For one week each March, South by Southwest becomes the Festival That Ate Austin, Texas. Originally conceived as a music conference – it is often referred to as "spring break for the record industry" – SXSW has expanded into film and interactive media in recent years. And while the live music performances are still the main attraction, the film festival has blossomed as a springboard for new and unknown talent, as well as a showcase for regional and U.S. premieres of upcoming releases.
The bloating of SXSW is cause for concern among Austinites, particularly those who shell out the ever-increasing amounts of cash needed to purchase a wristband (good for admission to all live shows, as long as they aren’t already filled with badge-wearing insiders). The closing over the past year of some of Austin’s most beloved music clubs (Liberty Lunch, Steamboat, the Electric Lounge), even as the number of SXSW registrants continues to rise, puts an additional squeeze on the festival. The result, for the 2000 edition at least, is an increase in non-traditional venues (a Masonic temple and a German social club hall helped shoulder the burden) and more free-to-the-public shows in Waterloo Park. Indeed, despite looming thunderstorms, the park hosted some of the more memorable performances this year, with Hank Williams III delivering a ferocious rockabilly set one night and Patti Smith putting in a rare appearance before thousands of adoring fans the next.
The film festival, meanwhile, expanded this year into the newly refurbished State Theater, which shares a downtown block with longtime festival centerpiece, the Paramount. Additional screenings were held at the convention center, the campus area Dobie, and the Alamo Drafthouse (the continuing popularity of which can best be summarized in three words: they serve beer). Lines stretched around the block for many of the high-profile SXSW selections – High Fidelity, American Pimp, The Big Kahuna – all of which are receiving major theatrical releases. Here, then, is a glance at some of the smaller films that may or may not make it to a theater near you.
Love him or hate him, the latest from Peter Greenaway is unlikely to change anyone’s mind about the obscure auteur. As formally meticulous and inscrutable as any of his works, 8 1/2 Women centers on the father-son duo Philip and Storey Emmenthal, owners of a chain of pachinko parlors in Japan. When Philip’s wife dies, the Emmenthals set up a private bordello with the titular eight-and-a-half women (the "half" is a legless woman in a wheelchair). As usual with Greenaway, there is ample nudity on display, both male and female, and no shortage of grotesque imagery. Essentially a battle-of-the-sexes farce gussied up in glacial art-house drag, 8 1/2 Women presents some striking imagery (though less than usual), a handful of wickedly humorous scenes, and far too much mannered tedium.
Documentarian Ron Mann (Comic Book Confidential, Twist) returns with an impassioned and hilarious look at the war on marijuana in 20th century America. Using found footage from newsreels and propaganda films (Reefer Madness is the best-known), Mann traces the evolution of the U.S. government’s attitude towards the wacky weed – from the early efforts of the country’s first drug czar Harry Anslinger, who launched the initial prohibition campaign against pot; to the brief window of tolerance that opened in the 1970’s, when presidential candidate Jimmy Carter came out in favor of the decriminalization of marijuana; to the senseless War on Drugs buildup that continues to this day. Mann has pulled off an impressive feat of unearthing archival materials (such as a very out-of-it Sonny Bono anti-pot public service announcement) and little-known facts (particularly startling is New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s efforts to legalize the drug). Hemp enthusiast Woody Harrelson narrates, and Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers artist Paul Mavrides provides colorful interstitial graphics.
This genial but derivative comedy mixes "mockumentary" elements with more straightforward narrative style to tell the story of fictional schlock director Morty Fineman. Jerry Stiller gives a career-capping performance as Fineman, investing him with the playful energy and anything-goes gusto of a man half his age. The always welcome Janeane Garofalo co-stars as Morty’s daughter Paloma, who joins the ailing Fineman Films Company in the hopes of saving it from bankruptcy. Clips from Fineman’s extensive catalogue of exploitation fare (titles include The Man With Two Things and 12 Angry Men and a Baby) provide some of the movie’s biggest laughs – Christ For the Defense gives us Jesus as a faith-healing lawyer and Whale of a Cop should be self-explanatory. Too often, though, director and co-writer Stephen Kessler gets bogged down in the mundane plot details. In a movie like this, the story is really beside the point. More entertaining are cameos from Morty’s fellow filmmakers – Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich and arch-rival Roger Corman all make brief but very funny appearances.
Rick Staton and Tobias Allen are the title collectors – art dealers specializing in the work of serial killers. A lot of people aren’t happy with them and their choice of vocation, particularly the victims of the criminals whose work they peddle. This documentary by Julian P. Hobbs follows the duo as they take a road trip to Houston for the opening of a gallery exhibit devoted to one of their clients, multiple murderer Elmer Wayne Henry. Unabashedly obsessed with the ghoulish (Staton is a mortician and Allen is the creator of a serial killer board game), the collectors prove to be an engaging, if somewhat disturbing, pair. Their encyclopedic knowledge of serial killer lore – on display as they visit infamous crime scenes along their route of travel – is enough to give anyone the heebie-jeebies. Most of the "art" they sell (their Death Row Art Show contains works by John Wayne Gacy, including a portrait of an exploding clown and a "Heigh-Ho" series of Seven Dwarfs paintings) is of little interest aesthetically. The appeal is one of morbid fascination, and the same might be said for Collectors.