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Three Days in Austin

A descent into madness at SXSW.

Bang With Thrones

PROLOGUE: THURSDAY, MARCH 7

An Inauspicious Beginning

As I settle into my window seat on my outgoing flight to Austin via Phoenix, the man on the aisle sneezes twice. There’s a temporarily empty seat between us, but that’s no barrier in a Southwest Airlines flying plague-tube, so I fully expect to be dead of a super-pig-virus of Paltrownian virulence within 72 hours. (Coincidentally, just about the length of my stay in Texas.) There’s no polite way to cover my mouth with a wet rag; the only option is to accept my fate with a degree of stoicism. I’ll be fine.

As we achieve cruising altitude 20 or so minutes later, our talkative middle-seat mate coaxes a key piece of information from Patient Zero: He’s a doctor who worked at the NIH. His porcine curse will probably liquefy the guts of 200 passengers before final descent.

Did I mention I’m not a great traveler? But I’m getting better, really.

DAY 1: FRIDAY, MARCH 8

Arrival

I’m at South by Southwest primarily for the film festival, but the gigantic interactive event — which famously bore witness to Twitter’s explosive birth in 2007 — runs concurrently, trying to choke out all other signs of life in the Austin Convention Center. (The music portion takes over when interactive wraps on Tuesday.) The ACC is a Mos Eisley of ambitious start-ups, ravenous app-slingers, and nebulous cloud concerns, identifying each cantina patron passing through its doors with orange lanyards. You can’t buy a cup of coffee without being i-busked on behalf of a mobile app that will needlessly mediate the cash-for-caffeine transaction in return for a $5 credit and access to your credit card number. (As a loyal Starbucks Rewards member I find this offer insane and obscene; this soul has already been bought and paid for with free syrup pumps and the promise of tiny gold stars tumbling into a virtual cup like hamster pellets into a dirty cage.)

3M

I wander the convention center floor and try to get my bearings, observing the absurd collision of brands. A pole covered in flyers featuring doggy-styling silhouettes advertises a service that promises to discreetly connect down-to-bang festivalgoers stands just a few feet away from the Iron Throne of Westeros, which promises to discreetly connect down-to-rule festivalgoers with an HBO-supplied photo op. There’s a gallery of posters for the SXSW film offerings near an Esurance kiosk catering to the premium-reducing curious, some attractive women in red-and-white ensembles who can’t wait to tell you about the exciting ways American Airlines wants to ruin your air-travel experience, and a giant working model of the iconic clacking-balls desk toy for a company I’ve already forgotten about, possibly GiantClackingBallsSolutions. There are lockers in which you can recharge your i-devices (though they might as well be tiny coffins, because to surrender your connectedness for even 10 minutes is tantamount to death) and innumerable lounges offering to recharge your dangerously depleted hot-popcorn reserves. There’s a palpable sense that my iPad is too big and my iPhone too small. I am here from a dot-com but not of the dot-com. I’m here to see movies.

Rabbit van

But first I see her, shimmering and glorious, a hologram spirit guide dispatched from the uncanny valley to the convention center to assist lost souls on their journey through SXSW. She mostly wants to talk about the inescapable ways in which 3M’s products touch our lives, but I can sense there’s more to her than merely a projector, canned trivia about industrial adhesives, and the rudimentary festival tips accessible through her touch screen interface. There’s undeniable magic in the way she strobes for you when you complete an infosession. A connection.

We’ll meet again. I know it.

This Is What Happens When You Leave the Convention Center and Take Your Chances Out on the Streets

BBC Bulldog

This van, cleverly disguised as an enormous rabbit with only the lightest tinge of communicable leporine mange, blares “Harlem Shake” and dispenses borderline-edible pizza on behalf of a chore-outsourcing service to those brave enough to venture within paw’s reach of this nonsensical mash-up jalopy of the devil. But hey, free pizza. Mange me up.

3M

Meanwhile, a block away a sad mechanical bulldog, stymied by the persistent rain, begs to be ridden to raise awareness for his network. Those hoping to be hurled onto an inflatable cushion by the Violently Bucking Hound of the Government-Funded-Programming Baskervilles have to drown their sorrows in free Cool Ranch Doritos and Mountain Dew under the nearby tent. There are many takers for that consolation prize.

