The pre-festival buzz on South by Southwest 2002 was all about Journeys with George, journalist Alexandra Pelosi’s home movie of the 2000 presidential campaign. Shot on a handheld camcorder over the course of several months, Journeys plunges into the midst of the traveling press corps as they follow George W. Bush down the primary trail. Pelosi, an NBC news producer at the time, captures the candidate in any number of revealing modes, from Cheeto-chomping prankster to thin-skinned blueblood to surprisingly intimate confidant. It’s an eye-opener for anyone who ever scoffed at the notion of Bush as a charismatic figure or effective one-on-one campaigner. It’s no whitewash, though; the members of the press are on hand to get in their digs, and there’s never much doubt on which end of the political spectrum most of them reside.
It seemed only appropriate that the film had its world premiere at the Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas, only a few short blocks down Congress Avenue from the capitol building where Bush’s political career was launched. But while Journeys with George kicked off the festival with a bang, it was only the beginning of the story. As usual, SXSW presented a mix of world premieres (Ethan Hawke’s directorial debut Chelsea Walls), homegrown features (Jeff Stolhand’s Master of the Game, the omnibus Six in Austin), and the tried and true (John Sayles and Troma Films retrospectives, a digitally spiffed-up reissue of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz). Here is a sample of the best and worst this year’s festival had to offer.
Hell House Director George Ratliff’s follow-up to the little-seen documentary Plutonium Circus should reach a wider audience than its predecessor, thanks to a distribution deal with Seventh Arts Releasing that was finalized during the festival. While Circus focused on the eccentrics of Amarillo, Texas, home of the Pantex nuclear facility and the Cadillac Ranch, Hell House takes on a smaller Texas community: Cedar Hill, home of the Trinity Church and Trinity Christian School. Come Halloween each year, the town’s religious community devotes its efforts to the construction of Hell House, an elaborate haunted house designed to scare kids away from the evils of drugs, sex, alcohol and other temptations of the devil. The House is essentially a life-size reenactment of those Jack Chick cartoon tracts that always ended with some hippie getting tossed into the lake of fire and burning forever in eternal torment for his sins, and Ratliff’s film captures both the humorous and unnerving aspects of those comics.
OT: Our Town Having gone many years without a drama program, an impoverished high school in South Central Los Angeles stages a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Director Scott Hamilton Kennedy stumbled onto his debut feature when the teacher he was dating informed him of her plans to revive the Dominguez High drama program. In a school where basketball is king and everything else falls by the wayside, the production provides a crucial outlet for neglected students. Resisting the urge to contemporize Wilder’s play by turning it into a homies-in-the-hood drama, the kids of Dominguez challenge assumptions and stereotypes at every turn. The result is a triumphant underdog story and a compelling documentary.
Home Movie Chris Smith’s American Movie was one of the best documentaries of recent years, and also one of the most misunderstood. Audiences who felt Smith was mocking his unsophisticated small town subjects rather than celebrating them may have their minds changed by Home Movie, in which Smith takes his cameras into five unusual American homes. There’s a houseboat on the Louisiana bayou, a home constructed in an abandoned missile silo, and a fortress of gadgetry that could pass for the residence of a second-rate Batman villain, among others. Of course, Smith is less interested in the houses themselves than the people who choose to live in them. His delight in getting to spend time with these offbeat personalities is infectious, and makes Home Movie a true pleasure.
CQ Roman Coppola’s directorial debut is as stylish as they come. Jeremy Davies stars as Paul, an American documentary filmmaker who gets the chance to take over as director of a Barbarella-like sci-fi extravaganza being shot in Paris. Essentially a pastiche of 60’s film styles, CQ draws on everything from Godard’s Alphaville to Kubrick’s 2001 to Jim McBride’s obscure cinema verite parody David Holzman’s Diary. It’s a witty treat for film buffs, if not a particularly substantial one.
Six in Austin It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Inspired by 1965’s Six in Paris, a compilation film bringing together top talents of the French New Wave like Eric Rohmer and Jean-Luc Godard, filmmakers Zack and Wyatt Phillips recruited a handful of fellow Austinites for this collection of shorts. Shot on digital video ranging in quality from barely adequate to barely watchable, Six in Austin is an interminable exercise in self-indulgence. The kickoff segment, David and Nathan Zellner’s "Rummy," is slight but amusing, and it’s all downhill from there. Six in Austin concludes with the Phillips brothers’ unbearable "Carlos," a shaggy dog story that takes viewers on a tour of the Austin public transit system in what feels like real time. While SXSW’s commitment to local talent is to be applauded, one has to wonder if this homegrown effort could have possibly made it into the festival on its own merit. The overlap between members of the SXSW staff and the Six in Austin crew does nothing to assuage those doubts.