Sunday, March 22, 2015

SXSW 2015: In Which I Become a Cineaste

Many apologies for the silence here. At first I was daunted by the torrent of hate mail my last post occasioned from people I probably don't know -- many of them signed in under phony names or as the ever-popular Anonymous. Many, as well, either didn't read what I wrote or had a distorted understanding of it. Nonetheless, I intend a second part to it: I actually got distracted somewhere along the way while writing it and never included a couple of points I was going to make. 

But that won't happen today. The other reason I haven't posted of late is that almost every day I've been working at my book, which is tiring, detailed work that saps my desire to write any more after I'm finished. I'm making great progress and should have the first draft finished soon. After a short break, I will then do the hardest work: making it cohere and making sure nothing important is left out. Then, I hope on time, which is September, I'll hand it in and hope the publisher likes it. 

I haven't worked on the book in over a week, and I'm quite anxious to get back to work, but the reason I haven't written any more on it is that, as happens every year, SXSW has raised its head and I've had to deal with it and the visitors I only see once a year and the hell that downtown Austin turns into. But I think some of what I saw and did will be of interest, so since weather has cancelled the softball game, I'll stay home and write this post. I may not be back with part two of the On Returning piece for a few weeks or longer, but it's always a good idea to let people know you're alive. And since I am, in fact, alive, here we go. 

* * *

At first it was just a dull rumble on the horizon. Then a couple of 35-year-old bros from Vanderbilt University demolished a long-standing business, a piñata company on the East Side, with its stock still intact in the building, while the proprietors weren't there. The reason was to get the family off the property so the bros could rent it to a SXSW party, and after they'd not only demolished the property, but compared the ex-tenants to cockroaches, the community was in an uproar. I'd sure hate to be these guys (I'd like to think my mama raised me better, for one thing), but they made the dull rumble turn into a roar. (Latest update on the situation by Tony Cantú, who's been doing an exemplary job, is here). 

SXSWi is the big draw now, the Film and Music modules its satellites, but I found little to interest me in the panels, which, as usual, were divided up between Buy My Product, Buy My Book, Stuff You Don't Understand, You're Too Old, and Next Big Thing. Last year's Next Big Thing this year is near the mothball stage: I saw not one person wearing Google Glasses. This year's Next Big Thing is apparently Bitcoin, although I remain as sceptical about that as I can be. Of course, what do I know: they introduced Twitter at SXSWi some years back and I thought that was dumb, too. (I actually still do to some extent, although I've become @HistorianOfRock in view of the day when I'll start promoting my books). 

I figured that instead of going to one of the few journalism panels to get condescended to, I'd just skip them (they seemed to be about writing shorter to get noticed, Reddit, and I swear I saw one called "Advertising is Dead: Content IS Advertising" that chilled me) and head to the trade show, which was less exciting than ever before, filled with solutions to problems that don't exist and gadgets I don't seem to remember anyone needing: talking vegetables, anyone? (This was over in the Japanese area, where there were stuffed animals to get infants used to using devices and an app so you could add graffiti and animated animals to your videos). NASA had a nice exhibit about the Mars mission, and someone else had a semi trailer filled with a demonstration of the Internet of Things. Since I'd just read a story about the first refrigerator's e-mail system being hijacked to send spam, I think this is a wait-and-see situation. As well as a don't expect to see much yet one. 

SXSWi had some sideshows, and one was a series of panels at the Driskill Hotel about food. (The actual module was entitled Food and Experiential Dining. Yawn.) Most of the panels were about tech and food, and the dreaded Nathan Myrhvold was invoked, as well as social media et. al., but there was a nice session about food and heritage in which late-generation ethnic-heritage people (Jewish, Mexican, Palestinian) talked about keeping their ancestors' cuisines alive and relevant today. More like this and fewer about making money and this could be a viable draw. 

This year, I swore not to go see any live music. Skimming the list, I found only two acts I recognized out of the 3.8 million listed (figure approximate). One was the Gang of Four, which was actually the Gang of One Plus Three Employees, and the other the Zombies, who I was never crazy about but are apparently in fine fettle. Negotiating the din and drunken crowds held no appeal whatever, but I hit on an ingenious solution: movies. Here was a chance to see living and dead musicians, situations whose importance I already knew but could always learn more about, and maybe even something left-field that I knew nothing about. So at 3:15 on Friday the 13th, I settled into a seat at the Alamo Lamar and saw Julien Temple's latest film, The Ecstacy of Wilko Johnson

Photo: Katy Woods
I'd seen Temple's remarkable documentary on Wilko's band, Dr. Feelgood, Oil City Confidential, and was much taken with Wilko's candor about his role in destroying it. He seemed a very complex character, and I was shocked, shortly after I'd seen the film, to learn that he had fatal pancreatic cancer and only a short while to live. Temple, a brave man, got his permission to film him dying and interview him along the way. It's a harrowing film if you don't know how things turned out, and harrowing if you do. I won't spoil things: go see this if you can. You'll never forget it.

I felt great: I'd figured out a way to participate in SXSW without heading into the Gate of Hell that was downtown! Of course, once Music fired up, that would change, but meanwhile I'd turned into a moviegoer. Well, I'd done that earlier: several months ago, I bought a screen and hooked it up to my CD player (which was also a DVD/BluRay player) and amplifier and started a subscription to Netflix to catch up on the 50 or so years of movies I've missed. 

