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Making a festival a pleasant experience is like making highway driving safe. You should never spend too much time thinking about how much human collaboration is required on the open road in order for people to travel without dying. On a normal day, it happens naturally. But just one person with a muscle tic or a death wish can turn the entire freeway into a club sandwich of death and smoldering metal. These are the dark thoughts that visit me as I observe the many violations of etiquette that can make or break the atmosphere at SXSW.


The lines are bad, summer-in-an-amusement-park bad. And it’s not like The Karate Kid, where your wax-on-wax-off perseverance will be rewarded with triumph over evil. Despite making your way through that line, you might not actually get to see a movie. So imagine my burning ire as I watch, time and time again, people act as placeholders for large groups or those think-they’re-slick chump asses who spot someone in line and turn their hug, kiss and chitchat into a permanent spot. I’ve always wanted to be the manners vigilante who picks a fight over these indiscretions, but my parents instilled in me both an abhorrence of discourtesy and shame for the self-righteous tattletale.


This happens in the theaters as well. Every single showing is packed to capacity, so there’s no room to leave a seat between you and the person next to you; even teenage males worried about spontaneous gaying have to cuddle up nice and cozy. But I’ve seen several people who lie and say that the empty seats beside them are being saved for people in the bathroom only to get on their phones to find out exactly where in line their friends are. My weak solution is to stare at the people and give them the look that says “you, you, will most definitely fit in my trunk.” It’s not much in the way of comfort, but it’ll do.


The saddest thing of all is that people raised by wolves go on to add to the pack. During one screening, they allowed a man to bring in his four-year-old son who ran up and down the aisle screaming and doing somersaults. That would have been so cute nowhere near me. Instead of ejecting him, the theater allowed the man to exit and return, presumably to give him time to reason with the child about the importance of being quiet during a movie about credit card debt. After the sixth time with the romper-room revolving door, I moved to the balcony and stood in the aisle for the rest of the film.


SXSW already comes with its problematic hierarchies of the badge and badgeless (roughly equating to the general social order’s haves and have-nots), so why add a sour layer of social retardation to the mix? While these lapses in decorum are not anarchically rampant, it’s the little things that can magnify minor irritations or make people prefer the Netflix queue to the theater seat. Why do mobs only form when it’s time to beat down the already marginalized? Won’t some brave soul be the first to point and ululate the next time a filthy cutter brings their extended MySpace network into the line? I promise to join in, arms flailing.


 


Bondage
Director: Eric Allen Bell
Cast: Michael Angarano, Illeana Douglas, Griffin Dunne , Eric Lange, Evan Ellingson, Mae Whitman, Andy Dick, Rocky Marquette, Michael K. Williams, Ezra Buzzington

11:00 AM, Saturday March 11th - Alamo Downtown
4:00 PM, Monday March 13th - Alamo Downtown
3:45 PM, Friday March 17th - Dobie


My first narrative film of the festival was as bad as it gets, I hope. Eric Allen’s Bondage traces the story of an adopted Orange Country teenager as he haplessly goes from a juvenile detention center to a prison psych ward that deserves an Amnesty International letter campaign and then to a cushy California psychiatric hospital where he ends up after he displays actual signs of psychosis. If you have questions about the above order or the logistics therein, you’re wasting your time. Bondage traffics in cliché even when it pretends to bother with detail. His parents are churchgoing “family” types with seedy, wicked underbellies. He’s really a sweet and well-intentioned kid, but one goofy bit of vandalism and “the system” tries to grind him down by throwing him in a facility with Mexican drug dealers who turn this little abused scoop of marshmallow crème into “real” criminals like them.


Watching Bondage is like turning out the pockets of a shoplifter. The familiarity of the themes, the stock criticisms of the American family and the blanket indictment of the juvenile justice apparatus play like heavy-handed rants that use finger-puppet characters to make you “get” it. This would have made an excellent after-school special titled Daddy Shouldn’t Do That. Even though Allen insists that the story has been put together from actual case histories from a book called Toxic Parents, nothing here rises to the level of either reality or fiction. Did I mention that the lead gets a love interest who delivers one of those inspirational gym-coach speeches at the movie’s climax? I just thought I’d randomly throw that in here, since that’s what Allen did.


