This year, with both myself and Danielle Houtkooper covering the film side of SXSW, we had taken some steps to ensure that we wouldn’t encounter any overlap in content, and that allow us to deliver coverage as far-reaching as possible. Naturally, we both ended up at the same event when the day started at noon.
In an exercise of brand synergy that’s becoming increasingly synonymous with the festival, Legendary Digital Networks has taken over Banger’s Sausage House, a bar/restaurant that describes itself as rugged chic. To kick off the first day, Danny McBride and Walter Goggins were there to speak about their upcoming HBO Comedy, Vice Principals – but only kind of.
It’s expected that they’d be a little tight-lipped about the production, which had its lone festival screening later that night (more on that later), but aside from the production schedule, they let very little be known. We did get a classic McBride moment when he explained that they’d already filmed all the episodes and were all set to air this summer, so our liking it was irrelevant, since “they were all going to air anyway.”
Goggins apparently went straight from filming Hateful 8 to this show, so one can only hope he held onto an old west attitude as the two duke it out for supremacy on screen. The most important thing we learned though was they did not get to choose their own cardigans and ties for their characters, which quite honestly is shocking considering stars have no one to help them develop their wardrobe…wait. The questions all bordered on “grandma safe”, but one can hope that with these two at the helm the series will be anything but.
Regardless, having an event-filled weekend like this one plucking from some of the festival’s top-tier talent and having it be free and open to the public is one of the many benefits to its seemingly exponential growth.
As I moved in closer into the heart of the beast, only to stop for a very necessary photo op of a full-size First Order Tie Fighter, I ended up at the Austin Convention Center, the nerve center for SXSW Interactive. Once there I shuffled through scores of attendees, both human and robot, before settling on the Comcast Social Media Lounge to watch the controversial (for some reason) keynote speech by the President.
Obama’s Keynote Address
Before I get to that, it’s worth mentioning that there was a table set up with a some complimentary pizza. Coming late to the event, me and a handful of others had come upon the last pizza, which for some reason hadn’t been sliced. A confusing problem to incur, and one that no one seemed too terribly worried about, because (or despite) a Comcast employee had promised us that some plastic knives were on their way.
After his failed attempt to portion the pizza out by hand, which was abruptly abandoned, he then made a call requesting some plastic knives. The plastic knives never did show up, and me and about 5 other people can now add “pizza tearing” to the Special Skills section of their resumes.
The shouldn’t-be-controversial-but-is-because-everything’s-stupid keynote address is an interesting earmark in the final lap of President Obama. A calm, quiet, but ultimately confident call to action for the brightest minds in tech to help bring ideas and innovation to the public sector.
The real highlight, though, was Evan Smith, the CEO and Editor-In-Chief of the Texas Tribune, who I’ve seen interview at least a dozen different actors, filmmakers, politicians, musicians, and scientists for live tapings of KLRU’s Overheard over several years. Smith time and again proves himself to be a thoughtful, engaging host, who never hesitated to counter Obama’s idealistic rhetoric with thoughtful rebuttals. He laid out the opposing dichotomy of the unwieldy government versus the sleek and instantaneous gratification of tech, and would laud the low voter turnout in Texas – specifically the lowest voter turnout. So, basically Evan Smith is an interviewing gangster.
BANG! The Bert Berns Story
The very first movie of the the 2016 SXSW film festival was a documentary examining the life and career of songwriter/producer Bert Berns, co-directed by his son, Brett. If you find yourself wondering who Bert Berns is, you’re not alone. In the Q&A after the movie, Steven Van Zandt, who narrates the film, said that “People don’t know his name,” before adding, “people should know his name, you know?”
While I could list off a number of songs he’s written that would prompt an immediate recall to almost anyone who has two ears connected to a heart, it’d be easier to simply advise you to track down this movie and watch it as soon as you can. There’s a definite story that’s lovingly woven through the cross-sections of artists, songwriters, producers, mob enforcers, and record executives that speak from their hearts about one of the most innovative figures in the music business of the 1960s – or any era.
Had this been a documentary that simply poured over his songwriting catalogue, explaining his outlook on life tainted by a childhood illness, it would’ve still been required viewing for anyone with a legitimate interest in the history of American music. What BANG! does, however, is give a palpable sense of the love the people he’d worked with felt for him, and the devastating sadness they still feel when talking about his death 48 years after it happened.
