Page 22


BOOKS & THE CULTURE Cannes on Congress Avenue Notes from a Week of Independent Watching BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN 1998 South by Southwest Fihn Festival Austin, March 13March 21 44 Iam but mad north-north-west,” declared Hamlet, but the madness might have been magnified southsouth-west had the Prince of Denmark attended a recent Texas film festival. By the conclusion of the fifth annual South by Southwest Film Festival, offshoot of the pop ular music jamboree, Austin was a site for sore eyes and tender buttocks. From Friday the Thirteenth through Saturday the Twenty-first it was possible to sit through so many workshops, panels, and screenings more than 140 that a melancholy Dane might even believe he was seeing ghosts. What haunts South by Southwest, and many other festivals, is Hollywood, the absent referent to the category of “independent.” While some film fairs are Cannes wannabes, a showcase for lucre and glamour, Austin’s, which was sponsored in part by the Sundance Channel, aspires to be like Robert Redford’s hot spot in Park City, Utah a wintry home to productions not enslaved to bulky budgets and thin formulas. In its fifth year of operation, SXSW is emerging as Sundance without snow. And just as Sundance begat the fringe fair Slamdance, SXSW has even generated its own counterinsurgency the 30th Parallel Film Festival, which began inauspiciously when rain and problems with projection forced outdoor screenings of God, Sex, and Apple Pie and Labor Pains to be rescheduled. SXSW is in principle a juried event, but since more features are screened out of competition than in, announcement of the winners \(Tamara Hernandez’ s fictional Men Cry Bullets and Jacki Ochs’ nonfictional seems like a West Coast gaucherie. So .a stranger who glimpsed the sight of klieg lights and limos on Saturday night might have thought that he was standing in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater instead of Austin’s Paramount. Tickets ranged from $10 to $250 for admission to the world premiere of The Newton Boys, the latest film by Richard Linklater, the local Wunderkind who co-founded the Austin Film Society. More than any other feature, Linklater’s ‘1991 release Slacker embodies the raffish nonchalance that SXSW affects and that infects a visitor. Slacker’s $23,000 budget is the stuff of local legend, but The Newton Boys was made for $25 million which, though barely half the Hollywood average, exceeds the combined cost for all other offerings at this year’s SXSW. You did not need to come to Austin to see The Newton Boys, scheduled for national release two weeks later. The spectacle of a local boy who made good is endearing, and irritating; not everyone who makes a pitch to South by Southwest is a Texas Leaguer eager to sign with the Yankees. Film festivals are the little magazines for post-literate culture, and you do not look to The Kenyon Review for what is already printed in The Saturday Evening Post. What distinguishes South by Southwest and other festivals is what does not get screened in the shopping mall shorts, documentaries, first and frugal fictional efforts. While The Newton Boys was entertaining a wellheeled audience at Austin’s Paramount, a tattier group viewed Independent’s Day, a documentary that, examining the state of independent filmmaking, is a fascinating exercise in artistic incest. Independent’s Day is not the least impressive or budgeted at less than $50,000 the most expensive of 800 independents produced in the United States within the past year. Unlike many other, neglected indies, it was able to come out of the can at a major festival. “In the past eight or ten years,” says Steven Soderbergh, whose indie film sex, lies, and videotape drove the vogue ten years ago, “making a movie has sort of crept up on being a rock star on the fantasy list for a lot of people, which is amusing. Mostly I think because it’s a lot easier than learning how to play an instrument.” With Independent’s Day, director Marina Zenovich performs a perky sonata for one disabled hand, a study in passion, tenacity, and oblivion. Those who struggle to get a movie made and screened share genes with those shown kissing prize pigs and puissant posteriors in order to gain office in Vote for Me: Politics in America. “Politics is show business for ugly people,” proclaims Mike Turpen, leader of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, early in a film that, screened in its four-hour entirety, seemed right at home at SXSW. Vote for Me was directed by Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker, and Paul Stekler, and it expands the scope of their earlier Louisiana Boys: Raised on Politics to examine how and why campaigns are waged throughout the nation. The film is most trenchant when most specific, as when it focuses on Brian Doherty, a Republican Alderman in Chicago; Buddy Cianci, Mayor of Providence; Kathleen Brown, unsuccessful candidate for Governor of California; and Rodney Ellis, a Democrat shown coaxing votes on the floor of the Texas State Senate. Vote for Me concludes with a riveting account of challenger Maggie Lauterer’s abortive run for Congress \(in part thwarted Carolina. \(When the film was screened on PBS, Ellis’ frank remarks about his colleagues earned him some embarrassing state press and a reprimand; henceforth, by new Senate rule, no unannounced filmmaking Do not expect much of a theatrical run for the somber The Long Way Home \(although winning the Oscar for best documentary may of sobering footage, director Mark Jonathan Harris traces what happened to the European Jews who survived until liberation of the concentration camps. Most of those who attempted to return home encountered violent hostility and even pogroms, and those who sought a new home elsewhere found themselves unwanted anywhere. “The secret of spiritual survival in exile” is precisely what the Dalai Lama seeks when he invites a 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER APRIL 10, 1998