With 150 feature films, 106 shorts, dozens of panels and live presentations, nine days, a dozen theaters, thousands of volunteers, and 72,000 attendees, Austin’s SXSW film festival, presented this year from March 13–21, has grown to one of the most important festivals of the season. Many of the best films of the year are introduced there.
It can also be the most frustrating festival of the season, with its policy of not selling advance tickets to any screenings. Attendees purchase a badge (costing several hundred dollars) for the entire festival and then line up according to the kind of badge they have chosen. Locals can purchase a wristband for $90, but their line is the last to gain entrance, just ahead of the misnomered “rush” line of stragglers hoping to find an empty seat for ten bucks after all the others have gone inside. (During the entire week I saw only two screenings where rushers were able to get in.) Badgeholders are allowed to pick up an express pass for up to two films per day, but that often means being in line by 7 a.m. and waiting for the express line to open at 9.
The Road Warrior was filmed chronologically in 35 mm before computer graphics — every stunt is real, and they are spectacular.
For some, however, that’s part of the fun at SXSW, and friendships are often made in line. I talked with one young filmmaker whose goal for the week was to meet a particular director and talk to him about a project. On the morning of the first day, there was the director he wanted to meet, sitting next to him on the floor waiting for the express line to open. They chatted for nearly two hours and shook on the deal. Who would have thought it possible?
Many films with theatrical release schedules were screening at SX, but I spent most of my time seeing documentaries and smaller films that I won’t be able to see at my local Cineplex in the next month or so. The one exception was a screening of The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2),the 1981 postapocalyptic cult classic, newly remastered for the festival and introduced by director George Miller himself. What a treat to see this film on a gigantic screen in an old-school theater holding nearly a thousand enthusiastic viewers. RW was filmed chronologically in 35 mm before computer graphics — every stunt is real, and they are spectacular. It’s a great story too, demonstrating the kinds of communities that arise under anarchy. Max is a lot like Paul Newman’s character in Hombre, just trying to make his way, barter for gas, and protect what little he has. We were hoping to see a “surprise” screening of the new sequel, Fury Road, afterwards (why else would they have brought back a 34-year-old film?) and indeed, we were treated to several chunks of the new movie. But even without that, Road Warrior was easily the most fun I had at the festival.
Here are some documentaries you might want to watch for on Netflix over the next year:
Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, (directed by Alex Gibney, 127 minutes).When Steve Jobs died of pancreatic cancer in 2011, the whole world mourned the loss of the man who brought us the personal computer and the magical triplets that reside in our pockets or under our pillows: the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.But, according to the many people who were interviewed for this doc, Jobs was not a particularly lovable man. He could be ruthless, selfish, and unfair. He was a man of complex contrasts, “a monk with Zen-like focus but no empathy” who fancied himself to be enlightened and asked to be canonized as a monk. He was one of the wealthiest men in America but paid only $500 a month in child support for his daughter; when he returned to Apple after being pushed out in the ’80s, he ended all philanthropic activities (unlike his counterpart at Microsoft, Bill Gates); his factories polluted rivers in China; he arranged for backdating of stock options to increase the income of key employees (including himself); and he created offshore companies in Ireland to reduce the company’s tax bill (nothing illegal about that, but the filmmaker suggests it’s unethical or improper for Apple not to pay “their fair share”).
Jobs wanted to change the world, and he did. At one point the narrator asks cynically, “Is creating a product that makes buckets of money for its shareholders enough to change the world?” I would answer emphatically, “Yes!” but not because of the money. Everything we do is different now, because of the magic box we carry in our pockets, embed in our Google Glasses, and wear on our watches. Even getting around town is easier today — it was less than ten years ago that I carried a large street map in my car and had to pull over to find my way. This week, navigating around a large and unfamiliar city, I never once got lost, because Siri told me when to turn and even how to avoid traffic. Right now I’m writing this review on my iPhone. I can look up details about the films instantly. The iPhone has indeed changed my world.
