My third day at SXSW this year began with John Bender asking me whether a bird had just crapped on my shoulder. We were standing in line for an Arrested Development brunch/Q&A, with almost the entire CB SXSW contingent in tow, including fresh recruit Ben Wachtel and our new SXSW volunteer friend Sarah, and John wasn't joking. There was indeed a giant dollop of bird shit on my shoulder and the only thing I had to clean it up was the unnecessary coffee sleeve some people slinging ice coffee had left on the cup they gave me. I was still mostly asleep and after the saddest attempt at a clean-up ever, we were ushered in to the brunch, which was more than enough to distract me from my avian wakeup call.
photo by Janelle Revord
Featuring Will Arnett, Mitchell Hurwitz and Jeffrey Tambor, the Arrested Development brunch was less of a traditional Q&A than it was a chance to see three proven collaborators back in action, egging each other on and cheerfully riffing on one another. Fans expecting concrete details on the future of Arrested Development may have been slightly disappointed, but I don't think I'm alone in saying that most of us were happy to have the opportunity to dive back into the world of AD and its phenomenally talented cast and crew. The cast had an easy chemistry and most of the questions morphed into extended improvising, which was arguably just as helpful for determining whether the new season might work or not as any actual information would have been. Oh, and Hurwitz may or may not have shown us some secret footage of the upcoming season, but if he did, I would say it was fantastic. Afterwards. Arnett and Hurwitz even stuck around after the Q&A to do a few bingo games for some great swag and to make "interstate" jokes whenever an I number was called out. Ben Wachtel managed to win Samsung tablet, but since it was on CB time, it has now been given to collective company hive mind, by which I mean Dylan Garsee is currently typing on it.
There was a quick dash through the floor show in search of the 3D printer, which turned out to be outside in an apocalyptic parking lot rather than the convention center itself, then Dylan and I reunited to watch The Wait, a film we had both avoided learning much about in order to get the full experience. Unfortunately, the full experience turned out to be one of hilariously awkward bewilderment, a trippy response to that age old question: "What if David Lynch and Tommy Wiseau collaborated on a film?" Featuring Chloe Sevigny as Emma, a young mother whose own mother has just died, The Wait begins with an interruption of Emma's mourning by a phone call from what she believes to be a psychic telling her her mother will rise from the dead in a few days. Naturally, her sister Angela (Jena Malone) thinks that's crazy and insists that they get their mom's estate in order and start the funeral arrangements immediately. And then the film kicks the weirdness into high gear.
Sevigny's Emma is swiftly revealed to be some kind of mystical woman child, who seems to know a lot about "magic" rituals and is prone to sudden, inexplicable spontaneous acts, most of which she forces her daughter to be involved in. These are usually relatively benign acts, like taking her daughter to get a manicure and a hair cut to more odd and potentially traumatizing scenes, including one where she has her daughter watch her own birth on video. Malone's Angela doesn't take long to turn into a similar figure, though her bouts of strangeness are wrapped up in an affair with a "history student" who has a perplexingly obsession with her niece. The film looks startlingly beautiful, but at the screening we went to, the crowd reaction was almost unanimous in its disinterest in giving the film a pass based on that beauty. Dozens of people walked out of our screening, and those that stuck around couldn't help laughing at scenes that were clearly not meant to be laughed at, but which were filmed in such an alien and awkward manner that you had no choice but to giggle. Director M. Blash previously worked with Sevigny and Malone on his feature debut Lying, which was similarly poorly received, and at times the film felt like some kind of secret dialogue between the three. It's hard to gauge what any of them intended with it — a meditation on the insanity of grief? a quirky pastoral view of Central Oregon, where the film is set? a balls out WTF extravaganza? No one was really sure.
Less adventurous but far more structured and engaging was Alex Winter's documentary Downloaded. Winter is of course the lesser known half of Bill and Ted, but he's also the director of Freaked, one of my all-time favorite acts of film sabotage, which made it difficult for me to predict what a documentary from Winter would be like. But Winter is clearly passionate about documentary work and his film's subject in particular, which is the rise and fall of Napster and how its influence continues today. Winter seems to come from the Errol Morris school of documentary, which is to say that his is a nicely stylized approach to the form that smartly keeps that style from interrupting or distracting from the story. Downloaded is an impressive overview of one of the most important technological moments in pop culture history and Winter frames the extensive archival material he and his crew have collected with beautifully shot and enlivened contemporary interviews with Napster's major players, including both Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker.
