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Travels in Bush Country

Yesterday I got back from the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film and Music Conference in Austin, Texas, with a severe case of Bush-induced paranoia. The trip back was a good 1,200 miles, plenty of time in which to spin out scenarios by which the country's right wing will consolidate its takeover of the country. I only had my dog, sleeping in the passenger seat, for comfort.

Setting the tone for my trip back was a front-page headline in the Austin American-Statesman that heaped scorn on local heroines, the Dixie Chicks, for anti-Bush remarks made by singer Natalie Maines at a London show. So it's come to this: Even Texas gals as benign and beloved as the Dixie Chicks get the John Walker Lindh treatment if they exercise their right to an opinion.

Still, I enjoyed my stay in Bush country. Austin is said to be an ideal community for the "creative class"--in other words, it's cool, just like Portland and Seattle, and perhaps our own community. But Austin, at first blush, doesn't look cool. The city is in the middle of a massive highway project, which will further bind it with billowing ribbons of steel and asphalt. Express lanes, local lanes, access roads, turnarounds--a big part of the Austin experience is driving. And the air quality is terrible.

However, once in town, there's a healthy supply of music clubs, Mexican restaurants, coffee shops, art movie theaters and tattoo parlors--all the amenities that the creative class requires. At night my environment is less creative at the Motel 6 located along one of Interstate 35's access roads. There, I watch CNN's war promotion every night before bed. (Some people use motels to commit suicide or have illicit sex. I use them to watch television.)

My days, however, are filled with movies and I discover that I like the homey and independent SXSW film festival very much. Compared to the hyped up, tourist and celebrity-clogged event that is Sundance, the proceedings in Austin are low-key and genuinely indie. There's a celebrity here and there, but those in attendance are present to promote quirky side projects, as Woody Harrelson did on behalf of a documentary called Go Further, which recounts his nationwide tour in a hemp-fueled bus called the Mothership, spreading the gospel of green living.

Austin is big enough to be indifferent to the festival, so the proceedings generally blend right into the life of a community that could best be described as combining the best features of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, with the worst features of Raleigh and Durham.

In three and a half days, I catch 13 films. After picking up my badge on Tuesday afternoon, I drive over to a clean, well-equipped youth center, located in a predominantly black neighborhood, to see Happy Here and Now. This meditation on love, loss and memory in a fragmented age is a recent film by one of our more inventive filmmakers, Michael Almereyda (best known for the Ethan Hawke Hamlet). I'm exhausted from my trip, so I doze off in places. I'd like to catch it again, but it's not a film that will be in our local theaters anytime soon. A DVD release is more likely.

Later, I see a documentary about Tribe 8, a lesbian hardcore band. The crowd for this screening is butch-heavy, and I spot one particularly enthusiastic couple wearing overalls, Stetson hats and painted-on mustaches. (After a moment, I get it--they're wearing Van-dykes.) Although Tribe 8's sonic product is unlistenable, the film itself is quite entertaining--I'm particularly taken with the antics of Lynnee Breedlove, the band's vocalist, who likes to cut up dildos on stage. "I have no problem with penises," she tells the camera, "as long as they're detachable." Beat. "And every penis is." (For more info, consult

The highlight of Wednesday night is seeing It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, Richard Linklater's first film, an 89-minute feature shot in the mid-1980s on Super-8. Austin's film culture owes a large debt to Linklater, the man who started the Austin Film Society in addition to introducing the word "slacker" into the lexicon back in the early '90s, when a whole generation of bored, MTV-fed ironists was about to be unleashed from America's universities. Thus, his first film, made several years before Slacker, turns out to be a record of a period of his life when he was a taciturn lad with a Johnny Ramone haircut. Nothing much happens--the film is a series of open Western spaces and shots of Linklater doing ordinary things, but in its own way the film is absorbing, with a foreshadowing of his later, mature work. Linklater himself takes the stage after the film, speaking very modestly and, I think, too apologetically.

I wade through five films on Thursday. I catch Imperio de la Fortuna, an old film by Mexican surrealist Arturo Ripstein, who is the subject of a special retrospective this year. I try my best, but I can't work up much enthusiasm for this story of a foolish campesino who stumbles across a lucky charm that improves his fortunes. My most exciting experience of the day comes from a sharp, unsparing documentary called Flag Wars, a study of the effects of gentrification on a working-class black neighborhood. The kicker is that the interloping neighbors are relatively affluent gays and lesbians. Flag Wars won the jury prize for best documentary and Triangle viewers will no doubt find it fascinating when it plays Full Frame next month.

Friday is a tough day because I'm beginning to suffer from a quickly accelerating cold. I soldier through another Ripstein film--one about foolish campesinos that play baseball--before settling in for Lukas Moodysson's Lilja 4-Ever, a story of Eastern European misery and the sexual exploitation of adolescent girls, and my final film of the festival. This is grim stuff, but worth keeping an eye out for this summer, when it will be released simply as Lilja.

Sitting in front of me during Lilja 4-Ever is Harry Knowles, proprietor of the Ain't It Cool News Web site. I'd always thought that this industry gadfly would be too busy purloining scripts to future Alias sequels to sit through such grim Slavic fare, but he apparently also watches grown-up films. Coincidentally, the following night while I'm driving eastward--somewhere in Mississippi with my dog--a new episode of Saturday Night Live is making sport of Knowles in its opening skit. Apparently, there's a mock press conference in which Chris Parnell's Dubya called on "that chubby guy from Ain't It Cool News," who proceeded to ask for the president's opinion of the new Matrix trailer.

"It kicks ass," the president says.

I'm back in North Carolina now, dreading the commencement of a different kind of domination. I'm not in Austin anymore, but I'm afraid I'm still in Bush country. EndBlock

  • Travels in Bush Country


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