SXSW panels & film fest highlights: Bernie Sanders, Steve Albini & Kim Deal, ‘The Last OG’ & more
Though we tend to focus mainly on the music portion, there is of course much more to SXSW with the Innovation Festival, a Film Festival and Comedy Festival before Austin becomes totally flooded with bands. Arielle Gordon was there for almost the whole thing and attended panel discussions, film screenings and more. Here's here report.
SXSW has continuously evolved over the course of its 31 years. One can only imagine the political leanings of a festival started well into the Reagan years, but it’s safe to say that attendees of the 1987 festival would be more than a little surprised to hear that this year’s festivities opened with a conversation between a CNN anchor and a former presidential candidate. Jake Tapper and Bernie Sanders’ conversation was an optimistic beginning, and one that reflects the overall spirit of the “innovation” aspect of the festival.
Tapper and Sanders joked easily about the current state of the country – several Stormy Daniels references were made, and Sanders joked about his stop in Lubbock, “the liberal hub” of Texas. But when they dove into issues like gun control or bigotry, Sanders repeated talking points with little pushback from Tapper. Maybe it’s too optimistic to think that industry experts and politicians could come to SXSW to open up dialogues without political or economic agendas, but it was still repeatedly disappointing when CEOs and political activists took the time to promote their particular product or company culture without room for thought. While waiting for a panel from the cast and creators of a show that makes me cry a lot, This Is Us, I accidentally sat through a panel on self-driving cars. The talk featured just one panelist, the CEO of self-driving car manufacturer Waymo, and just one topic, which was of course that everyone would be riding in a Waymo car by 2028. It felt weirdly cultish, but who was I to judge, considering I was there ninety minutes early so I could sit close enough to the This Is Us panel to smell Mandy Moore.
Steve Albini’s conversation with Kim Deal was packed to the gills, despite both audience members next to me having little idea of who Deal was (“He produced In Utero!” my neighbor told me enthusiastically). Those audience members were likely let down by the strong focus on Deal during the panel, but I for one was thrilled to hear her take on Black Francis and the Pixies (“I didn’t leave the band; he went solo”). Albini clearly has an incredible amount of reverence for Deal, which was evidenced by the touching anecdote he asked her to recall at the top of the session – Deal’s mother was left on a doorstep in Appalachia as a baby, which inspired the lyrics for “Little Fury” off of The Breeders’s Title TK. Even if Albini didn’t talk about what it was like to record 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, it felt special to hear the notorious curmudgeon loosen up a bit with an old friend. The two discussed true crime obsessions; apparently Albini’s wife and Deal went to a crime convention together recently. It was truly more like being in the living room of Steve Albini than being in Electrical Audio. For some, that was a pleasure. For those looking for more of a substantive talk on music production, it was likely a waste of time.
Superchunk’s panel, on the other hand, was depressingly half-empty. They jokingly blamed the start of the music portion of the festival – “No one gets up before noon” – but ultimately were really attentive panelists with a lot of insight to share with those in attendance. They discussed everything from their new record, to ideas of “communities” after the advent of the internet (“The internet ruined everything,” Mac McCaughan said bluntly). This was really a music-lovers panel, with references to the early days of DIY (“I felt part of a larger community the first time we went on tour and met Calvin Johnson in Olympia”) and insights into the lives of rockstars with teenagers (McCaughan’s daughter told him that “Crossed Wires” and “My Gap Feels Weird” are “two bangers”). In an exciting and hopeful moment, Laura Ballance (who no longer tours with Superchunk but plays on records) said that she had considered running for political office lately, after years of community organizing.
Another great event was the yearly songwriting showcase, which brought Matthew Caws of Nada Surf, Matt Lowell of Lo Moon, and Chris Price together with living legend Todd Rundgren to discuss the creative process. Obviously everyone in the room felt a little star struck, but the conversation was hardly one-sided, with Lowell and Caws each performing works in progress and discussing their songwriting ideation process. Rundrgren was a fantastic guest, sharing small insights (On why he doesn’t write “love” songs: “Whenever you hear ‘love’ in a song, it means ‘sex’”) and highly entertaining anecdotes (“Bang The Drum All Day” came to him in a dream). The panel was informative, instructive, humble, and star-studded, how every good SXSW panel should be.
On the film side of things, Darren Aronofsky’s keynote was a how-to in seeming extremely tired (He repeatedly asked for coffee) while still managing to bestow some useful bon mots. Some of his “10 commandments of indie film” included “Make the film only you can make” and “Don’t be afraid of your actors." In a sea of panels that simply felt like self-promotion, Aronofsky’s speech felt the most like a genuine film lecture. Ethan Hawke’s conversation, on the other hand, felt like an homage to Austin. He spent most of the time talking about his frequent creative collaborator, Richard Linklater, and how it felt to be the “poster boy of Gen X.” Despite, or perhaps because of, the occasional name-dropping, Hawke’s speech on his inspirations as a filmmaker was a perfect fit for SXSW.
Unlike some overbranded portions of the festival, SXSW Film had a rough around the edges grit to it. Even big-name premieres like Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs and Ethan Hawke’s Blaze Foley biopic Blaze had a Texas connection to them, and each film was preceded by a charming short from SXSW past. Maybe it’s just because I was exposed to Hannah Takes The Stairs at a very early age, but Kent Osbourne’s 30 second vignettes really put me at ease before world premieres of big budget films. And not-so-big-budget films. Andrew Bujalski’s Support The Girls stars Regina Hall as a manager at a Hooters-esque establishment as she goes about the course of one very difficult day. Like Bujalski’s other films, the humor and the heart come from little details – a nerdy A/V technician taking a waitress out on a “date” by running her through a home theatre demo, or a bunch of frustrated employees taking out their frustrations by literally screaming from the rooftop. It succeeds in taking a topic many filmmakers might see as vulgar and finding a world both humorous and provocative. It’s perhaps Bujalski’s most outwardly commercial film, appealing to sex and capitalism more blatantly than his previous efforts. But SXSW, where the director has premiered nearly all of his films, felt like an appropriate space to test these new waters.
Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade was another pitch-perfect representation of a micro-environment – this time, a middle school class in 2018. Burnham’s directorial debut shows all the markings of a strong coming-of-age film – a fraught parent-child relationship, a lonely outsider desperate to fit in, and an obvious end goal: high school. The film’s star, Elsie Fisher, also gives a believable and charismatic portrayal of a prickly tween who is trying to find her voice. The believability is likely due to her age – Fisher had actually just wrapped up her eighth grade year before filming the movie.
There were also a few alternative takes on the traditional murder mystery at the festival – Most Likely To Murder sees Adam Pally as the archetypal kid who peaked in high school, and accidentally witnesses a gruesome crime as he tries to spy on his high school lover. At a festival known for independent filmmaking, this movie at times felt a bit on the nose, but the acting (especially by Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser) elevates it beyond a simple bro-flick. Rachel Bloom (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) was also pitch-perfect as a relatable former-fuck-up-cum-boring-townie, a role which showcased her more subtle dramatic abilities that are often overlooked in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
The sexy and frantic drama Write When You Get Work stars Rachel Keller as a woman on the edge of losing her mind as an assistant at a private girls preparatory school. The “mystery” element is added by an incredibly handsome ex-boyfriend (played by Finn Wittrock) who uses thievery to win her back. It’s an admirable spin on the “guy wins girl back” narrative, and the cinematography (from Oscar-winner Robert Elswit [There Will Be Blood]) elevated this otherwise quirky rom-com to dramatic heights. It relies a bit heavily on how attractive the principle cast is, but director Stacy Cochran also has a knack for writing frantic women that makes this a relatable movie that feels true to its setting (New York’s Upper East Side, naturally).
One of the most exciting premieres of the fest was Tracy Morgan’s new TV show, The Last O.G.. With a cast that is practically designed for viral stardom and a comeback narrative that’s easy to get behind, both in the show and in real life, the Paramount Theatre was absolutely packed with fans dying to see the return of Morgan after a car crash left him in a coma in 2015. And Morgan did not disappoint. Before the screening, he talked about the authenticity of the show and how much it meant that fans were here to see him. After the screening, he mentioned that he watched Key & Peele during his recovery (Jordan Peele is the series creator) and that the screening was especially important to him “because of the accident.” The show itself can skew a little silly, taking cheap shots at Brooklyn gentrification and relying heavily on cultural references. But the cast has an obvious chemistry – co-star Tiffany Haddish is an absolute natural at playing Morgan’s ex-wife, who had to make her own way after Morgan’s character is tossed in prison. Morgan is perfect as the hapless but charming outsider in this newfound world of brunch and dog spas that Bed-Stuy has become in the 15 years he’s been in prison.
On the documentary side, HBO’s Elvis Presley: The Searcher was a deep dive into archival footage of Presley with some impressive credentials to boot: there are no talking heads in the film, but voice-over commentary is provided by Priscilla Presley, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, David Porter, and Jerry Schilling. It’s nothing revelatory about The King, but it felt like an appropriate fit for the music obsessive crowd at SXSW (but, at least in my screening, I was the youngest audience member by at least twenty years). For those looking for a modern day moral panic, Take Your Pills, a new Netflix documentary, will surely give you the culprit you’re looking for. Focused on the “adderall epidemic,” the doc takes the usual expert-based approach to debunking myths about the drug, but also highlights the ways that society’s greater pressures to succeed push us to seek out supplements. It felt like a weighty reminder of the “do more” culture of SXSW, where everyone was dashing off to the next event before their current one could even finish.
Virtual cinema also had an impressive presence at the festival. Everyone from Terrence Malick to Meow Wolf had their own presentations on the future of VR cinema, with some more successful than others. Malick’s “Together” put the viewer at the center of a dramatic movement piece between two dancers, standing as an outside observer as they work thorugh “an emotional narrative about breaking down barriers and bringing people closer” (it was produced by Facebook, of course). Meow Wolf, on the other hand, put their signature playful spin on VR while still showcasing some extremely impressive technology. Meow Wolf participants would stand on a platform that could read your footsteps, while a sensor attached to the headset read the location of your limbs. In the film, viewers saw themselves as an emaciated hamster that could fly around the house of the Selig family (from their Santa Fe installation “House of Eternal Return”). The plot never got too involved, so participants were mostly able to explore the VR technology and interactivity. VICE’s Living With Jaguars, on the other hand, proved that VR is often a solution looking for a problem. The documentary VR experience mostly featured standard talking heads, filmed in 360 degrees to give them depth. While the film focused on a provocative theme (the struggle between Brazilian ranchers and endangered jaguars), the use of VR seemed superfluous, a feat for a festival steeped in superfluity.
By Day 7, I had collected enough free beer koozies to clothe a veritable army of brews, but I had also began to crack the surface of what makes SXSW so special. Being there through the whole fest is a bit unique, and it gave me insight into how the city changes as the festival turns from tech and innovation to music and arts. Towards the end of the week, as the green music badges flooded the streets and the lines for the Westworld activation turned into lines for FADER Fort, Austin itself displayed its versatility, changing from a burgeoning start-up hub to the “live music capital of the world,” with live music pumping out of every nightclub and bar and backyard and anything resembling a stage. It was a glorious and welcome transformation; one can only hope that the Elon Musks of the world do not overtake the David Frickes of the world in SXSWs to come.