Finding peace in the wonderful chaos of SXSW
An aside: Chronicle Publisher Nick Barbaro and I are partners in SXSW with Roland Swenson. He is the managing director, which doesn't mean only the vision thing or the keeping track of every major thread; it also means that every problem that isn't solved, defused, or body-checked as it makes its way along the chain of command finally ends up at him.
As we were talking about this party, he pointed out that ending SXSW with the Diamond Smugglers each year was a great thing, but that perhaps seeing this Neil Diamond act (as spawned out of the Las Vegas hell of your silliest nightmares) more often might not wear as well.
During the evening, the staff relaxes for the first time in months. They laugh, listen, dance, smile, and quietly talk. They don't make decisions, solve problems, and check on how everything is going while reviewing mental checklists of what they still have to do.
An old friend who has long worked for SXSW during the event was there. He pointed out that, for the first time in more than a dozen years, he was in town during SXSW but not working it. Grinning happily, he exclaimed, "You know, SXSW really is great." Then, smiling even more broadly, he added, "You really ought to go one year!"
I laughed. I always think that, after 19 SXSW festivals, it would be great to attend just one. It's not just that, as Roland regularly reminds us, "SXSW is not for you" it's something more.
People always ask me about the best movies or the most interesting bands I've seen at the event. Even if there were time, one's focus is clicking so rapidly that there is precious little chance of actually slowing down to focus on a movie or a band more than once or twice during the Festival.
This year, I actually watched three movies (a record), the first two because I wanted to watch them with my wife and son. I executive produced Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt but had never seen the final cut. I was interviewed in The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Unfortunately, I had to leave before that film was over. A couple of rows behind us, I had heard someone laughing at the strangest times, suggesting they had gone through the times being depicted, but with an unusual perspective. As I headed out, I looked over and realized it was Daniel Johnston. I went over to hug him. Through the whole hellish roller coaster of the time I've known him, I realized that the constant about Daniel was his undampened, seemingly impenetrable enthusiasm it was the most noticeable characteristic connecting that so terribly young, inexperienced kid to the institutionalized, recognized, lionized, medicated, internationally celebrated semilegend before me.
The other film I saw was Murderball, because SXSW Film Festival Programmer Matt Dentler insisted that I watch "just the first 10 minutes," knowing full well that I would never leave.
Another aside: Dentler runs the SXSW Film Conference and Festival, and he blew one clear out of the park this year. The event's staff is small. Cathy Ross helps program and run the Film Festival, which doesn't sound like a tenth of the job it actually is. Jarrod Neece, working with Jason Tobias, is responsible for the entire technical end of things but is usually involved in much more. Wendy Cummings, whom I neglected to acknowledge at last year's Film Awards, is responsible for selling advertising for the program book, inserts for the bags, and booths at the trade show, as well as arranging and coordinating parties. They work as a team. Mostly, I stand back and admire.
Aside from the Diamond Smugglers, I saw two musical performances: Alejandro Escovedo and John Cale at the Austin Music Awards show which was just as transcendent as I had hoped it would be and three songs by Robert Plant, who was so much more soulful, powerful, skilled, and passionate than I ever expected.
The truth is that I probably really wouldn't want to attend much more, not that I think I wouldn't love it. I'm the same way at the Chronicle's annual holiday party, where I make sure all the foods I love are there but then hardly eat anything as I move about, rarely stopping, burning energy, maintaining focus, and making sure it is all going well.
Once you're in it, which is almost as soon as it starts, South by Southwest goes by like a bullet train a series of nearly hallucinatory moments, but the healthiest of hallucinations. There is a surprisingly precise clarity to each individual moment, except that it is living life at the rate of celluloid film: 24 distinct frames a second that go by so rapidly, the persistence of vision fools our eyes into seeing movement. Except this is the reverse: Instead of disappearing so that everything flows together, the thick black lines that separate each frame are supremely evident. Minute section of action follows minute section of action, yet, despite the speed, you keep running smack into these black lines that define every shot as unique.
It is a world in which you finish at 3:30am, can't calm down enough to sleep until 5am, and then get up early because there is work to do. Night after night of this schedule, pimpled by naps at the oddest of hours, completely distorts the picture. Every waking moment contains tasks that must be done immediately, those needing to be done at some point in the future, and a dozen other ongoing issues all facing you at the same time.
There is a moment, early on, that, though the frames continue marring the distinctiveness of each experience, SXSW achieves a certain harmony in which, despite the frenzy, I find peace. Paying attention has been a lifelong problem for me. Whether this is because of some variant of Attention Deficit Disorder, or just that I'm lazy and stupid, is beside the point. Meditation only bored me I was counting off the seconds in my head until I was crazy. I am rarely transfixed, which is why I love movies so much: They are always in motion on any number of levels.
But in chaos there is peace. Long stretches of SXSW seem more normal to me than almost any other time of my life.
Meanwhile, during the three-week period of SXSW, the Chronicle staff produced more than 800 pages. Publisher Nick Barbaro and I have little to do with the actual production of the three SXSW dailies, so whenever we get complimented on them, we point out how relatively easy we found them to be to produce. When we share this wit with those who actually did the work (missing much of SXSW in the process), they're never as amused as we expect them to be.
In the midst of the swirl of music, movies, bodies, phone calls, issues, decisions, wristbands, film passes, badges, food, questions, hurried trips to the office, there is the calm. Seemingly from a distance, as I travel through Austin, I watch it explode with activity.
This year, I drove a rented white Lincoln Town Car. The first night I parked it in front of our house, the birds made it welcome by covering it with droppings. With that bizarre sense of focus haunting my life, in which I can carry obliviousness to dizzying heights, I drove it like that all week. There I was at peace, cruising along in my bird-shit-covered Lincoln, essentially a cartoon cutout of a car moving smoothly against vividly overcolored, highly illuminated backdrops of Austin: exaggerated, multiplied, and compounded, peopled by wild tribes of cartoonish characters.
As I drove, over and over I listened to some board tapes of performances of Brian Wilson's Smile, given me by a friend. In ways, Smile is a symphonic hallucination, a series of sonic cartoons; in other ways, it is a document of vast ambitions and truly intuitive, encyclopedic musical knowledge. Over time, my main consideration became whether the song "Heroes and Villains," as rendered in Smile, was as great a song as "Good Vibrations." Not greater and because I'm just not into focused listing, I should note that there are probably a thousand songs I regard as being as great as "Good Vibrations." I've always loved "Heroes and Villains" but thought the song fell short of its ambitions, while "Good Vibrations" transcended its. But in the longer form of both the songs, the former seemed almost as impressive as the latter.
Now, I'm the first to admit this is not among the greater philosophical considerations. In a way, it was to center distracted attention. In another way, it was an effort to accentuate the unreality, until the car and I were flying through the sky, music coming from the clouds.
When you come right down to it, a lot is about achievement matched to ambition, a far more complicated equation than it might first appear. Back when I took writing courses from John Irving, he made the point that every piece of writing was like an egg. They might be small (in their ambitions) and flawless, or they might be huge, with cracks as well as every other possibility therein. They should always be considered in context: the scope, quality, and maturity of the ambition matched to the extent and comprehensiveness of the achievement.
Gliding through an Austin flooded by sunlight, as the tribes of those dressed in studs, black, plaids, and scarves wandered the landscape, was an amusement-park ride on which you think you're driving, but the car is affixed to the tracks. There are worse vices and far more dangerous indulgences than pondering ambition and achievement, vision and dedication, while enjoying truly revelatory music.