Among the funky things at SXSW was a party where two people can have a face-to-face conversation… through a long sock.
A first-timer navigates the films, concerts, seminars and overall experience of the chill Texas cultural pop-up
STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHY
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES
In Richard Linklater’s dark comedy movie Bernie, a resident of East Texas describes the state capital as “the People’s Republic of Austin” — a comment meant as a dig but really, a perverse compliment. Austin is Texas’ funkiest enclave, somewhat of a nation unto itself. And for 10 days each spring, South By Southwest, which celebrated its 32nd incarnation earlier this month, transforms it into a kind of fiefdom within that republic, a mini-city of 100,000 celebrities and stoners, tech geeks and movie nerds, roadies and musicmakers and fans of all things cultural. It is the ultimate technology pop-up: Burning Man with plumbing.
How insular is the event? During my time there, the young man who came to be known as the Austin bomber set off at least three devices, and it barely registered a blip among the attendees. People behaved with caution, of course (a few years back, a drunk driver plowed into a crowd, killing several), but the vibe is largely chill, relaxed, communal. Everybody is there to have fun, learn and experience what creative minds — powerful and aspirational — are doing in the world. The are woke, but mellow.
Technically called the South By Southwest Conference and Festivals, everyone just calls it South By, or SX for those too busy to text more than two letters. It’s organized around several tracks — a film festival, a music festival, a smaller comedy festival and an “interactive,” which seems a catch-all for tech, gaming and education, as well as the massive trade show that offers a glimpse into the future.
I wanted it all. And I got as much of it as I could.
As a SX first timer, I approached the assignment with a mix of anticipation and dread. Would the crowds be overwhelming? Would the sessions, films and concerts disappoint? Would everything be too expensive? Would it be lonely on my own? But in truth, it was a total hodgepodge of experiences, mostly positive — a wonderland where everyone is Alice.
I drove down for the opening day, staying in a house outside the city, and jumped right in with a screening of 1985, Austin-based filmmaker Yen Tan’s somber, black-and-white period piece about a young man (Gotham’s Cory Michael Smith) who returns to his North Texas home over Christmas during the peak of the Reagan Era. He’s behaving strangely, at least to his conservative, religious parents (Virginia Madsen, Michael Chiklis), and the audience knows something’s up and suspects it has to do with his “roommate,” whom he’s cagey about discussing. It was a sombre but powerful beginning to the festival, and in some ways a wake-up call that, in 2018, we can actually make historical dramas about the AIDS crisis.
And that was just the start.
If Napoleon called England a nation of shopkeepers, he’d likely call Austin a city of line standers. Queues snaking around city blocks that never seem to move more than one body every 20 minutes aren’t uncommon, but people seem good-natured about it. Only once did someone — an older woman, surprisingly — bully her way to cut in line unjustifiably. People were mainly relaxed, and you could spot the high-strung devotees and avoid them. There’s a youthful energy that bespeaks we’re-in-this-together, even among the older folks. You could see what you wanted to and even if you didn’t, there was always something new to investigate.
Sometimes that was good, sometimes bad. A weird but compelling sci-fi film called Perfect has stuck with me, while the sold-out preview of the Adam Pally comedy Most Likely to Murder was an unfunny bust. But the law of averages means many of the films were worth a cinephile’s attention.
Overall, I screened close to 20 features, shorts, documentaries and episodics (South By’s term for works intended for television of serial consumption), attended a dozen seminars and sessions, caught some live music acts and sampled, of course, the barbecue and tacos that all that non-Texans rave about. And there was a lot of gay-specific interest across the board.
Among the movies screening, there were several standouts with queer content. During the festival, the producers of This One’s For the Ladies — a kind of Magic Mike documentary about African-American male (and one lesbian) exotic dancers — was surely one of the hottest, raciest movies to show (full frontal!), but also touched deeply on economic, racial and sexual politics within the stripper community. More serious, but even more amazing, was TransMilitary, directors Gabe Silverman and Fiona Dawson’s portrait of four U.S. servicemembers’ efforts to serve openly in the armed forces as transgender Americans. The film ends by noting that the current status of trans enlistees was up in the air … before last week’s White House announcement of its intent to ban trans servicemembers. It couldn’t be more timely, or more powerful. The excellent short Tooth and Nail was inspired by the director’s real-life coming out in the face of her brother’s impending death.
