SXSW Film 2017: Day One

Mar 11, 2017 By Stephen Mayne
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What kind of idiot bases his choice of clothing on whatever the weather is like outside? The answer, unfortunately, is me. While this might not normally be a problem, it becomes troublesome when you wake up to snow in Boston and then travel all wrapped up to warm Texas.

Thus, I emerged from the airport at Austin inappropriately attired to begin a week at the 2017 edition of the South by Southwest Conference. Luckily everything is air-conditioned, sometimes with a little too much enthusiasm, so warmer wear was not as useless as first expected.

I’d never been to Texas before, but the image in my head (cowboys and empty desert in case you’re wondering) is not exactly met by the reality of Austin. A blue outpost in a sea of red as my taxi driver described it, Austin has spent decades establishing itself as a liberal hipster hang-out. Which might explain why SXSW grew up there, emerging into a major celebration of music, film, and just about everything else.

As a first-time attendee, the opening day is usually spent collecting passes, attempting to figure out what to watch (there are over 250 films to choose from) and getting my bearings. All of which proved remarkably easy on Day One thanks to excellent organisation and encroaching tiredness after a 3:45am start.

With time limited I decided to keep my attention on the opening night film, a choice that could hardly have looked more perfect. Song to Song sees famed auteur Terrence Malick take on the Austin music scene in a feature starring the likes of Michael Fassbender, Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling, Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett. Which is about par for the course given the list of big names queuing up to work with him.

Malick’s reputation rests on a small body of work containing several classics. Recent years have seen him pick up the pace considerably with increasingly poor results. My expectations were duly tempered, though it didn’t stop me queuing an hour and a half early to secure a seat (one up top and near the back as it turned out).

While the wait proved pleasant, there was little in the way of outward excitement, at least not compared to opening night choices at other festivals. I’d have expected Malick to generate more buzz, and to be fair the screen was certainly full by the time we started, though it thinned a little by the end. I don’t blame those who chucked in the towel either. There was more entertainment watching the person a couple of rows ahead repeatedly having to be told off by an audience member for playing around on her phone.

Song to Song is basically Malick continuing in the footsteps of To the Wonder and Knight of Cups by trolling himself. The latter film is particularly relevant as the new one feels like a companion piece. They were shot back-to-back and both deal with fame and artistic unfulfillment. There are also several tics that now mar his work including frequent cuts to nature, over-used voiceover, and an imposing, partly classical score. This is usually a highlight of his work, but here he’s making a film set in the Austin music scene despite showing almost zero interest in that music world.

That’s not the only thing wrong. The actors are left to fill time in several scenes as no one ever seems to know what’s going on. Trite dialogue also seeps in alongside too many unnecessary characters, and Malick’s tendency to lose interest and wander off to shoot nature footage instead. It all proved a disappointing start, and I couldn’t help but envy the handful of people who decided enough was enough and walked out.

Having been up so early it seemed best to call it a night there. If we’re putting a positive spin on the day, it can only go up from here, right?


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