Critical Distance: Things I Learned At SXSW 2016

Managing Editor; Dallas, Texas (@peteramartin)
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Critical Distance: Things I Learned At SXSW 2016

A funny thing happened on the way to the Paramount Theatre.

The theatre, built in 1915, seats some 1,300 people. It is elegant, it is classic, and it is a miserable place to watch a movie. Naturally, it serves as the signature venue for the film festival held annually at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas.

Which is to say, if the movie is good, then the cramped seats, limited space between rows, and often-limited sightlines fade away. I've enjoyed many a screening at the Paramount -- last year's highlight was The Road Warrior in 35 mm, with director George Miller in attendance -- but as I've grown older, the long wait outside in the elements (this year it rained heavily on opening night), followed by a mad rush to find seats that are usually less than optimal, often for the opportunity to watch studio products opening widely in theaters a bit later in the year, finally prompted me to look elsewhere at the festival for my cinema fix.

And so next door to the Paramount, I waited (in the rain, still) to see a documentary about someone I'd never heard of before, and discovered Bang! The Bert Berns Story. (Review here.) That strong start served as a wake-up call, in the category of 'Obvious Things I've Somehow Forgotten.' Namely, that while's its definitely fun to see big, anticipated movies early, it's even more rewarding to discover good films that people are not yet talking about.

I let that guide me over the long weekend that I attended SXSW. Sure, I missed out on the high-profile buzz titles. Sure, I saw some movies that were, uh, not as good as they could have been. Sure, I did see one studio title. But of the 18 movies that I ended up seeing, nearly all world premieres, the ratio of good to not-so-good was surprisingly positive.

Even the films that disappointed represented the work of dedicated people intent on realizing their unique visions. Rather than pick those apart under the deadline nature of festival coverage, however, I preferred to focus on the films I responded to in some positive way.

Where I live in Dallas, Texas, the Asian Film Festival of Dallas, Dallas International Film Festival, Texas Theatre, and Alamo Drafthouse have definitely expanded possibilities in recent years. Theoretically I could move to an even more cinema-friendly city, assuming an inheritance from a wealthy relative appears suddenly. In the meantime, though, I have realized I need to dial back on the wide releases I've been consuming and writing about just for the sake of having something to write about. I need to return my focus to independent and archival movies, while still allowing room, of course, to cover studio releases that intrigue. (Like 10 Cloverfield Lane, for example, which I loved.)

Though I'm proud to be a member of the Dallas/Fort Worth Film Critics Association, the privilege of attending advance screenings is balanced by the compelling need to write about what I've seen in a timely fashion. This past week, for example, I had no particular desire to write about superheroes.

To be clear, I'm fine with watching superheroes in action. Recently, I very much enjoyed catching up with Jessica Jones, and am currently enjoying Daredevil, both via Netflix. And I saw Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice at a matinee screening at my local Alamo Drafthouse on Friday. (I agree with what our reviewer, James Marsh, wrote in his review.) After SXSW, however, I realized that I don't have much more to write about superhero movies and TV shows, beyond what I've already written.

Maybe that compulsion will return in due course ... maybe not. Maybe it's just that my writing juices were happily spent in writing about new movies I saw at SXSW and I'd rather save my time and energy to write about movies and TV shows that may be lesser known and/or move me strongly in some way.

Which is why I started writing for ScreenAnarchy in the first place.

Critical Distance is a column by managing editor Peter Martin in which he displays his ample cultural ignorance and lack of common artistic taste.

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columnCritical Distanceindependent moviesSXSW 2016Brett BernsBob SarlesChristina KeatingJoel SelvinBrooks ArthurJeff BarryCarmine DeNoiaCissy HoustonDocumentaryDan TrachtenbergJosh CampbellMatthew StueckenDamien ChazelleJohn GoodmanMary Elizabeth WinsteadJohn Gallagher Jr.Douglas M. GriffinDramaHorrorMysteryJonathan LajoieCharlie LajoieEvan BlaylockRebecca McGarvieShortThriller

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BenUmsteadMarch 28, 2016 6:11 PM

Hear hear!

Very glad to read this today, Peter.