Without much notice, America has entered the Golden Age of documentaries. And this year's South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival proved just how golden that age is.
During the past week, soon-to-be-classic documentaries that represent years of work have played for Austin audiences. They include the previously highlighted "Incendiary," from Austin's Steve Mims and Joe Bailey Jr.; "Better This World," which examines the domestic terrorism case against two young men with Austin ties who tried to disrupt the Republican National Convention in 2008; and "Foo Fighters: Back and Forth," an inside look at the band from director James Moll.
"The Devil's Box," an excellent look at Texas-style fiddling and directed by Texan Jason Hammond, premiered Thursday night. And "The King of Luck," Billy Bob Thornton's portrait of Willie Nelson, closes the festival at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Paramount Theatre.
Here's a look at several other documentaries that played SXSW and that you'll be hearing about again in the year to come:
'Page One: Inside The New York Times'
One of the signature movies at this year's SXSW (and not just because part of it was filmed here last year), "Page One: Inside The New York Times" is a brilliantly paced doc about the times in which the Times finds itself.
Where are we now? Well, the newspaper ad revenue is still going down, the public continues to believe it can be informed without actually paying for the news, and bloggers and aggregators continue to eat into page views, all of which "Page One" addresses.
Directed by Andrew Rossi, the movie crisply folds in Times history both positive and negative while following the Media Desk at the Times, which covers such issues.
Rossi focused on three people, two writers — David Carr and Brian Stelter — and an editor on the desk, Bruce Headlam.
If there's one thing this movie does perfectly, it's that it shows exactly what an editor does, which almost nobody outside of a newsroom understands. Headlam pitches stories to his bosses for inclusion on the front page, he shapes narratives with reporters, he advises on direction and, in one fascinating scene, (wisely) decides to do absolutely nothing about a very strange moment when NBC seems to declare the end of the Iraq war. (This was news to the Pentagon.)
"Page One" is also the continuing story of Carr, the media reporter and maybe the fiercest defender the Times. Carr is full-throated about his fondness for the paper. He smacks down both a Vice magazine co-founder in mid-interview (noting that the Times has had reporters in Liberia forever) and aggregator Michael Wolff of Newser.com (noting that without original reporting, aggregators wouldn't have much to aggregate).
'Conan O'Brien Can't Stop'
Filmmaker Rodman Flender follows Conan O'Brien on his "Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour," shortly after being ousted from as "The Tonight Show" host on NBC.
The documentary captures O'Brien as his moods swing from enthusiastic, weary, angry and ecstatic as he sells out venues nationwide, only to realize that he has to craft a show that will match the expectations of his fans.
After a standing-ovation following a screening at the Paramount, O'Brien answered a question from a fan who asked "if he'd ever do this again."
"I would tour again," O'Brien said, "but it will never be this." The tour, he explained, was fueled by the anger he felt for the way he was treated by his former NBC bosses.
'The Greatest Movie Ever Sold'
This documentary from director Morgan Spurlock and co-writer Jeremy Chilnick pulls the curtain back on the world of product placement. And in a surprising move, Spurlock shows how he arranges product tie-ins to pay for making his movie.
It is both funny and a little unsettling, as discussions with advertising executives, branding gurus, corporate marketing departments and filmmakers reveal the degree to which "selling out" has become de rigueur in the entertainment business u2026 with the operative word being business.
The documentary is the fifth film Spurlock has been connected to that has played at SXSW, which he called the "greatest film fest on the planet."
The filmmaker might be spending even more time in Texas soon. He's developing a TV show for HBO about Texas politics. The pilot has been written by literary giant Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, who teamed up for the "Brokeback Mountain" screenplay. Spurlock says rewrites are ongoing with hopes for production of the pilot to begin as soon as possible.
'The First Movie'
A small but serious audience trekked to the Long Center for "The First Movie," an odd but sometimes quite moving documentary set in the northern Iraq village of Goptapa. Irish filmmaker Mark Cousins visited the area in hopes of introducing local children to storytelling through film, operating on the premise that "few places need redescribing more" than Iraq, and that these kids should be the ones to create new images of their home.
Cousins didn't make it to the fest, but his producer Gill Parry was on hand for a short Q&A, recounting how Iraqi secret police shut down filming a time or two despite the crew's having obtained all required permits.
Parry also explained that, when Cousins set up his impromptu outdoor cinema (showing "E.T." and other films), his team's translator had to stand beside the screen and make up for the lack of subtitles by explaining what characters were saying. That shouldn't be necessary this April or May, when the crew intends to return to Goptapa and show this documentary to the people who starred in it.
