Austin is a city steeped in the arts. Wandering around the city, you can't help noticing landmarks and storefronts recognizable from Slacker or Death Proof or Machete. Downtown's 2nd Avenue has been renamed for Willie Nelson. Heck, just reading the words "Congress Avenue" makes me hear them the way Nanci Griffith growls them in the song "So Long Ago."
But for South by Southwest, even the lily that is Austin can be gilded a bit. Temporary installations from media giants abound, and not just the Apple Pop-Up Store that sold the very first iPad 2.0 on Friday. IFC has set up a lounge that offers interviews (mostly conducted by the network's affable Matt Singer) with everyone from first-time filmmakers to big names like Conan O'Brien and Pee-Wee Herman, as well as live bands and comedy from web wits like Alex Blagg. And even CNN has taken over an entire corner – and parked a giant bus alongside – to interview the many notables in town for the event.
But there's plenty of local flavor imbedded in the festival, particularly in events like today's Crawfish Boil, which saw filmmakers like Ti West (the House of the Devil director is back with his latest, The Innkeepers) and media types hobnobbing over delicious mud-bugs and bread pudding. And the film programming here shows off the many venues in town, from the historic State Theater (being used as a cinema for the first time in decades) to the Rollins Theater at the very contemporary Long Center for the Performing Arts.
As for the films being shown there, none of them had gained consensus as the must-see movie so far – so far, the only thing everyone seems to be talking about is Jake Gyllenhaal's confrontation with someone who tried to photograph him at a urinal after the Source Code premiere.
The three films I saw Saturday were definitely a mixed bag. A Year in Mooring, from director Chris Eyre, stars Josh Lucas as a grief-stricken man who buys a ramshackle boat and spends the next 12 months trying to repair both his soul and the vessel. And yes, the metaphors are often that obvious in Peter Vanderwall's clunky script, but Eyre's talent for visuals and for working with his fine cast (which also includes Ayelet Zurer and James Cromwell) helps a lot.
Apart deals with a rare psychiatric ailment in one which one person shares delusional hallucinations with someone else in close proximity, but that affliction winds up being an interesting hook for a story about two teens whose intimate bonding threatens their mental health. Much of the film's heavy lifting is ably performed by leads Josh Danziger and Olesya Rulin (playing a 180 from her role as the mousy composer from the "High School Musical" movies), and there's a third-act twist that's a real gut-punch.
And then there's Super, which packed the Paramount Theater to the rafters, even though IFC Films is releasing the film next month. A painfully unsuccessful attempt to marry Taxi Driver and Kick-Ass, the film stars Rainn Wilson as a loser who turns himself into a costumed vigilante to rescue his recovering-addict wife (Liv Tyler) from the scuzzy drug dealer (Kevin Bacon) who took her away.
The film vacillates wildly in tone from parody to sincerity to ultra-violent to jokey, and apart from a few moments of comic respite provided by Ellen Page as a gung-ho comics-shop employee who becomes Wilson's sidekick, Super is the most contemptible and despicable movie I've seen since 1991's The Dark Backward. Hideous to behold (scenes are either too bright or they look like the lens was smeared with mucus) and disdainful of humanity (there's a palpable subtext of racism and homophobia), this movie attempts to mask incompetent filmmaking with hipster nihilism.
The fact that much of the crowd seemed to be eating this up with a spoon proved to be more depressing than the movie itself.
MDC at SXSW 2011:
2011 SXSW Film Festival - Photo Gallery
Dialogue: SXSW Interview with Rainn Wilson and James Gunn
Dialogue: SXSW - Morgan Spurlock Delivers The Greatest Movie
Dialogue: SXSW - Paul Giamatti Grapples with Win Win
Dialogue: SXSW Interview with Apart Star Joey Lauren Adams
Dialogue: SXSW Interview with A Year in Mooring's Josh Lucas
Day Five - Film Ends, >Conan Heads to the Big Screen and Anchor Bay Makes the Biggest Buy in Conference History
Day Four - Tuneful Documentaries and Concert Films
Day Three - Simon Pegg in Paul, Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, and Interactive in Everything
Day Two - Josh Lucas' A Year in Mooring, Apart and the Not-So-Super
Day One - Source Code, Insidious, Shiner Bock and Smartphones