SXSW: last day

Saturday was the last day of the SXSW film festival. It started out as a simply gorgeous day. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the cat was running around the house hiding my socks.
I didn’t have any movies scheduled until late in the afternoon. My boyfriend and I had a leisurely and very yummy lunch at Gene’s. I had a roast beef po-boy with some fries to help soak up all the delicious roast beef gravy. My boyfriend had smothered chicken and green beans and potato salad and his plate practically gleamed when he was done. I love Gene’s and I only wish the place was open later for dinner, although then I would have even more trouble buying clothes than I do now. (I am dying to try the smothered pork chops, but that means getting downtown for a Thursday lunch, which is not easy for me to do.)
The only problem with going to Gene’s for lunch was that I got home and accidentally fell asleep and nearly missed the movie. I blame the cat, because he snuggled up by me while I was reading and that added to my sleepiness. I woke up, realized how late I was, grabbed my notebook and purse, and dashed out of there in a rush to get to Alamo Downtown, and park, and walk to the theater in time to see Reel Paradise.

I did not quite realize that not only would SXSW music events be happening around the area where I normally park for Alamo Downtown, but also a big antiwar rally was going on and there were policemen and people with big signs everywhere. It was a mess. Fortunately, someone pulled out of a parking spot right before I got to it, and I parked right near Austin Music Hall.
The gorgeous day had given way at some point to a lot of clouds and wind, and as soon as I parked the car it started to rain a bit. I have four umbrellas, but the only one in my car was a big Texas Lottery golf umbrella that was excessive for a little drizzle. I walked very quickly over to Alamo, knocking people out of the way in front of Halcyon and Fado and other trendy places, and rushed into the Alamo just in time. I ended up sitting right in front of LB and FFP, which was very nice. Because I was all hot and tired from practically running to the theater, I had to have a root-beer float. Mmmm.
I knew the basic premise of Reel Paradise but only in a very vague way. So it was a big surprise for me to realize that the family in the movie was John and Janet Pierson and their kids. John Pierson has helped promote many independent films and has written a book that I keep saying I need to read (I should just order it off Amazon already) called Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes. They live in Austin now, so I’d heard a lot about them lately. I just hadn’t made the connection.
Reel Paradise is about a family that travels to a remote Fiji island and spends two years there. John Pierson bought the only movie theater in the area and showed free movies. It’s a feature-length documentary directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Prefontaine).
The movie naturally spends time focusing on the cultural differences, the ways in which the kids adapt and in which they change the other kids around them, as well as the family dynamics in this environment. There’s a subplot about the family’s house being robbed, trying to find out who did it, trying to recover the stolen goods (their laptops are stolen … which is awful not just because of the money but, as no one needs to mention during the film, what was probably on those hard drives that might have been lost).
But I liked the parts related to the movie theater best. The Fijians didn’t want to see small independent films or gritty dramas, they liked big action movies and physical comedies. John Pierson screened movies like X-Men 2, Matrix Reloaded, and Bringing Down the House with great success. He even found a copy of Jackass. And the last movie he showed, which was equally successful, was Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. (which is very funny).
I liked seeing the effect the movies had on the community, both positive and negative, the trials the Piersons went through in getting the theater open and showing films regularly, and particularly the audience reaction to these movies. I would love to be in a movie theater audience that reacted so strongly and happily.
The documentary notes that the Piersons met while working in film exhibition, and that they got married in a movie theater … and showed Keaton’s Seven Chances at the reception. I admit that’s a very tempting idea for a wedding, should I ever feel the desire to get married. (I guess the potential groom would get some input, though.)
John Pierson waved the keys to the 180 Meridien Cinema around and said that if anyone else was interested in running it, to talk to him afterwards. I resisted.
Afterwards, the Piersons and their son answered questions about the movie and eventually I went outside to get in the line for the next movie playing at Alamo, Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party. Fortunately, the rain had stopped.
The lines for Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party looked enormous, to the point where I wondered if I’d get into the theater even with a film pass. However, this must have been some sort of Alamo Downtown optical illusion, because I was able to find a very good seat next to LB and FFP, where we ordered food and talked about the weird stuff Alamo was showing before the movie (thankfully, it was stuff I hadn’t seen before).
