The Jesus story. The South by Southwest (SXSW) festival is best known for its music and movies, but for the event’s 11 days, seminars, panel discussions, and interviews take place in the Austin Convention Center and elsewhere around town. I attended one yesterday at a venue called The Swan Dive, hosted by Paste, formerly a magazine and now an online content provider that, perhaps because it was founded by Christians, has a consistently interesting take on music, movies, and popular culture. Pete Holmes, the comedian and host of the late-night program The Pete Holmes Show, was raised in a Christian home and told me he still considers himself a “Christ-leaning seeker” who surfs every week with emergent church leader Rob Bell. “The Jesus story is the story that makes the most sense to me,” he said. “It does the best job of explaining what I see in the world.” Holmes, whose contributions to such websites as collegehumor.com are not G- or even PG-rated, was nonetheless thoughtful when it came to talking about vocation and developing your gifts, at one point apologizing for sounding like a motivational speaker. “Hard work and perseverance matter,” he said.
Edward Snowden. But the big news of the day was the video presentation by Edward Snowden. The whistleblower joined the festival from his new home in Russia, and he was unrepentant about breaking American law and putting American national security at risk. In fact, he insisted he improved American national security and said if presented with the same opportunity, he would do it again. Conservatives are divided on Snowden. Many have deep concerns about our federal government’s overreach and our national security apparatus venturing into Americans’ lives. But conservatives also care about the rule of law and believe that national security is one of the few constitutionally mandated duties of the federal government, so they are willing to grant latitude for government overreach in that area. But not the SXSW crowd. Snowden got a rock star’s reception. An estimated 3,500 people gave him a standing ovation at the end of his presentation.
You can call me Bobby. Also getting a standing ovation was Robert Duvall, who premiered his latest film One Night In Old Mexico here this week. I attended a screening yesterday at which he appeared, along with director Emilio Aragon. The movie’s screenwriter is Austin legend William Wittliff, who wrote the screenplay for Lonesome Dove, which starred Duvall. This movie, set in modern times, bears some resemblance to that classic. In fact, Duvall said his character, Red Bovie, could be the crotchety great-grandson of Augustus McCrea. The movie has many virtues, including an authentic and often moving depiction of the aging Bovie’s arguments with God. Alas, it is also marred by sexually explicit language and violence that often seems out of kilter with its generally light-hearted tone. The film doesn’t release until May, so perhaps producers will clean it up a bit for a PG-13 rating. As it stands now, I don’t see how it could escape an R rating.
The next wave. The interactive part of SXSW is winding down and the movies portion of the festival is on the rise. Monday and Tuesday have events of interest to both crowds. One such event took place yesterday, when John Pierson moderated a panel on post-studio filmmaking methods. Pierson is a former journalist and independent filmmaker who now teaches at the University of Texas. He is perhaps best known for helping produce some of the early works of Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, and Michael Moore, before Moore became a caricature of himself. The most interesting comments on the panel came from John Sloss, an entertainment lawyer who has been executive producer for more than 50 films, including the Academy Award winners The Fog of War and Boys Don't Cry. In 2009, Sloss co-founded FilmBuff, a digital distribution company. “The studios still operate like they’re the bosses,” Sloss said. “And in the 20th century, that was largely the case. They had the physical plant, and they funded production, and they had an oligarchy on distribution. But lo and behold, the 21st century came.” Sloss said the future of filmmaking will be partnership and collaboration, which will require greater transparency in financial dealings. “Hollywood accounting” is a euphemism for everyone getting so many cuts that the film’s creators—writers, directors, actors, and those actually doing the work on set—get little. Sloss says that era is ending, largely because of technology. Huge studios with large backlots are no longer necessary to produce movies. “Large physical plants are largely obsolete,” he said. “With fewer people needing to get paid, the economics of making movies is changing.” You can make more movie with less money today, which means more movies will get made. Of course, that could mean more bad movies will get made, but Sloss and Pierson both think the changes are positive and we’re entering a new golden age of movie making.