Hoberman: Jury Duty; Or, What I Saw at SXSW

Hoberman: Jury Duty; Or, What I Saw at SXSW
Still from the funny, smart-mouthed, high-energy comedy “Gimme the Loot.”
(Courtesy Seven For Ten Pictures)

First time at SXSW (also Austin, not to mention Texas), I can’t help but note that the fabled film/music/“interactive” media festival has a demographic suggesting a shaggier version of the L train on a Saturday night.

I know I’ll never be 30 again but did experience something of a flashback after being loudly threatened with arrest and forcibly escorted by two cops back to the sidewalk after trying to jaywalk across Congress Street to get around the crowd cordoned off in advance of the “21 Jump Street” world premiere. Why were these cops making like Jonah Hill in the movie? Just a case of mutual dissing — the reason I ignored you, officer, was because you ignored my explanation that I had to get by because was late for my next film and I was A Member of the Jury!

A guy in a passing pedi-cab advised me to “just relax, dude.” If only someone in the crowd tweeted the altercation, I would have been fully living, as well as screening, the SXSW life. There were eight movies in the narrative competition — all world premieres. Two road movies, plenty of dope, some music, and occasional violence including a pair of graphic castrations — one in a Mexican stab at early John Waters. Guys, like the anti-heroes of “Booster,” “Los Chidos,” “Pilgrim Song,” and “The Taiwan Oyster,” looking for, or fleeing from, family responsibility and generally wondering what the fuck to do. Cool chicks in supporting roles. Female protagonists who were virtually all sex-workers — even the independent woman looking to get pregnant “the old fashioned way” in “Gayby,” although she was self-employed. Universally, professional production values …

The audience voted for Megan Griffith’s slick, overemphatic “Eden,” a third feature based on the true story of an abducted Korean-American forced into sex slavery; the jury prize, determined by Esquire editor Lisa Hintelmann, Toronto programmer Jane Schoettle, and myself, went to Adam Leon’s “Gimme the Loot,” a funny, smart-mouthed, high-energy comedy in the doomed caper tradition of “Big Deal on Madonna Street.” There’s an undeniable fairytale quality to the imaginary New York City of Leon’s well-orchestrated first feature, but although this borderline passé tale of two ambitious, endearingly hapless graffiti writers (Tashiana Washington and Ty Hickson) down from the Bronx flirted with minstrelsy, it transcended stereotype thanks to the wit and infectious self-enjoyment of its ensemble cast. One of the few movies in the competition that didn’t feel 15 minutes too long, “Loot” is scheduled for its hometown premiere March 23 at the Museum of Modern Art/Film Society of Lincoln Center-collaboration “New Directors/New Films.”

“Gimme the Loot” was the most enjoyable, but the least predictable and most haunting movie I saw in competition was Sean Baker’s character-driven second feature “Starlet,” described in the catalog as recounting “the unlikely friendship between 21-year-old Jane and 85-year-old Sadie.” Jane is model Dree Hemingway of the Hemingway Hemingways; Sadie is octogenarian Besedka Johnson, discovered, according the director, exercising in a Los Angeles gym. It’s a Hollywood story, albeit one that Hollywood would not be likely to produce. Hate to give away the movie’s surprises — suffice to say that the improbable friendship is not only miraculously unsentimental but played out in a show biz context, namely the San Fernando Valley porn film industry.

Given my jury duties and the time spent drinking with colleagues, enjoying the local cuisine, and gawking at the Texas state capitol building, I was only able to catch one more movie, namely “The Do-Deca Pentathon” by Jay and Mark Duplass. Despite the conspicuous absence of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, this deadpan farce of insane sibling rivalry seemed hardly foreign to SXSW’s guy-land ethos. Moreover, the movie’s small (yet cosmic) theme, “invisible” acting, observational style, and artfully choppy montage offered a sort of tacit reproach to the new professionalism. Apparently made before the brothers’ big budget “Cyrus” but, only now having its world premiere, “The Do-Deca Pentathon” was something new — mumblecorestalgia.

Read more J. Hoberman in Movie Journal