Journeys with George
Two Towns of Jasper
The shadow cast by the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan in Austin, Texas stretches much further than the graveled embankment of lake shore where it stands. Austin is the self-styled “Live Music Capital of the World”—a designation that appears on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and even at the city’s airport. In addition to Vaughan, Austin lays claim to musical icons such as Willie Nelson, and hosts the famous television concert series, Austin City Limits. Given the legacy of its homegrown musicians and the local proclivity for live music, it becomes easier to understand why many local Austinites are surprised to hear that the South by Southwest Film Festival exists.
This Festival runs every year, in another shadow, that of the South by Southwest Music Festival, which starts up just after the Film Fest in March. (Organizers smartly schedule the events during Spring Break, when the majority of Austin’s nearly 50,000 University of Texas students are not around to thicken the already teeming masses that jam local clubs and cinemas.) Despite the festival crowds, however, SXSW’s film portion suffers from a relative lack of profile when compared to its musical bigger brother.
This disparity parallels the development of the local entertainment industry. Austin’s live music scene has historically taken precedence over its film production, and local interest in the film industry is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Although SXSW began in 1987, the Film Festival wasn’t added until 1995. The film scene in Austin, however, is a growing one, and is not without its own icons. Director Richard Linklater is hailed as putting Austin (and Texas) filmmaking on the map with his cult classic, Slacker (1990). Robert Rodriguez has enjoyed similar success with films like El Mariachi (1992), Desperado (1995), and, most recently, Spy Kids (2001, with the sequel due this summer). This is to say nothing of favorite son and UT graduate Matthew McConaughey, and recent transplant Sandra Bullock. In addition, the University boasts a lively and productive Radio-Television-Film school, which is producing an increasing number of filmmakers and actors who are staying in Austin after graduation to develop film projects locally. Alongside the “Live Music Capital of the World” bumper stickers, one is increasingly likely these days to see another sticker around town: “Film Texas.”
This year’s SXSW Film Festival built on this growing local enthusiasm by screening a wide variety of films. The Festival staged competitions for films in the categories of narrative (feature and short) and documentary (feature and short), as well as animated shorts, experimental shorts, and, in keeping with the impending Music Festival, music videos. These competitions take place in an atmosphere that lacks the buzz and hype of a Park City and the glitz and glamour of a Cannes. And Festival organizers seem content to keep it that way, embracing the particular “un-Hollywood-ness” of its host city and state.
Several of this year’s Festival entries embraced this attitude. The Festival officially kicked off with a screening of Journeys with George, a decidedly non-Hollywood video travelogue that follows the ex-governor of Texas on his circuitous, eventually successful bid to become President. Director Alexandra Pelosi introduced her film as a “home movie,” a videotaped chronicle of her experiences as a reporter in the Bush press corps during the 2000 Presidential election.
Her film begins with Bush’s wrangling in the primaries with John McCain, and continues all the way through to his legal battles in the Supreme Court against Al Gore. Despite the potentially weighty subject matter, the film does not intend itself to be hard-hitting political commentary. One exchange has Pelosi asking Bush, “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” To which he replies, “I’m not, I’m a Bush.” These sorts of encounters show a relaxed, jovial, at times even goofy Bush, as he mugs for the camera and flirts with Pelosi. (One scene shows him literally wooing her vote, as Bush sits next to her on the plane, holding her hand in his as Pelosi attempts to fill out her official absentee ballot. We later learn her choice is Bill Bradley.)
The real value of Journeys with George, however, lies in the questions it raises about journalistic objectivity and integrity in a press corps. When Bush snubs Pelosi after she asks him at a press conference about his execution record as Texas governor, she wonders out loud, “Who am I working for?”, questioning the quid-pro-quo game that reporters are expected to play, in order to gain access to politicians. By way of instruction and illustration, Pelosi’s polite behavior (i.e., non-controversial questions) during press conferences is rewarded by personal visits from Bush on the press plane. But her execution question causes him to walk right past her in a huff. Journeys with George exposes the politics that govern the interaction between Bush and the press, the unspoken rules of engagement that prevent journalists from assuming a truly unbiased stance.