Downloaded is most effective in the way it humanizes those involved in a situation that in some ways defined my generation before 9/11 did; though Winter has a clear bias for copyright freedom, he does his best to involve the other side of the story as much as possible, through equally humanizing interviews with RIAA players and former label heads. The only real flaw to Downloaded is that it's crammed with music, which makes for some unnecessary tension in scenes as interviewees begin to be drowned out by aggressive music cues. It was difficult to imagine why Winter would make the choice to fill so much space with music, especially given how entertaining and engaging the interviews are, and it almost seemed as though it was an ultimatum from Winter's distributor, which happens to be VH1 Rock Docs. Still, Downloaded is necessary viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in the enjoyment and business of music, and its small flaws ultimately don't have much
impact on the tremendous effort Winter has put into exploring this story as deeply as possible.
I was meant to join Dylan again for Spring Breakers after Downloaded, but by the time I left the theatre, Spring Breakers already had a line that went around the Paramount nearly three times, and that was an hour and a half before doors opened. I noticed that the line was filled with a lot of people who seemed to only know it as a James Franco film and as much as I wanted to take part in witnessing their brains melting from their introduction to Harmony Korine, Garsee already had an SXXPress Pass and I couldn't justify waiting around in line for the slim chance that I might make it. Instead, I met back up with John and Ben and their crew and eventually we wound up at the Comedy Bang Bang showcase with Janelle Revord, who has been covering Interactive for us and will now be on the Comedy and Music front.
Janelle had already been to one Comedy Bang Bang showcase, but the rest of us weren't sure what to expect. Scott Aukerman was hosting, and the bill also featured Eugene Mirman, but the rest of the stand-ups were basically unknown, which I was actually looking forward to. SXSW is meant to be about discovery and taking risks and luckily the showcase paid off handsomely. Aukerman was in peak form, starting the show with a surreal announcement to turn off all your normal devices, before requesting pacemakers and giving an okay to George Foreman grills. Aukerman also informed us this was a mature show, which mean it's intended for audiences 85 and up, and someone would be around to take saliva samples to ensure we weren't lying. Aukerman's set was similarly surreal, including a bit where he told us he was trying out a new style, where he simply picked up a newspaper and riffed on the stories. But the newspaper he picked up– our own Austin American Statesman– was filled with horrifying stories about kids and old people drowning and taking their seeing eye dogs with them. Aukerman's opening set was a decent length, but he was really there to act as host, introducing the other comedians he had brought with him.
What was most impressive was that the night seemed to hinge on improv, as each comedian integrated the audience into their acts and built their material around dialogues between them and the crowd. Chris Gethard used his set as an opportunity to compete with an audience member over who had the worst tattoo; the man he picked out of the crowd had inadvertently gotten his company's logo tattooed on his arm, which was admittedly pretty awful, but Gethard's story involved coming off of drugs at Bonnaroo after five years of sobriety and then having the most "hipsterly epiphany" in history, all because of his consumption of $300 of Molly. Brent Weinbach came out after, sighed and told us that Gethard had just performed his entire set, but he was going to go through the motions and do it again anyway. Which he did. Weinbach then did his own material, which was great, but the highlight was the video he played for us of his bar mitzvah, which featured him literally prancing and preening around the dance floor for his friends and relatives. Eugene Mirman's set was more structured and straightforward, but his deadpan delivery and casual storytelling style isn't as suitable for improv, anyway. Comedy Bang Bang mainstay James Adomian had the slowest start of the evening, but once he moved into the more comfortable avenue of his bizarre impressions, he more than caught up, but it was set closer Gerard Carmichael who stole the evening.
photo by Janelle Revord
Carmichael looks like a sad mash-up of Dave Chapelle and Michael Cera but he has total command of his delivery and style, which can be described as loose conversation punctured by explosive bursts of brutal, unexpected darkness. Rather than a traditional set, Carmichael asked us what we wanted to talk about, and he would build off of the audience suggestions. This led to a unique familiarity between the audience and a performer most of them had probably previously never heard of, something that Carmichael himself called out when he told the crowd that his ambition was to be the greatest living black man, which he claimed really wasn't that hard to do, after all, he was probably number 11 on our lists and we'd just met him. The casualness of Carmichael's presentation and delivery made his boldness more impactful, like his response to his little brother, an army reservist, having problems with Zero Dark Thirty: "More people have died in movie theatres this year than have in the army reserves for a decade." Carmichael was easy to feel comfortable with and he cannily exploited that, making his darkness the central focus of his act without you even noticing.
The way Garsee tells it, Spring Breakers is the pinnacle of human accomplishment, but I'll have plenty of opportunities to see it, but the Comedy Bang Bang showcase is what I like most about SXSW, an opportunity to witness something unique and intangible that won't be replicated again. Even with the explosion of corporate sponsors and a flood of idiots on our streets, it's hard to deny that SXSW is still one of the best venues for that kind of experience, and I don't think that will change any time soon.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he's the last of the secret agents and he's your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Comics Bulletin, where he reigns as the co-managing editor, or at Panel Panopticon, which he started as a joke and now takes semi-seriously. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover and explore the world of his musical alter ego at Fitness and Pontypool.