SXSW: Local Heroes and Terrible Cocktails Involving SoBe

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03/16/2010 9:42 AM |

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Monday

The “Screening Lounge” is a conference room on the fourth floor of the Hilton across the street from the Convention Center. Here you can attend Interactive panels (including, I see, one featuring Nina Hartley) and book rooms for interviews. The Screening Lounge, for film press, is lit low, with DVD players and monitors arrayed in stations on a heavily varnished table, and wheeled chairs sinking into thick carpet. Instead of a Power Point presentation, I watch Putty Hill (Matthew Porterfield had previously directed the well-regarded indie Hamilton, and I can’t make any of its screenings). The film takes place outside of Baltimore, though the rundown semirural location and the pastimes—paintball, tattoo parlors, stunt biking, youthful anomie—could pass for Appalachia. The director observes his nonprofessional cast in staged settings, and, from offscreen, gently interrogates them about their connection to a young man who’s just died of an overdose. It’s the day before his funeral, and the addictions, regrets, estrangements and memories surrounding him are gradually drawn out—it’s almost like emotional triangulation, as the person, and the place, is defined around his newly negative space.

The pace and dialogue are natural but the film is, subtly, structured around ideas of memory and melancholy—the dead kid’s name is carved into a log and spray-painted on a wall, and in one scene a youth librarian can be heard reading aloud from Sylvester and the Magic Pebble—loss, and the myriad ways our awareness of it shapes our life, is the theme. A late set piece, at a wake slash karaoke party, covers as much, as complicated emotional territory as any single set piece I’ve watched this year.

*

So, the SoBe Lizard Lounge tent has wi-fi, which is good because I needed to work on my Sunday post. I drink a plastic cup filled with lemonade-flavored energy water, vodka and triple sec. It tastes about as you’d imagine.

*

In line at the Ritz—I’m there an hour early and, as it turns out, I’ll be in the last handful of people admitted, and watch the film from the front row, my least favorite seat in the house—I’m happen to be standing next to Jeremy Saulnier, the cinematographer of Putty Hill. It’s a lovely movie, I tell him. I ask if there are plans to show it in New York yet (the director and his crew live here), and am told screenings at Rooftop Films, or BAM, are possibly in the works.

He tells me Q&As have been notably short this year, as organizers turn crowds over and manage long lines. He was at Cyrus on Saturday night, and tells me that, right after I left, Jonah Hill called out the asshole who had asked the lewd not-a-question about him getting to horse around with Marisa Tomei. I almost wished I’d stayed.

*

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Tiny Furniture is a film written and directed by New Yorker and 2008 Oberlin grad Lena Dunham, a maker of web videos who wrote something for the L, a couple of years ago, and was flagged as an artist to watch in last year’s fall arts preview. The film is shot by Jody Lee Lipes, who codirected NY Export: Opus Jazz, and features music by Teddy Blanks, whose gymnastic one-man synth-pop and video-installation show was the highlight of my Northside Festival experience last year. Again, the filmmaker goes way back with the crowd—Lena met a lot of people here when she showed a film last year, some of whom are in the film.

Tiny Furniture is a film by and for young New Yorkers—Dunham herself plays Aura, a recent Oberlin grad at loose ends (just like in Adventureland!), back home at the cavernous Tribeca apartment of her photographer mother and precocious sister (played by Dunham’s real-life St. Ann’s-senior sis).

The arc, such as it is, concerns Aura’s halting attraction to a douche from work and to a self-absorbed, diffident mumblecore type (played by Alex Karpovsky, himself a filmmaker, and a costar of Andrew Bujalski’s Austin-set Beeswax). But it’s really an ambling working through of postcollegiate issues of a very recent vintage (though in Manhattan, not Brooklyn). The film is strikingly framed in widescreen (a nice surprise given Dunham’s lo-fi- background), but it’s definitely held together loosely, episodically—I lost count of the number of scenes that cut away on a punchline (I rather suspect they were written backwards).

Not that they’re not funny punchlines—“My heart is broken, and my vagina hurts so much!” got the biggest laugh, I think—or that the vignettes they punctuate don’t feel familiar. Dunham gets laughs out of her own insecurity, as other characters make fun of her body (she’s an average girl) and Aura’s collegiate YouTube shorts (which is how Dunham got her start). Both the film and the filmmaker seem to be working out the difference between calculated self-exposure and authentic risk, and this colleague-packed SXSW World Premiere is nothing if not a safe place to share.

*

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Earthling is a low-budget, mostly earthbound sci-fi movie from Clay Liford, of Dallas. It is very much a regional genre movie—the script calls for many characters to have obvious make-up lumps stand in for hook-em-horns tumors on their temples, and to occasionally mime no-cgi-budget mind-waves or disgorge horror-flic mouth slugs, which minimalism is done with charming commitment; less charming is the occasional VHS slasher-film feel (skinny dipping as prelude to disturbing violence is most definitely a thing that happens).

Mostly, though, Liford shoots for, and hits, an oneiric sense of unrecovered memory, with characters staring semi-catatonically at each other, with his epilectic (or is she?) schoolteacher protagonist haunted by flashbacks and visions of the international space station, where a foreign object has just appeared and caused one of the onboard astronauts to murder the other two. The whole trancelike, campy, passionately incoherent thing eventually revolves around host bodies and the sacrifice of self—it feels a bit like Richard Kelly remaking Invasion of the Body Snatchers for Mystery Science Theater 3000.

*

The Austin Chronicle’s party is held at a bar on the West side of downtown, conveniently near the river, called La Zona Rosa. It’s got a bar with pool and pingpong in front, and large (like Music Hall-sized, maybe?) concert space in back. Thunder Soul, a large jazz-funk orchestra who’re the subject of a movie I don’t plan to see this week, are playing. It’d be redundant, I suspect, to say that they’re pretty good. I look at the free burrito bar and very much regret having already eaten.

Washing my hands in the bathroom I notice a poster for a free-to-all show being held here this Friday from noon to five, while I’m cramming in my last screenings. The show features (in this order) Surfer Blood, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Superchuck and The XX. I begin to rethink many of the choices I’ve made in my life.

A free vodka soda bought at a concert hall does not last long, and nobody I know is here (everybody I know is in New York, actually). But it’s nowhere near midnight and it’s started to rain. I really don’t want to stand in line for 90 minutes outside the Ritz; nor do I really feel like sitting by myself drinking beer and watching basketball at a bar in Texas. So I bike back to where I’m staying, whereupon my host tells me that the Iron Cactus, the bar next door to the Ritz, makes locally famous margaritas. I kick myself to sleep.

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