Has success ruined America's friendliest filmfest?

No! Bring on the Tex-Mex, tequila and oddball movies -- Bigfoot! Bong jokes! Even a few big stars! -- that make South by Southwest so fun.

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published March 8, 2008 1:26PM (EST)

Left: New Line Cinema, right: Columbia Pictures / Peter Iovino

Left: Kal Penn (left) and John Cho in "Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay." Right: Kate Bosworth (left) and Jim Sturgess in "21."

[UPDATED below on the premiere of "21" and a preview of "Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantánamo Bay."]

AUSTIN, Texas -- It's probably easiest to explain the appeal of the South by Southwest Film Festival, which launched here on Friday night with the premiere of the MIT-students-vs.-Vegas caper "21" (more on which below), by describing what it isn't. When SXSW's film component was launched in 1994, it was more or less an adjunct or baby sister to the long-established, alt-rock-oriented music industry bash. It isn't that anymore, although there's a significant subset of music-related movies and both festivals still share the same friendly-party vibe.

SXSW isn't a major acquisition marketplace for new films in the mode of Sundance or Berlin, and I'm not sure it ever will be. Some modest proportion of the movies that premiere here will sneak into the marketplace sooner or later -- maybe through tiny boutique distributors, or public TV, or straight-to-DVD release -- but plenty of others will never make it off the festival circuit. It's definitely not a celeb-spotting glamour zone à la Cannes or Venice; those actors and directors who do show up are liable to be eating right next to you, unrecognized, at Chuy's Tex-Mex or Ruby's Barbeque.

"South by," as veterans inevitably start calling it, isn't trying to elbow its way into the top rank of world festivals, the way Tribeca is, and it isn't a major film-industry event, with studio heads and Hollywood agents hosting A-list parties. OK, here's what it is: SXSW is a great place to catch movies, directors and trends way out in the depths of the indie ocean, a long time before they reach the mainstream, if they ever do. (For better or worse, the "mumblecore" movement coalesced here, along with a semi-related wave of indie horror films.) It's a terrific fest for documentaries, a pretty good one for underground genre films, and a spotty one for indie narrative features, given the hard reality that most movies that premiere here do so because they didn't get into Sundance.

Lastly -- and this is no small thing -- with its overlapping film, music and interactive festivals, SXSW is a great place to sample the latest twists and fillips in Internet and computer culture, which at some point is almost certain to transform the film industry as profoundly as it has transformed the music industry. This year, for instance, the Canadian Film Centre's Media Lab will be premiering "Late Fragment," which is described as "North America's first interactive dramatic feature film." I presume this means a movie that behaves like a video game, and I'm not convinced that anybody really wants that. Still, I hope to check it out.

I know, I know: There are some Austinites and cave-dwelling indie crustaceans out there even now protesting that SXSW has been totally ruined, and that it's become all the things I said it wasn't. More industry sharks, media lampreys and other slaves of Voldemort show up every year. SXSW has become a viable venue to stage red-carpet premieres for semi-hip Hollywood and Indiewood features, and we've got several more of those this year. Someday soon, we'll see celebutainment gifting lounges thrown up along Congress Avenue, and Harvey Weinstein will host an all-night, invitation-only shindig in some custom-built McMansion on the western fringe of town.

Well, no, probably we won't. And if we do, hey, so what? This will still be a film festival in one of the coolest cities in America, and if you and I can't get into Harv's party we'll go drink someplace else. Like any fast-growing institution, SXSW is likely to go through awkward stages, but this festival isn't anywhere close to being ruined. The industry people I meet here are the ones who really like movies, and who are curious to find out what's going on that they don't know about yet. They relish SXSW precisely because it isn't those other festivals, because the weather is nice and the food is great, because the mood is relaxed and sincere and almost entirely undisgusting, because the scene is flavored with Texas sunshine and salsa and beer and tequila and, um, other things of that sort.

[UPDATE begins here.] On the topic of things-of-that-sort, I skipped the premiere of comedian Doug Benson's stoner-humor vehicle "Super High Me" (see below), but it was for a good cause, i.e., catching John Cho and Kal Penn in their fully awesome stoner-humor vehicle, "Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantánamo Bay." The film doesn't premiere until Saturday night, but I will surmise that fans of the bong-party classic "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" will be highly satisfied. As the title of this one suggests, writing-directing team Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg plow fearlessly into terrain where other dude comedies dare not venture, while dispensing pot, poop and dick humor liberally along the way.

