension to break at the first lust-quenching opportunity. The restraint is refreshing.
Documentaries You Can Drink To
The bulk of SXSW’s screenings take place at the Alamo Drafthouse, an Austin-based theater chain where moviegoers can order adult beverages and bar food during screenings. These amenities lend a certain informality to SXSW Film premieres, one which doesn’t exactly jibe with anything too didactic or preachy. SXSW has thus carved out a unique documentary programming niche to serve their unique audience: If a nonfiction film can’t be easily consumed with nachos and beer, chances are it’s not here.
This year’s most popular nonfiction films followed imprisoned lady rodeo stars ( Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo), an unusually spiritual pair of improv comics ( Trust Us, This Is All Made Up, directed by SXSW regular Alex Karpovsky) and the strange subculture surrounding one of the worst movies of all time, Troll 2 (Best Worst Movie). My favorite drink-a-long doc of the fest was Sounds Like Teen Spirit. Director Jamie J. Johnson’s loving look at a handful of preteen finalists for the Junior Eurovision singing competition (the tween installment of the baroquely kitschy American Idol forerunner, through which the world discovered ABBA) is the best kind of cinematic comfort food. Through casual but constant observation of his subjects as they barrel through semifinals, rehearsal and finally the continent-wide live-televised final competition, and including gently revealing visits to their wildly economically disparate home lives, in locales as far-flung as Belgium and Bulgaria, Johnson doesn’t just make us care about the hopes and dreams of 14-year-old girls –– he makes us feel like 14-year-old girls, with all the exuberance, anticipation, and fear that entails.
Not Quite Hollywood
From boobs and booze, to bromance and Bruno. SXSW Film opened with the premiere of I Love You, Man, a Paul Rudd and Jason Segal bro-down that mostly emulates the by-now-formulaic comedy of hapless male relations. But as studios become seemingly more eager to pre-sell their spring and summer comic wares to the highly influential, constantly Twittering Austin audience, they seem to also be responding to that audience’s appreciation for darker, smarter and more dangerous material. This was played out later in the week with a 22-minute preview of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat follow-up Bruno (seemingly less anarchic than its predecessor, but possibly bolder and more precise in its takedown of American racism) and the premiere of Observe and Report.
Written and directed by Eastbound & Down creator Jody Hill, Observe is a brutally violent, epically weird, not always gut-bustingly funny, but consistently, admirably risk-taking satire about a mall cop (Seth Rogen, beyond bloated and without a trace of the hipster adorability he’s rocked recently) who stops taking his bipolar meds and pursues his dark fantasy of protecting mall denizens (including Anna Faris as the cosmetics counter girl with whom he’s obsessed) by any means necessary. Hill seems to want to subvert our eagerness to laugh at deluded losers; built around a character that’s basically completely unlikable and can’t justify the bulk of his crimes, Observe wraps a Taxi Driver-esque antihero study in the super-saleable tropes of contemporary comedy. For all the hopeful chatter at the film conference that the young rebels are on the path to figuring out the art vs. commerce conundrum, this may be the biggest takeaway of SXSW 2009: Nothing sells subversion like a good ol’ fashioned Trojan Horse.
Hailed as "freakishly smart" by the New York Times, Karina Longworth is the Brooklyn-based editor of SpoutBlog.