Connecting, Salt Lake City. Running to my gate, I suddenly realize Terminal B at this airport is the terminal where I saw Robert Altman one time, a year or so before he died. He seemed disoriented and his eyes were the color of blood.
I’m flying to Austin to see the South by Southwest premiere of Neil Berkeley’s Harmontown — a documentary about once-exiled Community creator Dan Harmon drinking/podcasting his way across the country last year — and do whatever other SXSW-ish things I can get done with 48 hours on the ground. I tagged along with Harmon at the end of the tour and wrote a ridiculously long story about the experience. This involved spending a fair amount of time in small rooms and cramped motor vehicles with Berkeley and his camera crew. I tried to stay out of as many shots as I could, but I’m still a little worried about me and my super-awkward interview persona potentially being revealed onscreen.
I swear to you this is not me humblebragging about the fact that I might be in a movie. Ever since I came off the Harmontour, I’ve had this recurring nightmare/fantasy that I’ll be the Harmontown-movie equivalent of Donovan in Don’t Look Back, and that the entire third act of the movie will alternate between shots of me asking dumb questions and cutaways to Harmon & Co. rolling their eyes and hating me. I realize this is a paranoid and egotistical line of thinking. And I know there’s virtually no chance this will turn out to be a movie about what an asshole I am. But Lars Ulrich probably thought the same thing about Some Kind of Monster.
Austin Convention Center.
Double-file line for Julian Assange, who’s Skyping in from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. (After-the-fact note: It turns out to be a good year for enemies of the republic. Edward Snowden beams in from Russia on Monday, and Scooter Braun’s Monday-night beer-garden party features a surprise two-song set by Justin Bieber.) Pouring rain outside. This is already the wettest and coldest SouthBy I’ve ever been to. It’s also the first one I’ve been to since music became just one feature on your mobile device. All the conversation around me is pretty interactive. All the people in the movie lines seem to be social media virtuosos or app gurus or zombie mavens or bacon ninjas.
I haven’t been to SXSW in almost a decade, so I missed 2007, the year tech types started using a new service called Twitter to talk to other tech types, and hoping to become the next Twitter at SXSW became what hoping to become the new Strokes there used to be. My whole frame of reference feels antiquated. Just typing “the Strokes” as a reference makes me feel like the final-stage Dave Bowman asking the Monolith from my white-room space-deathbed if I can get a plus-one for the Vice party and if it knows anybody who has pot. (Kids: There used to be a band called the Strokes, back in the 1930s. They changed everything for the next 16 months.)
I don’t really have a suggestion about how you should feel about this shift in SXSW culture. And the truth is that while tech companies seem to have a measure of money to blow, they’re making it rain but a drizzle compared to basic cable, whose networks have constructed excellently foolhardy pop-up branding-objects all over town. There’s a replica Bates Motel across the street from the convention center. There’s supposedly a bar on East Seventh that’s been temporarily transformed into what’s been ominously described to me as a “fully functional” replica of the Titty Twister from From Dusk Till Dawn, soon to be a TV series on the El Rey Network. I never find it.
I do see the parking lot that Subway has turned into a magical sandwich-playground. Models wearing sandwich-bread hats, possibly some kind of a labyrinth. I see a goofball on a bike ride up with a GoPro on his head and shout, “Who ordered a free pizza on Twitter?” in a wocka-wocka voice, because someone had ordered a free pizza, on Twitter. I see a bus done up like a pirate ship with the name of some new fish-flavored Friskies product on it, Grumpy Cat’s iconic joy-refusing face emblazoned astern. “Worst Mate,” it says. Even Grumpy Cat has sold out to Big Kibble. They will come for us all, eventually. The Friskiesmobile is parked down on Sixth Street, where guys still stand in the windows of the same 900 bars and play “Wagon Wheel” acoustic for drunk UT kids. Live music capital of the world!
I’m trying to tell my friend Joe where to meet me in line. We’re on the phone, exchanging gnomic landmarks, attempting convergence:
“I’m standing by a large pink table.”
“I’m by the metal rooster.”
At one point we’re both standing under a sign that says the same thing and it’s like we’re in alternate timelines. Interactivity at its finest.
The doors open for the Assange thing and the line starts moving. Suddenly a crowd-controlling SXSW functionary looms like a sharp rock and makes it clear to me that my black-lanyarded badge won’t get me into the room to see Assange, because the Assange thing is for red-lanyard people only. I decide to fuck him up verbally. I say “Really? OK” — but I say the word “OK” with this really obnoxious inflection. Showed that guy. I turn to walk away and the line behind me has become a wall of red-lanyard people surging forward to greet their overlord. (In a few hours I’ll read that Assange describes the NSA as a “rogue agency,” something that probably won’t happen during Lena Dunham’s keynote on Monday, and see a picture of him wearing a scarf, like the amoral monster he is.)