Yes, our lads are arrested as terrorism suspects, after Penn's Kumar tries to fire up a self-invented "smokeless bong" on board a flight to Amsterdam -- getting high on the way to Amsterdam being the most unnecessary thing in the world -- but I'm not spoiling much when I say that their incarceration and escape from Gitmo are only a small part of the film. There's also full-frontal nudity (both genders), an inbred mutant child in an Alabama basement, an interlude where Harold and Kumar pose as Klansmen and a return visit from "White Castle" co-star Neil Patrick Harris, playing himself -- or at least a "himself" who eats massive doses of 'shrooms, is baby-daddy to a woman named LaTonda, and visits a Texas whorehouse to "get his fuck on." Oh, and then Harold and Kumar end up getting massively stoned with a certain former Austin resident, now living in the nation's capital, whose past proclivities for recreational drugs are well known.

Sure, "Harold and Kumar" is awkward and episodic, but its target audience won't really care, and I didn't either. As for "21," the official festival-opener, it's a feature-length movie directed by Robert Luketic (who made the comedies "Monster-in-Law" and "Legally Blonde"), and it played to a packed-to-the-rafters crowd in downtown Austin's Paramount Theatre, who seemed to like it. What more do you want?

Oh, all right. If you think the "Ocean's Eleven" series would have been better with a cast of hot young no-names -- playing MIT students! -- and with roughly 38.7 percent the coherence and wit of Steven Soderbergh's films, then this one is for you.

Seriously, anytime Hollywood tries to depict smart people, the results are invariably beyond insulting. Even with my elementary-school command of arithmetic, I can tell that "21" makes no serious effort to explain how a group of bright college kids devised a nearly infallible blackjack card-counting system, or the principles of probability and variable change at work behind it. (The film was adapted, very loosely, from the nonfiction book "Bringing Down the House" by Ben Mezrich.) Here's a pop quiz, math geeks: The game show host offers you three doors, with goats behind two of them and a new Corvette behind the third. You pick Door No. 1. Then the host eliminates Door No. 3, showing you the goat, and asks whether you want to switch your final choice from No. 1 to No. 2. Do you increase your chances of winning by doing so? And if so, by how much? (I genuinely don't know how to figure the answer, but I strongly suspect the movie gets it wrong.)

"21" is a run-of-the-mill Vegas caper film, mixed with a standard-issue fable about a young man's rapid rise, sudden fall and soulful redemption. English actor Jim Sturgess boasts a hangdog expression and a wobbly, unspecific Yank accent as Boston townie turned MIT star Ben Campbell, who's gotten into Harvard Medical School but lacks the spondulicks, and is recruited by his mercenary professor (Kevin Spacey) for the blackjack scheme. (If you smell a healthy dose of "Good Will Hunting" in the mix here, you've got a good sniffer.) Ben's alleged chemistry with fellow genius Jill (Kate Bosworth) is curiously tepid, though both are cute enough. Spacey's engaging for a while in one of his patented double-edged, sharky roles, but the script has him saying lines like "That's how we play!" (when things are going well) and "Nobody leaves this town alone!" (when they're not).

Laurence Fishburne is wasted as a casino tough guy, and the gambling scenes themselves, although visually stimulating in a TV-commercial fashion, suffer from the fact that gambling is always boring unless you yourself are fucked up on free liquor, contemplating sex with a stranger and winning or losing unexpected sums of money. Anyhow, the crowd enjoyed themselves, no harm no foul, festival-opener movies often suck, etc. (Maybe the producers of "Harold & Kumar," a glaringly obvious opening-night choice, preferred Saturday to Friday. But I'm only guessing.) [UPDATE ends.]

Saturday morning dawned bright, clear and unseasonably crisp, and hauling our collective asses out of Austin's many cafes and into the movie theaters will be tough work. As they say, somebody's got to do it. SXSW features several categories of movies: the Indiewood Interlopers, the Could-Be-Hot Documentaries, the Only in Austin oddball entries and the Who the Hell Knows? narrative features. Here are the ones I'm most curious about. I've seen a few advance screeners already, but most of this is guesswork, intuition and my frequently defective film-festival radar system.

Indiewood Interlopers

"21" See comments above.