Jobs was one of the wealthiest men in America but paid only $500 a month in child support for his daughter; when he returned to Apple after being pushed out in the ’80s, he ended all philanthropic activities.
Jobs created something beautiful and useful, and he created buckets of money in the process. We love our iProducts. We caress them. We even sleep with them. We love them because they connect us to a wider world and family far away. But they also tend to isolate us from those who are near at hand. The narrator sums it up well when he acknowledges, “I love my iPhone. My hand is drawn to it in my pocket the way Frodo’s hand is drawn to the Ring.” Indeed, many folks today create “phone free zones” when they are together, in order to resist the powerful attraction of the ‘net. Jobs himself might not have been a beautiful man on the inside, but he certainly created a beautiful product.
Peace Officer (directed by Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber, 109 minutes) was the most powerful and important film I saw all week, and it rightly won the Grand Jury prize for best documentary. I am hoping to bring it to the Anthem Film Festival at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas in July. It chronicles the deadly results of militarizing our police agencies through SWAT teams and “1033” programs that provide new and used military equipment to local police forces.
The police have become an occupying force in many neighborhoods and this leads to an adversarial relationship even when no one has done anything wrong.
William “Dub” Lawrence is the central figure of the film. A likable, personable man, he was the police chief of Farmington, Utah, when he started Utah’s first SWAT team in 1975. (He also is the man who broke the Ted Bundy serial murder case.) He thought it would be an effective way to reduce the drug trade in his sleepy little community. In 2008 that same SWAT team killed Dub’s son-in-law over a domestic dispute that escalated into a standoff that involved over 80 police officers. Because of his connection to the police department, Dub had access to police cameras that revealed a scenario different from the one reported to the media (that the young man had taken his own life). He quit the police department and spent the next several years piecing together the actual timeline of events calmly, methodically, and with a megawatt smile that belies the pain he feels from the death of his daughter’s husband.
Peace Officer tells several stories of law enforcement turned aggressively non-peaceful and non-protective. “A peace officer should be a trusted friend,” Dub explains. “But today they no longer ‘serve and protect.’ Now they are trained as soldiers, and we are the enemy.” The police have become an occupying force in many neighborhoods, according to the film, and this leads to an adversarial relationship even when no one has done anything wrong. Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute, acknowledges in the film that this isn’t entirely the police officers’ fault. “Laws and programs have set up these conflicts and turned them into soldiers,” he suggests.
One of the laws that has led to the most serious invasions of privacy and safety is the “no-knock warrant,” which allows SWAT teams to barge into a home in the middle of the night, rifles drawn, screaming at anyone in the house to back off. Awakened and terrified, the homeowners try to defend themselves from what appear to be home invaders, and they are often killed rather than arrested. The father of one young man who is dead because of such a raid (and who admittedly was growing marijuana in his basement) asks angrily, “What were they protecting us from? Marijuana plants?”
Several things are wrong with our law enforcement system, and Peace Officer reveals many of them. It’s an important, timely documentary that should keep the conversation going about the growing abuse of police power.
Raiders! (directed by Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen, 95 minutes). In 1982, three 11- and 12-year-old boys undertook an ambitious project: as fans of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, they would recreate the Steven Spielberg masterpiece shot-for-shot. This was before the film was available on VCR; amazingly, the boys were able to recreate the entire film from watching it in a theater and reviewing the story in a “Raider’s” comic book one of them owned. Over the next seven years, from middle school through high school, they would enlist their friends to serve as cast and crew, commandeer their parents’ houses as movie sets, and spend their summer vacations filming the project. By the time they graduated from high school, all but one scene was finished: the one in which Indie and Marion fight off a German airplane mechanic while a WWII airplane rolls around in circles with propellers running. Now, 33 years after beginning the project, they have gone back to film that missing scene.
