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The day started with a massive disappointment. The press lounge didn't open until noon, and pretty much nothing was open at the Convention Center except the check-in. The advance-passes booth, which also wasn't open, had a line going at least a block. The opening night extravaganza, Predators, had sold out long before, and there were only 15 SXPRESS passes for it, which get you to the front of the line.
The line for those passes had about 20 people, so I waited with everyone else and got a couple of tickets, one for a film that had a press screening I'd missed in New York, The Red Chapel, and one picked at random. I was was lucky to get those with the crush of people. Then I headed off to find a bus to the reception/brunch at the U. of Texas' Henry Ransom Center on 20th Street.
They had an exhibit about movie-making that was actually pretty interesting although the brunch part wasn't all that impressive. What was truly interesting was the ¡Viva! Mexico exhibit, which was there becuase of the bicentennial of Mexican independence. What was most important was that the curators completely ignored the event the exhibit was supposed to be celebrating.
They had the actual document appointing Hernando Cortez Captain General of New Spain, letters from Emperor Maximilian to his wife, and photos of Emilio Zapata and Poncho Villa. But as to the war of independence that started in 1810 -- nada. They didn't even mention it in the timeline! I found that to be even more offensive than the monument to Confederate President Jefferson Davis on the state capitol grounds. Why have an exhibition celebrating something if you don't mention it?
I then went to the history museum (more on that later) and spent a couple of hours looking around before heading back to the convention center, which was totally packed -- at least for a while, because when I finally got to the fourth floor and was heading to the press lounge, some moron decided it would be funny to press the fire alarm, and they had to clear the building.
It was here that I noticed that SxSW was all about corporate sponsorship. There were tents across the street in the park on Fourth Street, and they were giving out free drinks. Naturally the place was packed, and it gave me something to do while waiting for my very first screening, which was held at the convention center.
Unfortunately, The Red Chapel sucked big time. It was a documentary about this Danish comedian who brought two of his compatriots to North Korea in order to do expose the evil regime of Kim Jong Il. The theater wasn't packed at all, as most people were at the Kick-Ass premiere at Paramount Theatre, on Congress Street.
After that, I rushed up to the Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz, on trendy Sixth Street, where I saw a thing called The Good Heart that starred Brian Cox as an unlovable curmudgeon. He was great, more on both later….
I'm here in Austin, Texas, at the annual South by Southwest Conferences & Festival, better know as S x SW. Now in its 24th year, it's actually three things at once: an interactive-media show from March 12 to 16, 2010, a film festival from March 12 to 20, and a music fest from March 17 to 21. It's freakin' huge. And it gets your mind to wandering --mine, for instance, wandered to the Santa Fe Plaza in the capitol of New Mexico.
Now, you may wonder what the Santa Fe Plaza has to do with South by Southwest's film festival. Nothing, really, but I was thinking about it when I was headed up the walkway leading to the Texas Capitol building in Austin this morning.
You see, there are Civil War memorials in each place, and the one in Santa Fe has an apology for its, which refers to the Confederates as "rebels." Conversely, the statue of Jeff Davis in Texas' memorial has no such apology on the pedestal. When I mentioned this to another tourist, he said, "Texans don't apologize for anything."
Aside from that, Austin, Texas is a thoroughly modern city. During the 20th century, most of the original buildings were torn down and replaced by post-modernist architecture; the few old ones that remain are almost all stately hotels or seedy bars on the famous Sixth Street, which, for some reason, the people are all very proud of. While it's not the heart of the city, it sure seems that way.
North of the capitol complex is the University of Texas, which is partly why this is the only place where liberals are allowed to thrive in the entire state. The college contains a huge football stadium and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum, which was considered a monstrosity when it was first built, back when the old man was still alive, and now looks almost quaint.
Being a fan of LBJ, I spent much of my time there, looking at the exhibits, which are nice but not thrilling. But then I had to return to the convention center, where they were giving us our badges for the days to come. The place is pretty much like every other convention center I've been to, and so the sense of déjà vu was overwhelming. The lines were long, and the swag they gave us pretty junky, but then again, this isn't the Oscars.
Each part of SxSW's three sections has to be paid for separately. The film festival is an actual film festival, while the interactive section is a conference/trade show. People with a badge for one cannot go to the other, although I’m going to make an attempt.
There's not really much time for that, though. I've barely gotten my bearings and I don't know how to find where the first event of the day is.
There may be a shuttle bus or there may not be. We'll just have to see.
It’s a very old joke and it goes like this:
It’s 1964 and a guy goes into an art gallery. He sees what appears to be a blank canvas selling for an inordinate amount of money and is intrigued. He asks the lady at the desk why that was:
"It’s not a blank canvas; it’s a picture of a cow eating grass."
"Where’s the grass and where’s the cow?"
"Well the cow ate all the grass and moved on, so there’s nothing left."
