Page Two: SXSW and 2011 Chicago International Movies & Music Festival

Part One: My beginnings and Chicago

Page Two
It's been an odd time of late. My main jobs at the Chronicle and South by Southwest involve writing, planning, conceptualizing, remembering the past, and thinking of the future. The very nature of such work is that one's world is always a bit odd; you are looking backward and forward, up and down. The last few months, however, have been, even by the ongoing strangeness of my "normality," odder than usual – even more unmoored and intensely accentuated. Much of this has to do with SXSW 2011, held this spring, marking the 25th anniversary of the Festival.

The Austin History Center's current exhibit documents the first 25 years of SXSW. There are SXSW Scrapbook: People and Things That Went Before, a book edited by Peter Blackstock, Jason Cohen, and Andy Smith (which SXSW helped produce) and the film Outside Industry: The Story of SXSW (which we didn't help produce, though we did cooperate with Alan Berg, the filmmaker, and his Arts+Labor team). In addition to those events and documents, there have been innumerable interviews with all manner of media about the quarter-century so far.

Living a good deal of my life in public (and in some ways as a public figure) has always been somewhat unusual, but you get used to it. When your life is also part of a history shared by greater communities, it is both pretty neat and unsettling. The history is somewhat autobiographical, at least to me, but I'm also a character in a greater narrative. I'm a villain and more to some; a number of folks seem to be very sympathetic to what we do, and that is also of some interest to yet others, though probably the overwhelming majority of the community never really thinks about us as individual people.

Certainly, I don't want to make too much of this, as there are no major revelations. This weekly column is very reflective, and most of what is going on has been discussed from one angle or another over the years. Still, there is now a level of exaggeration and consistency that pushes things into uncommon places. A collection of images of myself (photos and film footage) from over two-and-a-half decades cruelly documents the aging from a callow, overly naive, eager young adult with black hair to a sunken-eyed, weary veteran with hair so wild and gray it makes me looked shell-shocked.

Every interviewer asks some of the same questions of me. Did I ever expect SXSW to become the event it is now? Not even close, not within a thousand miles, not a hint; the truth is that there is nobody more surprised than I by not only SXSW but this whole voyage. It's been dazzling and great but unexpected.

This past weekend I was at the 2011 Chicago International Movies & Music Festival, which ran from April 14 through April 17. With the festival in its third year, there were, as noted in the event's program book, "Seventy films. Seventeen venues. Ten concerts. Four days. One City – Chicago." Friends of mine are involved in the festival, but as much as anything I was there to watch the crowd's reaction to a couple of events. Outside Industry: The Story of SXSW was to show on Saturday, while on Sunday Kevin Triplett's documentary Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah would be screened, followed immediately by Gurf Morlix playing a set from Blaze Foley's 113th Wet Dream, his new album of Foley songs.

I was interested in how Berg's film would play outside of Austin. I had watched a number of cuts of the Foley film, of which I'm an executive producer, but always on DVD and never with an audience. Finally, even though Morlix has played his Blaze set a number of times around town recently, I had missed the shows. As much as I am a fan of Foley's music and love Morlix's album, I knew it would be especially sweet to see his performance somewhere besides Austin, as here the response is pretty predictable.

CIMMfest was terrific and impressive. It ended up getting to me in ways I hadn't expected. The excitement and integrity of the event was intoxicating. The whole driving idea is the pursuit of creative visions, whether they are in the areas of art, music, or film, or have to do with producing, supporting, or just attending such events. All join in the enjoyment of the energy it creates and celebrates. A wave of nostalgia swept over me, combining specific memories with the general feelings of the early years of SXSW, the fears one felt year after year, the lessons learned as the result of both failures and successes, the joy and the chaos all combined into an ongoing uncertainty.

Getting to put on SXSW is a privilege, as far as I'm concerned; the intent and nature of the event, the staff, volunteers, and the many visitors – musicians, filmmakers, registrants, and panelists – all make it wonderful to be involved with it. As I've noted any number of times, SXSW is my favorite time of year. Still, during SXSW there is always a certain distancing of oneself from the event. This year, that was even more pronounced because of the SXSW 25th anniversary brouhaha.

In so many ways, SXSW over time runs ever more smoothly. This is because of many factors, especially an excellent, professional staff that is passionate about the event, as well as amazing volunteers that gift it with much of its public personality. Still, it is far more massive and crowded now, and its calendar is jam-packed with events that are even more widely spread out over the city while it also runs longer and is more intense.

No matter how much the chances have lessened, there is still not just the possibility but the probability that at any moment one might be needed to do a menial task or negotiate the solution to a complex problem or be plunged into an almost too-rapidly evolving situation. As managing director, Roland Swenson routinely reminds the whole staff every year, "South by Southwest is not for you; your job is to make it happen." This requires constant alertness, even if it is often relatively low level.

Being a registrant rather than a producer at CIMMfest meant I was attending rather than working. CIMMfest made me feel renewed and, in the wonder of its programming, reminded me why we all had begun to travel this route in the first place.

Sunday was the last night of the event. It was something all too familiar to watch as the necessary, nonstop, 24-hour day-in and day-out energy needed by all those involved to make CIMMfest happen ran gobsmacked into the wall of the end. The almost worn-out bodies of the staff made it seem like they were in a horror movie, as one could see the energy drained from each of them, to be replaced by an overwhelming weariness. All along I had understood, but this brought it home: We were all part of the same extended family, one driven by commitment to and excitement over our culture.

CIMMfest Report To Be Continued Next Column: On Blaze Foley, Kevin Triplett's documentary, and Gurf Morlix.

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CIMMfest, Chicago International Music & Movies Festival, SXSW, Blaze Foley, Gurf Morlix

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