Raiders! documents the project from start to finish, incorporating footage from 30 years ago along with the scenes of the new project. How they managed not to burn down their parents’ houses or run over a cast member or two during the chase scenes was a feat in itself. These background stories are told with unabashed glee and deadpan humor. As grownups the filmmakers faced a host of new obstacles, including funding the project, getting time off from their fulltime jobs, and dealing with days and days of rain that threatened to end the filming before it even began. Still, they were determined to finish this project. It’s an amazing story of perseverance, creativity, sacrifice, and pursuing one’s dreams. The film is funny, smart, and inspiring. I’m also hoping to bring this film to the Anthem Film Festival this summer.
How they managed not to burn down their parents’ houses or run over a cast member or two during the chase scenes was a feat in itself.
Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation (directed by Eric Zala, 107 minutes). After watching the documentary about the making of the greatest fan-film ever made, audiences were treated to the film itself. These kids were remarkably skillful in recreating Spielberg’s actual shots, including the dialogue, the costumes, the camera angles, and even the facial expressions. It’s fun to watch their ages change, as many of the scenes were filmed out of sequence. And of course, it’s hilarious to see them emerge from the underground temple nearly 30 years older in the newly finished scene, still wearing the same clothing! The Adaptation has developed a cult following since it premiered at Harry Knowles’ “Butt-Numb-a-Thon” at the Alamo Draft House in Austin several years ago; now, partnered with the documentary about its completion, it is going to grow in stature. You can get a copy by donating to their crowdfunding campaign at raidersguys.wix.com.
Finders Keepers (directed by Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweet, 82 minutes).If you’ve ever watched the cable TV show Storage Wars, you know that the strangest things often show up in storage units. When people don’t pay the rent on their units, the facility owners are entitled to sell the contents to the highest bidders. Most of the time they end up with household furnishings and personal effects. Occasionally they might find an expensive piece of jewelry or a cache of valuable collectibles. When Shannon Whisnant bid on the storage unit rented by John Wood, he had no idea that he would find a human leg inside Wood’s smoker grill.
The two men argued for several years over who was the rightful owner of the leg (amputated when Wood was injured in an airplane crash). Whisnant wanted to put it on display and charge people $3 to look at it. ”The cholesterol was dripping right out of it!” he says with glee as he describes discovering the leg. Wood simply wanted to keep it and have it buried with him some day. They were invited to tell their bizarre story on talk shows worldwide and even ended up on an episode of Judge Mathis. But Finders Keepers is not so much about the legal battle to determine ownership of the leg as it is a study of these two backwoods North Carolinians (you know you’re in the deep South when subtitles are required for people who are speaking English). As presented by the film, both struggle with addictions, Wood the traditional kind (drugs and alcohol) and Whisnant of a less tangible kind — he craves attention and longs to be on television making people laugh. “I’m pretty smart,” he says shortly after describing the events that “perspired” regarding the leg. “I’m pretty sure you’ve figured that out by now. “ He thought the leg would be his ticket to fame and fortune.
This colorful and engaging documentary was a favorite with the SXSW audience. It’s funny without being exploitive, and bizarre without being gross. Participating in its making was life-changing for both men, but not in the ways they expected.
Brand: The Second Coming, (directed by Ondi Timoner, 125 minutes, festival headliner). Russell Brand is another character from a poor socioeconomic background who craves attention on the world stage. Best known for his deviously charming smile, his outrageous wit, and his raunchy and irreverent stand-up routines, a few years ago Brand decided to “re-brand” himself as a serious thinker with a plan to change the world through books, op-ed pieces, impassioned speeches, and a stand-up comedy tour that focuses on his four new heroes: Gandhi, Jesus, Malcolm X, and Che Guevera. (For an example of Brand’s unscripted humor, google Russell Brand/Morning Joe to see the interview in which he completely overwhelmed three veteran MSNBC TV anchors.)
