SXSW: Saturday morning… midafternoon… night

by |
03/15/2010 11:20 AM |

The Austin Convention Center: Where the magic happens.
  • The Austin Convention Center: Where the magic happens.

Having recently woken up and checked in, I’m sitting against the wall where the outlets are, like everyone else is (from this day forth, I resolve, I’ll charged laptop, so I can sit unplugged in the press lounge and eat the free hotel-style breakfast buffet), next to a long line for a panel Quentin Tarantino just dropped out of, which gives me a little time before the 2pm screening.

When you pick up your badge you also get the usual “Big Bag” of swag, full of disgusting energy drinks, flyers, the Austin Chronicle, and a coupon redeemable for a free dram of some or other sponsoring whiskey in a tent in Brush Park, across the street from the convention center. How long a line will people wait in for a single free drink of brand-X whiskey? A long time, I’ll discover upon passing by the tent, and line coming out the tent, later this afternoon. Maybe New York has irrevocably skewed my understanding of day-to-day expenditures, but this seems an awfully long line for free drinks, when alcohol in this city is so much cheaper than I’m used to.

When you pick up your badge, with it comes an envelope full of fliers for parties open to all badgeholders. Parties are listed on the grid schedule in the pocket guide, and online. This mostly serves to engender the paranoid suspicion that there must then be better, cooler parties that you’re not being told about.

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The Austin Convention Center, incidentally, sells beer to go ($4.25 bottles of Miller Lite). On my way out I pass a mostly glassed-in public interview space, where someone is talking to McLovin. (Kick Ass played here last night, it was the evening showcase at the 1,300-seat Paramount.) Volunteers are everywhere—there are thousands of them, I’ve heard, a force of free-with-benefits labor larger than the population of the town where I was born. Upon leaving I note that I could have plugged my laptop in downstairs, in the “Chevy Volt Recharge Lounge,” where tables and benches are arrayed around power strips designed to recall electric car batteries.

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At 1:20 the line for the 2pm screening of the competition film The Myth of the American Sleepover is long enough that I decide to join it right away. This is at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz, a small-ish two-screen theater smack in the midst of 6th Street, or “Dirty Sixth” as I’ve been told it’s called by locals (the person who told me this may have been fucking with me), a street so bar-heavy and close to the U of T that it’s closed to auto traffic on weekend nights. At the Alamo Drafthouse, rows of seats are situated behind long benches, because you’re encouraged to order food before the movie starts. And beer. And hard liquor. They have a flag system for orders, so as not to disturb the audience.

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The Myth of the American Sleepover has a scene that takes place in a “makeout maze,” a warehouse where some of its teen characters wander to fool around, or not, with dimly lit strangers. The phrase “makeout maze” is a metaphor. The film takes place mostly on the Sunday night before Labor Day, as a cast of teens wanders about the slumber parties, keggers and swimming holes of a rain-threatened Anytown, USA, in search of crushes and self-knowledge. There are no adults with speaking roles.

The movie is well-cast, especially the late-bloomer sidekick roles—it’s a deeply sensitive, innocent movie (“I want to kiss you” is a repeated line of dialogue), with a feel for hesitation and the potential for humiliation not usually witnessed in the One Crazy Night teen movie. Though that sensitivity occasionally feels pandering, exploitative, precious: at one point a soon-to-be high school junior lectures an incoming freshman on the lost innocence of pastimes like board games and tag. It’s not that sixteen-year-olds are incapable of feeling nostalgia, but it still feels like a bridge to far for an aching teen movie playing to a room of twenty- and thirty-somethings. The soundtrack springs for indie-pop by the likes of Beirut (given the rest of the incidental music, it must have been a large chunk of the budget—though the widescreen framing is handsome and the social network deftly edited together); not a note of Top 40 is heard, which seems like wishful thinking on the part of the young-but-nostalgic filmmaker.

*

I exit the movie and get right back in line for the next film on that screen. It’s for Mars, a nifty-sounding indie animation from a local director everybody seems to know. We see him, walking up the line and marveling loudly at all the people turning up to see his movie. He takes pictures, though many of us in the picture won’t get in to see his movie, as he’s submitted a guest list four dozen names deep for a theater seating less than 200.

