Archive for the ‘SXSW’ Category

SXSW: Hannah Take the Stairs

Monday, March 12th, 2007

Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs had its World Premiere at SXSW last night.

There was a lot of anticipation about the movie — it was billed as one of the must-see films of the festival, and when I arrived at the Paramount Theatre it’s clear that people took that buzz seriously. Two different lines — one for the festival passholders, one for the general public — stretched around the block. By the time that Matt Dentler, SXSW’s Director, was on stage introducing the film, I think every last of the Paramount’s 1200 seats was filled.

And the movie? It does not disappoint. It’s a wholly successful romantic comedy, and it’s Swanberg’s most technically accomplished feature.

The plot is admittedly slight: A woman looks for love and satisfaction from three different suitors, two of whom are co-workers. On one level, that’s “all.” But, as with so much, it’s all in the telling.

Last year, I remarked that Swanberg’s LOL suggested hints of Renoir, and I’ll reiterate that here. Like Renoir, one of Swanberg’s primary talents is his ability to fill his films with immensely likable actors, and this film, which is almost completely comprised of other independent filmmakers, has an ensemble that’s as warm and generous as any I’ve seen in a long, long time. Greta Gerwig, in particular, is a knockout.

Most of the time the humor is not “funny ha ha” (to quote the title of a film made by Andrew Bujalski, one Hannah‘s stars). The “comedy” is really an orientation, an optimism and humility, that one senses in the person behind the camera. But, yes, at times, the movie is (with a nod to Swanberg’s last film) laugh out-loud funny.

The film is romantic, too, but not in the conventional sense of that word. It’s romantic not because it dramatizes the coming together of two passionate, fated lovers, but because it documents the hard-won moments of real closeness that young lovers can share and then, so quickly, lose.

Reflecting on it this morning, I thought of Dave Hickey’s introduction to Air Guitar. Hickey suggests that love songs matter because they play a social function: They help lovers find each other. With all the love songs in the world, you begin to search for your soul mate by finding the person that likes the same love song as you.

Hannah Takes the Stairs isn’t plotty enough to be a movie for the masses. Still, it will find its audience — at lots of festivals and on DVD. Among those audiences, I imagine that more than a few young couples will see this together and, in both liking it, they will learn something about themselves and each other in the process. How many films can you say that about?

SXSW: Big Rig

Monday, March 12th, 2007

Doug Pray’s Big Rig follows several (maybe 10 or 12) truck drivers back and forth across the America. The film resists giving the audience a single overarching narrative thread and instead chooses to show most of his subjects in discrete vignettes. The approach has mixed success.

The downside is simple, but important: Some of the truckers are more interesting subjects than others, so my interest in the movie waxed and waned with each featured trucker. Happily, the last two individuals (an outspoken Native American and a Polish emigree) were among the most interesting so, in the end, the picture did send me out on a high note.

The positive angle to Pray’s strategy is that, by meeting so many truckers in the film, the film encourages us to make some generalizations about what might be termed “trucker values.”

Those values amount to a mess of contradictions. Many of the truckers are simultaneously patriotic and anti-government; outspoken and, yet, against voting; and they hold traditional “family values”, yet they’re rarely at home. (Whether being on the road alone is the source or the result of these values is, sadly, left unexplored.)

Let me quickly add that I’m not condemning these contradictions. Quite the contrary: To me, one of Big Rig‘s strengths is that Pray exposes one subculture’s contradictions in a way that is non-judgmental, even warm.

Big Rig has other things going for it (like Pray’s gorgeous digital cinematography, which was shot on a Varicam), and against it (it had a couple too many landscape montages), but it has ultimately stayed with me because it features articulate, conservative, blue-collar Americans as its heroes. In this era of the “liberal documentary”, it’s worth remembering that if cinema is going to play a role in social change, first it must help bridge the divide that “red state vs. blue state” simplifications have created. This kind of respectful, human documentary investigation helps build that bridge.


Sunday, March 11th, 2007

Quick summary of things seen and done at SXSW:

Screenings attended:
Fish Kill Flea
Big Rig
“Zellner Vs. Duplass” Shorts Program

I also attended one narrative feature that I walked out of after the first reel, which shall remain nameless.