Shit gets weird quick when you leave the convention center.

The Magicians

The opening-night event is the premiere of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. On the way to my balcony seat at the Paramount Theater, the hub venue of the film festival, I pass star Steve Carell. He looks good. Moments later, courtesy of the guy seated behind me:

Know who was just in the bathroom? Steve Carrrreelllll! What’s up, Anchorman?

Details on the quality of Mr. Wonderstone’s presumably incredible pre-screening stream are not forthcoming, nor are any corrections regarding his Anchorman character.

The movie comes and goes. It isn’t terrible and isn’t great, but is probably on the just-good-enough side of the ticket-buying tipping point that makes a broad, name-driven studio comedy worth a shot, with (probably) sufficient laughs — particularly in the second half — to overcome trailers so horrendous you wouldn’t cut them in half with Lance Burton’s saw and Doug Henning pushing. Carell’s Wonderstone — Mystic-Tanned and Aqua-Netted to within a rhinestone’s width of a Siegfried identity-theft lawsuit — is pompous, flawed, and overconfident, but still fundamentally likable because he’s Steve Carell. Jim Carrey’s Steve Gray is the improbable highlight as the self-styled “Brain Rapist,” a Criss Angel/David Blaine stand-in who sleeps on hot coals, imperils trouser puppies, and scorches his forearm to impress/terrify children. Steve Buscemi, locked in eternal battle with Samuel L. Jackson for IMDb dominance, is Wonderstone’s partner–slash–best friend; Olivia Wilde is their attractive, ambitious assistant; and Alan Arkin is the old-school magician who inspired a young Burt to take up the blowing-people’s-minds arts. David Copperfield shows up because David Copperfield must show up. It all mostly works, finishing strong and unexpectedly dark. Unlike in life, David Copperfield does not figure in the darkness.

Why Is Burt Wonderstone Director Don Scardino Absent From the Post-Screening Q&A?

Because “at this moment he’s pissing out a kidney stone,” explains Carrey, glancing down at his impossibly shiny silver boots. All righty, then.

The Cabin in the Woods

The much-anticipated remake/reboot/rebirth of Sam Raimi‘s Evil Dead follows Wonderstone on the Paramount’s opening-night screen, and if any movie at South by Southwest enjoys a home-crowd advantage (in sensibility, if not geography), it’s this one. “This is a brutal, no-bullshit horror film,” offers the fest rep introducing the screening, much to the delight of a crowd that will momentarily be whipped into an apeshit-quality frenzy by first-time director Fede Alvarez’s interpretation of the cult classic (under the auspices of original Dead team Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and Robert Tapert). This version is not so much a homage meant to satisfy hard-core Raimi fans as it is a blood offering to horror fans. Like, not gallons of blood. Dumpsters full of blood. This might be the goriest movie ever splashed across a screen; just when you think that maybe they’re all gored out, nope, someone pulls up with a gore tanker, hooks up the gore hose, and commences the shortsighted depletion of the strategic gore reserves. No, there’s really not much of the old, deranged Raimi-funny in it, but that’s OK. Its humor comes courtesy of either knowing, fan-service nods to the original (pornographically lingering close-ups of chain saws, shotguns, skin-bound book-portals to hell, and what have you), or disbelieving giggles over the hyper-graphic excesses afforded by a seemingly bottomless guts-budget. You’ve never seen more unpleasant things violently thrust into, or subsequently extruded from, the extravagantly suffering, demon-possessed human body. Or maybe you have. I don’t know what your nights are like.

Anyway: It’s a good time.