I’m beginning to suspect that the free booze and wi-fi is mostly a necessity, so we have something to do during the movies we don’t get into. Earlier today I noted with some amusement that Barnes and Noble had set up a South by Bookstore on the upper floor of the convention center; I think about the time I’ve spent in line today and it starts to make sense.

*

Coming up on 7pm, the longer line outside the Ritz is for Cold Weather, the third film by Aaron Katz, whose Quiet City was one of my favorite films of 2007. If the Twitter accounts of people who saw it tonight are to be believed, it’s excellent; I’m looking forward to seeing it later in the week.

While in the shorter line, I notice that, though I’m at a film festival, I am most definitely in Texas, too. A group of young women in seafoam green t-shirts are coming down Dirty Sixth, and stop on our corner. The front of the shirts is emblazoned with a fleur-de-lis surround by the words “Bachelorette Bar Crawl”; the back of the shirts says, “Ashley’s Bitch.”

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The smaller screen is playing NY Export: Opus Jazz, featuring the NYC Ballet restaging the eponymous late-50s Jerome Robbins dance. In the accompanying making-of doc, the choreography is described as the “abstraction” of West Side Story—indeed, it’s all snappy, saunter-y, slangy and communicative. The movements of the dance are staged in striking New York locations—the High Line, an under-construction apartment building, a school gym, and, first and most marvelously, the McCarren Park Pool. Directors Jody Lee Lipes and Henry Joost aren’t shy about moving the camera or cutting during the dances—but, and this will come as something of a surprise to the many of you who regularly watch movie musicals, they do so with an authentic understanding of how to emphasis and heighten the movement of the bodies observed.

The film opens with the dancers moving through backdrops of city life, and closing with shots of the local color in motion. The Robbins dance, inspired by the physical life of the city, is returned to its origins in a marvelously organic-feeling feat of symbiosis. I’m sure it’ll play here; see it when it does.

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There’s a party across the street from the Ritz until 9pm, I know from the fliers, so I head in, up the stairs to the patio (the weather is so nice here!), and am told there are no drink tickets left. So I walk down Sixth, past a bar called Bikinis, which all day has had scantily clad women out front, undulating in hula hoops. I hear the street gets would be even wilder if the U of T wasn’t on Spring Break right now.

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The 9:30 shows at the Paramount are the biggest events of the festival, and tonight the badgeholders line stretches around the corner, all the way down the block, around the next corner and halfway down that block by the time I get in line. The film is Cyrus, by Jay and Mark Duplass, from Austin; it’s a packed, partisan house, and the laughter feels as warm as a room full of 1,300 strangers can be.

The Duplass Brothers’ Puffy Chair was a half-cutting, half-fatuous early entry in the SXSW-fostered mumblecore movement; their Baghead was an underrated horror-comedy playing on the near-fatal self-absorption of indie filmmaking. In Cyrus, tailspinning John C. Reilly (who has a great face for doughy-squinty drunk comedy) has his life redeemed by a relationship with sweetheart Marisa Tomei; the title character is her 21-year-old live-at-home mama’s-boy son, played by Jonah Hill with his familiar (knowingly) awkward guilessness. (In the best scene, he performs multi-part synthesizer compositions in wide-eyed, lip-biting deadpan.) Cyrus examines how people use their emotional neediness to keep a leash on the people whose love sustains them— Reilly’s obliviously one-way relationship with soon-to-be-remarried ex-wife Catherine Keener is a nicely understated parallel—though Cyrus’s seemingly passive-aggressive panic attacks eventually give way to a laugh-out-loud open declaration of war between son and lover. The absurdly frank emotional chess match between Reilly and Hill makes Cyrus a very funny movie—but it would be a harrowingly, riskily hilarious one, if the Duplasses had played the entire movie at the emotional register of Tomei’s heartbreaking performance as a woman who can’t bear withholding affection.

I leave the Q&A before Jonah Hill can answer the second audience question, a rather ungentlemanly attention-starved query about his onscreen physical intimacy with Marisa Tomei.

I walk around the corner to the IFC party, but the line is a couple dozen people deep, so I unlock my borrowed bike and head uphill.

Tomorrow (posted later today): Shorter lines, and actual free booze! (Promise.)