Of the three named above, all were interesting in their own ways. Fish Kill Flea is a rough-hewn chronicle of a pretty rough-hewn community — flea market vendors. The filmmakers managed to capture some compelling moments, though I was disappointed that the movie ended soon after the story began to take off. Still, its better to leave me wanting more than less.

Billed as a kind of wrasslin’ match of short films, the Duplass and Zellner Brothers movies program was terrific. If you are a film festival programmer, please take note: THIS IS THE WAY TO DO SHORTS PROGRAMMING. By watching a number of shorts by the same filmmaking team(s), you get to see the voices and vision that, in a single short, can seem like a one-off. Instead, here we had two teams of filmmaking brothers show their stuff. I had seen the Duplass movies on DVD and was already a fan. Seeing them on a big screen, and on film (transferred from DV), they carried even more of a punch. Scrabble, in particular, benefitted from the big screen. What had, in previous screenings on my television, seemed like a scene in search of a longer movie now seemed complete: awkward, human, funny, pathetic.

Flotsam/Jetsam and Aftermath on Meadowlark Lane, two of the Zellner Brothers movies, were especially good. Both start off in seemingly conventional fictional directions, then stop on a dime to introduce documentary elements, which radically changes our perception of everything we’ve seen.

The absurd, live action wrestling match/sing-along finale that ended the screening on an note that was appropriately hilarious and absurd.

A longer review of Big Rig will be posted at some point soon.


I’ve also made it to a couple of panels, both of which were good: The Future of Non-Profit Film, headed up by Brian Newman of Re:New Media, and Shooting Docs, which featured Doug Pray (“Big Rig”) and Mike Mills (“Does Your Soul Have a Cold?”), among others. No time to summarize those, however, as I’m running off to see another movie.

SXSW: Day 1

Saturday, March 10th, 2007

This is my first time at SXSW, so I spent my first day largely getting my bearings. Upon arriving at my hotel, I headed down to the conference center to get my badge, info, and shwag (more on the shwag in a later post).

Upon entering the conference center, I immediately ran into Joe Swanberg and Kevin Bewersdorf, who introduced me to Aaron Katz. It’s appropriate that these would be the first faces I’d see — two of my favorite movies from last year (LOL and Dance Party USA) were made by these guys, and last year this was the fest where they premiered those works. Joe and Aaron have movies here that I’m eagerly anticipating; I’ll be giving full reports of Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs (Sunday) and Katz’s Quiet City (Monday) after their premieres.

Registration was fairly quick, considering how many people were trying to get badges. Festival organizers, no doubt, understand that this is a person’s first impression of the festival. Mine was positive. Fest staff was everywhere — and all I interacted with were friendly and helpful.

One thing that’s immediately clear to anyone who has been here before (or is here for the first time) is that in addition to the movies and panels, there are dozens of parties. (I’ve got invites to five or six parties a day and, remember folks, these are just the ones to which I’ve been invited.) I stopped by one late yesterday, and did the requisite mingling. I talked with DP Andy Reed for a while. A year ago, Reed was a utility crew guy on Dance Party USA; this year he’s here as the DP of Katz’s latest.

I skipped last night’s movies. A couple of the Opening Night films have distribution, and I figure a festival is an opportunity to see films I might not have a chance to otherwise. Plus, I wanted to get my bearings by digging through the treasure trove of movies and events that is the festival guide. At first browse, it seems to be a particularly strong year for documentaries.

No human being could possibly cover even half of the films in this festival. If you can’t be here — heck, even if you ARE here — you should be checking the daily (hourly?) posts by these fine bloggers:

Matt Dentler – Producer of SXSW
David Hudson – GreenCine
AJ Schnack – Filmmaker, Kurt Cobain: About A Son
Mike Curtis – HDforIndies (SXSW panelist)
Scott Kirsner – CinemaTech (SXSW panelist)
David Lowery – SXSWClick! finalist from 2006 and blogger

IndieWire, of course, will be doing a lot of coverage as well, as will the bloggers that I mentioned in my last post.

Ok. That’s all for now. My morning coffee is cold, and I’ve got a panel to catch.