So when the NY Armory Show (from March 4th to the 7th, 2010) and its 11 other attendant fairs including Pulse and Volta, were happening over the previous weekend, I decided to take a look for the “cows eating grass,” also known as White on White, Black on Black etc. as is my wont. I actually counted about five pieces, and about a dozen that were pretty damn close.
The most expensive of the bunch was Robert Irwin’s aptly named Untitled, which was a largish panel of honeycomb aluminum painted over with black lacquer and polyurethane. This cost between $10 and $20,000. Yup, dollars.
Then there was Tom Chandler’s Untitled, Gary Fabian’s Blue on Blue: Spring, which wasn’t exactly monochrome, but had a dark blue rectangle with a light blue interior. Close enough.
Then there’s Wall Drawing image #5 (white) by Jeff Keller. Keller drew a trapezoid on a canvas. This one goes for many thousands of dollars. It almost qualifies as a “Cow Eating Grass” painting because some one with no talent can go home and make an exact copy of this from memory.
The same goes for Thomas Müller’s C4RD #40, which was hiding among a ton of his other, more accomplished work, all of which was beautifully framed by his gallery. I asked if it was a set that had to be purchased as a whole, but I was told that each was a complete work of art.
This work of art consisted of two triangles badly drawn in pencil, or at least it looked that way. This was even worse than the yellow swastika I passed by as fast as I could. But the worst of the worst of the worst was the work of Michael Scoggins, who blows up loose-leaf binder paper and writes notes like “I’m not going to put up with your SHIT anymore!!” on it. This is supposed to be cute and costs somewhere in the 20,000 range.
There was lots of genuinely good artwork scattered among the dreck, but those artists or pieces aren’t actually as fun to write about. The arrogance of people like Müller and Keller, who think they can get away with this stuff -- not to mention the galleries, who pass over thousands of superior artists who can’t sell anything, in order to peddle what can only be described as a massive fraud -- is astounding.
The influence of cartooning on the art world in the nearly half century since art history ended cannot be overstated. A glance over the independent comix scene will show inept artwork which is redeemed by good writing and design. However some of these people were at the Armory show with just horrible drawings and meaningless captions.
Dutch artist Melle de Boer is one of those people. She and her gallery came from 4000 miles to embarrass themselves here. What were these people thinking? Last year, there was a lot of stuff by David Shrigley, who’s among the worst major artists of all time.
All art is subjective, but at least someone should be SOME standards, Jeez!
Sundance is over and that’s fine with me. I’ve been trying to recover for almost a week and I’m not sure that I have. I saw somewhere between 25 and 32 films (I’m not sure exactly) and after a week back home, I’m still a bit blurry.
While I was in the air on the way home, they announced the winners of the various awards. There have to be awards for some reason. But as to the Sundance winners, I didn’t see most of them, so I’m not going to give any commentary on those. It’s unseemly to pontificate on films I haven't seen, although that sort of thing is done all the time. But here’s what I've I did see.
The Grand Jury Prize: DocumentaryRestrepodirected by Sebastian Junger and Tim HetheringtonJunger and Hetherington spent a year dug in with the Second Platoon as they painfully push back the Taliban in one of Afghanistan's most strategically crucial valleys.
This is one of the most boring war documentaries ever. Nothing much happens. The men mostly dig holes. The Captain has a meeting with the local leadership. And there’s talk of bullets and bombs, but that’s it. The men were interviewed after their tour was over and while it should have bee interesting, it wasn’t. I slept through some of it.
The Grand Jury Prize: DramaticWinter's Bonedirected by Debra Granik written by Granik and Anne RoselliniCast: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Kevin Breznahan, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt Ree (Lawrence) lives in the Ozarks, the Dogpatch ghetto part of Missouri where the stereotypical Hillbilly lives. Everyone’s inbred and makes their living dealing drugs. Ree’s father, whom we never see, has abandoned his family and cooks crystal meth. Ree has to take care of her insane mother and two much younger siblings while living off the kindness of neighbors.
Then one day Sheriff Baskin (Dillahunt) comes around and tells her that Daddy jumped bail, and if he doesn’t show up, they’re going to take the house, which was put up as bond. Ree has to find him or else she’s going to wind up on the street. You see the law of the mountains is very much the same as the law of the street.
But Ree cares about her younger siblings and their fate, so she goes on a quest to find her father. Despite the fact that even her Uncle Teardrop (Hawkes) tells her not to fight it, she tries to solve the mystery of what happened to her pa. This is one of those bleak crime dramas that resembles a train wreck. You can’t take your eyes off it no matter how grim it is. Lawrence is terrific, and so is everyone else.
Our hero has also fallen in lust with the beautiful waitress Mississippi (Mara), with whom he has a contract for a three day fling…. That’s right folks, it’s Seinfeld the Movie!, which means it’s completely about nothing, full of cute jokes and one or two insights about the meaning of life. It'ss entertaining in a sitcom kind of way, not that there’s anything wrong with that. The thing won the award because Radnor, who’s been on a TV sitcom for years, knows the genre well and got himself a good cast. This will now give him the creds to do something more ambitious.