Another documentary that tackles the unspoken rules of social engagement is Two Towns of Jasper, directed by Whitney Dow and Marco Williams. Currently making the festival rounds, this devastating film records the trial of John William King, Lawrence Russell Brewer, and Shawn Allen Berry, the three men convicted of the racially motivated dragging death of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, in July of 1998. The film employs two racially segregated crews to interview black and white members of the community with remarkable effect. The all-white crew, for example, captures members of a white family discussing the trial and Byrd’s reputed drinking habit around a breakfast table: one expresses the wish that Byrd be “judged by the way he lived, not the way he died.” This shocking insensitivity suggests an underlying racism that further unfolds on film as the trial progresses.
In an attempt to mollify the town’s racial tension, black and white members of the Jasper community ceremoniously remove the city’s cemetery fence, which separates the white dead from the black. This gesture of unity is undercut, however, by Byrd’s burial on the black side of the graveyard. The film, and Byrd’s murder, point out that while some external trappings of racism may be removed, deep separation and distrust persist in Jasper—and, by extension (as highlighted in several on-camera commentaries by the Byrd family and other Jasper residents about national race relations), in the rest of the country.
In addition to these more politically resonant and sobering documentaries, the Festival also showcased a great number of celebratory films (primarily documentaries) about music. Rising Low, directed by Phish bassist Mike Gordon, documents the recording process of the band, Gov’t Mule, a project that brings together 25 bassists on a single recording (among these are Flea, Les Claypool, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, and Bootsy Collins). AJ Schnack’s Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns details the career of They Might Be Giants, a pair of Brooklyn-based musicians (John Linnell and John Flansburgh), whose most well-known song might be the theme to Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle. Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, originally released in 1978, documents the Band’s last concert; Money for Nothing (directed by Kembrew McLeod and Sut Jhally) addresses the economic aspects of the music industry; and Jonah Kaplan’s Interview with Spike Jonze focuses on the famously inventive music video and film director and actor.
Unlike most film festivals, SXSW also screens music videos, this year including clips for Liz Phair’s “Down” (Rodney Asher), Beachwood Sparks’ “By Your Side” (Chad Misner) and Austin locals Spoon (“Everything Hits at Once,” directed by Divya Srinivasan) and Robert Earl Keen (“Merry Christmas from the Family,” directed by David McClister). And some classic films were shown with live musical accompaniment. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) was scored by a live performance by Austin’s ST 37 Orchestra, while the Golden Arm Orchestra accompanied F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1926).
While all of these films were in keeping with the musical focus of SXSW, the documentary Texas managed most explicitly to connect the Austin music and film industries. Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts is an Australian band that just happens to be fronted by film superstar Russell Crowe. At least, that’s what this documentary would have you believe. Crowe was on hand to introduce the film, informing the audience, “Music is its own reward.”
The film, produced by Crowe and Brett Leonard (and directed, the credits read, by “circumstance”), follows the band as it records an album in Austin and playing sold-out shows while in town, while doing its best to convince the audience that Crowe is not the newest Bruce Willis, Dennis Quaid, even Kevin Bacon. TOFOG (as the band is known to its almost exclusively female legion of fans) is little more than a mediocre house band, however, and the film degenerates into a prolonged music video that shows Crowe scooping up bras and panties as they are tossed on stage, a la Tom Jones.
The Festival also screened international films like the Canadian short, I Shout Love (about a woman’s attempt to relive the best parts of her crumbling relationship through reenactments in front of her video camera, and directed by Sarah Polley), and the Israeli crime drama Run (which tells the story of a drug lord’s violence toward Ethiopian and Russian immigrants to Israel, directed by Assaf Bernstein).
While hosting these and many, many other accomplished films, the SXSW Film Festival still remains the opening act to the music festival. This is not to put them into contention with one another, though. On the contrary, the two seem to be working in perfect synergy, as the music-heavy offerings of the Film Festival whet the appetites of audiences for the bands to come. With appearances at this year’s Festival by such notable film figures as Dennis Hopper, Peter Bogdonavich, John Sayles, and, yes, even Russell Crowe, however, indications are that the Film Festival may be soon outgrowing its shadow and stepping into a light all its own.