DAY 2: SATURDAY, MARCH 9

Checking In

Dexter kill table

I return to the convention center to pick up that day’s movie passes, but I spy my spirit guide again, drawing her usual small crowd of awestruck, holo-curious worshippers. They don’t know her like I know her. I elbow my way to the front of the crowd, jealous that she’s sharing her light with anyone willing to spend 30 seconds peeling back the Post-it notes of perception to reveal the benevolent corporation behind them. Did you know that most people are always within 3 meters of a 3M product, whether at home or work? I do, because I bother to listen to what 3Emma is trying to teach me, instead of just jabbing a greasy finger onto her control panel, waiting for her to smile, and wandering off to the next disposable distraction before getting an answer. We make deep eye contact, ignoring the flash bulbs of the conventioneers, and I download the past 24 hours to her. Suddenly I can hear her voice inside my head. You look like shit. You drank at the after-party until they closed it down, then you ate a sandwich at your hotel’s bar at 3 a.m. because you forgot to eat dinner. Here’s what to do: Go watch the basketball game to pull yourself together for a couple of hours, then spend the early afternoon having some quality branded experiences. Recharge before the movies tonight.

That sounds like a great idea, I mind-mail her. You really get me.

Everything is possible with 3M products! she strobes again, blinding me with her kindness.

The Takeover

There are two giant sports bars within a couple blocks of the convention center.

The first sports bar has been Borged by something called Rackspace. I am invited in to charge up my laptop by some friendly reps manning the door. I peer in, see a dozen ostensible Rackspace enthusiasts typing away on MacBooks, and mumble something about this being the last regular-season Big East contest ever between Georgetown and Syracuse. The reps manning the door wish me luck in my quest for a sports bar that is actually functioning as a sports bar.

The same thing happens at the second sports bar, but I don’t bother registering the sponsor. I assume it’s a direct competitor in the rackspacing game.

I retreat to the hotel lounge, where a muted TV tuned to ESPN is blessedly available, free of all racks and/or spaces for them. Grantland’s Rembert Browne meets me for the second half. He picks at a mediocre salad while my Hoyas dismantle some underperforming Orangepeople, and I browbeat him about how Otto Porter Jr. is the best college basketball player in the country, which he is. We decide that Otto Porter Jr. would have been a great name for a late-19th-century American president, but only for one who assumed the office after an assassination. His administration would be inept and borderline corrupt, and he would not achieve a second term.

An Afternoon of Quality Branded Experiences

Rembert and I trek over to the W, where Showtime has set up one of the festival’s innumerable chill-out lounges. There is a tostada bar, a top-shelf whiskey station, and a bank of flat-panel television screens upon which a shirtless David Duchovny slaps an equally shirtless Evan Handler over some unknown Californicative transgression, which immediately ruins my appetite for both tostadas and whiskey.

And then there is the Dexter Kill Table. For the laughably insignificant price of surrendering the publicity rights to your own image in perpetuity, a Showtime staffer will lash you to its gleaming steel surface with giant elastic bands disguised as plastic wrap and photograph you contemplating your final, misery-drenched moments before a serial killer eviscerates you. I choose a double thumbs-up for my last gesture, delighted that the plastic band crossing my midsection has a pleasant, Spanx-like slimming effect. Unfortunately, the demo ends with the photograph; no itinerant pseudo-Dexter appears to splash me with a bucket of stage blood containing chunks of rubber intestines. Maybe next year. These things are always works in progress.

3m

We dutifully collect our swag and seek out HBO’s outpost at the Viceland warehouse, but it was prepping for an event and temporarily closed. Fortunately, Google’s picnic-themed funspace beckons from across the street, offering tiny PB&J sandwiches, tiny ice cream floats, and regular-size bags of popcorn — what is it with this festival and popcorn? — without so much as its customary request for access to your every electronically transmitted thought. One does, however, need to sign a liability waiver to romp around an indoor playground in a prototype of Google Shoes, an apparatus that transforms your sneakers into a sort of mouthy Nike FuelBand, transforming your physical activities into vocalized affirmations. I think. It’s somewhat unclear what Google Shoes actually do, and we refuse to test-drive them on the grounds that if they were to somehow malfunction and cause us to sprint into festival traffic, Sergey Brin is certainly going to fucking pay for it. I can pretend that my own shoes are correctly calling me a sedentary piece of garbage without the liability concerns.

The tiny PB&Js are delicious, incidentally.