In that sense, it’s the perfect testament to Berns’ catalogue, which had a wrapped up as bubblegum pop, but would be described by Solomon Burke as music that was made to “push you to the edge of despair.” What’s packaged as a typically well-crafted music doc manages to pack an emotional wallop. Like his father before him, Brett Berns seems to have a natural talent for drawing the best out of his subjects. What results is the new high-water mark for music documentaries.
Once BANG! got out, I made my way to the one and only screening of Vice Principals currently being offered this week, only to eventually learn I was too far back in line to make it inside. Such is SXSW, an annual event that proves Darwin’s theory, thoroughly demonstrating that adaptability as the key to making the most of it.
Like me, for example, who ended up stumbling across the massive display for the upcoming AMC series Preacher, which was basically a giant upside-down church in the middle of downtown Austin, TX. What I’m saying here is that SXSW is a festival of contrasts, and while I wasn’t able to bookend my day like I’d planned it all out on a spreadsheet (no, I’m not kidding), I can’t wait to see what happens over the next eight days. –Christian Long
My day consisted of “figuring things out” and “getting it together” followed by so many shorts I had to take notes to actually look back at what needed some love. The SXSW monster is in full swing though today wasn’t as painful as one might suspect (save for a quick run in with the Obama motorcade and a quick thinking U-turn normally reserved for those living outside of the city). The food is over-priced, the lines are too long, and the press rooms close at 6pm, but there’s so much to do that you soon learn that none of that matters.
SXSW STAFF PICKS- Shorts
An intriguing story of what seems to be a horrific misunderstanding, “Entrapment” chronicles the story of the Duka brothers. The four brothers from New Jersey made the news in 2007 when they were accused of practicing radical Islam and plotting against Fort Dix. The short chronicles the life of the youngest Duka brother as he struggles to understand the reasoning behind his brothers’ imprisonment. It was widely publicized back when the story broke, and though the imprisoned brothers are appealing the case is still considered closed. It’s hard to watch, there’s an innate want to believe that it’s the bad guys who are behind bars. But what happens when the bad guys weren’t so bad after all?
Looking like one of this year’s overall favorites, “Night Stalker” is an almost mystical piece that works on every level. Set in an Asian food/karaoke playland, a couple swigs on beers and downs greasy food, and does their best to figure out the complicated system adorning the walls of their private room. After a very well done pop ballad by the seeming boyfriend, the two of them become separated by his inability to hold his liquor and her interest in making their night more interesting by fixing the karaoke set-up. Sucked in by the magical reality that has literally been injected into their life, the two soon find themselves in a world of Tim Burton/Dadaesque art and horror. The second you question the validity of their findings the two worlds collide, dragging the marvelously eerie dimension into the present. Part of what makes it work is the upbeat pop music playing over the lead actresses screams taking horror to a new level of art.
Closely perfect in its making, Hellion was originally made/released in 2012. Director Kat Chandler is currently sitting on the Texas Shorts Jury, so it didn’t come as a surprise to see the short make its way back into the fold. The story follows three boys as they cause destruction while their father is away. The youngest, Petey, lies innocent to the actions of his hell-raising brothers. Dad comes home, things get weird, and soon we’re left with impending loss of innocence followed by a strong sense of the range of emotions we like to ignore from day to day. But before we let things get too after-school special, we’re left with the sneaking feeling that Petey isn’t so innocent after-all. The short spawned a full length film, though it seems that original remains the relevant of the two.
The Other Half
Starring Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany and Tom Cullen, the film chronicled the fire, fury, and destruction that comes with living in the world of mental illness. Cullen’s character Nickie is a pent up, angry loner who has a hard time connecting with the world around him. After a particularly grueling night of partying and self-loathing, he meets Emily, a bubbly counter to his brutish tendencies. A quick romance leads to an unwavering chemistry between the two; simply put, they’re in love before they realize they even want to know one another. Nickie soon learns that his balance comes at a price. Emily is bi-polar, her condition taking over more of her life than she chooses to acknowledge.
A considerable part of why this works so well is the tumultuously truthful fog that hovers closely around their lives. It’s like an upbeat heartbreak riding high on the endorphins that come with falling (and even failing) in love. Maslany’s performance gives a new face to mental illness, while Cullen superbly embodies the hurt that comes with needing someone who needs you more. The two are coupled in reality, and while that innate chemistry surely added to their performance, it was interesting to see them learn about one another onscreen moment by moment. -Danielle Houtkooper
Cover photo by Rita Quinn via SXSW Facebook