"Battle in Seattle" Stuart Townsend's docudrama, set during the now-legendary Seattle World Trade Organization protests of 1999, stars Woody Harrelson, Charlize Theron, Ray Liotta, André Benjamin and many others, alongside genuine news footage. Sounds initially like a cheesy gimmick, but audiences in Toronto were enthusiastic.

"Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantánamo Bay" See comments above. Look for podcast interviews with star John Cho and the writing-directing duo of Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg in coming days.

"The Promotion" "Pursuit of Happyness" screenwriter Steven Conrad makes his directing debut with this forthcoming Weinstein Co. comedy that pairs John C. Reilly and Seann William Scott as mid-level supermarket managers dueling for a hot new store position. Sure, it's an indie formula flick, but could be a good one.

Could-Be-Hot Docs

"At the Death House Door" Doc vets Steve James ("Hoop Dreams") and Peter Gilbert ("Vietnam: Long Time Coming") co-direct this much-anticipated film about Texas death-house chaplain Carroll Pickett, who has officiated -- if that's the right word -- at almost 100 executions. Pickett recorded his reactions on audiotape after every one of them, and reflects now on at least one executed convict he is sure was wrongfully convicted.

"Bulletproof Salesman" Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, the duo behind "Gunner Palace" and "The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair," return with a dark-comic portrait of Fidelis Cloer, a professed war profiteer who has spun America's Iraq misadventure into entrepreneurial gold.

"Dreams With Sharp Teeth" Longtime film and TV producer Erik Nelson makes his directing debut with this 25-years-in-progress documentary about science-fiction legend Harlan Ellison, an irascible and prolific genius who never quite managed to cash in on sci-fi's mainstream crossover.

"FrontRunners" Caroline Suh, producer of many TV documentaries, makes her directing debut with this intriguing look at the student-body-president election at New York's Stuyvesant High School, probably the most intense and competitive public school in the country. The campaign is dominated by semi-subterranean race and gender politics (what a surprise!) and the pressure-cooker atmosphere of Stuyvesant produces its own kind of insanity, something like your weirdest high-school memories on steroids.

"One Minute to Nine" Devastating doc from Texas director Tommy Davis explores the saga of Wendy Maldonado, a rural Oregon woman sentenced to 10 years in prison for killing her abusive husband. Using home videos, family photos, 911 tapes, crime-scene photos and contemporary interviews, Davis incrementally builds a skin-crawling portrait of the ultimate marriage from hell.

"Sex Positive" Daryl Wein's feature-directing debut focuses on gay hustler-turned-AIDS activist Richard Berkowitz, an unsung hero of the most traumatic years of the epidemic and a crucial figure in the widespread acceptance of "safe sex" practices. Features playwright-activist Larry Kramer, novelist Edmund White, AIDS researcher Joseph Sonnabend and others.

"Shot in Bombay" This purportedly hallucinatory doc from London-based American Liz Mermin (who made the terrific "Beauty Academy of Kabul") explores the high-stakes world of Bollywood filmmaking and Indian organized crime. Sanjay Dutt, one of India's biggest stars, was arrested in connection with a series of Mumbai terrorist bombings -- and while awaiting sentencing plays a cop in a big-budget action-adventure.

"The Upsetter: The Life & Music of Lee 'Scratch' Perry" Biopic on Jamaican music legend Perry, who is generally credited with inventing reggae and discovering an unknown named Bob Marley, comes from the hipster directing duo of Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough ("Bomb the System").

"Woodpecker" From hot young director Alex Karpovsky ("The Hole Story") comes this impressionistic journey into backwoods Arkansas, where one troubled amateur birder has convinced himself that he'll be the one to find proof that the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker isn't extinct after all. I smell the nature-geek movie of the year, with a brewing controversy attached.

Only in Austin

"Nerdcore Rising" Negin Farsad's hilarious cross-country journey with "nerdcore hip-hop" pioneer MC Frontalot might be the ultimate SXSW film, with irresistible appeal to film, music and Internet geeks alike. Eager for a bespectacled, short-sleeved rapper who rhymes about other people's bad blogs, picking up girls at "Star Wars" conventions and how much he dislikes "Magic: The Gathering"? OK, OK, calm down -- this one's sure to get some kind of distribution sooner or later.

"Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie" All I can tell you about Jay Delaney's directing debut is that it's a documentary about two amateur Bigfoot researchers -- who are looking for the big fella in the Appalachian foothills of southern Ohio. OK, laugh. But I mean, if they find him there it'd be one hell of a story, right?

