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Page Two

On love, culture, renewal, timelessness, and SXSW

By Louis Black, Fri., March 26, 2004

"I'm in love with the modern world"

– "Roadrunner," Jonathan Richman

South by Southwest 2004 is over. I loved it, though I worked almost the whole time. As managing director Roland Swenson continually reminds the staff, "South by Southwest is not for you." As a director and co-founder, I've been at every festival, but I've never really attended. My opinion as to SXSW 2004 is thus hopelessly tainted. There are your own experiences, those of your friends, and what else you've heard or watched on TV, as well as lots of press, so that will take care of itself. Here, I offer some very abstract gleanings.

SXSW is about: 1) the vitality of culture, 2) Austin, and 3) education – the sharing of advice/experience.

1) As the Residents pointed out, "Ignorance of your own culture is not considered cool." The joke is the notion that there is a high culture and a low one, a noble high art and a corrupted mass art. The joke is Jacques Barzun's declaring the death of culture or Harold Bloom's cowardly trumpeting of what was over what is, as though this were a defense of art and not the most brutal assault upon it. The joke is the very idea that yesterday the culture was exciting and today it suffers deforestation.

Marshall McLuhan pointed out that we tend to assess new media by the criteria of old. Beyond that, trapped by the knowable boundaries of the past, some dismiss the present.

Culture is how we talk to each other and try to make sense of our world. The past is always easier to define and describe than the present, but the vitality and the validity of the process doesn't change. There is something terribly wrong and almost overwhelmingly sad about those who demean rap against the standards of classical music, dismiss TV in the face of Tolstoy, bemoan the death of civilization in light of the greatness of those past. Either they are cowardly, reactionary, afraid of life, find being comfortable the safest place, or all of the above – or they are just mundanely unimaginative. They assault the vitality of culture under the cloak of defending it, which is much like killing for God or denying liberty for freedom. Certainly, cultural activity and achievement is not a constant – there are times of explosive upheaval, conformist repackaging, and timid retrenching – but it is an ongoing process. As long as there is human life, the current culture is relevant and rewarding.

2) Whenever anyone asks about the success of SXSW, the answer is "Austin." The event is of the community, not imposed on it. Come to Austin anytime, and what goes on at SXSW will be going on, the only difference being quantity and the number of visitors.

3) – The long and winding thought:

Friday night, I was leaned against the fence of the parking lot across from the Red River all-star club lineup – Red Eyed Fly, Elysium, and Beerland – just watching the crowd, feeling the evening, trying to soak in the event.

"The highway is your girlfriend as you go by quick" – "Roadrunner," Jonathan Richman

SXSW goes by so quickly. No matter how much I try to savor it, I always feel like I've missed it. There are months of preparation that grow increasingly more intense the closer it gets. SXSW starts, and almost immediately it seems like it is the second Saturday afternoon. The mark of finality is when the Music trade show begins to be dismantled, the week's saddest moment.

This year's SXSW was a great one for me. I never get to hear much music; I saw Kris Kristofferson's transcendent solo set at the Continental Club. I usually get to talk to folks only in passing; I had a wonderful dinner that ended with Anne S. Lewis (short-film maker, writer, and my wife – not to be confused with Anne Lewis, documentary filmmaker), New York Times writer Elvis Mitchell, Jonathan Demme, and me talking film. A couple of nights later, I stood in front of the Driskill until after 2am, talking with documentary filmmaker Ron Mann and director Jim Jarmusch. I never see films, but saw Guillermo del Toro's brilliantly imaginative Hellboy and Richard Linklater's Before Sunset, which I expected to love, though I didn't expect to be lifted out of my life: lifted to where film redefines life so completely that I feel comfortable in my own skin, breathing in as real the dream world of possibility.

Sometimes, the years just slap you upside your head. As, when asked how old the Chronicle is – after replying "22 years" – or the same of SXSW – replying "18 years," I often stop dead in my tracks. Twenty-two years – how did that happen? Eighteen years – where did they go? Leaning against the fence, I was truly perplexed by how I got to be 53. What the hell had happened, when were those years, and where?!

