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South by Southwest Film Festival 2004

     Each time I get to Austin (four trips so far), it seems more evidently the best place in America to settle down: a sunny, chummy, music-crazy spot with Tex-Mex restaurants and barbecue joints on every other corner, and with a prosperous, articulate populace which loathes George W. even more than Bostonians. It's where laid-back, left-of-center Southerners flock: I was told that, in 2000, downtown Austin voted 38% for Ralph Nader.

     Even if you don't wish to live there (the summers will melt you down), a yearly visit for chilly New Englanders is great for the spirits, grand for the soul. What better time than that week-and-a-half each March when the spry, youth culture-driven South by Southwest Film Festival segues into the world-renowned South by Southwest Music Festival? Why go to snow-bound, stuffy Sundance in January when, two months later, you can have a celebratory time of movies and music in t-shirt-weather Austin?

     I began my happy days this mid-March with the world premiere screening of "5:15 an Hour," an HBO pilot directed and co-written by Austin home-boy Richard Linklater (Slacker, School of Rock). I ended it, six days after, with a street-corner performance by Boston's sublime chanteuse Mary Lou Lord, hawking her new CD to knowledgeable Texans.

     "5:15 an Hour" was planned as a social-consciousness comedy series set among the minimum wage staff at a fast-food restaurant. "It's settling old scores," Linklater told a South by Southwest audience. "I was a bus boy in a bunch of restaurants. My title for the show was 'Shit job.'" Unfortunately, the inventive pilot was as far as the series went, for it was disapproved by a high-up at HBO. "Everyone at HBO was supportive except this one guy," said Linklater. "The guy probably never had a real job in his life. The person who mows his lawns, he wouldn't know his name.'"

     "We worked on the show for two years," noted the producer and co-writer, Rodney Rothman. "We ended up getting minimum wage."

     It was a Linklater double-feature day at South by Southwest, with the American premiere screening of After Sunrise, his sparkling follow-up to Before Sunrise (1995). "We're proud of the fact that we're probably the lowest-grossing film ever to spawn a sequel," joked Linklater. His new work, which won a Golden Bear prize at Berlin, brings back Ethan Hawke and France's Julie Delpy for a Paris reunion a decade after their earlier, blissed-out night in Vienna.

     Delpy spoke after the Austin screening and reappeared the next night at a 6th Street club, as lead singer for the Julie Delpy Band. Among those in the audience: Jim Jarmusch. I told Jarmusch that I'm teaching his oeuvre this semester in a seminar course at Suffolk University. "I'm honored," Jarmusch said, with sincerity. "It's too bad your students have to watch such bad films."

     He's a nice guy with aesthetic integrity, which makes me sad to report that Jarmusch's new film, Coffee & Cigarettes, shown at South by Southwest, is a thin, mostly pointless anthology of two-and-three character encounters over weeds and mocha. Jarmusch's failure wasn't alone among the narrative films at South by Southwest 2004. Others were by youthful filmmakers still finding their visions. In contrast, the documentaries proved a vigorous, sophisticated lot. At the top of my list:

Slasher - Hollywood filmmaker John Landis's long-awaited return is this true-life tale of a speedy, LA-based alcoholic who troubleshoots across the USA relieving used car lots of unwanted autos through "prices slashed" super-deals.
Small Ball: a Little League Story-New York filmmakers Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker follow a talented California Little League team (and coaches and parents) through a harrowing, exciting post-season.
Up For Grabs - More baseball, the hilariously pathetic story of the fight, in court and out, between two San Franciscans about who owns Bobby Bonds's 73rd home run ball.
Metallica: Some Kind of Revolution-Heavy metal rock with a semi-human face in this wonderful behind-the-scenes by documentary vets Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.
Dig! - The deserving documentary winner from Sundance is Ondi Timoner's years on the road with two wild, and wildly talented, rock bands, the Dandy Warhols and the school-of-Sid Vicious Brian Jonestown Massacre.
Super Size Me - Filmaker Morgan Spurlock spent a horrid month eating nothing but McDonald's fast food to see what it would do to his body. This hilarious gross-out documentary is Animal House meets Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, and it surely will be the most popular non-fiction work since Bowling for Columbine.

(Boston Phoenix, April 2004)


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