SXSW24: Recap

Last Updated: June 12, 2024By Tags:

Austin is a great city to explore and enjoy any time of the year, but when SXSW comes to town, it’s a whole other level of stimulation: music, movies, cocktails, tech, mixers, parties, and celebrities. I was able to spend a few days in and around the capital city of Texas to take in the sights and sounds of this unique place. Regrettably, I couldn’t get in as many films as I typically like at a film festival, but what I saw provided further proof of the talents out there. Celebrities were in evidence, including two former late-night hosts in town to provide thoughts on their next chapters—which I’ve shared below. I also got to enjoy an evening panel discussion on directing comedy (laptops were basically disallowed, so I was unable to take notes) where I met Franz Oz (“Bowfinger”), who shared the stage with Judd Apatow, Robert Smigel and Lucia Aniello (“Hacks”), held at a small comedy club on Sixth Street called Esther’s Follies.

Comedian Trevor Noah sat down with podcast Esther Perel on Day 1 for a live-recorded podcast session. The psychotherapist and host of the “Where Should We Begin?” podcast started the proceedings off on the right note by responding to Noah’s quip that he has “an intimate relationship with microphones” by responding, “I have intimate relationships with people.”

The live podcast, recorded at a packed breakout room in the Austin Convention Center, started with Perel labeling comedians as modern prophets. Noah responded, in his typical fashion, by saying he was interested in a free therapy session. Noah said laughter takes away the sting of trauma, and Perel agreed that laughter helps us control the uncontrollable.

“When people say what is humor’s purpose, it’s like saying what is water’s purpose,” Noah said, adding that, even in the horror of the Second World War, Charlie Chaplin leaned on humor to take Hitler down a few pegs with his comedy “The Great Dictator.”

“Humor is the closest you can get to a person without touching them,” said Perel, adding that, as she so often advises in her therapy sessions, she invited Noah to “sit with this for a moment.”

Becoming thoughtful, Noah shared an anecdote about a friend from South Africa who learned his uncle had been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. After a few moments of shock and tears, one relative left the room and returned with a huge smile, claiming the doctor had found a miracle path forward.

“He says you can bend forward and kiss your ass goodbye,” the relative said, which not only lent levity to the moment but turned all frowns in the room upside down.

“Humor relies on sharing a reality. Even if it’s just for a moment,” Noah said, adding that even though the friend’s uncle was unable to beat the cancer, the laugh served its momentary purpose. “Humor requires truth. It always requires truth.”

Comedy is also, according to Noah, a lot like the sexual act. Sometimes it’s a seduction exercise, with the audience providing feedback along the way—not dissimilar to the noise and reactions of the crowds at a comedy show.

The pair also spoke about the importance of context: If someone walked past a comedy club hearing laughter, they would have no idea of its context, especially if they were laughing at something potentially offensive. Thus anything can be humorous in the right setting.

When Perel asked Noah why he was interested in becoming a better listener, the comedian shared that, in a previous romantic relationship, he had often found himself nodding and saying “uh huh” when his partner spoke—which Noah likened to that moment during a comedy show when the drink and food tabs are passed out by the wait staff and the performer has to compete with the distraction.

“I would always be hearing what [my ex] was saying…but the idea of shaping the speaker by your full listening is something” I’m learning, said Noah. He added that, in those “uh huh” moments with his ex, he was hearing, he said, but not “listening.” Perel said this was akin to someone who is physically there but not “present,” something she often encounters in couples therapy sessions.

Perel admitted to often experiencing stage fright, especially before a public interview with someone of Noah’s stature. Overachievers, she said, tend to be perfectionists, which may be something else that links her and Noah. Like Noah, Perel is preparing to take her show on the road. Noah’s upcoming tour, called “Off the Record,” was so named because he’s a fan of more authentic moments—i.e., those when someone knows they aren’t being taped.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we could do this moment without recordings and such,” Noah said of the podcast happening live. “You had to be there. We aren’t good at saying, ‘It has happened. What now?'”

In other words, he’s far more concerned with conversing rather than reacting. But still keeping some secrets.

“People tell me I feel like I know everything about you and nothing about you. And I’m like, yeah, I do that on purpose,” Noah said.

Who else remembers MoviePass, the app that allowed members to see as many movies as they wanted for the low, low price of $9.95? Unsurprisingly, this business model eventually imploded spectacularly—and yet, somehow, it’s back! This incredible story of late-model capitalism is told in the documentary “MoviePass MovieCrash,” which made its debut at SXSW. Director Muta’Ali Muhammad introduced the film, which is not only a story about business but also, given that MoviePass’s founders are Black, one about race.

Muhammad said he initially wanted to be an engineer but became a filmmaker instead. And after discovering that MoviePass was founded by two African Americans, Stacy Spikes and Hamet Watt, he knew this was a documentary he needed to tell—especially as they were forced out by two White men who then ran MoviePass into the ground.

Spikes and Watt said after the screening that MoviePass made the studios money, and thus, it was good for everyone involved. As seen in the film, after the platform’s infamous collapse, Spikes was able to rebuy it for pennies on the dollar, potentially giving it a new life this time around.

