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Barbecue, bummers, and Boston
Our man at South by Southwest

Far from the madding Boston snow: me in an Austin tavern on a sunny, lazy March afternoon, washing down a gluttonís plate of beef barbecue with local favorite, Shinerís beer, and on stage just 20 feet away, a Tex-Mex dream jam session. Joe Ely, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, and Lyle Lovett strumming and harmonizing to a Townes Van Zandt classic, with Van Zandtís son J.T. doing the lead singing. Welcome to paradise: the 2005 South by Southwest Film Festival, where top-notch indie movies and sublime music weave together. The blessed event above, at Maggie Maeís, preceded a Paramount Theatre screening of Margaret Brownís superb documentary Be Here To Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt.

The historic Paramount is the crown jewel of South by Southwest. Itís where, in 1916, Harry Houdini performed his Chinese Water Torture Cell trick and where, shooting up into the baroque rafters, Richard Linklater filmed scenes animated for Waking Life. Brown spoke from the stage: "I never met Townes. I came to him as a fan. I was interested in what it means to live for your art, giving everything for one thing, the benefits but also the fallout." His tale of the late great East Texas troubadourís plagued life was typical of many documentaries at this yearís South by Southwest: music and misery hand in hand.

Examples? Josh Rubinís Derailroaded, concerning paranoid schizophrenic Larry "Wild Man" Parker. Jeff Feuerzeigís The Devil and Daniel Johnston, about a drug-riddled singer-songwriter. Youíre Gonna Miss Me, about the 13th Floor Elevatorís Roky Erickson, a film program notes described as "a heartbreaking portrait of mental illness, dysfunctional family life, and exploitation." These were all well received in Austin, but also all downers. So it was a hit of oxygen to see Gillian Grismanís Press On, a euphoric, energizing tribute to sacred-steel-guitar virtuoso Robert Randolph, whose beaming, upbeat personality is helping make him a crossover superstar. Heís 26, and so far heís into his music and not into alcohol and drugs and self-destruction.

Big news for local cinema fans: I saw two feature films at South by Southwest by young Massachusetts cinéastes, and both were terrific. Bostonís Andrew Bujalski, whose 2003 Funny Ha Ha is becoming a national cult favorite, premiered his stunning new comedy, Mutual Appreciation, in Austinís Narrative Competition. Framinghamís Susan Buice, a first-time filmmaker, showed Four Eyed Monsters, which she directed with Arin Crumley, in the Emerging Visions section, where the film won, and deserved, a Special Audience Award.

Mutual Appreciation is a New York cousin to the Hub-set Funny Ha Ha, another droll, stonefaced, dead-on perceptive comedy of manners concerning the lives and amours of semi-lost, highly articulate post-collegians. Nothing much happens in this saga of a rock musician arriving in the Big Apple, dropping in on old friends, searching for a drummer, passing the night at eccentric parties. But nobody gets the zeitgeist as right as Bujalski and his delicious cast: all friends, all non-professionals, many, as with his first film, pals from Harvard.

Bujalski and the leads in his two movies, Kate Dollenmayer (Funny Ha Ha) and Justin Rice (Mutual Appreciation), moved to Austin as roommates in 1999, after college. "We were young, and it was that moment in life," Bujalski told me. "I temped, volunteering for the Austin Film Society, and wrote the first film here. Kate was an animator on Waking Life." The three expected to be able to live cheaply in Austin and contemplate their art. Bujalski lasted a year; Justin Rice left quickly. "It was the high-tech boom,í Rice said. "Every Web site in the world was here. We paid more rent than in Cambridge."

Graduating from UMass-Amherst with a BFA in painting, Susan Buice went to New York, where she hooked up with Crumley. Four Eyed Monsters is a spry, brainy, endlessly inventive, self-starring take on their dizzy relationship, an Annie Hall of the 25-year-old set, she the artist-as-waitress, he a misanthropic videographer, their coupling a resonant boy-girl tale of new-media communication/miscommunication. Iím astounded to see how one low-budget film can have so many ambitious camera set-ups, and more quick cuts than a week of MTV.

The worst movie at Austin? Opening nightís The Wendell Baker Story, a smug, witless, astonishingly sexist farce written and co-directed by Luke Wilson.

Gerald Peary can be reached at gpeary@geraldpeary.com

Issue Date: March 25 - 31, 2005
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