It wasn’t all dour. One the most amusing films was the short Are We Good Parents?, a comedy about a mom and dad confronted by the fact that their daughter wants to go to prom with a boy… when they always through she was gay, causing them to second-guess “where we went wrong.” Molly Shannon’s lesbian comedy Wild Nights with Emily was a fan hit, as was The Gospel of Eureka, a documentary about faith, justice and drag.
Some gay-interest films weren’t especially gay. Andrew Haigh’s (Weekend, Looking) upcoming film, Lean On Pete, is a poignant, authentic story about a teenager (All the Money in the World’s Charlie Plummer, who is going places) and how a racehorse gives him purpose following a life of tragedy. (Look for a review next month.) And the documentary Meow Wolf: Origin Story tracks the Santa Fe-based art collective’s rise from anarchic guerrilla artists to gay-led multi-million-dollar success.
Music in the air
Meow Wolf also sponsored one of the parties, Fractallage, that helped launch the Music Festival, which started several days after Film and Interactive had already been underway. SX started as a lazy indie music fest 32 years ago, but now the presence of bands at every imaginable venue helps define a lot of the experience. Especially after dark, the central business district is overrun with countless musicians — folksy singer-songwriters, outdoor pianists, unsigned hip-hop artists, revered pop icons of the last quarter century, up-and-coming garage bands… you name it. Even more than the films, cherry-picking which bands to check out becomes a tyranny of choice that requires some planning (see sidebar, Page 19). On the other hand, just take a stroll down Sixth Street and let the brisk Hill Country air waft its sounds into your ears. It’s a symphony of diverse music and conversations, and fully intoxicating.
A lot of SX is focused on celebrity spotting. (The festival is astonishingly well organized, at least from the outside looking in, so you only bumped into Ethan Hawke if he wanted you to.) Melinda Gates’ talk was an early sellout. Oscar winners Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) and Spike Lee packed in the crowds. Elon Musk showed up at one session unannounced, and it became the talk of the nerdosphere.
Clearly, entertainment dominates at one level, but activities from seriousness to socializing have their place. There were LGBTQIA meet-ups, sessions on gay representation in cinema and speeches, and how to start up an LGBT nonprofit. Some were better than others.
The technology track has gained tons of momentum, and not just when Musk drops by; many sessions felt like TED Talks, like futurist Ray Kurzwell (Google) ringing alarm bells about AI and “what’s next.” The four-day Trade Show was a carnival of VR, point-of-sale innovations, robotics, transportation and 3D printing.
Much of the dialogue, onstage and among the attendees, was political as well, usually from a progressive standpoint. London Mayor Sadiq Khan delivered a keynote; Jake Tapper interviewed Bernie Sanders; Arnold Schwarenegger made a thoughtful impression. Ta-Nahesi Coates spoke on race relations.
SXSW is a blend of cutting edge and advertorial bait-and-switch. Some of the sessions seem more like marketing for products already in the works than innovations. I had hoped a seminar about The Daily, the year-old New York Times podcast, would provide behind-the-scenes insights into how the show is produced, how it has grown, how the stories are curated. But host Michael Barbaro merely interviewed his colleague Rukmini Callimachi about her area of expertise (Islamic terrorism) before revealing —surprise! — that she had a new podcast from NYT starting next week! The session was just as good as an episode of the podcast (it was, in fairness, billed as “The Daily Live on Stage”), but not the insider’s orgasm I wanted it to be. The same was true of Christiane Amanpour’s spirited discussion about an upcoming CNN series about sex and love around the world — interesting in itself, but slightly disappointing.
