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{mosimage}Early on at the SXSW film festival, I stopped telling people I met in
Austin that this was my first visit to Texas. The answer was always the
same: “This isn’t really Texas.” Well, it’s certainly not L.A.
Everything is bigger here, from the abundance of very tall people to a
gargantuan Whole Foods (whose HQ is in Austin) that houses three cafés.
The tree blossoms are deep purple, the weather extreme, and the natives
preternaturally friendly and laid back, right down to the waiter who
volunteered to drive us back to our hotel at midnight because a
lightning storm had caused a run on taxicabs.

Still, when it comes to retail architecture, Austin has succumbed to
global homogeneity. Everywhere you turn, there are exposed-brick
eateries serving kumquat-stuffed game hen on a bed of Israeli couscous,
lofts going up a mile a minute, and the usual round of chain stores
like Starbucks, Gap and Benetton. Wandering round Austin, you could be
in today’s hip downtown-anywhere — not just Los Angeles and New York,
but Park City, Prague, Moscow or Honolulu, all of which I’ve visited to
attend film festivals, and all of which have convinced me that
provincialism, for better and worse, is on its way out. The lone blue
spot on Texas’ redder-than-red map, Austin is the state’s multi-culti
liberal oasis, and nowhere more than at SXSW, which attracts thousands
to its annual three-pronged festival. Flying in, I sat next to a
pleasant young high-tech whiz schlepping tons of software to SXSW
Interactive. And my first night in town, the streets seemed full of
short northern-English lads with strange hair — one of whom, hefting a
six-pack in a hotel elevator, whispered very loudly in my ear that he
was about to get very, very drunk — who were gearing up for the music
festival that takes off as the film festival winds down. For all its
burgeoning reputation as the new Sundance, the SXSW vibe is
overwhelmingly casual, uncommercial and youthful — even the film
festival’s indefatigable producer, Matt Dentler, hasn’t yet hit 30.
Aside from the opening-night movie, Scott Frank’s enjoyable The Lookout
(of which more when it opens later this month) and a lone screening of
Judd Apatow’s much anticipated new comedy Knocked Up, the Hollywood
presence was either sparse or unusually discreet.

Significantly, the most buzzed-about (and vigorously hyped) new film
was Hannah Takes the Stairs, a self-consciously rough-hewn comedy
credited to beloved SXSW regular Joe Swanberg. In fact, this
entertainingly skittish piece about a romantically confused playwright
who works her way through three of her colleagues, leaving behind her a
trail of low-key devastation, is a collaborative effort by its small
cast, which includes Mark Duplass (The Puffy Chair) and Andrew
Bujalski, whose excellent Funny Ha Ha (See film review) and Mutual Appreciation stand out
as clear influences. Taken together, these loosely structured,
minimally plotted movies, collectively made by what Bujalski has dubbed
the “mumblecore movement,” speak to a fragile culture of impermanence
and addled identity crisis. To judge by their enthusiastic reception by
audiences roughly the same age as the filmmakers, such films are coming
to define the diffuse sensibility of a generation. Or at least its
opinion makers, among them young bloggers from all over the country
who, according to a lively film-blogging panel moderated by the IFC
Blog’s Alison Willmore, are a new breed of writer altogether. Many of
them got into blogging because they’re filmmakers, and they define
themselves more as commentators or town criers spreading the word than
as reviewers. Far more than the fraternity of grumpy old print film
critics, bloggers see themselves as part of a community that includes
casts, crews, Internet idlers and anyone else who will listen. Yet if
this is a community, it’s one that bonds around alienation and
incompleteness.

Hungry for an increasingly elusive youth market, distributors are
nibbling at Hannah as we speak. The cast, especially Greta Gerwig — a
funky blond glamourpuss in oversize glasses — became a cult presence
around the festival, notably through the very funny fake blooper
trailers they made to accompany other screenings. I liked the movie
fine, but found it slighter than Bujalski’s work, and I worry that just
as Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs unleashed a wave of dire
knockoffs from novices less talented or simply less ready to make
movies, so the mumblecores may open the sluice gates for a flood of
young aspirants dying to tell us about their trying day at the office.
As a juror in the festival’s narrative-feature section, I can’t talk
specifically about the competition films. But in or out of competition,
the schedule featured a hefty quotient of nominal fiction features that
ranged from the self-obsessed to the squishy (like the fatally
good-natured Arranged, about two young women — one Jewish, the other
Muslim — grappling with arranged marriages) to the downright mawkish.
That’s a hazard of any regional film festival competing for world
premieres with juggernauts like Sundance and Cannes, but particularly
for one as heavily attended as SXSW is by baby filmmakers whose
insights into subjects ranging from their own social inadequacies to
heroin addiction are less than ready for public airing.

For those of us too long in the tooth for self-improvement, by far the
strongest offerings at SXSW — as indeed at most current festivals —
were in the nonfiction category. In Manufacturing Dissent, Canadian
filmmakers Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine tail Michael Moore during his
Fahrenheit 9/11 tour, subjecting him to the same treatment he gave
General Motors honcho Roger Smith in Roger & Me. They never scored
the interview either, which is only one reason why Moore emerges from
this fair-minded doc as a “holy roller” of the left with a ritzy
lifestyle, a paper-thin skin, and a careless approach to the boundaries
between fact and invention. Michele Ohayon’s Steal a Pencil for Me,
which brings to life the memoir of a Holocaust survivor who found
himself in a Dutch concentration camp with his wife and his girlfriend,
threatens at first to be a cute Shoah love story, then expands into a
broader and deeper examination of the often neglected fact that most
came into the camps with less-than-perfect lives, and that survival
there often trumped altruism. I liked Jennifer Venditti’s Billy the
Kid
, a sympathetic portrait of a troubled Maine teenager’s struggles
for love and social acceptance, which took the Jury Award for Best
Documentary. But the film that stayed with me most was Michael Jacobs’
alternately riotous and properly appalling Audience of One, which tags
along with Richard Gazowsky, a San Francisco evangelical minister on a
disastrous quest to realize his dream of making a religious action
movie. Gazowsky comes off a huckster and a megalomaniac with a gift for
rationalizing his dubious gambits as orders from on high. As it turned
out, he’s also a pretty good critic. Asked at a post-screening Q&A
what it felt like to watch this empathic but damning film, he said,
“It’s like watching yourself go to the toilet.”