Those of you who are of similar ages understand, but those younger probably don't get it. In my teens, 20s, 30s, I had the lurking sense that at some point I'd feel grown up, life would make more sense, and I'd at least see, if not actually be on, the yellow brick road stretching toward Oz. The formless would develop form, and the shapeless assume shape. It didn't happen. I've never felt very far from my 18- to 28-year-old self, at least when it comes to understanding and maturity. Energy and optimism are gone, hope repackaged, and expectations severely downsized.

Now, some become adults early, adapting dress and focus, living goal-defined lives. Some grow naturally into adulthood or grasp at it or wake one morning into it. Uncertainties fade; certainties set in. Obligations become more determining than passion, possibility more defining than fantasy. Lest that sound pejorative, I note that someone who has assumed responsibilities, accepted a job, and/or heads a family but refuses to act maturely is aggravating rather than admirable, pathetic rather than Peter Pan.

In that time-without-time after watching Before Sunset, age disappeared. I was joined with the me of every explosive, unexpected cultural experience. It was the best of me, often misplaced but never lost, passion defined by magic – not that of the supernatural, but of people creating. There was no time – I was as young as 18 and as old as the last moment I'll taste before I die. It was at once the all of I:

Visiting friends on Long Island nearly three decades ago, after finishing The World According to Garp just before dawn, I ran to the ocean to waltz with the tide. Seeing Citizen Kane the second time, when I stopped looking for it and just watched it, raced home talking to myself, singing. Dancing to the first Modern Lovers album with Steve Swartz, deliriously rocking through the duplex on Speedway and West 41st, having finally gotten the album after blankly listening to it at Richard Dorsett's insistence a half-dozen times previously. Seeing Pulp Fiction for the first time or Chasing Amy, Alphaville, Ulzana's Raid, Fox and His Friends, and Dazed and Confused. Watching Shoot the Piano Player the first week at college and seeing Caged Heat at the drive-in and, having caught a ride hitchhiking, reading Isaac Babel. Delirious the night we watched In a Lonely Place on campus and took the print with us to watch two more times at home. Enjoying the otherworldly quiet of Times Square after watching Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch the first week it opened and tasting the rum and coke as I read Dashiell Hammett for the first time, sitting outside at my friend's home in Vermont. Last fall catching Neil Young's Greendale show and just last month watching Jarmusch's Dead Man on the small computer screen in our studio.

And there I was again. In love and loving. Drenched in Before Sunset. Leaned against the fence, watching the specter of SXSW before me, trying to grab at what cannot be contained.

The whole idea of SXSW, of those addicted to culture, is discovery. The common lament of the young filmmaker, musician, artist, writer, etc. is a lack of support and interest, as though they are deliberately being ignored. This is nonsense. In the marvelous documentary on Townes Van Zandt that my friend Margaret Brown is working on, there is a great moment. Label owner and producer Kevin Eggers tells of a friend who says, "Your job is to get up in the morning, make your bed, fix breakfast, eat, wash up, put on your hat, and then go looking for a genius."

Almost everyone who comes to SXSW would love to discover a new talent. It just happens so rarely. Those who bemoan a lack of funding are offering self-fulfilling laments. Neither Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, Mike Judge, Harry Knowles, nor SXSW founders waited around for funding. They all began creating and kept creating. There is no excuse for not working, least of all lack of money.

Those who feel purposefully ignored and politically excluded are missing the point. Creating meaningful culture is not easy, even if you want to. At some point, after creating for a time, you feel your work is ready. You wonder why it isn't appreciated. But your being ready is not the same as your work being good. There are those, of course, who successfully sell themselves despite their work. But most depend on quality and imagination. Your head is almost always racing ahead of your talent.

The core lesson of SXSW is not how you're being neglected, but how so many of those attending are on a voyage of discovery. They would love to find something new. They are not ignoring you, but searching for you. Complaining and making excuses takes away from creating. At the end of the day, the work speaks for itself, which may well be the issue so many would just as soon ignore.

"Radio On!" – "Roadrunner," Jonathan Richman end story

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