Dear Austin Film Festival: "More Frog Legs!"

I spent a three day weekend at the Austin Film Festival. This yearly event is often eclipsed by South by Southwest. If my quickie “research” via Google can be trusted, the film component of SXSW began the same year as the AFF. 1994. What sets the AFF apart, is that it's principally a screenwriter festival. Many of the panelists, attendees, and featured guests are not likely to be known by general moviegoers. However, they make it a point to have at least one big name to slap onto the promotional materials. This year it was Oliver Stone … noted for such stellar screenplays such as Conan the Barbarian and The Hand.

The best thing about the festival is that it's headquartered in the 19th century Driscoll Hotel. The swankiest edifice on 6th Street. The entrance off 7th Street through the Driscoll Bar reminds you how grand and eccentric some Texans used to be, with one boot in a cow pie, and the other on an immaculate carpet of a Swiss bank. The millionaire shit-kicker is now little more than a guise the monstrously well-to-do put on for BBQ photo-ops. Our ranching barons and oil moguls have always flaunted their humble roots. In fact, Stanley Marcus, of Neiman-Marcus fame, demanded that all his employees treat every person with the same degree of polite deference — the woman in the blouse with the frayed cuffs might be their biggest customer who just came off the Lear Jet from her west Texas ranch. This disinclination of Texans to dress up just because they're rich, is now endemic throughout this country. And so, in the 21st century, that guy entering the Driscoll Bar in torn jeans, sandals, and a flannel shirt worn open over a faded t-shirt bearing some cryptic logo, may well be a Hollywood power-broker just off the redeye from LAX — it could well be that he will close a seven figure deal before he checks out … or maybe he's just some UT student bar-hopping on 6th Street who really needs to use the can. As Ricardo Montalban, in the role of Mr. Roarke, insisted of his underlings: “Smiles, everyone. Smiles!” 'Cause, well, you never know.

The AFF isn't for the squeamish. It's too expensive for the squeamish. But this year (like the other time I visited, maybe four years ago), I rode on Pete's coat-tails. This time around, he'd submitted a festival promo trailer. And he won. The festival folks presented him with a full festival pass. In fact, I believe, 4 festival passes. He gave me one. I could hardly say no.

So, we pushed our way into the Driscoll Bar last Friday a bit before noon. We stepped into the cozy gloom of dark wood, deep carpet, and ornately stamped brass-work on the ceiling. It's a long space with the semi-circular bar near the doors, a few tables scattered about, and as you walk the length, you pass a grand piano with bar stools surrounding it, and then comes about a dozen huge leather and cowhide sofas, facing one another two by two with low tables between. Then you come to a huge wooden railing where the lobby opens up, and you find yourself looking into a large, airy space busy with immaculately dressed hotel employees and the greater crush of slovenly conventioneers.

We descended into the lobby and turned into a side room and signed in for the festival. (We didn't register at the hotel — we'd rented a cheap motel a few miles away.)

I attended several panels. Presently, they are all merging together in my head. Maybe after a week or so, I'll process it all. Separate the useful stuff from the gassy chin music. I also watched a few blocks of short films, as well as a couple of features. About half great, half awful.

I put in an appearance at some parties. Hit a few places for free eats. Pretty much a fun time.

It's hard for me to chastise my San Antonio film colleagues for not showing. If I didn't have the free all access Pete Barnstrom pass, I'd certainly not have gone. But, still, I saw some familiar faces.

Janet Vasquez was in line with a friend for a screening at the Hideout. I saw Konise Millender at a couple of panels. Russ Ansley and Dago Patlan were there Saturday with their film students from Harlandale high school — and they returned Sunday, with a second batch of students. Modrea Mitchell-Reichert was all over the place. She's pretty serious about writing for the stage as well as film. Also, I kept bumping into Richard Dane Scott. He wrote the excellent script for Operation Hitman. Beyond his obvious talent, he's working hard and in a methodical manner to reach the point where he can make a living working as a screenwriter. My money's on Richard. Also, I saw Drew Mayer-Oakes on Saturday. We leafed through the schedule of screenings and exchanged notes on what we thought might be worth seeing. Tim Caswell dropped by to talk to Pete. It was great to see him again. Tim's a filmmaker, but he also created The OUTer Gay and Lesbian Science Fiction / Fantasy Film Festival. I saw Lisa McWilliams of the Mobile Film School on Saturday and Sunday. I'm immensely enamored of the concept of the Mobile Film School, where a group of film professionals with the requisite equipment travel anywhere to provide an intense film class to under-served school districts. Where do I sign up? It doesn't hurt that their first project — and keep in mind they were working with high school kids whose school had no film department — is winning and placing at festivals, and it damn well should: In a Place Like This as a slick and moving short documentary. I first met Lisa while helping to run the Josiah Youth Media Festival (where the MFS's In a Place Like This won best of show). That's also where I met Remington Dewan. At the AFF, I saw him all three days. His short film, First Day at the Firm (which won best narrative film at Josiah), was selected to play at the AFF. He took advantage of his festival pass, attending as many panels as he could manage. He's still just a kid, and I forget this at times; but he reminds me when he begins to explain how he must schedule his shooting, editing, and festival time around his school work. He's sure to be going places, and clearly he has a wonderful and supportive family.