Naturally, some of the sneak-peeks were sought out specifically because they let you in on the ground floor. The opening night screening of the soon-to-be-released thriller A Quiet Place got buzz buzzing early. Audiences squealed when the world-premiere preview screening of Ready Player One was introduced by Steven Spielberg and Mark Hamill joined Last Jedi director Rian Johnson for a cameo discussion; This Is Us junkies got to see the season finale weeks ahead of TV audiences. A Sweetwater ghost town inspired by Westworld was accessible (though quite a hike out of town), and the Roseanne reboot had a strong presence.
My personal favorite preview was the screening of the first two episodes of the upcoming TBS series The Last O.G., Tracy Morgan’s return to TV following a near-fatal traffic accident. Morgan stars as a former drug dealer dropped back in a now-gentrified Brooklyn after 15 years, trying to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend, the hotter-than-hot Tiffany Haddish. Co-creator Jordan Peele wasn’t there, but Morgan and Haddish were, and the post-screening Q&A was free-wheeling (the show is also hilariously insightful about race).
Insight is, in fact, one of the hallmarks of the appeal of SX. Most of the seminars at least tried to explore real issues in business and culture. One panel addressed inclusion and diversity (racial, gender) in the back offices of professional sports; one posed the racial biases inherent (if unintentionally) in artificial intelligence. Other panels were whimsical (the science of superheroes) or practical (how to sell your book online). But whether those insights derived from dreamy music, chemically-augmented reality or intelligent folks sharing their thoughts, it’s reassuring that — at a time when original thought seems to be on the wane — we have SXSW to celebrate creativity and innovation.
SXSW will return March 8–17, 2019.
How to fest
There is no wrong way “to fest,” but there are definitely better ways to plan and schedule your experience for maximum impact.
Decide what your interests are. Four kinds of badges are available: Film, Music and Interactive, all of which are available at the same price, and all of which can get you into most events… in theory. But when it comes to going to specific events, they are prioritized. Film badges get you primary access into film events, Music into music, etc. The more expensive Platinum badge gives you priority (but still not guaranteed entry) into all the others, and accordingly cost a few hundred dollars more. On the other hand, when you’re spending money to attend in the first place, the difference in price is probably worth the time and disappointment… unless all you wanna do is one track.
Plan ahead. Passes are cheaper the farther you are from the next event, so you can get a Platinum badge now for about 30 percent less than you’ll pay a month out in 2019. Look at the schedule a few weeks out so you can try to hatch a game plan (as much as possible) for your must-dos, wannados and options — movies you wanna check out, speakers you wanna hear, bands you wanna catch. You’ll also want to arrange for accommodations early to secure the best rates and availability. Don’t be afraid to get a hotel away from the action for a better price and commute; consider Air BnB, or cultivate friendships with Austinites now for a crashpad.
What to carry. Bring a backpack. High-end cameras aren’t allowed inside many venues if you’re not media, so leave that Canon at home and use your smartphone for selfies. SX is a marathon, not a sprint, so stay hydrated with a bottle of water (you can refill it), and maybe some Mio to add flavor. A protein bar or two would be good as well. (There are tons of foods trucks at the convention center all week, and the main events take place just south of Sixth Street, a destination for clubs, bars and restaurants, so you can always grab a bite somewhere.) And definitely bring a power cord and portable charger, cuz you’ll use your phone … a lot.
Getting around. The closer you are to the action, the more you’ll pay to park. High-end hotels proudly alter their day rates for parking, happily gouging attendees. Next to the Austin Convention Center, $30 isn’t uncommon for a slot in an open lot. But just south of Lady Bird Lake, at the Long Center, parking is just $8, and a mile from that, at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas — where a plurality of the film screenings take place — there’s ample free parking. A complimentary shuttle transports you to and fro, though the number of buses in rotation drops by half after about 6 p.m., so the waits can be long. And it takes place in a busy city that doesn’t totally shut down for SX, so be forewarned about rush hour traffic and the normal hassles of any city. (In off hours, you can do a half-loop in about 20 minutes.) Lyft was a partner this year, so ride-sharing is common as well. But during the peak activities, you’ll do a lot of walking.
Download the app. SXSW offers an online app that is extremely useful in predicting sell-out crowds, “favoriting” events and tracking shuttles. You can also network with other attendees.
— Arnold Wayne Jones