Monday, with a great deal of ambivalence, I went to my next screening, again a world premiere. The film is somewhat legendary: Leon Russell hired the late Les Blank to do a film on him and then suppressed the result for nearly 40 years. Les was a friend of mine when I lived in California, and I loved his movies. In fact, I bought the Criterion box of his documentaries shortly after I bought my screen, and am working my way through it with great pleasure, since there are several I've never seen. So on the one hand there was that. On the other hand, I've always detested Leon Russell's shallow, superficial music and by viewing this film, inexplicably titled A Poem is a Naked Person, I'd be putting up with 2 ½ hours of it. 

Don't trust that smile. Not that he smiles much in the film.

Someone relented after Les's death, so here we were, gathered in the Topfer Theater at Zach (which is what Zachary Scott Theater is now called), the Great Man (or what's left of him) in attendance along with various other VIPs including Les' son, Maureen Gosling, Les' long-time assistant, and no doubt others I didn't recognize. It's easy to see why one might not want to be exposed in the way this film exposes Russell: he appears offstage in it very infrequently, and much of the film is spent with his entourage, with Austin artist Jim Franklin painting the bottom of his swimming pool, and gazing at audiences at the shows while the incessant din of the band hammers on. Unusually for Blank, there is no food in this film, unless you count the scene where a snake, someone's pet, eats a baby chicken. In every one of his other films, Les features the preparation and consumption of food. Like music, he seems to say, this gets people together in one place to share an experience and in so doing binds them in that experience. Since Russell is part of the early '70s' "we create, you consume" music culture, a food scene would be out of place, perhaps. I can't recommend the film, but that's me. If you think you might like it, go see it. 

I was dubious about my next film, Love & Mercy, a biopic about Brian Wilson starring...John Cusack? Only a friend's urgent recommendation -- and the fact that the screening happened when I had nothing better to do -- got me back to the Alamo. 

Yes, John Cusack. No, he doesn't look like Brian.
Man, is this not what you're expecting, and man is it good. What it is, basically, is the story of Brian Wilson meeting his second wife, Melinda, and her struggle to get him from under the heel of Eugene Landy, the psychiatric charlatan who was supposedly treating his depression and creative block. It's also the story of how he got that way, necessitating the services of Paul Dano as young Brian growing away from his brothers (and his cousin, Mike Love) as he has them record first Pet Sounds and then Smile. Neither Dano nor Cusack looks much like Brian, but boy, do they inhabit him. The same could be said of Paul Giamatti as Landy, Jake Abel as Love, and Bill Camp as the Wilson's abusive and envious father Murry: this film has some bad bad guys, adept at causing extreme psychological damage. All of the music is authentic: ever wonder what all those isolated track cuts on the Pet Sounds and Smile box sets were good for? I have no idea what Melinda Wilson is like, but Elizabeth Banks does a great job with her role, too. This is set for general release in June, so mark your calendars. 

The last film I saw was one I really wanted to see: Danny Says, a documentary portrait of the inimitable Danny Fields. Who? you say. A behind the scenes guy in New York who's been there seemingly forever and who's always in the right place: I remember him taking the stairs two at a time to come up to our office at Crawdaddy! in 1967 to see what we were doing and, after wishing us well and leaving Paul Williams noted that even at Hit Parader (Danny's current employer at the time) there were the kind of people we were trying to reach. Of course, Danny probably also wanted to see how cute Paul was or wasn't. 

Credit: Danny Fields Archive. Danny's the one in the t-shirt. Duh.
The 28-year-old director, Brendan Toller, makes it look easy, and it's true that once you start Danny talking it's hard to get him to stop, but there's a lot of craft here that's pretty much invisible but makes the film work. Amazing archive footage is interspersed with contemporary interviews, and the whole arc, from law school (who knew?) through managing (and letting go of) the Ramones, is here. If names like the Stooges, the MC5, Patti Smith, Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground and Nico, and the Ramones pop up in your pantheon, you need to see this. 

I managed to miss a documentary on Tower Records' rise and fall, one on British punkers the Damned, another on Mavis Staples, and one on local gospel phenoms the Jones Family, not to mention Joe Nick Patoski's Doug Sahm film, Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove, an early cut of which I saw a month or so ago and which I intend to catch at a San Antonio screening next month, but I'm pretty happy with this year's activity. I got far more out of it than the rather anemic Music panels I went to this year (although there were three scheduled for the same slot one day and the one I went to was a major disappointment), but I did manage to end SXSWeek feeling I'd made maximum positive use of my badge. 

And as for all those films I missed? I told you: I have Netflix now. I can catch up on not only some of this year's when they get pressed onto disc (I don't do streaming), but on some of the ones from years past. 


  1. Not saying nuttin because I only gots really bad names to call Les B. and Melinda W.

  2. so pleased to read a new Ed Ward blog. question: in the Leon Russell film, aside JmFrklyn painting the swimming pool, was there any footage of Anthony "Tony" Newnham, an English gent, then employed by Russell as a carpenter? Anthony was long-time Austinite, bookseller at the Brick Row bookstore east of campus. It seemed to me there were far less SXSW attendees this year than in past years. glad its over living as I do on W 7th & San Antonio.

    Mike Eisenstadt


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