The nice man with the cowboy hat and the stacks of beers was asking me if I smoke. Well, when you're in a limo in Texas with Longhorn antlers on the hood and a furry zebra-print interior there is really only one appropriate answer to that question. It was SXSW-eve and, momentarily forgetting that I had promised to make it an early night in anticipation of the madness to come, I waved to my bemused friends on the sidewalk and crawled into the vehicle in question. Alice in Chains blasted on the iPod of my generous host -- in honor of the recently deceased Mike Starr, I was informed -- while he chatted about his day job as the owner of local head shop Mr. Nice Guys. When the person actually paying to enjoy this sweet ride returned, ("Okay, get the fuck out," the Starr-mourner said genially), I promptly moved on to the only slightly more spacious confines of the mirrored Xanadu karaoke room at Austin's multi-purpose nightspot The Highball.
The official opening night party the following day felt a little tame by comparison, but I can hardly fault the excellent SXSW team for that. They hewed to tradition, hosting the fete once again at Buffalo Billiards, a massive, wood-paneled cowboy cave whose multiple floors were packed with filmmakers, journalists, and industry folk. Speaking of which, the crazy crowds appear to have become a bit of a tradition as well. Opening night premiere Source Code, by Moon director and David Bowie progeny Duncan Jones, was almost as mobbed as the 2010 festival opener, the similarly big-budgeted genre film Kickass. The film fell somewhere in the upper ranges of the standard thriller, bringing touches of Jones' sci-fi creativity and impressive plot construction to the conventional dialogue and sometimes nonsensical narrative logic, overall certainly good enough to contend with Hollywood thrillers Unknown and The Adjustment Bureau, released earlier this year.
Last year's line-a-palooza was forgivable given the intimidating number of attendees was a bit of a surprise, and consequently the festival seemed to be experimenting with solutions to mitigate the continuing issue. Most effective was the addition of several new venues; Paramount's cool kid sister theater The State, stage venue the Rollins, and two Regal theaters outside of the downtown area that brought the festival's decidedly indie programming to its big box mall audiences. On the more questionably effective end of the spectrum, volunteers handed out little queue cards with numbers that apparently meant nothing, leaving me totally perplexed as to their purpose. I finally worked out that, rather than creating a hierarchy for the herd, these numbers allowed the staff to glean how many seats were still available in their theater. So while one might still be turned away from a film, they'll know upon arrival whether they are in or out, as opposed to waiting in line for half an hour with no idea of the chances. A minor victory!
The congestion is not so unusual for any number of other film festivals around the country and undoubtedly indicates a certain level of success, but the dismay of some longtime SXSW attendees stems from the fact that it is a new development for this one, which seems to be in danger of losing just a little of its scrappy outsider status. Sponsor logos and promotional materials practically paper over the Austin Convention Center, Sundance-like, and the main drag of 6th street has gone from excitingly bustling to resembling a deranged carnival; film kids, hippies, street performers, and drunken frat boys reveling amid pounding music and seizure-inducing strobe lights. As I pushed past another crowded bar on the way out of Buffalo Billiards, a 20-something girl with a great haircut leaned out of the open windows and puked. Without missing a beat she procured her cell phone to proclaim to whoever was on the other end waiting to hear it, "South By is fucking awesome!!!"