"Second Skin" Director Juan Carlos Pineiro explores the booming and slightly creepy world of gamers who virtually disappear into the alternate universes of Massively Multiplayer Online games, or MMOs, like "World of Warcraft," "Second Life" and "Everquest."

"Super High Me" Here's an entire feature film that grew out of a joke: Stoner stand-up comedian Doug Benson vowed to emulate Morgan Spurlock's "Super Size Me" by ingesting medical-grade marijuana every day for 30 days. (As he pointed out, McDonald's would no doubt play a role in his movie too.) Director Michael Blieden tracks Benson's noble exploits, which he preceded by staying sober for 30 days. Which of those periods was tougher, I wonder?

"We Are Wizards" More than just another doc about overzealous fandom, Josh Koury's film tracks down Harry Potter enthusiasts -- writers, musicians, filmmakers and artists -- who are eager to extend J.K. Rowling's universe on their own terms, and sometimes in unexpected directions.

Who the Hell Knows?

"Bootleg Wisconsin" Debut feature from writer-director Brandon Linden follows a Chicago public-school teacher through an outlet-mall odyssey, during which she explores an unlikely relationship with a much younger born-again Christian boy. I really can't tell, but check out the cool trailer.

"Cook County" David Pomes quit his law practice to make this zero-budget indie about a father and son struggling with meth addiction. Maybe he should get better advice, but the film looks promising in a downbeat-Americana mode.

"Explicit Ills" Actor Mark Webber ("The Good Life," "The Hottest State") makes his directing debut with this tale of drugs and poverty in a hardscrabble Philadelphia neighborhood. Stars Rosario Dawson, Paul Dano, Lou Taylor Pucci and other indie veterans.

"Half-Life" Jennifer Phang went to Sundance as an unknown and emerged with her cinematically ambitious saga of Asian-American suburban life garnering some of Park City's best reviews. I missed it in Utah, but don't intend to in Texas.

"The Lost Coast" I've already seen Gabriel Fleming's artful and sad reflection on a trio of former high-school friends, now in their 20s, who spend a long Halloween night on a fruitless quest for Ecstasy across San Francisco. Dramatically it's a bit thin, and the unacknowledged sexual tension between the film's two maybe-gay characters doesn't go far, but Fleming's got a wonderful eye and the wistful mood is contagious.

"Nights and Weekends" Unbowed by the mixed reception he got for mumblecore non-breakthrough "Hannah Takes the Stairs," director Joe Swanberg is back, teaming up with co-star and co-director Greta Gerwig for this no-budget, improvisational portrayal of a young couple struggling with a New York-Chicago long-distance relationship.

"RSO [Registered Sex Offender]" Austin-based writer-director Bob Byington returns to SXSW with his first film since the 1998 underground fave "Olympia," this one about a convicted sex offender trying to adjust to life outside prison. Veteran character actor Kevin Corrigan and fellow filmmakers Andrew Bujalski and Richard Linklater play supporting roles, with newcomer Gabriel McIver as the nameless RSO.

"Shuttle" There's always one breakout horror film at SXSW, and this may be it. Two young women arrive on a night flight after a weekend getaway, and need a ride home through a rain-soaked city. Didn't anybody warn them not to ride with Psychopath Pshuttle? Director Edward Anderson scripted the forthcoming Demi Moore-Michael Caine thriller "Flawless" (also showing in SXSW, oddly enough).

"The Toe Tactic" Working with live actors for the first time, veteran animator Emily Hubley (who did the animated segments in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," e.g.) crafts an enigmatic tale of a young woman grieving for her dead father while unaware of the hallucinatory animated world coming alive around her. Music by Yo La Tengo, and Hubley's cast includes Daniel London, Kevin Corrigan, Mary Kay Place, David Cross, Xander Berkeley and Eli Wallach.

"Yeast" The writer, director and star of this film is Mary Bronstein, who is married to Ronald Bronstein, director of last year's SXSW sensation "Frownland," perhaps the most-discussed unreleased film of 2007. ("Frownland" opens in New York this week; I'll post on that when I get a chance.) That may explain the minor-key excitement around "Yeast," apparently an intense, intimate study of an especially toxic trio of female friends. Mumblecore it-girl Greta Gerwig co-stars.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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