Tuesday was a transition day at South by Southwest, which means the film festival is coming to an end, and the music venues are tuning up.
That means, among other things, that it’s time for the festival to give out its awards, and the results were underwhelming. The Grand Jury Winner in the Narrative Feature category is a slight film promoted extensively here at SXSW called Fort Tilden. It features Bridey Elliott, the daughter of comedian and former Saturday Night Live cast member Chris Elliott, and Clare McNulty. The PR material for the movie says they are “directionless, privileged, and just a tiny bit damaged Brooklynites.” That’s pretty accurate, except for the “tiny bit” part. Both the characters and the movie are fairly significantly damaged by sophomoric pre-occupation. The good news is that the filmmakers seem to know that their preoccupations are sophomoric, and that gives the movie a moral center, of sorts. The bad news is that—like the Wolf of Wall Street did on a much grander scale—it too often glories in the inglorious life from which the movie half-heartedly says we need to be redeemed.
The Great Invisible, which examined the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, was the top documentary winner. This politically correct look at the oil industry came from director Margaret Brown, who was already a “favorite daughter” of Austin because of her first film, a documentary about Texas music legend Townes Van Zandt. In a great irony, Van Zandt was born into a wealthy Texas oil family. Without the oil industry that The Great Invisible vilifies, which allowed Van Zandt’s family to support him during his early days as a songwriter, it’s likely his music would be lost to history. But such subtleties would undermine the ideology of such movies as The Great Invisible.
The winners—in fact, nearly all of the 246 films screened at SXSW—tend to skew left-of-center or reflect a world that the vast majority of Americans would find barely recognizable. About 40 percent of Americans attend church. In the movies, especially those at South By, characters almost never do. Recently, America became a majority pro-life nation, with 50 percent of Americans believing abortion is wrong in most or all circumstances. At South by Southwest, a special jury recognition for “political courage” went to the film Vessel, Diana Whitten’s movie about pro-choice activist Rebecca Gomperts and the organization Women on Waves. Gomperts’ group sails ships around the world, docking near countries where abortion is illegal. They are, in essence floating abortion mills, killing as many as 800 babies a day.
That’s one reason it was refreshing to attend a panel discussion with legendary actor Robert Duvall, whose positive portrayal of Christianity in such films as Tender Mercies, which won him an Academy Award, cuts against the Hollywood grain. After his on-stage interview with film critic Leonard Maltin, I asked him about his own religious faith, and the role of religion in his movies, including The Apostle and his new movie A Night in Old Mexico, in which the character he portrays has an ongoing argument with God.
He said he did not seek out religious roles. He sought great roles, and often a spiritual aspect helps make a character interesting to play.
“I’m not an atheist,” he told me. “I’m not an agnostic. I believe in God, and I believe certain things about God.” He added, though, that “they’re private.”
But Duvall’s acknowledgement of God, even though lukewarm, was a minority view at SXSW Film this year. Indeed, the disdain for God was anything but private.