There comes a point in every film festival where you hit a brick wall. Sometimes, it's a metaphorical wall and you just want to stay in bed, get a full night's sleep and take a break from the whole movie-watching thing. Sometimes, it's a literal wall, as a friend learned the hard way at last year's SXSW when the combination of fatigue and alcohol led to his head meeting the outside wall of the Alamo Drafthouse.
This was the day that I hit the wall.
As exciting as SXSW is and as honored as I am to be professionally covering it, every single fest-goer, whether they're attending professionally or for fun, will have a day where they just plain stop caring and wish things would go back to normal. Yeah, first world problems, I know, but after five days of non-stop movies (and writing when I wasn't in a theater), I just hit the snooze button on my alarm and slept in, completely guilt free…until I woke up, and then I felt plenty guilty.
After an afternoon spent getting caught up on work (and probably writing part two of this SXSW journal; it's all blending together now), it was time for a lazy, two-movie evening at SXSW. First up was the horror fantasy Thale, about two men assigned to clean a crime scene in a remote cottage who stumble across a mythical creature (who happens to look like a sexy young woman because that's the kind of thing that happens in these kinds of movies). Although already brisk at 77 minutes, Thale feels a little too long and I can't help but wonder if a 30-minute version of the film would've been ideal. Hell, it probably would've been an incredible contender in the short film line-ups this year. Still, Thale is a fine if not particularly surprising film that's sure to delight fans of both horror and attractive women who don't wear much clothing.
I was hoping to squeeze another movie in before the midnight slot, but I noticed something peculiar: a line for one of the midnight screenings was already forming and it was the film I was planning to see, Iron Sky. So I lined up for the story of secret moon-Nazis invading the Earth three and a half hours early to make sure I had a seat.
For a film with such hype (thanks primarily to a lengthy and robust online campaign that began with a special teaser trailer produced in 2006), Iron Sky is a baffling disaster. A comedy without laughs, a science fiction film without ideas and an action film without stakes. It's no Modus Anomali, but it's easily one of the worst films that played at SXSW this year.
Once I realized that it was St. Patrick's Day (during SXSW Music!), the thought of braving the vomit drenched streets of Downtown Austin became the least appealing gameplan imaginable.
One of my nasty festival habits is spending the first half gorging myself on narrative features and completely neglecting the documentary programming — a shame, since documentaries tend to be, by and large, superior to fiction (mainly because the truth is more compelling and it doesn't have to make sense). With only a few days left in the fest, it was time to catch up on the documentary slate.
My morning began with Eating Alabama, a documentary about a couple who move back to their home state and try to survive for a year by only eating locally grown food. Although they don't discover anything too surprising, it's an amusing, quaint, educational documentary that runs for a blissfully brief 65 minutes.
From that, I shifted gears into Jeff, a documentary about the arrest of Jeffrey Dahmer and the effects his crimes had on the detective who interrogated him, the medical examiner who explored his home and his neighbor. The film is relentlessly grim but smart enough to remain clinical, keeping the man and his crimes at arm's length and just letting you know the facts. The emotional toll Dahmer's crimes took on these men and women is far more unsettling than any gruesome recreation.
Finally, it was time for The Imposter, one of the most acclaimed documentaries at SXSW and for good reason. It's one of those stories so bizarre and unlikely that if it was remade as a "regular" movie, no one in the audience would believe what happened in it and everyone would call the writer a hack. This is the kind of movie that made me Google the actual events after the screening to make sure I wasn't being tricked. If it sounds like I'm being vague about what The Imposter is about…I am. Remember the title and seek it out when it becomes available. To hint at what happens in this story would do it a major disservice.
With my documentary appetite satiated, I concluded this very long day with Citadel, an Irish horror movie about an agoraphobic single father who has to team up with a foul-mouthed priest to save his infant daughter from a gang of evil feral children. Yep, Citadel is one bonkers movie, but it's also pretty damn scary and kept on track by a fantastic lead performance that grounds the film's horror in something painfully, beautifully human. It was easily the best midnight film programmed at SXSW this year.
Although this was the eighth day of SXSW Film, everyone I spoke to agreed that it felt like day twenty eight. I had hit my wall on day six and was currently on a merciful second wind. Others weren't so lucky, with many people just now hitting that wall, well aware that this would completely remove them from the rest of the fest. I recommended a combination of Red Bull and milkshakes as the proper recipe for smashing down the need to sleep.
Following the lead of the previous day, I once again dove into the world of documentary filmmaking. The first film of the day was We Are Legion, which tells, in great detail, about how internet hackers and pranksters pulled themselves together to battle corporations and international injustice from behind their keyboards by becoming the controversial group known as Anonymous. Vital and hugely entertaining, the film paints a picture of an online revolution that's still going on around us at this very moment, a revolution so fast and furious that the film is already slightly outdated a few months after its completion.
After that was The Source, a documentary tracking the bizarre history of the Source Family, a Los Angeles-based cult/commune that had a spectacular rise before suffering a painful, horrifying fall. Although it gets a bit long in the tooth by the end, there's no denying that this is a story worth hearing, told exceptionally well. In the Q&A afterward, two members of the Source Family joined the director on stage and told us the spiritually correct way to smoke marijuana and ensured us that their rituals involving placenta blood were strictly white magic, not black magic. This is the kind of Q&A you sit through a dozen horrible Q&A's to discover.
With some time to kill until midnight, I was able to squeeze in another hour-long doc (when you spend nine days at a film festival, you start to become increasingly thankful for films that know how to get in and get out quickly). Uprising: Hip Hop and the LA Riots does a commendable job of laying out the basics of what happened in the wake of the Rodney King beating, but it's a project that feels distinctly made-for-TV. Some incredible interviews and footage don't make up for the fact that the whole thing can't help but feel a little surface-level.
When midnight rolled around, it was time for a surprise secret screening from Ain't It Cool News' Eric Vespe, who secured a theater, a 35mm print of a mystery movie and issued an open invitation to anyone who wanted to join him — particularly out-of-towners visiting the city for SXSW. Before the film rolled, Eric told us of his hope to make this secret screening a new SXSW tradition, but admitted that he has yet to actually talk to anyone who could help make it official.
The film was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a film you probably have a pretty strong opinion on if you're a film buff. Although I'm still not a big fan, there's no denying how much fun it was to see it on the big screen.
This was supposed to be a big day.
I had it all mapped out: head downtown to the State theater for one screening, head back to the South Lamar Drafthouse for another and end the day downtown at the Rtiz for one last midnight.
Um, yeah…that didn't happen. Once I realized that it was St. Patrick's Day (during SXSW Music!), the thought of braving the vomit drenched streets of Downtown Austin became the least appealing gameplan imaginable, especially after four months of SXSW. So I decided to take the final day in stride. I went to South Lamar and decided to just see what would happen.
What ended up happening was Wikileaks: Secrets and Lies (a dry but important documentary that takes an exhaustive look at the whole titular debacle) and Compliance (a brutally uncomfortable film that evenly divided the audience between those who thought it was an effective if harsh film and those who thought it was exploitative trash).
And that was it. That was my SXSW. Nine terrific days that felt like thirty. When the final day began, I was glad my life would soon return to normal. When the day was over, I was already counting the days until SXSW 2013.