Page Two

The nose knows when SXSW is coming

Page Two
Driving through Austin streets about 3:30am Monday morning with the windows down – the car, thankfully, nearly driving on its own, without much help from me. I was breathing deeply of the night, sucking in the smell of Austin, but more than a smell really: something larger and more visceral, some sense of the community that I could smell, taste, feel, touch, hear, and see, that I felt upon those senses and within myself. An apparition accompanying a parade of memories, an invocation and a prayer, a sense of Austin, the real Austin divorced from geography, as so lithe it might be missed, as just the hint of an unidentifiable scent lingering in the air. And as something so vast that it had become me or, at least, it is who I am.

After watching Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy at the Paramount – a beautiful, overpowering, densely resonant film based on Mike Mignola's comic book – I had driven my son and two friends home. Now I was heading back to the hotel. I stay in one during SXSW so I don't disturb the family with all my comings and goings, with phones going off and SXSW paperwork everywhere. Now, driving back, I felt calm for the first time in months. I knew it wouldn't last, but for those moments I didn't care.

Used to be there were many all-nighters associated with each SXSW. In the wee hours I'd wander outside, standing in the dark, imagining all those vans spread across America, driving through the night to come to play at SXSW. For those of you as terribly old as I am: It felt like the beginning of the old Texas Rangers TV show. First one ranger is walking down the street, and then another joins him, and another. Soon there are many, walking together. I envisioned the vans pulling out of Bat Cave, W.Va., or McCall, S.C., or Fargo, N.D., at first driving the moonlit back roads, then reaching the interstate. Inside the van, the band members were excited or pensive, stoned or wired, maybe laughing, maybe arguing. When they pulled out onto the interstate well before dawn, at first the other traffic was mostly trucks, but as they headed deep into the heart of the country, they noticed another van. Then they saw another, and another after that one. By the time the sun creaked into the sky, the rich, damp smell of just-before-dawn giving way to the day, the highway was dotted with guitar-filled vans – running on dreams, ambitions, and a love of music – heading for Austin, Texas. It wasn't exactly a convoy or a gathering of Texas Rangers, but more a music armada, sailing forth to carry us home.

I hadn't thought of those vans heading toward our town in years; lately I'm usually busy doing books or counting film passes or wristbands, preparing for the onslaught. But that Monday at 3:30am, there was the quiet and the sense of the gathering storm ...

I almost never sit through a film at SXSW Film. If I'm not busy, I am too wired to focus. But I love comic books, Guillermo del Toro, and Hellboy, so I watched it. Nothing rejuvenates me like a great movie.

I knew what I was smelling was not just the night. Rather, I was soul-sucking in the community's creative atmosphere itself, rippling up from the imaginations, commitments, and work of so many – not just music, film, new media, art, words, and so on, but the passion and deep humanity behind them.

end story

For the first time in a long time, I wasn't thinking of politics. The air wasn't entirely free of the fetid smell of current American politics, but driving, that morning, pretty much alone on the streets, I felt clear. I wasn't brooding about any of the many topics that for so long have had me brooding:

The Democrats' inability to communicate with voters, coupled with their (unfortunately understandable) hesitancy to boldly articulate their long-held social vision. The Republicans' willingness to say whatever is necessary to win, accompanied by an abandonment of conservative principles. How so many pay lip service to loving the democratic republic in which we live, but few really believe in it – the whole idea of respecting another person's opinion and understanding that compromise is not sell-out but evidence of the success of the Constitution's guiding principles. Instead, all sides are pushing ever more polarized agendas. The inanity of such comments as arguing that electability is antithetical to democracy (much like arguing that value and price are antithetical to capitalism). The shocking narcissism of the Naderites – several of whom have written the Chronicle, self-righteously pointing out that they at least voted their conscience rather than for whom might win. As though conscience is privileged over consequences – forget the poor, hungry, and sick; forget the working class, damage to the environment, and wars: I voted my conscience. This is the "me" generation taken to the most nauseating extreme; think of the license this allows, if the only allegiance owed is to personal conscience. You see – once I get started, I can't stop.

But that night, I didn't get started. I felt weary, filled with the beauty of del Toro's cinema, rejoicing in our community's creative energy as vivid that morning as a raging, plugged-in storm. Monday night, I stood on the Sixth Street corner by the Driskill after a SXSW Film party talking with Ron Mann and Jim Jarmusch. For about an hour, we talked movies, which meant we were talking about love, about awe, inspiration, and amazement.

The next morning, at 11:30am, I caught a preview screening of a new film by Richard Linklater at the Paramount. In a city gushing passion, in a community exploding with culture, in a time of sprawling romance, I rediscovered love; I walked out of the theatre without shoe touching ground. People often ask if I'm happy about some aspect of SXSW or another. But I rarely am, because being happy makes me so nervous. But after the screening, my soul was alive and the neon-bright memories once again tasted of the immediate. Rather than admiring or sensing the spirit of Austin and the energy of SXSW, I was electric with it, as lit up as a bulb.

SXSW is upon us. As a SXSW director, of course, I enjoy that, but I hope so many of you are also entertained. Entertained, energized, startled, delighted, blown away, and brought to the best of life as only the culture can do.

Keep up with all our SXSW coverage at Sign up for our South By-specific newsletter at for news, reviews, and previews delivered to your inbox every day of the Fest. And for the latest tweets, follow @ChronSXSW.

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