South by Southwest: Austin-Powered

Tom Caltabiano, left, director of
Tom Caltabiano, left, director of "95 Miles to Go," wears a laughing Ray Romano's ID badge at Austin's South by Southwest film festival. (By Jack Plunkett -- Associated Press)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 18, 2006

AUSTIN Badges? You bet we need those stinking badges.

Such is the mantra of South by Southwest, this city's 20-year-old music festival and its more recent offshoots, the South by Southwest film and interactive conferences, which have gained international renown as ultra-happening confabs of artists, audiences, journalists and hipster apparatchiks.

Like black-clad swallows returning to a Tex-Mex version of Capistrano, veterans of South by Southwest -- or SXSW, or just "South by," as it's called by the true cognoscenti -- flock every spring to this oasis of pop culture, liberal politics and Shiner Bock beer, soaking up just enough to hold them for another year. But they're not going anywhere without those all-important laminates hanging awkwardly around their necks from bright blue ribbons festooned with the BMI logo.

This March has been no different, as SXSW kicked off last weekend with the premiere of Robert Altman's "A Prairie Home Companion" and the opening's sister event, the Texas Film Hall of Fame awards ceremony. Downtown at the Paramount Theatre, Austin's beautifully preserved 1915 movie palace, "Prairie" co-star John C. Reilly worked the enthusiastic crowd. Meanwhile, out at Austin Studios, a collection of soundstages and offices on the grounds of a former airport, Hall of Fame inductee Matthew McConaughey was treating guests -- who gathered to eat steak and fries in a stifling hangar -- to a 20-minute ramble that included Too Much Information about his very conception (let's just say Dad died with his boots on). Members of McConaughey's bewildered audience sported their own special Texas Film Hall of Fame badges; the event raised $384,000 for the Austin Film Society.

The South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival was started 13 years ago by Louis Black and Nick Barbaro, both inveterate movie buffs who have managed to inject SXSW Film with the same cool that has made their music festival -- which got underway Wednesday -- an imperative for of-the-moment musicians and their most avid fans. (Black and Barbaro have day jobs as the editor and publisher, respectively, of the Austin Chronicle, an alternative newsweekly.)

Over the years, big-name filmmakers have chosen the venue for their premieres (Altman, John Sayles, Christopher Guest and Joel Schumacher among them), and it consistently attracts a quirky and absorbing lineup of features, shorts and documentaries. The festival's programming, as well as the cred of the music conference, has made it one of North America's best and most highly regarded second-tier festivals, a regional gem that may not be a frenzied market on a par with Sundance and Toronto, or a hushed cinephile retreat like Telluride, but has its own cachet nonetheless.

"We started a film festival to show the films we loved," recalled Black, who estimated that registration increased by 50 percent this year. He pointed out that SXSW is for film lovers, whether they're in or out of the film business. "When people say, 'You're the next Sundance,' I say, 'I hope not.' I love Sundance, but I want to do what we do."

On the first Saturday morning of the film festival, the badge-holders' line snaked around the block outside the Alamo Drafthouse theater for a screening of "Wide Awake," Alan Berliner's smart, funny, densely layered journey through his battles with insomnia, as well as his own psyche. The film was preceded by a hilarious trailer telling patrons not to talk during the movie "or Ann Richards will take your [rear end] out." (That homegrown effort proved to be far superior to the irritating "official" SXSW trailer produced by the Independent Film Channel; with its pseudo-edgy electric guitar music and lame animated hot dog smoking a cigarette, the promo is proof that there's nothing less hip than a corporation trying to be hip.)

"Wide Awake," which will eventually be shown on HBO, is among the festival's high points, which also include "The Notorious Bettie Page," starring Gretchen Mol and directed by Mary Harron, "Maxed Out," James D. Scurlock's riveting examination of America's debt problem, "East of Havana," a documentary about Cuba's rap scene, and "The Life of Reilly," a performance film about Charles Nelson Reilly's one-man show that finally gives this overlooked actor and teacher his due. (This year's jury award winners were the documentary "Jam," about a Bay Area man trying to revive roller derby, and "Live Free or Die," a comedy by two former "Seinfeld" writers about a would-be career criminal in New Hampshire.) The festival will close today with a screening of Paul Weitz's "American Dreamz."

Still, good films aren't enough to make a great festival. What makes SXSW great are the ineffable things -- the warm weather; a dip in the freezing cold natural spring just minutes from downtown when that weather gets too warm; the breakfast migas at Las Manitas; getting your hair styled at a funky South Austin salon by the same woman who was scheduled to cut rock legend Roky Erickson's later that day; buying a portrait of Hank Williams by former Mekon Jon Langford at the folk art gallery Yard Dog; the music at the Continental Club; the music at Antone's; the music at Stubb's -- that make it a culture unto itself.

"People used to ask Orson Welles what films influenced him," said Black, "and he would say, 'Stagecoach,' 'Stagecoach,' 'Stagecoach.' " When people ask me why South by Southwest has succeeded the way it has, I say, 'Austin, Austin, Austin.' "

If Sundance has become an orgy of swag and celebrity, SXSW has become a more low-budget version thereof. (This year's SXSW swag bag included such humble offerings as a fake "Maxed Out" credit card, a Clif Bar brownie and a guitar pick.) It's altogether possible that, when you grab a quick between-film helping of tortilla soup at Guero's (in Austin, everybody comes to Guero's), you'll be sitting right next to Lyle Lovett -- who looks just like Lyle Lovett, only sexier.

Festival-goers are likely to be as thrilled by a sighting of the hundreds of bats that fly out each evening from under the Congress Avenue bridge as they are by catching a glimpse of Ray Romano, whose "95 Miles to Go," a documentary about his stand-up comedy tour, made its world premiere here this week.

And if no one stops and gawks at "East of Havana" producer Charlize Theron -- the epitome of SXSW glamour wearing skin-tight jeans tucked into black stiletto-heeled boots -- while she chats in the Paramount's sound booth, it's not because they're jaded. It's just a measure of the laid-back vibe of SXSW, and Austin itself.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company