I am currently in attendance at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival – which encompasses Film, Interactive Technologies and Music – in Austin, Texas (my first visit to the Lone Star State!). I have come on a research trip, since I am considering setting up a “Special Topics” course for Stevenson University Film/Video Juniors and Seniors next year. The festival coincides with our Spring Break, and the course I would like to teach would be about emerging trends in digital filmmaking, interactive media and distribution outlets, and a week-long trip to SXSW would be the centerpiece of the semester, around which students would focus their research. It looks like its going to be a very tiring week for me – filled with too many activities for one person to truly manage – but one that will be worth the effort, since I can already see how our students could benefit from coming next year. This place is amazing! The energy is palpable, and the number of filmmakers, interactive businesses and artists is astounding. I’ve seen stars like Patrick Wilson, Jeremy Sisto and Josh Hartnett, and many others, including younger up-and-comers like Kate Lyn Sheil and John Gallagher, Jr.
Here is a brief report on what I’ve done so far. I am not doing any of the music activities: I have my hands (and brain) full just keeping up with film and interactive media.
Saturday, March 8:
I arrived late morning and went straight to the Austin Convention Center to register. Once there, I walked around – the Convention Center is huge – to get my bearings. Once I’d picked up a couple of SXXPress tickets (a badge will get you a place in line ahead of regular ticket holders, but an SXXPress pass will guarantee you a spot in even the most crowded of events, and badge holders are allowed 2 per day), I left to check in to my hotel. When I returned, it was already late afternoon. The first film I saw was . . .
Space Station 76 (Jack Plotnick, 2014)
My hats off to the director and writers. This is a highly imaginative look at an alternative future where humans travel through space, yet all tastes, mannerisms, and even technologies are stuck in 1970s-era designs. As Liv Tyler says in her opening voiceover monologue, “All you’re left with is dreams of a future that never happened.” In many ways, the film looks almost more inspired by Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs parody than the original Star Wars. It’s terrific fun, with a great comic performance by Patrick Wilson at its center, but it never quite rises above its one-note conceit (I did like how one of the actors described it as The Ice Storm … in space, however). I had a terrific time – and particularly enjoyed the robot psychologist scenes – but when the film was over, I left the theater with nary a memory of what had just transpired.
Break Point (Jay Karas, 2014)
This film, which was my second and last of the day, was also rather frivolous, but somehow I found that it resonated more with me. Jeremy Sisto and David Walton play 30-something estranged brothers who decide to have one last go as tennis doubles partners. Their goal is to get into “The Open,” but first they have to get in shape and learn how to love each other again. Sisto and Walton have great chemistry, and Sisto – whom I have liked ever since Six Feet Under – is the comic heart of the movie. As is a young 11-year-old newcomer, Joshua Rush, who delivers a masterfully awkward performance as Barry, a kid in search of role models. I enjoyed myself thoroughly, and recommend it as a feel-good, very funny and well-executed comedy. The “Bust a Move” tennis volley is almost worth the price of admission alone. There’s a lot that’s predictable, but there’s also a lot that isn’t.
Sunday, March 9:
I spent the morning walking around the Expo Hall, visiting all of the vendor’s booths. I got some free swag, and then went to see some more films in the afternoon.
Penny Dreadful (Showtime, 2014; John Logan, Creator; J.A. Bayona, Director, Episode 1)
It’s great that SXSW now has an “Episodic” section, in which pilot episodes of new series are screened, but this one-hour show did not win me over. It’s always nice to see Timothy Dalton (and Josh Hartnett and Eva Green), but there was too much plot for one pilot, and the many disparate threads did not add up to a cohesive or coherent whole. The story takes place in late-19th-Century London, and revolves around supernatural forces at work in a “demimonde” of demons and other evil creatures. Some of the atmospherics were effective, but overall I found the experience completely forgettable.
The Great Invisible (Margaret Brown, 2014)
This is a very moving documentary about the effects of the 2010 Deep Water Horizon explosion and subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It focuses on the economic hardships and personal losses of the blue-collar communities along the Gulf, and is filled with chilling testimonies from those affected. I wish it had been filled with a little more muckraking, à la Michael Moore, but Margaret Brown (with whom I went to NYU) did a fine job interviewing her many subjects. It is effective at provoking outrage against the system that allowed this to happen, however, and is a must-see.
The Heart Machine (Zachary Wigon, 2014)
This, so far, is my favorite film of the festival. It surprised me, since I generally do not like movies about 20-somethings looking for love in all the wrong places, and perhaps my low expectations left me open to the joy of discovering something so raw and refreshing. The two leads – the incredibly prolific Kate Lyn Sheil (Green) and John Gallagher, Jr (Short Term 12) – both deliver affecting performances as two New Yorkers who know each other only through video chats. The central conceit – she has told him a lie about living in Germany and he begins to investigate her actual whereabouts – can seem contrived at times (how could he not find her more easily through, I don’t know, Google?), but the sincerity of the emotion on display is truly touching. Based on writer/director Zachary Wigon’s previous short film Someone Else’s Heart, the film impresses with its gentle touch and beautiful cinematography.
Stay tuned for more of my thoughts in a few days!