Things That a Group of Girls Who Had Apparently Just Come From a Screening of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing Are Very Excited About While We All Wait in Line for a Different Movie

  • Joss Whedon
  • Shakespeare
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Being able to see what Joss Whedon’s house looks like, because Much Ado was shot there

Double Feature

The Paramount Theater offers David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche and Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies in succession, a twin bill offering the tantalizing combination of recognizable actors and indie-name-brand directing talent indulging their smaller-scale storytelling instincts in a package irresistible to a festival dilettante like me.

And I love them both. I’m starting to suspect I’m an easy festival-lay.

Prince Avalanche, Green’s remake of the Icelandic film Either Way, stars Most Likable Man on the Planet Paul Rudd and Suddenly a Lot More Likable by Rudd-Proximity Emile Hirsch as bickering road-crew partners inching their way across post-wildfire rural Texas in 1988. It’s the Waiting for Godot of highway-line-painter movies, which is to say it’s not exactly action-packed; it’s a buddy comedy (of sorts) that goes nowhere as they lay down yellow paint, hammer in mile markers, swill moonshine, and slowly learn that their lives back home are radically changing. The Sitter and Pineapple Express it ain’t. And it shouldn’t be. Green’s got all the time in the world to make the studio movies or Eastbound & Downs that presumably buy him opportunities like this.

Afterward, Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies romantically entangles perpetually sloshed BFF brewery coworkers Olivia Wilde and budding New Girl folk hero Jake Johnson and their significant others, Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick, as everyone tries to figure out where their relationships stand. It’s funny and poignant, intimate and uncomfortable to watch as Wilde and Johnson feel out the limits of their way-too-flirty friendship while draining endless pints after work, next to a spontaneous late-night campfire at a bad-idea-jeans double-date weekend, or right before passing out on each other in situations that almost always result in terrible life decisions. Everyone in the movie’s great, and right at this moment some executive is probably dangling millions of filthy studio dollars for Swanberg to rom-com something up with Kendrick and Josh Duhamel.

Rain Dance on Sixth Street

Emerging from an IFC party quickly hollowed out by the mass realization that its crippling cash-bar problem can easily be remedied by the free open troughs of Shiner Bock available at every festival venue within a half-mile radius of the convention center, I step out onto Sixth Street, downtown Austin’s club-choked Bourbon Street–lite main drag, and into a torrential downpour. Just a few feet away a crowd is gathering outside another bar, drawn toward its blaring music. Within moments the splash-mob is dozens strong, singing and dancing and shouting and creating the kind of oddly moving, booze-lubricated communal moment you always hope to stumble upon at 1 a.m. when you’re thousands of miles from home and have nothing better to do than drunkenly marinate in humanity for a minute.

I observe for a few seconds before hightailing it out of there before any of the shitfaced rain-dancers have the chance to vomit explosively in the gutter and render the entire tableau too fucking sublime to believe.

DAY 3: SUNDAY, MARCH 10

A Final Rendezvous

(L-R) Selena Gomez, Harmony Korine, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and James Franco attend 'The Branding Bee Presents The World Premiere After-Party Of 'Spring Breakers' Live From The Hive at The Ranch on March 10, 2013 in Austin, Texas.

I wake way too early, robbed of an hour of all-too-precious sleep by daylight saving time, to once again head over to the ACC to collect my passes for the day and avoid the indignity of the extended wait times of the regular badge-holders’ lines at my screenings. Having now established a comforting routine, I sidle up to 3Emma for guidance. She’s a morning person, it seems, her red flannel shirt just as crisp and the projected twinkle in her eye just as bright as it was when we first met. Even so, something’s different this time. I pay the trivia-game fare, correctly answering her question about the inescapable majesty of her creator’s commercial endeavors, but we go no deeper. Her strobe is cold, obligatory. A desperate caress of her touch screen offers no more wisdom than a recommendation for a two-day-old introductory panel. Our connection is broken. There are no tears, because I have my dignity, and because I suddenly realize she’s fundamentally no different from GiantClackingBallsSolutions’ Brobdingnagian desk toy. Clack-clack-clack.