Michael Angarano deserves total absolution for his involvement; his turn as the main character, Charlie, salvages the film. Not really salvages, mind you, because I’m not so much a film lover that an incredible performance can redeem a movie starved of technical and artistic grace. But great performances can be life preservers in bad films, and Angarano is definitely a raft in shark-infested waters. He manages to play Charlie as both traumatized as he enters awkward adulthood and hungering for a moment of unconditional love. He captures the fitful, shifting identities that make up the molten wildness of adolescence with physical movements that range from the wilting and concave to shockingly savage moments of violence. He alternates between lashing out at the authority figures around him and collapsing into insane, self-devouring desolation. Watching him digest a hobbled, cobbled script and manage to turn his character into someone with vulnerability and warmth, mostly through flashing hard and hollow eyes or the way he folded his arms, was the only thing that prevented me from trying to see if I could still run across town and catch another film.


Nearly every scene in Bondage comes with a floating title such as “None of Your Bee’s Wax” that acts as a topic sentence or quotation of note. Are these helpful hints? The movie isn’t complicated enough for us to need bread crumbs to get us through, though perhaps it’s more of a rope to get you out of the quicksand of constant flashback and undercooked character. The constant backtrack and interruption seem like unnecessarily added agony when you consider that the film already feels like a prison sentence; burden your viewer with more story rather than trying a modest wheelie of technique. More than likely, these title cards are fumbling attempts to add an auteur edge to a completely trite story about juvenile delinquency and the heart of darkness at the center of the suburban family. Adding Donnie Darko-style disorienting splices of molestation into the story feels like nothing other than cheap surreality and compromises of convenience: How to flesh out Charlie’s family environment? How about another speed-freak flashback montage!


The film ends abruptly for lack of a better idea. There’s no sense that you’ve arrived at some kind of understanding with the characters or learned anything of value other than it’s possible to turn The Basketball Diaries into an episode of Dawson’s Creek.


 


The Oh in Ohio
Director: Billy Kent
Cast: Parker Posey, Paul Rudd, Mischa Barton, Miranda Bailey, Keith David, Tim Russ, Robert John Burke, Liza Minnelli, Danny DeVito
6:15 PM, Monday March 13th - Paramount
9:45 PM, Friday March 17th - Paramount


This is the second time during the festival I’ve seen a meditation on the power of the female orgasm. Thankfully, this occasion doesn’t involve the MPAA shrinking away from the sight of female pleasure, but rather a comic look at one man’s quest to give his wife that first, breathtaking O. At this point, the armchair psychologist in me wonders, Why the obsession with locating and displaying the female orgasm? There’s something distinctly non-erotic in this quest from the male perspective, something akin to trapping fireflies in an empty mayonnaise jar. It certainly deserves this kind of comic treatment; The Oh in Ohio turns that first velvet quake into nothing less that the epiphany that keeps on giving.


A furred-up and paunched-out Paul Rudd plays Jack, a man whose life has been driven into hopeless despondency because he can’t find his wife’s pleasure palace. Parker Posey plays Priscilla, the über WASP ice queen who has never even touched herself “down there.” The role seems tailor made for Posey; she seems to relish characters who keep in their emotions like drowning victims pounding on the lake ice above their heads. She plays Priscilla tightly, with a glassy smile and a robotic sense of ambition, and once she’s had her big “O”, she’s like a little girl who’s been made princess of pony land.


It would be easy to have all kinds of intellectual qualms with The Oh in Ohio if you delved any deeper than the hilarious surface. When Paul Rudd rediscovers his masculine virility by screwing a teenage student (Mischa Barton), I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. We’ve been here before, but the script’s dry wit manages to prevent the rote observations about gendered sexual discovery from staling the enjoyment. The Oh in Ohio is one of those movies filled with cameo roles designed for maximum laughter. Liza Minelli shows up as a loud and crazy inspirational vagina speaker, who makes her assembled class turn their labias into painted metaphors and squat over a hand mirror. Keith David gets line after choice line in his role as the gym coach best friend with absolutely no respect for Paul Rudd’s whimpering. Director Billy Kent clearly wants us to just sit back and laugh at the lengths we go to in order to get off. It’s a sexual farce something like American Pie for people who listen to NPR and read Dwell magazine. I can live with that.


By the time we get to the end and our fair orgasmed maiden has decided to pursue a relationship with a much older, fat and balding Danny Devito, you kind of have to shrug it off and just allow for the kind of directorial license that can turn a romantic comedy into a self-serving fantasy. It worked for Woody Allen, and it works here for Billy Kent.

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