I ordered a salad because I am a dumbass who didn’t learn anything the last time I ordered a salad at Alamo. The salad tasted fine but I think I would have enjoyed it more if I’d been able to see it while eating it. This is a personal thing—salad is full of lots of different things and I like to know which ones I’m eating. If you don’t have that problem, I would recommend the steak salad at Alamo. If you do, get the pizza.
By the time we got to this movie on the last day of SXSW, it was hilarious to hear everyone during the SXSW house ad that played before the film. There have been two house ads playing all week, both very similar, and everyone was shouting back at the actors. “Ten dollars!” “Go for eight!” and “Ron!” “No, it’s Jeff!” What I would like to know is what the movie was that was playing in the background near the end of the ads. Anyone?
Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party was not a bad movie. The title is pretty self-explanatory. Stephen Tobolowsky, a longtime character actor in Hollywood (he has been in 150 films playing geeks and bad guys), is a notoriously good storyteller. So while he is preparing for a birthday party, and during the party, he entertains us with some of his best stories.
I didn’t particularly like the premise of the film—I mean, that it takes place during his birthday party. For one thing, according to the director, it didn’t … it was shot over several days. For another thing, it must have been a rather dull party to attend. The stories were great, but he was the only one who told stories in the film (there are a few inserted interviews, but they are not memorable and are not related to the party), so the party attendees spend the whole time sitting around listening attentively to one person. That is not my idea of a really good time.
I kept thinking of Swimming to Cambodia, which makes no pretense of the fact that a guy is going to sit behind a desk and talk to you for 90 minutes, and which also has a focus to it that Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party does not. The stories are good but they don’t have any kind of central theme, or at least not one I could see.
Also, I wish we could have seen the bits of movies he was referencing while he was talking about them, instead of seeing a few stills at the end. I realize the director probably didn’t want to break up the narrative flow or distract the audience, and I know that getting rights to film clips isn’t cheap. But I think that would have held my interest a little more.
After the movie, director Robert Brinkmann told us that Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party still doesn’t have a distributor, because the distributors didn’t think anyone would want to watch some guy talking for two hours. I wanted to go up to him and say, “Look, Swimming to Cambodia isn’t available on DVD in this country, so don’t feel bad. It’s not just you.”
On the other hand, since I have seen Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party, I have been dying to see Swimming to Cambodia again, and I can’t because I can’t get my hands on the damn DVD. (I should try Vulcan Video, I know.) (I just checked Vulcan’s Web site. They have only one copy and it’s in the north location, which is a little remote for me. Grmph.)
And that was the last SXSW film I saw. I walked back to my car. A strange woman started walking next to me, probably thinking there would be more safety in numbers. She started telling me about how she had been attending SXSW music events since 11 am (it was about 9 pm) and she’d been trying to get drunk and she couldn’t even do that, and now she was off to Austin Music Hall to see Erykah Badu. And after that, well, she might just take one of those pedicabs back to her car, because she was parked over by The Gas Pipe (which is further away than I would ever want to walk). I felt too tired to do more than nod and make interested sounds. We were both Doing South By, but in entirely different ways. And I hope she’s caught up on her sleep by now, too.

2 thoughts on “SXSW: last day”

  1. Jette, your review of “Reel Paradise” sure makes it sound like one to watch for. And “Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party” is now on the DVD wish list – I love that guy. He was so hilarious in “Groundhog Day” [recently rented for this year’s Groundhog Day at that Northwest Vulcan that is so remote for you, so convenient for me!]. There were some interesting bits in the ‘making of’ part of the DVD.
    Back when “My Dinner With Andre” was new and in the theaters, I sat there enthralled, but had to keep poking my husband who began gently snoring as Andre and Wallace Shawn held their long conversation. The Birthday Party might be better seen on DVD in case it has the same effect.

  2. I felt about Birthday Party just like Jette did, but expressed it far less well. I saw Spadling Gray in person and I’m a big fan. Maybe now that he jumped in the river they will rush out some more DVDs. I love movies where people JUST TALK, but Birthday Party would really have benefited from conversation and some film clips.

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