SXSW Journal 2010
I get sentimental about SXSW. It's the only place/experience I can think of that seamlessly blends two of my passions: tech entrepreneurship and film. There's music of course. But it's almost too much to bring that into the conversation - an embarrassment of riches. There's a pleasurable cognitive dissonance in attending both the Interactive and Film festivals. One minute you're delving into the details of a new twitter app, try or debating health insurance reform (SXSW has a whole healthcare component now called SXSH - South by South Health) and the next, physician totally losing it at an interview with Michel Gondry, because you can't believe he's just standing there 3 feet in front of you, wearing a plaid shirt like every other dude in Austin and talking about his process. Then you go outside into the beautiful sunlight, and you think I'm in *&(*ing TEXAS. You see cowboy hats and pick-up trucks and places to eat BBQ, and then you run into a friend and grab a beer and you talk shop and suddenly you're making a business deal. And then it's right back to a session on how hospitals are using social media followed by a panel on how cinema can be saved in the digital era followed by a film screening/Q&A with an inspiring director who worked on his labor of love for 5 years and finished editing two days ago.
And so it went for 6 amazing days. 14 hours a day. Here were some of the great moments:
Michel Gondry's "The Thorn in the Heart"
A slow, subtle documentary about Michel Gondry's elderly Aunt Suzette, who taught in schools around France over 50-60 years. The film follows her as she visits the sites of her former schools and provides commentary as she remembers different eras, communities and students. "Why would I be interested?" you think. One: it's Michel Gondry, something really amazing is going to happen. So indeed, along the way, we're introduced to her son, Jean Yves. And it is the story of the relationship between Suzette and her son (now in his 50s) that emerges slowly and becomes the gripping, poignant and unforgettable center of the film. Complete with actual Super-8 footage from home videos this is a treat of a documentary - Gondry in Q&A after said that he used to think hanging out with Bjork and her friends meant he was finally surrounded by interesting people, when he rediscovered that the people in his own family were as, if not more, interesting.
Steven Soderbergh's "And Everything is Going Fine"
I left the film with that blissful, wordless feeling. The feeling when you can't talk for a while after you leave the theater because you're overwhelmed and overflowing and so impressed and so in it still. Spalding Gray is fascinating to watch as a performance artist. If the film were just cobbled together footage of his monologues, it would have been completely satisfying. But through Soderbergh's directing and Susan Littenberg's editing virtuosity, we are lead through the story of Gray's life chronologically by major life event BUT via monologues and interviews from any point in his life when he's referring to that particular incident. What you get is a mosaic of a journey, semi linear, semi circular where the themes of Gray's childhood, his mother's suicide, his sexuality, adultery, fatherhood, death all blend into and yet lead off from each other.
The film does not go into the manner of Spalding Gray's death, which is an artful act of restraint. It's left for people to discover for themselves. We begin with the impact of his mother's suicide on him as a young person, and end with a fragile older man, crippled by a devastating car accident and we sense that in some way, he's ready to be reunited with her.
Paul Gordon's "The Happy Poet"
Man, I loved this indie gem of a movie about a poet, saddled with student loans after finishing a Masters in Creative Writing, who decides to open an organic food stand (named The Happy Poet) to make ends meet. Everyone wonders why he doesn't just do the high margin hot dog stand thing, but he has principles. Principles but no cash. And we go through the journey of a true start-up in the making, his attempts at branding, marketing, managing costs, and how he handles an offer by a VC to scale the business. The semi-slimy money guy says: "The reason people steal your ideas is you don't believe in them enough yourself. Do you believe in the Happy Poet? Will you put your money where your mouth is?" And that marks a turning point in the trajectory of this one little dream. And since making an independent film is like doing a start-up no one believes in at first, the unspoken reference made me smile.
Jason Spingarn-Koff's "Life 2.0"
I was skeptical I'd learn anything new from a documentary about virtual worlds and Second Life. After all, I think I understand something about social media and how lives are being impacted by it, especially in the realm of health. Forget about it. I know nothing. Or at least I've significantly underestimated the impact.
We're introduced to 3 characters whose lives are or at one time were so intertwined with their avatar selves that there was no real distinction between the virtual world and the real world. It goes beyond aspirational issues - yes, many people who are obese in real life have skinny avatars. But who knew it could help people deal with childhood trauma, become their chief economic activity, as in generate a 6-figure income in real US dollars, lead to the first lawsuit of avatars suing avatars, dissolve marriages and rebuild denied memories. This was not a freak show. It was a face of human reality as could have only been exposed by virtual reality.
Carl Theodore Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc"
I kept being floored, every minute, every frame. This was made in 1928. What? The film actually disappeared for many years and was presumed lost in a fire, until it turned up in 1981 in the closet of a mental asylum in Norway. It was lovingly restored in 1985.
It is visually stunning, amazingly paced, the camera angles are innovative and not lazy, the color of the black and white is beautiful, the cast, even minor characters were chosen with great care, the impact of the closeups of peoples faces is a function of great acting and great directing and great cinematography, but mainly I admired the commitment to a difficult emotional tone that was held and controlled with great precision by the director. Wow. 1928. We've since unlearned so much about what makes a movie a great movie.
The score was performed live on stage by punk band In the Nursery. Oh god. This was definitely an "I've died and gone to heaven" cinematic experience. In the picture below you see the musicians on stage in front of the screen. They used synthesizers, laptops and an instrument that looked like a recorder.
A little bit of Music
The highlight of the Music Festival was clearly Baron von Luxxury's performance at Max's Wine Dive. What else did I need to see after that?!
Indu Subaiya's "Austin"
This little monologue on film wouldn't be complete if I didn't say something 'DVD extra-like': the city of Austin was like a character itself in the film of being at SXSW :) Here are some behind the scenes shots.