After a hellish 13 hour trip from Austin to Knoxville (don’t get me started about the airline industry) I’m in Knoxville scouting locations for a film. Before I get completely absorbed with that work, here are some final notes on my last day or so at SXSW.
Tuesday was my panel, Blogging about Film. Alison did a nice job moderating the conversation, and I really enjoyed sharing the microphone with Joel, Agnes, Mark, and Lance. All had very smart things to say, and we had different perspectives on the issues raised by Alison and the audience.
Many of the people in the audience — a crowd of about 75 — were bloggers themselves. At least some of them (Anthony Kaufman, Mike Tully, and AJ Schnack, to name just a few) could have just as easily been on the panel.
One of the more interesting discussions that arose concerned the question of whether bloggers are journalists or not. We also addressed some of the ethical issues that can arise when blogging about film, like whether you should review films by your friends.
After the panel, a few of the people mentioned above went to the Iron Works BBQ to continue talking film. I then caught 638 Ways to Kill Castro. I wasn’t planning on seeing it, but it was a good way to stay out of the torrential rain. Castro is a fairly typical leftist documentary (e.g., interviews and archival footage, romantic longing for the revolutionary spirit of the 60s, damning evidence of US government’s covert activities, etc.). It’s all very upsetting, but the film offers little in the way of suggestions about what the audience should do with its anger. Even more troubling is the fact that the film also asks very few questions about Casto’s own record on human rights. Of course, the question of whether such abuses make one worthy of assassination are never asked, in part, because the parties that want Castro dead don’t care about his human rights abuses — they simply want to exploit Cuba for their own ends. Still, in a film that takes as its subject the covert use of power and violence, it seems odd to neglect discussing Castro’s own abuses in this regard. Despite these misgivings, I was, in the moment, oddly entertained by the film — a combination of wry commentary and ironic archival footage give it a sense of humor (as well as a sense of the absurd), which is lacking in so many other earnest, liberal documentaries. My questions linger, though.
Finally, I made it over to Eagle Pennell’s The Whole Shootin’ Match. With all due respect to Frownland, Hannah Takes the Stairs, Quiet City, and the Zellner / Duplass shorts program, this was my favorite film of the festival. Shot in the late ’70s, the film has been credited with inspiring Robert Redford to start the Sundance Institute. The film follows two blue collar Texas guys that can’t seem to get their act together. One’s single and an inventor, of sorts; the other is a married man who has trouble staying faithful to his spunky wife. It’s more than just a very real, funny, sweet, and unsentimental masterpiece — it ranks alongside Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep as one of the most vivid pieces of celluloid Americana I’ve ever seen.
The Whole Shootin’ Match was a perfect last film to see, a reminder that the strong currents of do-it-yourself American independent filmmaking that were on display at SXSW flow from tributaries that go way back and have, for many of us, long since been lost or forgotten.
After I walked out of the theater, I ran back to the hotel in the rain, changed into dry clothes, and headed over to the closing night party, thanks to a ride from David Lowery.
I stayed for a while at the party, long enough to offer one more set of congratulations and compliments to the makers of all the films that I had liked, and long enough to talk face to face one more time with friends, many of whom I had met face to face for the first time in Austin.
The last conversation I had was with a very talented new friend in which we discussed collaborating on a project together. Nothing, and I mean nothing, can touch the promise and anticipation of making new work with people you respect. There are things that can’t be put into a swag bag, listed in a festival catalog, or even projected on a screen — and yet these intangibles of festival-going are why we attend in the first place.
As much as I was enjoying the party, it was time to call it a night. As if on cue, the rain had let up. So I walked back to my hotel in the dark with my mind buzzing, not with alcohol, but with something far better — ideas for a new film.