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Deep in the cultural heart of Texas 

What makes a town cool? Austin, Texas, is consistently ranked as one of the more culturally advanced mid-sized cities in America along with such places as Athens, Georgia, and Seattle, Washington. One reason could be location. There isn't another cool town within 500 miles of Austin. No offense, Dallas and San Antonio. That's what I was told.

            Another thing Austin has going for it is writer-director Richard Linklater. He comes back to his hometown quite often to film and to bring his fellow directors to the South by Southwest (SXSW) Conferences and Festivals.

            SXSW started in 1986 as a music and media conference. Film and interactive sections were added in 1993, and the film festival quickly became one of the most respected in the country. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have visited in the past, and this year independent film legends Jim Jarmusch and Jonathan Demme were there.

            I had the honor of having my short film Lunch in the 2002 SXSW, but I didn't go. This year they accepted my comedy short Who's Your Daddy? and I had the time and money.

About four hours after my flight arrived, Who's Your Daddy? and a half-dozen other comedy shorts were shown at a midnight screening. The program included a Christopher Walken tribute called Walkentalk, which featured not just one but four Walken impersonators. Sadly the real Walken did not make an appearance.

            However, John Stamos did appear in a movie named after him. I Am Stamos is a fluffy piece about an actor who looks like John Stamos but only on camera. Mr. Stamos was in the crowd that night, which drew attention away from the other filmmakers. Also, his wife kept hitting on me. It was all very unsettling.

            The screening was held at The Alamo Drafthouse. In front of each row at the Alamo is a counter where you can order beer and food. You would think a drunk midnight crowd would be the perfect audience for short comedies. But as soon as the lights went out I felt the crowd get sleepy. I don't think many patrons will remember the Alamo screening that night. The second, Stamos-free, screening of the same short films on Tuesday morning went a lot better. The crowd gave a hearty laugh for all the shorts.

            At SXSW I stayed with two other filmmakers. One of them, Scott Smith, came all the way from Vancouver. He made a wonderful comedy called Falling Angels based on Barbara Gowdy's acclaimed novel.

            Falling Angels is the story of a dysfunctional, borderline psychotic Canadian family in the late '60s. Miranda Richardson ably plays Mary Field, the family's catatonic alcoholic mother, and Callum Keith Rennie plays Jim Field, the more functionally alcoholic father. Most of the film's flashbacks revolve around Jim's mission to train his family for nuclear attack by keeping them in the family bomb shelter for two weeks.

            Jim's three daughters continue to deal with their parent's bizarre antics throughout their teenage years. The film could have easily wandered into the syrupy realm, as is often seen in family dramas. Instead, director Scott Smith was able to find genuine humor and depth in each of the teenage daughters.

            Katharine Isabelle stands out as Lou Field, the most rebellious of the three daughters. She is the only one to confront her father, even when he is drunk. She can be witty and charming even when being a complete brat. Also worth noting is a wonderfully bizarre appearance by Kids In The Hall alumni Mark McKinney. I hope Falling Angels will make it to The Little Theatre. Be sure to catch it if it does.

            The day before I left for Austin I found out the ambitious fantasy short film Finding Hermann was accepted into the festival. The film was written and directed by my friend Eric P. Robinson. Eric's film follows a peculiar man and his crew as they restore hope and faith in the lives of the lost and disenchanted souls that inhabit an alternate reality. The film reminded me of the otherworldly settings created by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, director of Amelie and TheCity of Lost Children, but it still managed to create a unique style and mood.

            One of the actors in Finding Hermann, John Carlino, was also a co-producer of the feature length documentary (and Sundance Jury Prize Winner) Farmingville. The film is an intense exploration of the plight of Mexican migrant workers in Long Island. I've seen several documentaries dealing with immigration issues but they were never set in my home state. Conflict and violence arises as the workers are mistreated by both the local government and the reactionary townsfolk.

            The film gives equal time to the key players on both sides of the issue. We see city officials who are sympathetic to the plight of the workers as well as angry citizens holding signs that read, "Use the military to deport illegal aliens." The film is most compelling when it interviews the workers and citizens trapped between the two sides. Look for Farmingville on PBS where it will be a part of their signature documentary series P.O.V.

            The vibe at SXSW is very casual and not flooded with film industry phonies. The film panels were very focused and tried hard not to descend into the usual theme of "How do I make it in Hollywood?"

            One panel was hosted by Chris Gore of Film Threat magazine. He challenged the panelists to give details and numbers when discussing film distribution deals. I was happy to hear real examples backed with actual numbers instead of the vague information that usually comes out of such panels.

            Even better was a panel dedicated to the late Bill Hicks, one of the most poignant and aggressive comedians since Lenny Bruce. Friends and biographer Cynthia True shared stories of Hicks' life and work, which were cut short by cancer when he was 32.

            By the time I left Austin, the town was filling up with musicians. People with tattoos started to outnumber those without. The SXSW Music Conference draws over 1,000 bands that play gigs at Austin's 52 participating music venues.

            I wish I could have stuck around but I forgot my earplugs. So long for now, Austin. Keep being weird.

Who's Your Daddy? will be screened as part of the Emerging Filmmakers series on Monday, March 29, at The Little Theatre, 240 East Avenue, at 9:30 p.m. Tix: $5. See Lunch at www.eggwork.com/lunch.

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