Film Festivals


By • Mar 20th, 2006 •

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Paramount Theatre (photo by Pastor Alvarado)

“No matter what, this film would play at SXSW” I made this decision last May after completing work on my short film. “I don’t care if it is rejected from every other festival as long as it goes to South By” – Half a year later and it had been rejected from all but a few when the word came from SXSW. It was in.

The SXSW Film Festival started in Austin in 1994 when it was added to the already famous music festival. It has been one of the fastest growing film festivals in the United States and today is one of the leading fests in the country. Austin is such a warm and welcoming city, every New Yorker I know who came toyed with the idea of staying.

The lines circled around the block for the opening film – Robert Altman’s A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION at the Paramount Theater, a beautiful structure built in 1915 which feels like a mixture of an old film theater and a church. John C. Reilly came out to introduce the film and was enthused to see the excited crowd. It couldn’t have started early enough.

Reilly (who I would love to see as Russ Meyer in the upcoming bio-pic) and Woody Harrelson play the cowboy duo Dusty & Lefty – They completely steal the show with their “Bad Jokes” song – an instant crowd pleaser that will have you crying in laughter. Other than them, A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION, which follows the backstage happenings at the last live taping of Garrison Keillor’s radio show, features wonderful performances by a great ensemble cast that includes Lily Tomlin, Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Tommy Lee Jones and Keillor himself. Fans of the show will love the film, but to a newcomer it is uneven and loses its beat at times. A new Altman film is always an exciting event: this is much better then THE COMPANY, but it doesn’t fare well opposite his best works.

Peter Bart

“A lot of people, instead of becoming superstars, become F. Murray Abraham” This was the most important lesson I learned from the Peter Bart interview on Saturday morning when he was asked to comment about the “Oscar Curse”. It was a great opportunity to see a personality such as Bart speak. He discussed his days in 1970’s Hollywood, his years as the editor-in-chief of Variety, and the state of the industry as he sees it today. “The lesson of every hit is that everybody tells you not to do it” he said. Indeed.

Until proven otherwise I crown The Alamo Drafthouse and Alamo South as the best film theaters I have had the privilege to sit in. These theaters also function as restaurants. A bar is situated in front of each row and an aisle-way for the waiters to make their way through in front of it (resulting in unlimited leg-space). You could watch the film while eating chicken wings or sipping on beer. The projection and sound quality (especially at the South theater) is superb, and instead of showing commercials and promotional material before the film, they roll various found-footage clips over the screen, from old cartoons to Serge Gainsburg music videos to sketches from the Muppets. It’s almost worth arriving a half-hour before the main show to watch these. It is a perfect environment at which to enjoy a film. And oh, so many films did we enjoy…

Mary Harron’s THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE is the story of the most famous pin-up girl in history who vanished from the public eye after finding religion. Gretchen Moll stars as Page, a bizarre casting choice that so perfectly pays off it is hard to imagine anyone but her in the role. Harron, working with cinematographer Mott Hupfel, created the classiest of films. Predominantly black & white – the visuals are so perfectly shot and lit to imitate a vintage film, it may as well have been excerpted from one (in an interview for The American Cinematographer, Hupfel cites Sam Fuller’s PICK-UP ON SOUTH STREET as a main influence). The color footage… well… Bunny Yeager should be proud to see film images that resemble her photography with such love and dedication. Not only is Mary Harron among the founders of PUNK magazine, and the first person to interview the Sex Pistols in America, she is also a great director – a visionary.

When the film was over, shaken, I forced a copy of my film on Harron. I just had to.

Other than BETTIE PAGE, it was the year of the documentary:

Ron Mann is one of the best documentary directors working today. Each of his films pushes the boundaries of the genre to new places. Unlike most documentaries his are works of pure cinema. TALES OF THE RAT FINK is no exception. This is the story of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, a legendary custom-car designer, T-Shirt designer and the creator of the Rat Fink character and various other monsters who influenced modern culture more than they are given credit for. Rather than use the formulaic talking heads, Mann chooses to interview Roth’s cars: These are being voiced by such people as Brian Wilson (“The Surfite”), Jay Leno, Ann-Margret, The Smothers Brothers, Matt Groening and others. John Goodman delivers the narration as the spirit of Roth, who passed away in 2000. It is all tied together by inspired animation sequences that bring to life Roth’s creations, all single handedly animated by Michael Roberts.

Mann stuck around for a short Q&A, where he presented Roth’s wife (to loud cheers) and invited the audience to the RAT FINK after-party and art show featuring dozens of Rat Fink figures designed by various artists across the country (including one by Mark Mothersbaugh of DEVO). True-to-form, Mann headed from the Paramount to the party in a custom-car.

“You would think that at 33 years of age, being a national television reporter, living in a great apartment, having every gadget and device one could possibly imagine, you would think that a guy would feel successful. But I just feel like there’s something else.” Rick Kirkheim has been recording his life since he was 6 years old. In 1991 he finds himself at the top of his game (a star reporter for NBC’s INSIDE EDITION), wondering where life will lead him. TV JUNKIE is edited from over 3000 hours of video diaries and recorded events from Rick’s life following that statement as he gets married, becomes a father to two boys and develops a cruel addiction to Crack-Cocaine. TV JUNKIE is an uncompromising look into the nature of addiction. Never falling prey to clichés or preachy mannerisms, it simply throws reality at the audience. Rick, who has since cleaned up, spends his time today talking to youths in high schools across the country. He attended the first screening of the film.