Or at least that’s what I tell myself.

This is my last day. I can get through it alone. Probably.

A Review of Matthew McConaughey–Starring Festival Entrant Mud by a Nice Woman With Whom I Share Some Time in the Express-Pass Line

“The whole movie you think that Matthew McConaughey’s not gonna take his shirt off. And then he takes his shirt off.”

An Awful Nice Alamo Experience

“You have to see a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse. Just pick one and go. Do it,” encouraged one of my fellow writer-travelers, upon hearing that the festival had not yet claimed my Alamo virtue.

Los Angeles has some fantastic movie theaters, like the luxury ArcLight chain, because you need to build your temples where the gods might see them. But even in L.A. the Drafthouse is spoken of with reverence for its in-theater booze and food service, its unquestioned love of film, and its dedication to tossing out texting assholes with extreme prejudice. So I go, it’s every bit as satisfying an experience as it’s cracked up to be, and now I can’t wait for its long-anticipated and inevitably bittersweet arrival in my city, where it will immediately become so popular it will be impossible to attend without calling in a bomb threat ahead of time.

The movie I pick nearly at random for this maiden voyage is Todd Sklar’s Awful Nice, and it turns out to be the happiest accident of the festival. James Pumphrey and Alex Rennie play two estranged brothers, one a young dad and the other a borderline-deranged troublemaker, who have to travel to Branson to renovate and flip the lake house they’ve inherited from their just-deceased father. It’s insane — most movies might build to a scene in which a pre-funeral competitive-chugging contest around the family dinner table ends in a glass-shattering, face-bloodying fistfight, but this starts there — reminding me at points of Step Brothers and Wet Hot American Summer, and in a different (and almost definitely worse) world it would be a huge studio comedy starring Danny McBride and Channing Tatum. Maybe it’s the next Foot Fist Way. It’s not at all perfect, but it’s fitfully hilarious, and goes for it so hard it makes me a little embarrassed about Burt Wonderstone’s just-OK-enoughness.

Oh, and Yakov Smirnoff is in it. Yeah.

Sprangggggg Breaaaaaaakk, Spraaaangggg Breaaakkkk

I don’t know what my precise expectations are walking into Spring Breakers, the festival’s big Sunday-night premiere, but they probably involve being ultimately confused-slash-disappointed after two hours of watching Vanessa Hudgens, Justin Bieber’s ex, and the one from Pretty Little Liars jiggle around in bikinis while brandishing assault rifles in a trash-humpingly off-putting Harmony Korine joint.

But I emerge from the experience with my mind sufficiently blown, and now all I want to do is talk about James Franco forever. Once Franco’s cornrowed rapper-cum-dealer Alien bails the girls out of jail following a debauched coke party, it’s his movie. Consider that for a second: Korine’s despoiling half the classic Disney Channel roster, handing them hammers, pink ski masks with unicorns on them, and AK-47s, and now all I can think about is a generously begrilled, dope-slinging great-and-powerful Oz riding around Fort Lauderdale in a white Camaro with dollar-sign rims and BALLR plates, or standing on a bed piled with cash and guns to rattle off his entire hustler inventory, or playing Britney Spears on a poolside piano. Everything out of his mouth is quotable to the point that it’s all going to be Boratted into intolerability a week after the movie’s out: “Cocaiiiiiiiiine.” “Why you ‘spicious?” “Scarface on repeat. It’s constant.” And so on into the inevitable is nice zone.

I don’t even want to talk about it anymore. Let’s meet back here when people have actually seen it and discuss the thing that happens with the two guns, and start debating whether Franco’s “Everytime” is the “I Dreamed a Dream” of 2013, because it is.

Thanks to Alien, I’m ready to finish up the festival and head home.

My three days in Austin are officially over.

Spraaannnng breaaaak.

EPILOGUE: MONDAY, MARCH 11

On the Phoenix-to-Burbank leg of my Southwest flight home, no one sneezes.

But the pilot conducts his pre-flight monologue entirely in character as Arnold Schwarzenegger.

If I don’t make it back, please tell 3Emma I love her.