Whatâ€™s the old saying about March roaring in like a lion? In Austin this year, it seems especially appropriate: Blooming mountain laurels perfume the air with their sweet-tart aroma, bluebonnets have started to appear on the roadsides, and if you explore downtown, youâ€™ll sense the electric buzz forming as shopkeepers, bartenders, restaurants, theaters, and hotels prepare for the wildly popular event known as the South by Southwest Music, Film, and Interactive Festival, which runs March 9-18 this year.
Last year, the eventâ€™s 25th anniversary, the festivalâ€™s official registration surged 40 percent over 2010 numbers (with a total fest attendance of 286,000 people!). Here are more impressive numbers: More than 2,000 musical acts performed on 92 stages across the city; the interactive contingent drew almost 20,000 registered attendees (from 53 foreign countries!); and the film contingent attracted more than 66,000 film fans who flocked to see 140 features and 153 shorts. According to organizers, SXSW was directly and indirectly responsible for injecting some $168 million into the Austin economy. (And these figures donâ€™t even begin to consider the impact of the hundreds of unofficial events, concerts, parties, and attractions offered during the festival.)
For the past decade, Iâ€™ve experienced SXSW on the fringes, ducking into free day parties and big concerts at Auditorium Shores, standing in line for movie tickets, and enjoying the crush of visitors from around the world who descend upon Austin each year. But this year, I have a film pass (available in limited numbers for $70 in-store at Waterloo Records), and I plan to see as many films as my schedule allows. With 132 feature films and countless shorts and other events to choose from, these next weeks should be action-packed. (See my colleague Jane Wuâ€™s blog for details on some of the festivalâ€™s films with Lone Star ties.)
I visited recently with SXSW Film Conference and Festival Director Janet Pierson about the eventâ€™s growth, maturation, and significance, and why choosing a film youâ€™ve never heard of may be the most direct route to inspiration.
â€œSince the Film and Interactive Festival started in 1994, the independent film world has changed profoundly,â€ Pierson says. â€œThe digital revolution has made a huge difference. In the mid-1990s, there were hundreds of films made every year; now there are thousands. When people made films in 35 millimeter, making a movie cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and took a long time. But thanks to digital advances,Â cameras became less expensive, and filmmakers could edit well on their laptops. This year, we moved the deadline for submissions up to mid-November, because the number has been steadily increasing year-to-year. This year, we received more than 5,000 submissions, a 7% increase from last year.
â€œAs film festivals go, and Iâ€™m including fests such as Cannes, Toronto, and Sundance, we skew toward American-made films. Weâ€™re neither a regional film festival nor an international film festival. We look for balance, so our films range from comedies to documentaries, dark dramas, and may feature themes as â€˜smallâ€™ as two people walking down the road.â€
While Pierson acknowledges that the Film Festival is primarily a â€œbadge eventâ€ designed for film industry folks (film badges cost $595), she says itâ€™s still possible to see some of the movies with a pass or by purchasing individual tickets ($10)â€”as long as seats are still available. â€œWe want full theaters, and the venues vary tremendously,â€ she says. â€œI mean, if you donâ€™t have a badge, youâ€™re not going to get into the world premiere of The Cabin in the Woods (the directorial debut of Drew Goddard, the writer behind the hit TV show Lost), but you can easily see certain films at the Vimeo or Canon. Or try the Alamo South Lamarâ€”sometimes itâ€™s crowded and sometimes itâ€™s not.
â€œWeâ€™ve vetted everything,â€ she told me, â€œand we think itâ€™s all great. Take a chance on something youâ€™ve never heard of. Success for us is when weâ€™ve inspired people.â€
Itâ€™s the dead of winter, supposedlyâ€”February 2â€”and a quick survey of mid-afternoon temperatures across Texas (70 degrees in Austin, 72 in Houston, 73 in Dallas, a frigid 50 in Amarillo, a balmy 77 in Brownsville) makes me think weâ€™re in for an early spring.
But donâ€™t take my word for it. Instead, listen to Remley the Babirusa at the Houston Zoo, who agreed to stand in for the traditional groundhog this morningâ€”and predicted an early spring. (Groundhogs donâ€™t like the hot and humid weather typically found in Houston, but Babirusas- small hairless pigs native to Indonesiaâ€”find it quite agreeable.)
This morningâ€™s ultra-scientific weather-prognosticating ceremony offered Remley two choices: a two-foot paper â€œsnowmanâ€ filled with watermelon slices and other tasty Babirusa treats, and a pink-and-white picnic scene featuring the same edible enticements. The rest of the ceremony followed tradition: If Remley chose the snowman, weâ€™d have six more weeks of winter; if he chose the picnic scene, spring is on its way. My sources tell me that while Remley flirted with the winter scene, he ultimately dove into the picnic setting and decreed an early spring. So it's official.
Iâ€™m consistently impressed with the creativity and imagination of the folks at the Houston Zoo, an AZA-accredited zoo that dates to 1922.Â I believe that if Remley could talk, heâ€™d say, â€œNow that the weather is warm, come visit me. I am a master of camouflage and move like a deer. And obviously I have great taste and a sense of humor.â€
Last weekend (November 12-13) was the first weekend of the newly expanded, bigger-and-better East Austin Studio Tour, which invites the public to tour more than 145 artistsâ€™ studios throughout East Austin over two weekends. Itâ€™s the Tourâ€™s 10th anniversary, and itâ€™s amazing to me to think about how itâ€™s grown from a grassroots effort with 28 studios on tour to this yearâ€™s veritable art party.
I made it to a few stops last Saturday, including the home painting studio of my friend David Leonard, who paints cityscapes, landscapes, and industrial settings. See his painting at left, titled City Park (Dallas,TX), which he completed in 2008. I admire his work because he somehow marries a photorealistâ€™s attention to detail with the warmth and vibrancy of an Impressionist. His work is frequently featured at Austinâ€™s Davis Gallery, but itâ€™s fun to see his works in a home setting, and to study where and how he works.
Thatâ€™s part of the appeal of the tour for meâ€”to witness the art-making process and setting of each artist. So Iâ€™ll hit the streets again this Sunday, spend a little money to support artists whose works grab me, and no doubt find inspiration in details both large and small. See www.eastaustinstudiotour.com.
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- Mavis Staples takes us there
- the bike zoo
Spent a delightful evening last Friday at the Trail of Lights in Austin's Zilker Park. Our group (which ranged in age from five to 75) wandered mesmerized through the extravaganza of illuminated holiday displays (think canopies of radiating trees, character scenes from Snoopy to SpongeBob, and a gleaming Nativity). The brilliant scene could beam the Bah! Humbug! from old Ebenezer himself.
No one enjoys working like Tony Bennett does. The American music icon drew an amazingly diverse crowd to San Antonio's Municipal Auditorium not long ago — all ages seem mesmerized by his beaming, exuberant, stage presence that radiates the pleasure he takes in the crowd and in performing.