A sense of dedication wafts overs you when you stand in the rain and the cold for an hour. Over 800 people in an orderly yet meandering row are queued along the streets behind the Paramount Theater in Austin. It never rains at SXSW but this year, this Saturday night in early March it is coming down in waves. Temperatures are low, the wetness factor is high.
Not to be deterred the multanimous crowd stands in an orderly fashion, festooned with umbrellas and capes to repel the falling water, as if waiting in a Zen-zone of coolness broken only momentarily by the passing of name-branded buses. The crowd hangs together in spirit, nobody whining about the severe conditions and then everyone marches in an orderly and fashionable manner into the film that awaits them. In this case it was the premiere of an unfinished version of Neighbors.
When this Universal release comes out in May it will strike a solid chord because of its unique chemistry and unorthodox sex appeal, but in no way does Neighbors stand on the same level as previous SXSW advance-look-sees like Knocked Up or Bridesmaids. Nonetheless, one breast pump scene and a couple of copulation scenes are surefire laugh starters. Cast members that attended included Seth Rogen and Zac Efron.
The opening film of the SXSW Film Festival, Chef, unwound to a packed house of over 1100 at the venerable Paramount. Directed and written by Jon Favreau, Chef is first and foremost a foodie movie. Attention is paid to the preparation of gourmet dishes and then switchbacks in sharp contrast to the aesthetic of food truck cooking. This is Favreau’s best indie effort since Swingers. The point-of-view shifts about the halfway point to that of the chef’s young son who joins his dad on a trip from Florida to California in a food truck. The youngster teaches Dad how to use social media (twitter, et al.) to promote his venture. Natch, the truck, tricked out to serve Cuban grilled ham and cheese sandwiches called cabanos, stops in New Orleans to mix it up Creole style and then Austin where Favreau filmed at Franklin’s Barbecue.
The cast includes Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara, Oliver Platt and Robert Downey, Jr. During Chef’s Q&A Favreau told the audience that the truck used in the movie, called El Jefe, was around the corner serving free cubano sandwiches for the audience.
Less crowded but still scintillating was the premiere of the first episode of Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey. The host Neil deGrasse Tyson and Cosmos producer/writer Ann Druyan were among the guests that appeared to answer questions afterwards. Dr. Tyson has a real stage persona; he’s a dynamic speaker and projects coolness and charisma. Tyson explains how the show uses CGI but in clever ways, like where he’s talking to the camera by the seashore and a tiktaalik (an evolutionary link of fish to land animal) comes strolling out of the water.
Tyson’s elegant manner is seen is how he answers one audience question about creationism. Tyson doesn’t make fun of their religious beliefs while still maintaining the integrity of his argument. Tyson also gives kudos to Seth McFarland who was instrument in getting the deal set up on Fox. That’s right, the creator of Ted the foul mouthed teddy bear is responsible for people across the world becoming interested in science.
Richard Linklater’s Boyhood unspooled Sunday morning, again to a packed Paramount. Boyhood was conceived and shot over a period of 12 years. 12 years a boy. We literally watch lead actor Ellar Coltrane age from approximately the age of five to a young adult entering college all the while developing a set of skills and attitudes. Linklater’s daughter Lorelei Linklater plays the sister, with additional support for Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette (who steals a couple of scenes bigtime). At the film’s Q&A Linklater joked (maybe not) about how Lorelei wanted her character to die because she didn’t want to be an actor anymore. Essentially Linklater shot every year for ten years, putting the characters through life, love, and the various perturbations that pop up as we develop character. Locations include San Marcos, Houston and Austin. Once again Richard Linklater has made a film that’s an American original and also proved that he’s a singular voice among filmmakers.
If films weren’t enough to keep the momentum going how about on Saturday morning when I stumbled into one meeting room at the Four Seasons while conducting an interview down the hall. I noticed the room because of two rows each of three HD computer monitors at least 42-inches big, mounted on the wall with smaller computer screens bracketing the configuration. This company was tracking social media at SXSW. On one screen you could see a world map listing hashtags and code words the team was tracking. Then you could zoom into particular cities. Austin in the Convention Center and 6th Street square area was an array of red blips. You could then zoom into a particular marker and determine that at 10 am. on the corner of Brazos and 2nd Street a picture of so and so at SXSW had been put on Instagram. Their clients pay them to track certain information but for instance they weren’t tracking info about specific films playing at the festival. But they could.
The interactive portion of SXSW had many noteworthy events such as the Edward Snowden Skype conference and everywhere I noticed attendees from around the world: Norway, China, Turkey, and Germany just to name a few. The many keynote speeches were also broadcast outside the filled-to-capacity auditoriums on speakers and monitors in the hallway. There was no shortage of great food trucks in the convention area and every corner was papered with posters and stickers. It was like the rings of a tree. Each lamppost had a layer of Friday’s handbills under Saturday’s stickers topped with Sunday’s posters. Stay tuned for more.