Brand’s number-one goal is to end inequality. He has no idea how to do that, however, other than to say that rich people have too much and poor people have too little and that isn’t fair. He doesn’t understand how the world works, and believes the old mercantilist philosophy that “where there is profit there is deficit.” He simply doesn’t understand that the pie can be made bigger. But he has millions of followers (mostly of the “Occupy” ilk) who think he’s right. Rosie O’Donnell gushed, “If I could sell everything I have and give it to his cause, I would!” to which the logical response should be, “Well, what’s stopping you?”
Brand’s epiphany occurred after seeing children in Africa digging through garbage dumps in search of recyclable goods to sell. To his credit, his heart was broken by the sight. But then he opines, “I live in a mansion, and these children dig around in a garbage dump. And the same system put both of us there.” Of course, he’s wrong about that. The system that put him in a mansion is based on Western values, capitalism, and free markets. Audiences chose to spend their money enjoying the entertainment that he provides, and it makes him wealthy. The system that put those children into a garbage dump is anything but market based or embracing of Western values. Moreover, selling his house and living in a tent is not going to change their plight.
Rosie O’Donnell gushed, “If I could sell everything I have and give it to his cause, I would!” to which the logical response should be, “Well, what’s stopping you?”
Brand makes a solid case for decriminalization of drugs, and if he used his celebrity to focus on that one cause, he would probably be quite successful in his goal to “change the world.” He also turned one of his building complexes into a self-sustaining rehab center, which is pretty impressive. Addiction is a topic he knows well, at least according to his own reports. “Prison isn’t working!” he proclaims, and he is right. “As long as it is illegal, they will continue to use dirty needles and back-alley doctors. . . . Drug laws penalize the people at the bottom of the scale.” He did his homework and presented a strong case at the UN meetings in Vienna. I wish he would continue to lead that charge.
Brand should stay with what he does well — unscripted, irreverent comedy — and focus on causes with which he has valid, knowledgeable experience, such as the problems of drug addiction. He is no Messiah, and his knowledge of economics is laughably shallow. But I think he is a good man at heart who sincerely wants to make a difference in the world.
Love and Mercy (directed by Bill Pohlad, 119 minutes).This biopic about Brian Wilson, the musical genius behind the Beach Boys, was one of only two narrative films that I caught during the festival. I was expecting to see a feel-good story about a feel-good band from my youth, but I was sadly mistaken. It is a horrifying story that left the audience in absolute silence at the end. It is true that Wilson suffered from mental illness and was away from the music industry for several decades because of it. But this film is so unrelentingly sad that I walked away convinced that I will never be able to enjoy hearing a Beach Boys song again without thinking of the nightmares Wilson experienced while creating them.
Despite his debilitating mental illness, Wilson was able to create harmonies and musical arrangements that are considered today among the best of the era.
Wilson is played by both Paul Dano (1960s) and John Cusack (1990s). The decision to use two actors who don’t look at all alike instead of simply aging Dano through prosthetics seems odd, but it serves to emphasize Wilson’s schizophrenia — not only does he hear voices in his head, but we see two different people inside his skin. Young Wilson is plagued by an abusive father who seems to exacerbate his illness, while the older Wilson is abused by his tyrannical psychiatrist Gene Landy (Paul Giamatti) who eventually lost his medical license for his mistreatment of Wilson.
Despite his debilitating mental illness, Wilson was able to create harmonies and musical arrangements that are considered today among the best of the era. We see him in the studio, pressuring the musicians to create the sounds he hears in his head, and while it is amazing to watch him at work, it is also devastating to see the agony he experiences while trying to get it right. This is the kind of film that could end up winning numerous awards, while earning very little at the box office. It is just too sad to endure.
I had marked dozens of other films that I wanted to see, but there wasn’t enough time and the films I wanted were often scheduled in conflict with each other. I was also distracted by multiple other features of the festival, including a four-day interactive gaming and creative technology show, live music performed at nearly every corner, and crazy good food that you can only get in Austin, and often only from a truck. It was a great experience, and I will definitely be back.