SUMMERCAMP!, a documentary directed by Bradley Beesley and Sarah Price, follows a group of kids over one summer at the Swift Nature Camp. With music composed by the Flaming Lips, SUMMERCAMP! Is an interesting look at the psychology of American children, their hopes and their fears. Mainly though, it’s a ton of fun and concludes once and for all that everything we saw in those 1980’s Summer Camp Films was true! Two of the camp counselors attended the screening to sing camp songs with the audience afterwards. They were the life of every film party we attended – However, their version of the events sounded nothing like MEATBALLS… I’d like to see an NC-17 film titled CAMP COUNSELORS!

After the screening we headed to the SUMMERCAMP! Party. Two kid bands (one so appropriately named ‘After-Math’) rocked the house with their renditions of classic rock songs, and the catering was delicious. It was a great start for a night that would lead us to the CASSIDY KIDS party, the GRETCHEN party and finally the DARKON party, the best by far. In the high point of the evening I met one of the Sundance screeners who rejected my short (but assured me it was given serious consideration).

STATE VS. REED, directed by Ryan Polomski & Frank Bustoz, tells the story of Rodney Reed, an African American man on Texas’ Death Row who was found guilty in the murder of a police officer’s wife he was having an affair with. Years later, he is still waiting a re-hearing for the crime, which no one really believes he committed. The film offers evidence and interviews that should not be ignored; it never tries to glorify Reed’s character but raises huge question marks revolving his case. STATE VS. REED won the Lone Star Audience Award, given to a film by Texas-based directors.

The Al Franken documentary, AL FRANKEN: GOD SPOKE, would make every Al Franken fan an even bigger one. The film follows Franken’s tours and campaigns for the democratic party during the 2004 election race. The most memorable scene from the film featured a cross interview between Franken and Republican author Ann Coulter. When asked which political figure in history they would choose to be, Coulter replies: “Joe McCarthy, because he exposed the real face of the liberals”.

The festival featured many worthy shorts. For its visual style, CONEY ISLAND, 1945 was one of the best, with gorgeous imagery of a nostalgic Coney Island. Best was NEVEL IS THE DEVIL, directed by Peter Craig – “A supervisor at a consumer product testing laboratory interrogates two suspects of a devilish prank”. Comedy is one of the hardest things to pull off and NEVEL never misses a beat. Great acting, writing and directing keep it hilarious all the way through. Look out for these guys in the future, if given the chance they could make the next comedy hit.

Other films of note were THINGS THAT HANG FROM TREES, directed by Ido Mizrahi – a 1960’s growing up tale in St. Augustine, Florida. It stars the ever-so-excellent Deborah Kara Unger and Peter Gerety. JAM – winner of the Jury’s Documentary award, the story of the American Roller Derby League and their 7-year fight for recognition. GRETCHEN, directed by Steve Collins – about Gretchen, a melancholic high school student who keeps looking for love at all the wrong places. The film features great performances by newcomers Courtney Davis and John Merriman in addition to a wonderful role by Stephan Root.

WHO THE $#%& IS JACKSON POLLOCK was a delightful surprise. After a long day on our feet we were looking to rest and popped into the Paramount, knowing nothing of the film. It turned out to be a blast. Teri Horton, a 73-year-old former truck driver, bought a painting at a thrift store years ago for $5. When she discovered the painting might be a Jackson Pollock and worth over $50,000,000, she embarked on a crusade to prove to the skeptical art world that her painting was genuine. Teri surprises you even after hearing it all. According to her (made up story), Pollock painted the picture one night at a bar with all his celebrity friends, and for dessert, signed it with his penis. The director, Henry Moses, stuck around for one of the best Q&A sessions we attended, he was vibrant and engaging, the audience loved him. Apparently, just before the festival, Teri was offered $9,000,000 for the painting and declined, refusing to accept anything under $25m.

The last official film party before the music festival rolled into town was also the best. Taking place in a giant warehouse, it featured a live performance by Sleater Kinney (introduced by a pre-recorded video of Henry Rollins), great food (although we may have over-eaten) and free drinks (the key to every successful film party). It ended all too early, and although the festival continued to screen films until the 19th, it was never the same. The music festival brought thousands of people with it and about 1,400 bands. Every coffee shop in Austin became a venue and the film-community-feel that was built up during the first 5 days dispersed. While still fun, it felt like the end of an era, short as it was.

As for how my short did… well, I’m not the one to say, but it seemed to have been received very well. SXSW was the right place for my offbeat project and seeing it at the Alamo South was just about as good as it gets for a short film. While not exactly a review, I was thrilled to find out The Austin Chronicle described some of the scenes as “Lynchian.” With such a comparison, I can’t complain.

The true spirit of independent film rules The SXSW Film Festival. It is unpretentious and uncompromising; the festival crew is so dedicated, it’s heartwarming and no one is treated as a celebrity, rather everyone as film lovers. In a world where Sundance is Jazz, SXSW is Rock ‘n’ Roll!

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