AUSTIN, Texas — Overlapping each March with the SXSW Music Festival, the SXSW Film Festival tilts strikingly young in audience. Drawn to Austin by the ubiquitous rock ’n’ roll, post-collegiates from across America also check out the film fest for its cool music documentaries and its showcasing of narrative works by emerging filmmakers. Music and movies, an appealing Texas mix.
Recently, the crowds have become younger still, and even larger, as the two fests merge with a mighty third, SXSW Interactive: tweeting, blogging, texting everywhere, a children’s crusade of thousands swarming about the Austin Convention Center, checking in and out of seminars dedicated to new media.
“There are a hundred of them to one of us,’’ a veteran Los Angeles film publicist complained last week in Austin, feeling old and redundant. He was disturbed that the SXSW multitudes seem to have abandoned cinema for au courant talks on “Why Games Make Us Better’’ and “The Challenges of CSS Implementation and Interoperability.’’
In truth, the youthful film crowd and the new-media kiddie corps at SXSW are often the same. Both joined in a long line for a chat with Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman). Both were in the audience for a seminar by punkish sex educator Violet Blue, on “The Sexual Survival Guide for Geeks,’’ in which she explained that, in the geek world, “Females are usually the sexual aggressors.’’ And what young SXSWer wasn’t going to say “Awesome!’’ about “Source Code,’’ the film festival’s 2011 opening night film. It’s a clever, high-tech, paranoia thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal, and directed by Duncan Jones, beloved for the low-tech, sci-fi “Moon.’’
In the near future of “Source Code,’’ Gyllenhaal plays an American soldier who, in the body of a stranger, is catapulted onto a Chicago train to prevent a terrorist attack. Again and again, the train blows up. Again and again, Gyllenhaal appears on the train to stop the destruction. “I knew a little about physics, which said time travel is impossible, but parallel universes are possible. That intrigued me,’’ screenwriter Ben Ripley told the audience about plotting “Source Code.’’ “It was a torturous path writing it. I was thinking of ‘Rashomon’ and ‘Groundhog Day.’ ’’ Ripley failed to mention the most obvious link: Christopher Nolan’s similarly fractured-time “Memento,’’ which also had its protagonist popping into the frame, not knowing who he is, being addressed intimately by total strangers.
The SXSW audience was happy to have “Source Code’’ stars Gyllenhaal, Bridget Moynahan, and Vera Farmiga among them. But they were just as thrilled, on another day, to sit in on a conversation between critic Elvis Mitchell and Todd Phillips, filmmaker of the deeply adored “The Hangover.’’ Interestingly, much of the conversation focused on Phillips’s documentary, “Frat House,’’ which played at SXSW in 1998, but never since. “We asked [fraternity members] to sign releases when they were drunk and stoned, “Phillips said. “I thought we were being brilliant. But it turns out that it’s illegal! Parents were going to sue HBO, so they never showed it.’’
Coming in May: “Hangover 2.’’ Phillips: “I say, ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ People think I’m keeping a big secret. But it just means it’s more fun for you to see it yourself. It will have lots of surprises. I tried to get Mel Gibson to do a cameo but, no, it got leaked to the New York Post.’’
Adam Roffman, program director of the Independent Film Festival of Boston, was at SXSW looking at films, and he picked two interesting ones for next month’s IFFB.
“Better This World,’’ directed by Katie Galloway and Kelly Duena de la Vega, is a potent, chilling documentary about two small-town Texas teenage boys who, becoming radicalized, went to the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul to disrupt it. Tables were turned, and they were arrested and jailed for planning to throw Molotov cocktails. But were they pushed into their crimes by a Machiavellian leftist-turned-FBI informer? A flagrant government case of entrapment? “Green,’’ written and directed by Sophia Takal, is a sexy, smoldering narrative about a yuppyish couple from New York, intellectuals with ambition, who get enmeshed in a love net with a gullible country girl. A smart minimalist script, an attractive cast, and, rare for an American movie, class counts.
The world-premiere find of SXSW 2011? “The Key Man,’’ a smart, really stylish, 1970s-set neo-noir, about a fall guy in the insurance business who, wishing to buy a house and make his wife happy, becomes prey to a team of colorfully craven gangsters. Writer-filmmaker Peter Himmelstein, who grew up in Swampscott, explained that “at 45, I’m on the old side for a first-time filmmaker, but that’s shaped my sensibility.’’ This is a film-savvy narrative, with echoes, Himmelstein said, of “The Parallax View,’’ “Klute,’’ “All the President’s Men,’’ “Point Blank,’’ “The Asphalt Jungle,’’ “Double Indemnity.’’ “The Key Man’’ is shot on a retro Fuji film stock, and there’s a dazzling use of split frames.
The story is based on fact, about a friend of Himmelstein’s father, when both were in the insurance business. “My dad’s office was on Route 9, where Newton blurs into Framingham,’’ Himmelstein remembers. “He had a small agency and, as a boy, I spent a lot of time there. You are a kid, you are aware of things: the IBM machines covered at night, the Dictaphones. My protagonist, Bobby, was based on this naive, man-child of a guy. Kids really liked him. But a crime was committed, insurance fraud. He got divorced, he left Newton. He disappeared. Other insurance agents thought, ‘It could have been me.’ ’’
Has Himmelstein’s dad seen the film? “Not yet. He’s retired in Florida.’’
On the subject of dads: There was also at SXSW Andrea Blaugrund Nevins’s surprisingly touching, philosophical “The Other F Word,’’ a documentary about wild-and-encrazed punk rockers who, after decades of licentiousness and anarchy, find themselves to be . . . fathers! To a man, they still loathe the straight world, but they all take their parenting seriously. Those still on the road can’t stand it anymore and yearn to be home. Family values!
It was a memorable moment at SXSW at the end of the screening, when a hall of fame of punk rockers took to the stage, including Black Flag’s Ron Reyes and Pennywise’s Jim Lindberg, surrounded by their daughters. “I’ve been living under a rock called parenthood for 30 years,’’ said Reyes, who quit Black Flag decades ago to live a straight life in Vancouver. “But it’s the same old stuff. The system is the system, the man is the man, we want to stick it to the man.’’
Lindberg said he didn’t mind at all that his daughters reject angry, socially-conscious punk for Coldplay, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber. “I want them to be happy,’’ he said. “But maybe they won’t be happy in a few years when they find out what the mortgage bankers are doing.’’