I give up on Joe finding me and go find Joe instead.
“Fuck Assange,” Joe says. “You want to go see a movie about a guy pitching a no-hitter while tripping on acid?”
I say yes, because the answer to that question is always yes.
Director Jeffrey Radice’s No No: A Dockumentary chronicles the life and career of Dock Ellis, the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher whose LSD-assisted defeat of the San Diego Padres in 1970 has become countercultural legend. (I first heard about it in the ’90s, when Barbara Manning and the SF Seals paid homage to Ellis’s achievement on their great Baseball Trilogy EP; in 2009, an interview the writer Donnell Alexander did with Dock about the no-hitter went viral as an animated short.)
Radice’s film treats the No-No with appropriate awe, and makes inspired use of Hawkwind’s UFO jet-wash jam “Silver Machine” to score the lost-weekend montage that precedes it. But it also rescues the moment from the mythos that’s grown up around it (a mythos that grew with a good deal of help from Dock, who’d later claim in interviews that at one point during the game he saw Jimi Hendrix swinging a guitar in the batter’s box). By the time Ellis makes sports-stoner history, we’ve learned enough about him that the big trippy game no longer feels like an unalloyed triumph. Ellis started out in the Carolina League back when white and black players still stayed in separate hotels, cultivated an almost confrontationally superfly personal style in the ’70s, and reportedly drew the ire of Bowie Kuhn himself by wearing curlers to practice; among other things, this is a great film about the politicization of black hair care.
When it was announced that pitcher Vida Blue would start for the American League in the 1971 All-Star Game, Ellis all but dared manager Sparky Anderson to put him on the mound for the National League, declaring that Anderson — and by extension, baseball itself — “wouldn’t pitch two brothers against each other.” Anderson started him; in one of the film’s most emotional segments, Ellis breaks down while reading from the letter Jackie Robinson sent him afterward, commending his courage and honesty. Ellis was a trailblazer in the tradition of Robinson or Muhammad Ali (or in the broad tradition of those guys, anyway). He was also an addict and an alcoholic who began popping amphetamines like Tic Tacs in the minors and claimed to have played every game of his major league career under the influence of a wide variety of other recreational drugs. Like most drug movies, No No gives us the high and the crash — we see Doc wiping coke-boogers on the mound as a Yankee in the mid-’70s and hear from both the ex-wives he abused. Ellis cleaned up and eventually became a drug counselor; he also appeared in Gung Ho, directed by Ron Howard, who remembers him expressing some regret and shame about the LSD incident being his lasting legacy.
Brian Wilson used to say he found the music from his great unfinished psychedelic masterpiece Smile hard to listen to, because it just reminded him of drugs; No No makes a compelling case for Ellis as a hero whose greatest accomplishments were linked just as intimately to his downfall.
Another line, this one for barbecue at the Austin institution Iron Works. I’m standing in front of a guy who bears a striking resemblance to a young Kurt Vonnegut, so I pull out my phone and pretend to be taking a selfie so I can get a shot of him. Two seconds later, Tilda Swinton walks by. So it goes.
Liberty Tavern. Dan Harmon tapes a live Harmontown podcast with the rest of the Harmontown crew, including Harmontown “comptroller” Jeff B. Davis and comedian/podcaster Erin McGathy, until recently Harmon’s girlfriend and now his fiancée. Dan does some freestyle rapping, counsels a few audience members struggling with career transitions and personal alienation, and yields a chunk of stage time to a large and enthusiastic local man named Lamar who wants people to join him in some kind of cooperative Bitcoin-ownership venture. Harmon also advises anyone planning to become the subject of a documentary film to avoid gaining 30 pounds during the course of production, because it creates continuity problems when pickup shots are required: “It’s like I was too fat to play the role of myself.”
Pissing rain, lightning. Neil Berkeley, the Harmontown director, and I are trying to get back to the convention center for the premiere. We come upon an empty pedicab. The driver has walked away somewhere. It’s possible he was trying to abandon it. We manage to locate him and talk him into giving us a ride to the convention center. When it’s nice out, the pedicab seems like a charming and environmentally conscientious way to get around Austin. In the middle of a rainstorm, it’s a hilariously inefficient way to travel. Our trip takes about three times as long as walking would have. On the other hand, rain blows sideways into our faces the entire time. “I deserve this,” Berkeley sighs. He arrives at his movie premiere looking like he’s run to the theater across a golf course full of sprinklers.