This film is about a convict (Richardson) on work release who somehow gets involved with a lunatic named Margo (Reeder), and soon the hijinks begin. Margo thinks her beau (Rannazzisi), is cheating on her or something like that.
The only reason this film comes even close to working is Reeder, who’s been on Broadway in dozens of plays and is absolutely wonderful. She’s the kind of person that has star quality all over her. I’m smitten. As for everybody else and the movie itself, eh.
The Directing Award: Documentary Smash His Camera directed by Leon Gast Much has been done about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the former First Lady and international celebrity. Not much has been done about her nemesis, famous celebrity photographer and original paparazzo, Ron Galella.
Gast and Gallella have a blast making this film. The photographer is followed around by cinematographers as he goes around his daily grind and shows off his “palatial estate” in New Jersey. He’s suffered for his art, and now he ‘s just enjoying life plugging his art books and taking pictures of celebraties, some of whom don’t want to be followed and all of whom deserve it.
The tawdry tale of his “war” with Jackie O is recounted in great detail, and she doesn’t come off all that well. Of course neither does he. But its easy to see why it won an award. And this documentary is the only film at Sundance in which Robert Redford actually appears.The Documentary Editing Award Joan Rivers-A Piece Of Workdirected by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundbergedited by Penelope FalkLegendary comedian and pop icon Joan Rivers is old. She should be sitting on her lawrels by now, but she’s constitutionally incapable of slowing down, and her bills are huge, what with having to support all her camp followers and all.
So we follow her around for a few months as she goes around the country doing her schtick and discussing the ups and downs of her long, long career. It’s a good documentary, and we she’s someone we can root for.
The use of some old newsreel footage is what makes the film so powerful, as we can recognize that the sweet old man being interviewed really is the monster who was responsible for the deaths of millions. Talk abou the banality of evil! This is a film that hs to be seen, which is why it's going to get on most PBS stations sometime in the fall.
Dean O'Dwyer (Thornton) is a parapalegic homeless person who at one time was a deejay known as “Delicious D”. That career is over and he’s bitter and angry but from his previous life comes Ariel Lee (Lewis), a punk rocker who’s scraping the bottom of the barrel with a band headed by a guy called The Stain (Bloom). Our hero fails again when a miracle happens. He gets the power to heal, and Father Joe (Ruffalo), who’s been tending to the homeless, decides to exploit him in order to do God’s work. Delicious and the punkers decide that his superpower could be profitable to them, and an atheist revival show is started.
Everyone works from his or her basest instincts, nobody is nice, and while the situation is fascinating, there’s no one in the whole film we could really relate to or like. Delicious is an ass; everybody is worse, and the climax and dénouement are completely unbelievable within the conceit of the film. Ruffalo’s experience as an actor makes his directorial style competent enough, but the experience just leaves you cold.
As for the rest... I've listed the winners of the rest of awards -- even though I have not seen them yet.
The World Cinema Jury Prize: Documentary The Red Chapel (Det Røde Kapel) directed by Mads Brügger DenmarkThe World Cinema Jury Prize: Dramatic Animal Kingdom written and directed by David Michôd Australia
The Audience Award: Documentary Waiting For Superman directed by Davis Guggenheim
The World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary Wastelanddirected by Lucy Walker United Kingdom / Brazil
The World Cinema Audience Award: Dramatic Contracorriente (Undertow) written and directed by Javier Fuentes-Leõn, Peru / Colombia / France / Germany
The Directing Award: Dramatic 3 Backyards directed and written by Eric Mendelsohn
The World Cinema Directing Award: Documentary Space Touristsdirected by Christian Frei Switzerland
The World Cinema Directing Award: Dramatic Southern Districtdirected and written by Juan Carlos Valdivia Bolivia
The World Cinema Screenwriting Award Southern District[see above]
The Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award Winter's Bone
The World Cinema Documentary Editing Award A Film Unfinished written and directed by Yael Hersonski Edited by Joëlle AlexisGermany / Israel
A World Cinema Special Jury Prize: Dramatic for Breakout Performance Tatiana Maslany for her role in Grown Up Movie StarCanada
A Special Jury Prize: Documentary Gaslanddirected by Josh Fox
Alfred P. Sloan PrizeObselidiawritten and directed by Diane Bell
I didn’t see any of the Excellence in Cinematography Award winners either. Sorry.
I was at the Slamdance presentation at the Red Banjo Pizza joint (322 Main St.). It was lots of fun -- think of a low-rent version of the Golden Globes®, where people make boring speeches and the recipients cry with joy as they accept. I’d met a number of them in the green room although I never saw their films (I was at Sundance for most of it), but they let me have all the free pizza and beer I could quaff down, and that’s one of the reasons I went to the damn thing. Of course I thanked them profusely between gulps.
That’s it for the time being. Even with all the notes and such, OD’ing on movies turns one’s brain to mush. It takes at least a week to recover in order to write up any more.
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