The First Virtual SXSW

On Film / The Daily — Mar 25, 2020
Dylan Gelula and writer-director Cooper Raiff in Shithouse (2020)

Some point to the rescheduling of the release of the next James Bond movie as the first warning sign, but it was really the cancellation of this year’s SXSW Film Festival that truly brought home the realization of just how severe the impact of the coronavirus crisis would be for filmmakers, moviegoers, and the industry as a whole. “Our hearts were broken for all the filmmakers who invested so much time and talent in their work, hoping for a transformative experience at our event,” says festival director Janet Pierson, and kudos to her and her team for arranging to have the juries see the films slated for the competitions. Announcing the award winners, Pierson adds that she knows that this will be “no substitute for the actual festival’s vitality, enthusiasm, and potential for surprising outcomes —and that it is only available to a small fraction of our program—but we hope it will help garner some well-deserved recognition for these wonderful works.”

Cooper Raiff, who is all of twenty-two, has written, directed, and co-edited Shithouse, the winner of the narrative feature competition. He also stars as a lonely college freshman who spends an amazing night with a young woman (Dylan Gelula) who will seem to have forgotten it ever happened the following morning. Shithouse is “basically the Platonic ideal of the movie you’d expect from a suburban white American softboy who’s been raised on Richard Linklater and Sex Education,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich. “But here’s the catch: It’s good. Like, really good. And more than that, it somehow feels completely singular despite its lo-fi approach and even lower-concept premise.” It’s also “far more gentle than one would expect,” finds Stephen Saito, and at Hammer to Nail, Matt Delman agrees that it’s a “magnetic debut.”

Screen’s Jeremy Kay talks with Danish filmmaker Katrine Philp, whose An Elephant in the Room has won the award for best documentary feature. The film focuses on a group of children coping with the loss of their parents at the Good Grief therapy center in New Jersey. Philp tells Kay that she and her crew were just about to fly over to Austin from Copenhagen when news of the cancellation broke. She was also looking forward to reuniting with some of the children and still hopes to be able to once the crisis passes. “Everyone is trying to discover the new normal knowing we’re not going to get the benefits of showing a film in a room full of people at a festival,” sales agent Josh Braun tells Kay. “This is the perfect example of a film that would work no matter how they see it or where they see it.”

SXSW selected 119 short films this year, and now Mailchimp and Oscilloscope Laboratories have teamed up to present more than seventy of them online. Short film awards are presented in seven categories, and while Kate Novack’s short documentary Hysterical Girl, a recontextualization of Sigmund Freud’s treatment of a seventeen-year-old patient, hasn’t won one—the winner in this category is Carol Nguyen for No Crying at the Dinner Table—the New York Times has premiered it as an Op-Doc. And Karin Fong has won the excellence in title design award for her work on the Apple TV+ series See. You can watch all the finalists in the competition at Art of the Title.

For a festival that didn’t happen, this year’s SXSW has generated considerable coverage. Not every filmmaker with work slated to premiere in Austin has made it available to critics, of course, but you’ll find plenty of reviews indexed at IndieWire, the Film Stage, Hammer to Nail, and Stephen Saito’s site. RogerEbert.com editor Brian Tallerico writes about the fiction features and documentaries, and at IndieWire, Ben Travers surveys a few of the series pilots.

At the A.V. Club, Katie Rife has dubbed the experience of watching eleven features at home “Couch x Couchwest.” A favorite for many has been She Dies Tomorrow, the second feature directed by Amy Seimetz, whose Sun Don’t Shine premiered at SXSW in 2012. Kate Lyn Sheil plays Amy, a woman convinced that she will indeed die tomorrow, and Rife notes that the “origins and function of this belief riff on a cosmic version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers by way of It Follows, as everyone who Amy encounters catches this belief like—well, like a virus.” And “in terms of originality,” She Dies Tomorrow, which has just been picked up by Neon, “is unmatched in the films we watched for this year’s virtual fest.”

A question on many minds right now is whether this crisis will prompt other festivals to shift more screenings online even after all this is over. The Atlantic’s Shirley Li talks with a few industry insiders and has come up with a wide range of answers to that question. Richard Botto, for example, founder of the social network Stage 32, suggests that it’s “almost inevitable” that the festival circuit will be going online. But Emily Best, the founder of the crowdfunding platform Seed&Spark sees things differently. “Regional and local film festivals are the veins and the capillaries for our industry continuing to be able to surface new artists and help them build audiences that will sustain their careers,” Best tells Li. “So we can’t just bypass film festivals—we cut off future blood supply.”

The Latest

Playwright, librettist, and screenwriter Terrence McNally, who, as Charles McNulty points out in the Los Angeles Times, survived the AIDS epidemic and lung cancer, died yesterday of complications related to the coronavirus. “As the nation and the world are left reeling from the new pandemic,” writes McNulty, “McNally, whose plays and musicals preached a gospel of living more fully through an awareness of loss, urges us through his death to take this disease seriously and to care for ourselves and one other—just as he instructed us to do in an earlier plague when he was a playwright at the top of his game.” McNally adapted his 1982 play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune for Garry Marshall’s 1991 film starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer as well as his Tony Award-winning Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994), which was filmed in 1997 by Joe Mantello.

The coronavirus has also taken art historian Maurice Berger, remembered by Alex Greenberger at ARTnews as “a curator of incisive photography shows dealing with whiteness and an unforgiving essayist who paid mind to race long before many of his colleagues were willing to do so.”

More recent developments:

  • University of California Press is making all issues of all of its journals, including Film Quarterly, freely accessible through June.
  • Sundance has “made the decision to reimagine the fifty-eight live programs we had planned through August 2020,” including the London and Hong Kong editions of the festival, which have now been postponed.
  • For Hyperallergic, Dessane Lopez Cassell has put together a wide-ranging and just plain astonishing list of links to experimental films and artists’ moving image works from around the world to watch at home.
  • Rajendra Roy, chief curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, talks to Film Comment editors about adapting MoMA’s programming for the future on the latest At Home podcast. And Mark Asch asks Peggy Johnson, executive director of the nonprofit, member-supported Loft Cinema in Tucson about her community’s immediate and long-term plans.
  • Writing for Little White Lies, Jake Cole argues that “there could be no filmmaker whose work is better suited for the current crisis than Luis Buñuel.”

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