“Compared to the rocks, the shoals, the silent storms I knew were out there in the endless progression of empty rooms that were the writer’s inheritance, a life of performance seemed very attractive.” That’s Robert Stone, in his memoir Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, talking about a period early in his career when he’d considered chucking it all to become an actor. That’s also what the Harmontown movie is about, kind of. After being relieved of his duties as showrunner of Community, Harmon signed pilot-script deals with both CBS and Fox, but left on tour having not delivered either of those scripts. Early in the movie, we see him walk away from his computer to take an afternoon bubble bath instead of writing. He makes himself a hat out of bubbles, like a 3-year-old, and says, “Remember when this was all you had to do to make people happy?” The screening audience laughs; as a writer, I am unable to.
So Harmon’s decision to spend a month getting fucked up and goofing around on various comedy-club stages comes across, in the film, like an epic and fairly implosive act of procrastination. There are a few shots of him literally typing “FADE IN” on a blank screen; at one point, when Davis suggests onstage that Harmon’s put himself at risk of being fired before these shows even air, Harmon shoots back, “I have to be the Chuck Yeager of something, Jeff.” Eventually we find out that Harmon never turned in the Fox script, and that his CBS pilot didn’t get picked up. Were this not a nonfiction film, Harmon’s triumphant return to the Community job would feel like a tacked-on happy ending, albeit one that supports his ideas about the circularity of all narratives.
But as much as Harmontown is about Harmon’s relationship with his craft, it’s also about his relationship with the Harmontown audience. The podcast has grown from a TV writer’s weekly vent-session into something that’s both bigger than Harmon and also, crucially, better than him. Nerds and misfits flock to it because Harmon’s frank and relentless inventorying of his own faults makes them feel less broken; he struggles to be worthy of their unconditional love, or to prove himself unworthy of it, because that would be easier. He falls and they lift him up, figuratively and sometimes literally — many of the shows on the tour featured Harmon crowd-surfing on the hands of his followers, which as he points out in the film, is amazing, because “they’re all nerds, so you know they all failed gym.”
I was fascinated enough by this phenomenon to write almost 10,000 words about it on this site. I’m probably the wrong person to predict whether any of this will seem compelling to viewers not already invested in Harmon’s psychodrama. If you already hate him, it won’t change your mind. But I would have been disappointed if it had tried to. What we get instead is an intimate portrait of a difficult man in the process of trying to grow up, despite the absence of any meaningful external force compelling him to do so. This is my second-favorite thing about the movie; my favorite thing about the movie is that I’m not in it, at all. Bullet dodged.
The Q&A afterward is appropriately Harmonesque. A guy named Stephen talks about how Harmontown helped him deal with the psychological fallout of growing up with parents who were in a cult. Then Lamar, the Bitcoin guy, returns to the mic. He tells Harmon that when they met earlier during the podcast taping, “I did not realize you were the dude who created Community.” Then he praises the Muppet episode, from Season 4, a.k.a. the season Harmon didn’t write. Harmon takes a bow.
Harmon and Berkeley, a little after-party-bedraggled, are talking in a conference room at the Stephen F. Austin hotel. Someone brings Harmon a coffee. “This’ll do the trick,” he says, although a few minutes later he’s drinking a 5-Hour Energy.
“The first of, like, eight curveballs [we threw] at Neil was that I was not funny,” Harmon says. “I am not a fun person to be with on a tour bus between two cities when I feel like I’m overdue on two drafts for two different sitcoms. I was just a grumpy, tired person who didn’t want to be bothered. So poor Neil’s shooting this, like, ‘What is this thing going to be now? Because your show’s not funny either. You stand up onstage and you alternate between poop and fart jokes and saying really revealing things about yourself. This isn’t going to be Comedians of Comedy because you don’t have Patton Oswalt’s act.’”
The tour ended on January 31, 2013, in San Francisco; the next day Berkeley came home to L.A. with around 500 hours of raw footage and started trying to carve a 90-minute movie out of it. Some of the early attempts were off-puttingly dark. “There were cuts of this thing,” Harmon says, “where all the temp music was from Social Network — like, Trent Reznor minor-key piano chords every time I poured a drink. And there was nothing to offset that.”
