South by Southwest Film 2005: A Field Journal

The Wendell Baker Story

The massive gray halls of the Austin Convention Center stretch out in all directions. Taking up a full city block, the building’s glass and steel frame dwarfs the crowd of registrants within. I ascend one escalator, then another, before finally taking my place in line to receive my credentials. As I wait, attendees mill around in the vastness, some taking pictures, others laughing into cell phones. Nearly everyone sports an official South by Southwest 2005 festival tote bag, filled with schedules, party invites, and promotional material. This year, the bags for film registrants are decorated on one side with Daniel Johnston’s quirky cartoon of a frog-like character whose eyes pop out on stalks. The reverse side displays the Cinemax logo.

It may seem simplistic, but the tote bag says it all. South by Southwest has always been an exercise in pairing, a cultural matchmaker that seeks to wed independent artists in search of distribution with their industry counterparts looking for the next big thing. With each passing year, however, this marriage is becoming harder to articulate.

One reason is that the meaning of the term “independent” has changed. Once, it referred to those films that were on the margins of the industry. Although restricted financially, independents were able to take advantage of their obscurity by breaking with the formulaic conventions of mainstream films. Now, however, this kind of innovation has caught on (as seen most recently with the commercial success of Sideways). These days “indie” no longer means just a low budget film; it signifies an alternative to convention that has, ironically, become a genre in and of itself.

Perhaps this new “genrefication” explains why the corporate presence seems more conspicuous at the festival this year than in previous years. Beyond the Cinemax logo, the information booth is sponsored, appropriately enough, by Ask Jeeves. When I pick up my tote bag, the reception booth is flanked on either side by shiny new Lincoln Navigators. A sign nearby informs me of the innovative lumbar-adjustment features built into the Navigator’s seats. And before I leave the building, I’m offered a free bite-sized pack of Nutella and an individually wrapped plastic stick with which to eat the chocolate spread. Now, it’s one thing to champion the integrity of independent film, but free chocolate? I pop the Nutella into my already bulging bag, and head out to the films.

Occupation: Dreamland

Day One: Home and Away

SXSW has always been a bastion for documentaries, and this year is no exception. Several of the films screening at this year’s festival deal with the US occupation of Iraq. Occupation: Dreamland (directed by Garrett Scott and Ian Olds) follows a unit in the US Army’s 82nd Airborne as they patrol Al-Falluja, Iraq during the tense months prior to the full-scale Marine invasion of the city. The filmmakers spent six weeks with the group and, as a result, are able to capture the soldiers’ perspective on the war in much more depth than the usual sound bytes tossed out at military press briefings. The picture that emerges from these perspectives, interestingly, is far from uniform. Some soldiers are adamant in their support of the president and their mission. Others are equally opposed to their presence in Iraq. “How is the Republican party like Kentucky Fried Chicken?” asks one soldier. “They’re both full of right wings and assholes.” Few of them, though, have any optimism when it comes to the short-term outlook for the country. This might explain why the soldiers are subjected to routine re-enlistment presentations — the military’s version of a mandatory infomercial, where undecided troops are alternatively complimented and berated with the goal of retaining their services for another tour of duty. Occupation: Dreamland, however, makes it easy to see why these men and women would need such convincing. When pressed for an explanation for the US presence, one soldier looks around at the desolate remains of a shattered city and simply shrugs in confusion: “I guess somebody smarter than me knows what’s goin’ on.”

Beside the documentaries, another staple at SXSW is the locally made for Texas-themed movie. The film festival, in fact, often functions as a venue for Texas (specifically Austin) to pat itself on the back for all of its filmmaking efforts. This year’s crop of Texas films was collectively billed as “Lone Star States”, and the apparent cream of this crop was tapped to officially kick off the festival. Filmed in Austin, The Wendell Baker Story showcased the talents of favorite sons Luke and Owen Wilson (Bottle Rocket, The Royal Tenenbaums). Luke wrote the screenplay for the film and co-directed with another Wilson, his brother Andrew. He also plays the film’s title character — an affable roustabout and manic optimist who gets thrown in jail for forging ID cards for illegal aliens. As part of his work release program, Baker is sent to work at a corrupt retirement home run by a drug addled sadist (Owen Wilson) and his shiftless accomplice (played by Eddie Griffin). With help from the residents (Seymour Cassel and Harry Dean Stanton), however, Wendell is able to turn the home around, saving his failing relationship with love interest Eva Mendes in the process. If the story sounds horribly formulaic, it is. The film is, at best, a failed attempt at character-driven comedy. Not even the presence of Will Ferrell (Baker’s romantic rival) and Kris Kristofferson (a mysterious resident who lives at the home) can save the film, as their characters appear and disappear in the story seemingly at random. The Austin audience seemed pleased, however, with the result. Chances are, though, that this was due more to the film’s showcasing the local environs rather than to the quality of the filmmaking. Anyone who’s never heard of Barton Springs or the 360 Bridge would be far better off going elsewhere.