“2023 was MoviePass’s first profitable year,” he said, which drew applause from the auditorium. “There is no spokesperson for the moviegoing experience. … Cinema’s not broken; it just needs an upgrade. I don’t want cinema dying on my watch due to lack of innovation.”

“Even the company getting shut down is not stopping this guy,” added Watt.

“At MoviePass we all go to the movies together once a month, usually on Friday morning,” said Spikes.

“Is this story about race; is it about capitalism and greed? I think it’s both,” said Muhammad, adding he wanted to end his film with a study of how the MoviePass founders overcame adversity. “It was exciting to find out you guys are Black. … It reminded me of something being colonized.

“Investigate the relationship you had with fear,” the group advised. “That anger is an energy source.”

The public has anxiously awaited Conan O’Brien’s return to TV. Thanks to MAX, he’ll be back with several upcoming episodes of his new travel show, “Conan O’Brien Must Go.” The former late-night host spoke at a crowded ballroom at the Austin Convention Center, in which he was interviewed by comedian Nick Kroll—a frequent guest on his old show.

“We dress like cowboys who took acid…which is kind of like the Austin aesthetic,” O’Brien said, maintaining his goofy persona in the first minute.

His podcast, “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend,” allows him to meet people from all over the world, which inspired him to film the travel specials. If a fan from another land particularly intrigues him, O’Brien said he would show up—unannounced—to their homeland with a camera crew in town.

“I like going into people’s homes…it sounds terrible [but] I like the improv,” O’Brien said, adding that for his visit to Norway to see a fan called Jarla, “there were so many gifts in Jarla’s apartment” to make impromptu jokes.

MAX’s budget also allows for O’Brien and his producers to play with such toys as drone cameras—and low-tech processes such as hiring a Larry David lookalike to meet a fan of the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star in Argentina.

Each trip to another country takes approximately eight to nine days, O’Brien said in between sharing clips with the room of the upcoming four episodes.

When Kroll asked O’Brien at what point the sixty year-old realized he had a funny bone, O’Brien responded, “Just now.”

“The good lord did this to me and rather than hide from it…I will lean into it,” he said. “I’m grateful I got to do the twenty eight-year [talk show] format but decided it was time to find new stuff to do. … The trap in our business is that if you don’t sustain something it’ll wither [with you telling yourself] ‘I gotta keep doing it or…I won’t be let into that restaurant.'”

O’Brien said that Americans often have a reputation for not caring about the rest of the world. Comedy, he believes, can be that bridge.

“I like to go to other countries and be a little bit unaware, a little bit [uncomfortable] with my surroundings…and see if I can make people laugh,” he said. “There’s something the opposite of cynical about that.

“I like the concept of going places where my status is low…people are free to make fun of me. It feels like maybe a nice ‘flavor’ right now.”

“CONAN O’BRIEN MUST GO” debuts on MAX on April 18th.

“The best thing about travel,” O’Brien said, “is you become someone else for a bit.”

The reviews

Director: Natalia Santa

Writer-director Natalia Santa of Colombia presents a travelogue of painful growth for her protagonist, Mariana (Estefanía Piñeres), still reeling from her father’s absence after many years, as well as from her mother’s alcoholism and the family’s rampant dysfunction. Mariana, still living at home in Bogota, works for an English-speaking customer service job, and spends her nights trying to forget it all with drugs and dangerous sexual escapades—all while dreaming of escaping to the Mediterranean isle of Malta (she also attends German classes, however that language is not spoken on the island). Piñeres is magnificent, as is Patricia Tamayo as her perpetually disappointed-by-life mother, and Emmanuel Restrepo as Gabriel, a local boy attempting a unique ploy to get Mariana to date him. Piñeres and Santa are definite talents to watch.

“Any other way: The Jackie Shane story”

Directors: Michael Mabbott, Lucah Rosenberg-Lee

Jackie Shane was well known in Nashville’s musical community, but then, in 1971, Shane just…disappeared. There were rumors of a knife fight. But what really happened? This intriguing documentary, combining archival footage, audio of Shane and new interviews, traces Shane’s career as a transgender performer on Nashville’s Jefferson Street, the “Black Broadway,” at a time when the term itself wasn’t in use but Nashville nonetheless had anti-crossdressing laws (and could again????). An interesting bit of history that is relevant given contemporary discussions.

“An army of women”

Director: Julie Lund Lillesæter

SXSW famously takes place in Austin, a noted liberal city in a rather conservative state, but for the women profiled by filmmaker Julie Lund Lillesæter, the Texas capital has indeed let them down. Their claims of rape were often dismissed or not taken seriously, allowing their attackers to go free. Their mission—with the help of two crusading attorneys—is to remove the district attorney from office and seek justice, even if justice in the form of money and an apology is the best they can hope for. This “Army” is an inspiring watch and guaranteed to get the blood boiling for anyone who hungers to see righteousness win.

Director: Charlie Hamilton-James

Scotsman Billy Mail needed some direction, which he found curiously when an otter named Molly came into his life in Shetland, in the northernmost part of the UK. Not only did the creature help Billy find a sense of empathy and care, but it also brought a new direction to his marriage. A strikingly beautiful and heart-stirring story, “Billy and Molly” is a most unlikely love story that is magnificently photographed by director Charlie Hamilton-James.

(featured image by Eric Althoff)