SXSW: Gone to the Masses 

Yet fest still has fresh, experimental edge

Thursday, Mar 25 2010

The tagline for the recently concluded 2010 South by Southwest Film Festival was "Tomorrow Happens Here." It was slick marketing shorthand for the event's reputation as a test tube for new cinematic trends and a breeding ground for incestuous indie collaborations (most of the filmmakers now associated with mumblecore first met each other exhibiting work here).

The slogan's message was complicated by the evidence on the ground — articulated best in cinematographer David Lowery's bumpers (trailers produced by the festival and screened before every movie). Each was a melancholy elegy to the idea of handmade, community-driven cinema with which this festival has come to be associated.

In one, a cloth filmstrip embroidered with the word SXSW is swiftly incinerated by the machine projecting it; in another, a small crowd gathers to watch The Last Movie Ever; in another, a filmmaker's head spontaneously bursts into flames. The death of tangible media, the death of communal experience, the death of the auteur: SXSW 2010 indicated that the fest's "tomorrow" might entail a good-bye to what has become its brand. As the once-boutique festival attains a higher profile, the community of idiosyncratic filmmakers it fosters could be at risk of being glossed over by hype.

click to enlarge Writer/director/actress Dunham contemplates Tiny Furniture.
  • Writer/director/actress Dunham contemplates Tiny Furniture.

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SXSW Film, now in its 17th year, has long been known as a meeting point for disparate niches, where a typical triple feature might include a low-budget, no-star American indie like Aaron Katz's Cold Weather (deemed the hit of the festival after its first screening, it remains without distribution); a one-of-a-kind art-tinged experiment like Jody Lee Lipes' beautifully filmed NY Export: Opus Jazz, a document of a Jerome Robbins ballet staged on contemporary city streets; and a midnight show of a foreign freak-out like Serbian Film, described by more than one Twitterer as "the sickest film ever made."

One night, a leather-and-denim–clad Chloe Sevigny exited the Motörhead doc Lemmy, and stopped to take pictures with teenage girls waiting outside the same theater for the world premiere of the Saturday Night Live–spawned studio comedy MacGruber.

This year, the audiences for each niche seemed to explode beyond the natural boundary. Nearly every screening I attended was filled to capacity, with lines of would-be paying customers snaking around the block. Frustrations peaked on the fest's first Sunday night, when a full house was sent home because the Paramount Theater projector failed. (And thus 2010 will be remembered as The Year SXSW Film Broke, in more ways than one.)

Online, locals accused festival organizers of lining their pockets at the expense of moviegoers. In typical indie fashion, the first taste of mainstream success was instantly spun as selling out.

If the fest's planners failed to see the tipping point coming, perhaps it's because it's been so slow to arrive. In past years, the masses have taken a long time to care about the stuff that SXSW audiences eat up (Greta Gerwig, the it girl of SXSW 2007, may co-star in the new Noah Baumbach movie, but she's hardly a household name). And that's assuming the masses ever come to care at all. The 2009 Seth Rogen comedy Observe and Report was a major SXSW hit and notable box-office bomb.

This year, the SXSW audiences were the masses.

The Hurt Locker had its U.S. premiere here last year, and some at SXSW 2010 pegged that film's eventual success as the catalyst for SXSW's transition from a relatively quiet sub–Sundance alternative festival, into a Sundance-grade fest in its own right. But even if SXSW now sits in a brighter spotlight, the best films of the 2010 lineup were still the discoveries. As in the past, this year saw premieres of a handful of very good films, made for very little money, which are very unlikely to see substantial theatrical distribution.

The festival invited me to Austin to serve on the Documentary Feature jury, and my colleagues and I gave our grand prize to one of those discoveries: Marwencol, Jeff Malmberg's portrait of Mark Hogencamp, a brain-damaged artist who creates and photographs a one-sixth-scale replica of a World War II–era town, with action figures and Barbie dolls standing in for Nazis, catfighting waitresses, and an American fighter pilot — the latter a surrogate for Hogencamp himself.

Marwencol defies the nutritious form and tone you might expect from a documentary about art therapy and disability. Instead, Malmberg creates the illusion that we are becoming friends with Hogencamp, as he reveals himself gradually. The viewing experience is so engaging that it's almost interactive, and as such, Marwencol justifiably became SXSW's most talked-about doc.

Unjustly underbuzzed was Audrey the Trainwreck, director Frank V. Ross' latest naturalistic dramatization of workaday banality (shot by David Lowery, the man behind those festival bumpers). Taking the form of an extended three-part joke, Audrey escalates to an emotional outburst from Anthony Baker's stiff-upper-lipped Ron ("Everything's fine, everything's always just fine. That's what sucks"). Its tension is soon punctured by unexpected slapstick. Ordinary life's manic seesaw between misery and levity is Ross' recurring subject; his previous, ultra-indie efforts (Hohokam, Present Company) have flown under the radar, which has allowed him the time and space to quietly build the formal control necessary to support these incisive portraits of the suburban working class.

Audrey was produced by Alicia Van Couvering, who also produced the Narrative Feature prizewinner, Tiny Furniture. Writer/director Lena Dunham stars as Aura, a recent film-theory grad, YouTube artist and family black sheep who moves back into the Tribeca loft shared by her artist mom (bizarrely, like the subject of Marwencol, she photographs small-scale reproductions) and annoyingly graceful, accomplished younger sister.Aura takes a restaurant job, falls into ill-defined and ill-advised relationships with two dudes, and becomes obsessed with old journals documenting her mom's own lost 20s. Awkward sex and acute ego skewering ensue.

The film is indisputably autobiographical, with mom and sis played by Laurie Simmons and Grace Dunham, the filmmaker's actual artist mom and gazellelike sister, and shooting commenced in the real family loft. Tiny Furniture earned the 23-year-old Dunham comparisons to Woody Allen. She's a gifted comedienne, eager to plumb her insecurities over her imperfect physical appearance for both poignancy and laughs ­— I'm not sure I've seen a film that so accurately and unblinkingly depicts what it's like to feel unattractive.

Dunham's willingness to put it all out there both physically and emotionally may be tied to the fact that she's gestated her talent online. Somewhat more accomplished than the character she plays, Dunham has produced and starred in Web series for Nerve and Nylon.

Tiny Furniture is the "oversharing" impulse of contemporary Internet culture, embodied in cinema. SXSW may be the festival of tomorrow, but Dunham has made a film that's resolutely of today.

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