'Bob and the Monster'
As "Bob and the Monster" efficiently lays out, the supreme and joyful irony of Bob Forrest's life is that he is much better as a drug counselor than he ever was as a rock star. And for a while there, he was a pretty good rock star.
Bob Forrest was the singer for Thelonious Monster, a band that arose out of the same Los Angeles scene that birthed Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone and Jane's Addiction. Forrest — nerdy with terrible skin and slightly goofy taste in large suit jackets and hats — was blessed with a frontman's charisma. He was where fun happened, a cult unto himself.
He also really, really liked drugs and alcohol, especially heroin. And drugs and alcohol made him a profoundly unpleasant fellow. He scrapped his band on the cusp of critical and commercial fame for a terrible solo album. He even managed to blow an early '90s comeback with drugs, even going so far as to using a needle he was told was exposed to HIV.
As he got himself clean and sober, with the help of a little jail time, he discovered both the Musicians Assistance Program, started by jazz musician Buddy Arnold in 1992 to help music industry professionals recover from drug and alcohol problems, and a knack for helping fellow musicians get clean.
Directed by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, "Fightville" follows a group of guys in and around the Gladiators Academy, a gym outside Lafayette, La., where "Crazy" Tim Credeur of the Ultimate Fighting Championship trains amateur and rising professional fighters.
Creduer loves his students and shows the sharp inner calm and confidence of a true teacher. But woe to the fighter who chooses not to work hard or waste Credeur's time. (The beating he administers to a student who sasses back isu2026memorable.)
Intentionally or not, "Fightville" blends a look at Mixed Martial Arts fighting with a portrait of Louisiana culture.
'Taken By Storm: The Art of Storm Thorgerson'
If you had never seen Storm Thorgerson and only knew him from his art, you would be completely within your rights in thinking that he was a thunder-bolt wielding, heavily bearded Scandinavian, perhaps perpetually tripping or holding a joint.
A few seconds into the highly enjoyable "Taken By Storm: The Art of Storm Thorgerson," one realizes this is completely false. It just goes to show the power of imagination — both yours and his.
As one-half of the design firm Hipgnosis, Thorgerson was a revolutionary presence in 1970s rock, bringing fine art finesse, psychedelic style and a willingness to blow out a budget on enormous sculptures or dozens of large red balls in the middle of the Sahara to get that perfect photographic image for an album sleeve.
The designer of choice for his childhood pals Pink Floyd, Thorgerson and Hipgnosis produced "Dark Side of the Moon," the most iconic album cover of the past 40 years, in addition to the pig and power station on "Animals," the burning man on "Wish You Were Here," and the giant heads of "The Division Bell."
Fond of bold ideas and bolder colors, Thorgerson and Hipgnosis created dozens of covers that were far better than the album. And it's wasn't done with computers, kids. Thorgerson is the real deal, an artist both conceptual and commercial, working straight from the unconscious. "The Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker of album design," as one admirer puts it. "The last great living surrealist," another says.
'The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye'
There is nobody like Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, and one means that quite literally.
Born Neil Andrew Megson in Manchester, England, in 1950, P-Orridge and his band, Throbbing Gristle, all but invented industrial music in the mid-1970s, combining the cut-up technique of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin with harsh electronics, treated instruments, spoken word, tape manipulation, early experiments with sampling and performance art.
His biggest project was Genesis P-Orridge, especially after he met and married Jacqueline "Lady Jaye" Breyer, a stunning young woman involved in New York's performance art scene.
They began an artistic collaboration that would take some singular turns. Living in New York, the pair decided to launch an ongoing experiment in body modification with the intent of creating a theoretical "pandrogynous" ideal.
Genesis and Jaye altered their faces — her nose and chin, his cheeks — and got matching breast implants. The word "s/he" was used a lot, and Genesis suddenly looked like a kind but faintly terrifying granny. (As one of Genesis's daughters put it, "You mean you spent all that money on breasts when you could have bought me a new car?")
Other standout documentaries, which have already been featured in the American-Statesman, include "Buck," dealing with the life of legendary horse trainer Dan M. "Buck" Brannaman; "Where Soldiers Come From," which follows a group of soldiers from the National Guard to Iraq; "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," Werner Herzog's exploration of the Chauvet Cave in France; "Tabloid," Errol Morris' look at a strange case about the British press' treatment of a bizarre case involving a Mormon; and "Everyday Sunshine," which looks at the punk-funk-ska band Fishbone.
"Dragonslayer," directed by Tristan Patterson, won the documentary feature competition earlier this week. It focuses on a young man falling in love amid the skateboard culture in Southern California. And "Kumare," directed by Vikram Gandhi, won the documentary audience award. It deals with a man who impersonates a guru and recruits followers in Arizona.
With material from Joe Gross, Charles Ealy and Matthew Odam.