Berkeley went back, cut the film again to give more screen time to the Harmontown fans — whose devotion, he says, was what drew him to the project in the first place — and Spencer Crittenden, the bearded-sage Dungeon Master who Harmon likes to claim is the movie’s real hero. The next curveball came in June, when Harmon was officially rehired as showrunner of Community. Suddenly telling the story of Community and Harmon’s checkered career became more important, and the movie was rejiggered again. Berkeley admits he found himself in the weeds for a while.
“Then Dan sent me this really great email,” he says. “It was very to the point and cutting. Like, ‘Hey, get it together. Make a story. Make it funny.’ You could tell he was frustrated — I was, too. But he was also very supportive: ‘You have 500 hours of footage. You must have 90 minutes that work.’ He had this great line: ‘We’re just off the shore of a great movie.’ It was both sides of that coin. And the closer was, ‘Eat a dick. I love you.’”
After the interviews, I have only a few hours left in town. I walk out of the Stephen F. Austin and into the first SXSW movie-screening line I encounter, which turns out to be the premiere of Joe, the new David Gordon Green movie. It’s based on a book by the late firefighter turned novelist Larry Brown. Green, who lives in Austin these days, shot it around town with a cast of mostly locals, many of them nonprofessional actors, including Gary Poulter, a homeless man Green’s casting director discovered at a bus stop. But the title character, an aging ex-con tamping down his violent tendencies with sex and booze, is played by Nicolas Cage. Here Cage is bearded and haggard and often wears a Pantera T-shirt; he’s funny and terrifying and ridiculous in the role. It’s one of those rivetingly preposterous Nicolas Cage performances that vaults over plausibility and self-parody to achieve some higher truth.
Green started out making Terrence Malick pastiches, but his last five features have been comedies, not to mention Eastbound & Down; Joe further complicates the question of what kind of filmmaker he actually is. On the surface it’s a bleak rural noir; Cage’s Joe runs a crew of day laborers who hack into trees with poison-secreting “juice hatchets” so that a lumber company can cut them down, a nicely symbolic job for a man whose rage poisons his whole environment. When someone shoots him, he bandages the wound at home, with electrical tape. It’s that kind of movie. But the explosions of shocking violence sit beside passages of lyrical beauty and even hilarity. In the sequence when Joe and the abused 15-year-old kid he’s befriended (Tye Sheridan) drive around getting day-drunk together while looking for a lost dog, Cage is as intentionally funny as he’s been in anything since Adaptation.
The movie ends, and then there’s Cage, up there at the front of the house with David Gordon Green. Cage is wearing a red leather motorcycle jacket over a white T-shirt, jeans with a big belt buckle, some kind of gold bead situation around his neck. His behavior is strange. His facial expressions are strange. He looks perturbed. He seems to be staring intently at the balcony and the ceiling. It’s as if he’s never been in a movie theater before and wants to memorize all the details. It’s like he’s smelled some exotic perfume, the memory of which has haunted him since the old Rumble Fish days, and is trying to pick it out of the general olfactory makeup of the room at large. It’s as if he’s being filmed for a scene in a movie that will be accompanied by a Nicolas Cage voice-over saying things like, This sure is a nice theater. Did I leave the iron on in my pyramid-tomb? I should ask my assistant to check on that. I wonder how many people that mezzanine holds.
And then I realize what’s happening: He’s posing. People are holding up their cameras and taking pictures of him and he’s striking rugged Nicolas Cage poses for their benefit. At this point I stop thinking he’s silly and decide that he’s utterly magnificent. I pull out my phone and take about 50 pictures of him. Each one looks like a Nicolas Cage figure from Madame Tussauds. It’s awesome. He is embracing the unnaturalness of a wholly unnatural situation by becoming an unnatural being, projecting an idea of himself that makes no sense in person but will come to life when his image is broadcast and tweeted and Instagrammed around the world. As Steely Dan would say, he is the Expanding Man. And this is his day.
Nicolas Cage actually thinks a lot about his facial expressions, it turns out. There’s a scene in the movie where Cage’s Joe teaches his teenage pal how to make a tough-looking face. During the Q&A that follows the movie, someone asks Cage to explain the grimace he puts on in that scene.
“You’re asking me to demonstrate the anatomy of a cool-guy face?” Cage asks. He laughs, and then explains that when he was a kid, his first cool-guy-face role model was one of the original Marlboro Men, whose rictus he studied and eventually mastered. “Make a face of pain,” Nicolas Cage says, contorting his features as if a tattoo needle were etching the words “NATIONAL TREASURE” into some close-to-the-bone part of him. “And then smile.”