Taking this picture of Ashlee Simpson with my cell phone made my feel creepy, but in a good way. But since you can barely tell who it is, well, what's the dif?

Ashlee Simpson Is (Well, Was) Sitting Behind Me...

This item appeared on this blog for about two minutes yesterday, before vanishing into the ether; dunno how or why, and no longer do I care. All I know is I didn't spend 12 minutes writing this criminally prolix item just to burn the sumbitch. So here it is again, edited to make it at least seem timely...

I could have spent the last few days posting tiny item after tiny item from the film side of the annual spring-break multimedia orgy called South by Southwest, which wraps up this Sunday; God knows there are dozens, if not hundreds, of pasty-faced folks doing that very thing this very moment after every screening, panel and party. But the film fest--which kicked off Friday and begins earlier each year, with more screenings taking place on Friday this year than ever before—is best digested as a whole than regurgitated in pieces; how else to process seeing one of the year's better rock docs (loudQUIETloud, about the 2004 reunion of the Pixies) immediately after one of the worst movies ever made (Andy Dick's directorial debut Danny Roane: First Time Director, autobiography that's thinly veiled in a thin layer of alky vomit)? No way in hell Sundance would have taken this one, or allowed Dick to drunkenly hump the heads of its volunteers during the post-screening Q&A. It was a low point in the fest's history...that, or just some clever way of trying to get the number of registrants back to a managable number next year. As one colleague often wondered during the fest, "Is this the year South by Southwest jumped the shark?"

Wait, sorry. I am writing this in the lobby of the Four Seasons, and at this very moment Marley Shelton (Sin City) is behind me, talking to some pretty 20s-to-50s women who were just chatting about "Ashlee's new tattoo." (Actually, that is Ashlee...Simpson, c'mon.) Now they're discussing Shelton's starring role in the new Quentin Tarantino-Robert Rodriguez movie that starts shooting here on Thursday, Grindhouse, an homage to 1970s sexy slasher pics. It occurs to me you could just blog from the Four Seasons bar all week; two seconds ago, some fratty-lookin' dude was on his cell yelping about his movie's rave on Ain't it Cool News (which never met a movie it didn't wanna suck off) and New Line's interest. Me, I don't even think the phone was on. Or real.

So, then, back to business.

SXSW film fest saw a huge jump in registration this year; it's up 50 percent, to some 10,000 badge-holders this annum, according to film-fest director Matt Dentler. It's taken on the hipster cache of Sundance, without all the product placement, or Toronto, without all the studios pimping Oscar product. (And Sundance gets Paris Hilton, while SXSW has 24's Xander Berkeley; I'll take the latter, as will my former colleague Zac Crain, who grinned his way through a brief chitchat with the actor at a Sun-night shindig.) No matter the throngs it's still a laid-back festival, a party without much of a hangover the next day. On second thought, ask Sam Shepard about his SXSW next time you see him (or ask if he can remember it). And unlike its big-bro music fest, which celebrates its 20th birthday with its kickoff tomorrow, the film fest is still a place where unknowns can show up to peddle product they think will make them famous. (If nothing else you can keep score at a film fest easier than at a music fest; bands are not signed for $10.5 million, after all.)

There are half a dozen films likely to get bought after their SXSW debuts: Offerings such as Fuck (a thoughtful, dirrrrrty essay movie featuring Hunter S. Thompson's last filmed interview), doc-makers Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob's Al Franken: God Spoke, the Austin-made deadpan comedy Gretchen and the Pixies movie oughta leave the festival with at least some distributor interest. In a just world so too would the surprisingly awesome The Life of Reilly (a one-man show featuring Match Gamer Charles Nelson Reilly) and Darkon (a bi-polar epic doc about live-action role-players).

There is no doubt some company will also bite on the fest's best doc entry, Maxed Out, about folks who drown in debt and the credit card companies who prey off them. It even has a Dallas connection: It was directed by James Scurlock, who lived in the Uptown area a few years back, launched a trade mag for restaurant investors and returns every so often to write in a friend's apartment. The movie will infuriate and depress; if you don't cut your MasterCard to pieces after seeing this, you either don't have a credit card or own the Dallas Mavericks. The movie may not have much commercial appeal--broke folks don't like being reminded they're broke, and rich people don't like to be reminded of broke people--but Scurlock's also got a companion book due from Scribner at year's end, so distributors might like the chance to cross-promote.

The movies are one thing; celeb-spotting is its own separate game. (The brilliant, doughy Everyman John C. Reilly was around to pimp Robert Altman's delightful A Prairie Home Companion, but no one else from the movie showed; then it got to be a game of Spot Kevin Corrigan. Oh, well.) But here's what makes SXSW so swell: On Sunday, after a day of screenings and interviews, some colleagues and I were taking a cab to a party being hosted by Todd Wagner and the Landmark-Magnolia folks—a packed wingding of movers, shakers and other movie-biz heartbreakers. One of our companions was running down his roster of movies seen during the day, one of which was Gretchen, which he said he'd seen and hated because it played like some Napoleon Dynamite knock-off. "You talkin' about Gretchen?" asked our cabbie. "I was in it." We all prayed, then and there, for a violent car crash. Like the Andy Dick movie. Turns out our cabbie was also in The Wendell Baker Story, the movie written and directed by Luke and Andrew Wilson that opened last year's SXSW and still has no distribution, because it's just that awful...no, awesome, meant to say awesome. "Yeah, got to meet Owen Wilson," said our cabbie. "Met him at the wrap party. I went to say hi, and he just nodded and walked away. He's not that cool." Sure beats going to Padre for spring break. —Robert Wilonsky

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