Page Two: Return of the Independents

'SXSW Presents,' season three

<i>Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party</i>
Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party

The third season of SXSW Presents begins showing on KLRU on Tuesday, Oct. 3, at 9pm. The show will run in that time slot on Tuesdays through the end of the year. SXSW Presents, season three, will continue through the beginning of next year, but the scheduling for then is not yet set. I'm an executive producer of the show, but this conflict-of-interest strain is less hardy than the ones that usually infect this column: I actually do almost nothing. The show is run by Matt Dentler, SXSW Film honcho on the short-list power chart of American independent film players with a bullet by his name (maybe two). SXSW Film's Jarod Neece partnered with Dentler on this one, with support from Lya Guerra. This series presents films, mostly but not entirely documentaries, that have been shown, gotten praise, and caused excitement on the film festival circuit but haven't really been shown enough at other venues around the country.

KLRU, in contrast, has long championed independent thoughts, visions, and films. The Territory, for example, just finished its 30th season! The show is produced by Austin Museum of Art's Judith Sims, Mary M. Lampe, Tom Schatz of Burnt Orange Productions, Ed Hugetz, and Marian Luntz, all of whom play significant roles in Texas filmmaking. Over the past few years, KLRU has become even more prominent nationally as a champion of independent film, in part because of The Territory and SXSW Presents, as well as the PBS programming it runs.

The whole lineup of each season has been great every year thus far, but this year's SXSW Presents schedule is undoubtedly and consistently the most audience-friendly. The films include works like Dreams of Sparrows, a collaborative effort by Iraqi and American filmmakers to capture what daily life is like there; Witches in Exile, about Ghana and its "witch villages"; Pedal, about a New York City bicycle messenger; and 24 Hours on Craigslist, which should be self-explanatory. The Texas hot-button topic of the death penalty is raised in State vs. Reed.

In addition, any number of local filmmakers and/or Austin topics are covered. Amy Grappell's A Light From the East is a fascinating story of a troupe of actors in the USSR for a cultural exchange, who end up witnessing the fall of communism. The Last Days of the San José is co-owner Liz Lambert's involving film on the South Austin landmark, while Viva Les Amis is director Nancy Higgins' sweet memory of that talk-inducing, culture-breeding campus coffeehouse.

Barbecue: A Texas Love Story is exactly that, from director Chris Elley (my recommendation is to start cooking the night before).

Okay, so the above paragraphs read like a press release, but the reality behind the prose are so many simply terrific films – all telling compelling stories with a cinematic intelligence that just grips the viewer, dragging him right into the work. This is not like being forced to eat your spinach (now more than ever).

SXSW Presents' third season kicks off with Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party. Tobolowsky is a classic character actor in the vein of some of the screen's true greats (Franklin Pangborn, Elisha Cook Jr., S.Z. Sakall, Chill Wills, Strother Martin, L.Q. Jones, etc.). His IMDb filmography lists more than 170 credits, so it's likely you've seen him perform – probably many times. But if he was pointed out to you, the most likely response would be along the lines of, "Oh, sure, I know that face; I've certainly seen this actor before, but I'm not sure if I ever knew his name."

Sometimes, in order to identify Tobolowsky, someone cites his role as Hugo Jarry in Deadwood or Assistant State Attorney Don Haffman in CSI: Miami or his work in dozens of shows over the years including The Practice, Desperate Housewives, Murder One, Chicago Hope, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and According to Jim. Other folks bring us his roles in movies, since no matter how big or small his part, Tobolowsky usually scores in such films as Memento, Sneakers, Mississippi Burning, and Thelma and Louise. But, more often than not, the film brought up is Groundhog Day, in which Tobolowsky plays Ned Ryerson, the jerky guy on the street Bill Murray encounters early in the day as he leaves the hotel. Eventually, Murray punches him out. This is a scene most people remember immediately, but it is rare to talk to someone who doesn't then bring up treasured Tobolowsky moments in lots of other roles he's played. They also always point out that they knew him and his work – they just never knew his name.

A Dallas boy, Tobolowsky went to Kimball High School, where he was the lead singer in Stevie Ray Vaughan's first band. Of note is that he is brother of the legendary – in some circles (circles to which some of us here have long aspired) – Barb Tobolowsky and, with the playwright Beth Henley and David Byrne, co-wrote the movie True Stories.

This film is a straight-on documentary of Tobolowsky's birthday party. It is fascinating to watch this great character actor, who has beautifully played so many roles, just being himself and talking.

Independent film is the home of independent voices. Now, once that wasn't saying much, but now that what is being publicly reported and spoken in this country has shrunk into polemically defined ruts (no matter how many voices are offering them up), finding real independent thinking, observations, commentaries, and opinions has become so rare that they are to be championed and cherished when found.

SXSW Presents – because of and along with KLRU – offers Austin viewers some of the finest new documentaries out there. Watch this show, not for your own or our good, but because these films are challenging, interesting, and, most of all, entertaining.

Please, support the program and the station.

(In the following list, the local directors are Liz Lambert, Nancy Higgins, Ryan Polomski and Frank Bustoz, Amy Grappell, Chris Elley, and a few of the short filmmakers.) end story


All films will air on KLRU, Tuesdays 9-10:30pm, unless otherwise noted.

Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party
Oct. 3, D: Robert Brinkmann

The Last Days of the San José
Oct. 10, D: Liz Lambert

Viva Les Amis
Oct. 17, D: Nancy Higgins

The Dreams of Sparrows
Oct. 24, 9:30pm, D: Hayder Daffar
Iraqi and American filmmakers' portrayal of daily life in Iraq

24 Hours on Craigslist
Oct. 31, D: Michael Ferris Gibson

State vs. Reed
Nov. 7, D: Ryan Polomski & Frank Bustoz
Explores Texas death-row inmate Rodney Reed's case

Witches in Exile
Nov. 14, D: Allison Berg
In Ghana, women accused of witchcraft are sent to "witch villages."

A Light From the East
Nov. 21, D: Amy Grappell
American actors in the USSR to participate in a cultural exchange project end up witnessing the fall of the Soviets.

Barbecue: A Texas Love Story
January TBD, D: Chris Elley

January TBD, D: Peter Sutherland
Fast-paced film about an NYC bicycle messenger

SXSW Shorts: Animated Program
January TBD, D: Various
Animated shorts by celebrated artists from Austin and elsewhere

SXSW Shorts: Reel Shorts
January TBD, D: Various

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'SXSW Presents'
'SXSW Presents'
Animated Shorts Program

Feb. 16, 2007

'SXSW Presents'
'SXSW Presents'
'BBQ: A Texas Love Story'

Feb. 2, 2007

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SXSW Presents, KLRU, Stephen Tobolowsky, Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party, Liz Lambert, Nancy Higgins, Ryan Polomski, Frank Bustoz, Amy Grappell, Chris Elley, The Last Days of the San José, Viva Les Amis, The Dreams of Sparrows, 24 Hours on Craigslist

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