Ashlee Simpson's Sitting Behind Me...

I could have spent the entire weekend posting from the film side of the annual spring-break multimedia orgy South by Southwest, which wraps up Sunday; God knows there are dozens, if not hundreds, of pasty-faced folks doing that very thing after every panel, after every screening, after every party. But the film fest--which 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 a drunken Dick to hump the faces of poor volunteers at the post-screening Q&A session.

Wait, sorry. I am writing this in the lobby of the Four Seasons, and at 3:27 p.m. this very Monday 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, I think 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 (Jesus...) and New Line's interest. Me, I don't even think the phone was on. Or real. (He's gone now--with probably the biggest deal and best film of the fest, so what do I know?)

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.) No matter the throngs it's still a laid-back festival, a party without much of a hangover the next day; just ask Sam Shepard about his SXSW next time you see him. And unlike it's big-bro music fest, which celebrates its 20th birthday with its Wednesday kickoff, 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 signed for $10.5 million, after all.)

There are half a dozen films likely to get bought after their SXSW debuts—movies 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 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.

But here's what makes SXSW so swell: Yesterday, 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. He said he'd seen it and hated it, dismissing it as 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. —Robert Wilonsky

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