The smorgasbord of music, movies, workshops and more is finally over. I’m relieved and still recovering, but I’ll also miss the creative energy. I won’t miss the lines, craziness on 6th street, scooters everywhere and long days trying to see as much as I could. There was a Day 10 but it was mostly for gaming (though I did attend the softball game and barbecue). In this post I’ll do mini-reviews of the remaining three films I caught and share my thoughts about what it all means.
South by Is for All… With Money
The thing about it is those damn badges are expensive. Depending on when you buy it (or your employer buys it for you), a Platinum can go up to $1,600. Most people can’t afford that, or the nine days off. So right there, that exclusivity is a major turnoff for most locals who aren’t in the 1% of the wealthy. Add to that the following: major traffic jams; general hooliganism; free-flowing booze; loud music; people selling everything in your face from CD’s, weed products, and the actual thing (not that I’m opposed, I just don’t care); and five nearby shootings over the last weekend, and well, you can see it’s a volatile mix.
But… there are alot of cool things to see and do. Workshops on every kind of topic from branding, tech, cannabusiness, media, the business of music, film, video games, and that’s just for starters. Exhibit halls, wellness expo, job fair, internationally-sponsored spaces with music and food from countries like Brazil, Spain, Germany, the UK and more. Pop-ups, :activations,” skating rink, big platform you jump off onto a huge air cushion, interactive art exhibits, outdoor and indoor concerts, gigs, shows, and displays. Parties, giveaways, and even a blood drive. I mean, it’s really incomprehensible how they even put it together and pull it off.
Then there are the people. Executives passing the homeless. Artists of every stripe showing their talents. Comedians, filmmakers, digital artists, video game competitors, producers, talent agents and buyers, studio executives, musicians, filmmakers, actors, volunteers, staff, vendors. From alot of countries, speaking alot of languages, wearing all manner of dress. The beyond the usual diversity was cool to observe.
Last Day Films
The first film I saw was I Am Richard Pryor, a documentary covering the life of the seminal African-American comedian from his humble roots through his meteoric rise to fame, troubles with drugs and women, and to his early death (from MS). When I was a young teenager, my mom gave me and my brother 8-track tapes of George Carlin and Richard Pryor. From Carlin I learned about how language could be used precisely to make you laugh and the freedom of expression and just general hilarity.
From Pryor, I learned about the troubles of being a black man in America, how language could be a weapon, and yet still be funny as hell. With extensive interviews from his wife and comedians and others who knew him, I learned alot. But I also saw and heard things he said and did and that happened to him that I didn’t know. From all that I gained a greater respect of a real pioneer in comedy who went through hell (sometimes of his own doing) and came out the other side scarred but still with something important to say. Every comedian since Richard Pryor owes him something. And you can’t say that about the legacy of many people. It was a well-done documentary and a very moving experience.
Greener Grass was based on a short from SXSW a couple of years before. It was popular so the filmmakers were asked to make it full length. The tone of the film was hyper-real and exaggerated, from the rules of the Stepford Wives-like perfect suburb, color-coordinated costumes of the residents, and their fake smiles with their teeth covered in braces that they did not need.
To be honest, I am not sure I got the point. Some scenes were funny, but the emotional arc and story line of the characters was lost on me. The whole thing was absurdist, so maybe that was the message; life IS absurd. Especially in planned communities with homeowners associations and the general conservative, consumerist, capitalist conformity American society encourages. The ending was kind of tacked on and in fact I’m a little fuzzy on what happened. I’ve been trying to forget it ever since. Maybe I’m not a sophisticated enough filmgoer to understand, but I really don’t want to. It was the only one of 14 films I didn’t like. I wish them well, but as for this film: ugh, just ugh!
Pet Sematary (the remake) closed the festival with its world premiere. The directors and main stars Jason Clarke (a Brit), Amy Seimetz and nine-year old Jete Laurence were in attendance. Unfortunately the great John Lithgow was not able to be there. I finally got into the elegant, 100-year old Paramount Theater, with it’s stupid small bag policy, I had been going around all eight days without much like my bike pump and parts, or extra clothes and little food to save money.
The 1989 original movie that was based on the Steven King book, which I read, was scary, but a little cheesy. While there are notable differences, the story is mostly intact and still plenty scary. Certainly the effects are better, as there was no robocat. The cat is played by four feline actors, actually. Anyway, I enjoyed seeing the film and it’s not just a horror shocker. It is a meditation on loss, love and trauma, and I thought overall it was a pretty good and faithful adaptation of the book, with some twists. I got a free poster, too!
Softball Game and Barbecue
The festival has been going on for 33 years, and I believe all of them have had a softball game. There are three rounds and different teams are formed from talent buyers, artists, volunteers, print media, staff and maybe more. By the time I arrived by bike late afteroon at the east Austin park, the semi-final round was almost over. I first took care of the main business — getting a heaping helping of sausage and brisket which I smothered in sauce, with side dishes of potato salad, cole slaw, green beans and a sugar-free beverage. Right after I got it, they announced free second helpings, which I never ended up getting because I didn’t need it. But it was good stuff.
I sat in the bleachers after greeting Nick Barbaro, whom I saw on Day 1 as I did last year. Co-founder of the Austin Chronicle who also co-founded SXSW, he was mellow and nice, and who maybe even seemed to remember me. We chatted a moment but he had his team to coach. Since you needed your badge to get fed, I saw a nearby spectator and introduced myself. He said he was the talent booker for the Elephant Room, the jazz venue I spent Thursday and Friday nights in. He had also played but their team, like all the rest, got routed by the SXSW staff team 30-0. Not only did they have energy to play after a long festival, they took it seriously and were held scoreless. But it was all harmless fun.
Facing the print media team (basically, the Chronicle staff), the game went pretty quickly. Print finally ended the shut-out around the fifth innning, but the game went 13-2 and was called in the seventh based on the mercy rule. The announcers were radio DJs and pretty funny guys. I walked around to see if I could find any fellow volunteers from my crew or maybe some celebrity sitings, but there were none of either crowd. The game was over, so I said goodbye to the jazz guy. I chatted with a couple, one of whom was a realtor and then took photos of Nick’s famous Hank the Cowdog car.
I then saddled up and rode around part of Town Lake. The sun was starting to set on a modestly warm day. I made my way home, reflecting on the last two weeks of working and attending the festival. It was a surreal scene of colors, sounds, people, places and things. While I didn’t learn as much or meet as many people as last year, I was glad I made the effort. Even though I was sick for a few days and exhausted for almost all of them, it was worth it. To see so many performances for free after working to earn my badge seems like a fair trade.
If there’s a single lesson I learned from SXSW 2019, it’s that everyone has something to offer, and that includes me. I have value as a creator of this blog and my book, but also just as valid as an audience member, lover of film, music and well, I’ll just say it, humanity. Because while there’s plenty of bullshit at SXSW, with the money, the badges, the staff who think they’re too good to say hello. The rude guests, people trying to sneak in with someone else’s badge. Sold out shows, lines that are too long, far too little recycling bins. The crass corporate commercialization and never-ending profit-seeking drive to be successful at all costs.
But… if you can look past the distractions, some of which are unfortunately necessary to make it happen, you’ll find people trying to create and tell their stories in different ways. And that urge to do art, create, share, inspire, and even find justice, equality, and decency is pretty awesome shit. If you can afford to attend SXSW, try it once. If you can’t, maybe you can volunteer. If not, there’s always the website, www.SXSW.com, which has tons of content you can see from the safety and comfort of your own home.
You can find all of my thoughts and see all the photos about this year and last year by typing SXSW into the search box.
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