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I had a couple quick sightings of Oliver Stone. He was wearing a white jacket, and were it not for his retinue of bootlicks, one might have been excused confusing him for a waiter. During one of his perambulations through the Driscoll lobby, I whipped out my camera. But he moved too fast for my puny attempts as paparazzo.

Of course, if I really gave a toss about the man, I'd have attended one of the events featuring him. (That sounds harsh. I will readily admit to being a fan of two or three of his films.)

My blurry photo of Ollie, of which I will spare my gentle readers, was snapped while I was hanging out with a contingent of instructors from two of San Antonio's high school film programs.

Here we have Dago, inexplicably giving Konise what appears to be a Cub Scout salute. Russ looks on bemused (and no doubt damn glad to be out of the HISD panel truck he had driven all the way from San Antonio to Austin, packed with hormonal teens).

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Some of the Harlandale kids are milling around in the back.

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The Sunday morning “Hair of the Dog Brunch” was held at Ranch 616, a low-key hipster eatery at the intersection of Nueces and 6th Street. It sports a pleasantly hideous snake sign design by the inimitable Bob “Daddy-O” Wade. I guess that sort of forced kitsch has worn thin on me. Instead of snapping a photo of Wade's work, I took a picture of the other side of the building.

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Sadly frog legs were not an option at the buffet-style brunch. But I will give thumbs-up to what they were serving. The papas rancheros and scrambled eggs were tasty enough, but once you ladled on the tomatillo salsa, it was well worth the hike out from the Driscoll.

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There are all sorts of alcoves, patios, and balconies throughout the Driscoll if you need to escape the surging conflux. And, let me tell you, the level of unabashed narcissism projected by screenwriters (the successful as well as the hopeful) was simply staggering.

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Here's a view off one of the Driscoll's balconies, looking off toward one of the modern hotels patronized by rubes and the aesthetically clueless.

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The festival sprawled all over town. There were screenings at seven different venues. Some distant enough to necessitate free shuttle buses out from the Driscoll. Also, some of the panels were held across the street from the Driscoll at another swank downtown hotel, the Stephen F. Austin.

As me and Pete were walking past one of the small ballrooms of the SFA Hotel, which at that moment was not being used, Pete wandered inside. He started dicking around with the PA system. Apparently the microphones were still switched on. I entered and took a few action shots of him addressing the crowd on the topic of … um, perhaps it was “Expletives in Your Logline: Hindrance or Fucking Asset?”

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The festival-goers didn't know what they were missing.

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Over the weekend I received a call from my sister. She had been contacted by a fellow book dealer we had met at the Fort Worth Book Show. He was interested in one of my more pricey items.

I've sent it to him this afternoon on approval. If all goes well, I will find myself with a hefty windfall — one of those life-changing events that can happen to the impoverished when significant cash comes our way.

I'll just have to wait and see.

And maybe some day those folks who run the 48 Hour Film thing will send me my payment for the work which generated my last ulcer. I mean, hey, it only seems fair.

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I've been listening to LastFM.com tonight. You type in a specific artist, and you can listen to a generated playlist of similar music. An hour ago I typed in Ed Hall. They were a great Texas post-punk band. Much of the music that has been playing off their name tonight has been from some of their label-mates off of the Trance Syndicate label. But I wasn't prepared for the Bad Livers (a wonderful Texas bluegrass punk band) doing a great bluegrass rendition of Iggy Pop's Lust For Life, with banjo and fiddle in lieu of a guitar solo … and yet it rocks! I really should go out and buy every damn Bad Livers CD!

Outside the wind is picking up. Autumn is on the way, and there is nothing I can do to stop it. I feel robbed of a proper Texas summer because of the endless cool and wet weather. Oh, well. Best to embrace the coming season. No one likes a whiner. The heavy atypical rains have created a massive crop of pecans loading down the tree over my drive. And as the autumnal cool front pushes presumptuously into town, the pecan tree can't help but to release some of the under-ripe pecans weighting down the branches. They've been clattering down all night onto the tin roof of my house, as well as onto the steel roof of my pickup truck.

My neighbors are aware of the coming holiday. They are festooning their homes from mailbox to satellite dish with strings of orange lights, fiber glass spider webs, and ginormous pumpkins not yet carved into the sorts of apocalyptic jack-o-lanterns certain to put to shame those lesser contraptions which will grace the stoops of lesser homes in lesser neighborhoods. I live in ground zero of San Antonio Halloween insanity. This is where the poor kids commute for the best candy and the best decorated homes. It's crazy in the King William neighborhood during Halloween. And now that Cat, my Halloween friend, is married and living in another city far far away, I might have to refrain from the festivities.

But maybe not. I still have two weeks to decide.

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