The first day of SXSW is always pretty slack but this year’s festivities felt unusually quiet. Part of that was likely due to the weather, which fortunately shifted away from the monsoon that preceded SXSW and merely became “Seattle in the spring” greyness. But the fact that Obama was the keynote speaker this year and Austin’s mayor had encouraged citizens to stay home probably added to the ghost town effect. It was quiet enough that Kayleigh Hughes and I were able to wander into Deloitte Digital’s event at the Palm Door. My interaction with the door staff basically went like this:
“Have you RSVP’d?”
“I actually don’t know.”
“Sigh. Here are your drink tickets.”
After grabbing our first free drinks of SXSW and making friends with a group of recently transplanted marketing personnel, our next stop was the South Lamar Drafthouse, where the plan was to catch Silicon Cowboys, one of my picks for films to see at SXSW, but unfortunately I had forgotten how chaotic the South Lamar Drafthouse always seems to be during SXSW. This year they had four theatres screening SXSW films, which makes sense considering it’s a recently renovated Drafthouse with ample space. The only problem is that SXSW staff can never seem to figure out how to manage the lines at the theatre. They have you check in for your queue cards at a little desk, but a number of people– especially first time visitors– often don’t realize this, resulting in hostility and confusion. They also squish the lines for the films together, so instead of one line for Theatre A and one line for Theatre B, they usually just bleed together. So I got into Silicon Cowboys while Kayleigh was locked out, and once I was in the theatre the confusion continued as staff fought with middle aged men who had “reserved” entire rows.
I had been interested in Silicon Cowboys because I’ve grown to trust SXSW’s tech documentaries without question. The festival has excellent taste in documentaries in general but its tech selections are frequently among its most interesting, something that isn’t too surprising given SXSW Interactive’s status. I think this is partially why I was slightly disappointed in Silicon Cowboys. By no means a bad film, Silicon Cowboys instead mostly suffered from being a little too traditional and one-sided.
Compaq’s gamble of course paid off, and the documentary argues that their runaway success essentially kicked off the mobility drive in technology, eventually giving us smart phones and iPads. This is an effective, if simplistic, argument and the film does excellent work backing that claim up. However, the film’s focus on this argument makes it so one sided it sometimes feels like a recruitment film for a lost era of Compaq. Huge portions of the film are devoted to showcasing the company’s historical growth in novel ways, like a stockholder presentation, and though we are shown some of the conflicts that arose and eventually pushed every single original founder out of the company, you are given the sense that Compaq in the ’80s was a utopia of tech pioneering, complete with proto-SXSW employee summits featuring David Copperfield and The Pointer Sisters as guests. Still, even with that in mind, Silicon Cowboys is an incredibly well-researched and designed documentary on the PC revolution, and a must see for anyone with an interest in tech history on the whole. Viewers who are’t already deeply interested in those fields might not be as entertained.
We had planned to see Danny McBride and Walton Goggins new show Vice Principals after this, but SXSW had put that premiere in the tiny Ritz theatre, basically guaranteeing we wouldn’t be able to get in unless the stars aligned perfectly. Instead of risking that, we instead went to Beware the Slenderman, an HBO documentary that was premiering at the much larger and close Topfer Theatre. Focusing on both the Slenderman phenomenon and the Wisconsin incident where two young girls nearly murdered a friend of theirs as a kind of tribute to the internet myth, Beware the Slenderman seems designed to be a spiritual successor to current true crime hits The Making of a Murderer and The Jinx.
The story that Irene Taylor Brodsky follows in Beware the Slenderman is deeply disturbing on a number of levels. Like a modern, documentary version of Heavenly Creatures (itself based on real events), Beware the Slenderman depicts the friendship of two young girls, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, who struggle to fit in with their peers and turn towards internet culture for company. After Anissa introduces Morgan to the Creepypasta Wiki, a hub for internet horror stories, things start to spiral out of control, especially once the two encounter the Slenderman. A modern internet folk creature that originated on the SomethingAwful forums, the experts that Brodsky assembles, including Richard Dawkins, deem Slenderman to be an unusually durable meme that personifies a lot of our modern anxieties. The two girls eventually become so obsessed with the Slenderman that they hatch a plan to murder their best friend in the hopes that doing so will get Slenderman’s attention and allow them to become two of his “proxies.”
Of course, there is more to the story than adolescent imagination gone awry, and Brodsky’s documentary is amazingly well-researched and constructed. Given exclusive access to the girls’ families over the course of the attempted murder trial, Brodsky investigates their development and struggles in an attempt to figure out what went wrong. Unfortunately, Beware the Slenderman is also too ambitious at points, with its sprawling story and epic amounts of research occasionally leading to unfocused storytelling. Brodsky spends a significant amount of time detailing the Slenderman myth, showing countless examples of fan videos, drawings and stories created by the community that created him, and sometimes this gets gratuitous, particularly whenever the director literally illustrates Google searches like “Who is Slenderman.” There is a sense that Brodsky is hoping to pin more of the blame on an out of control internet community, but later developments concerning the mental states of the girls interrupt that and this focus ends up feeling like a dead end. Had the film been more tightly edited and more narratively focused, it would have been unquestionably great, but in its current state it never quite reaches the heights it aims for. Even with that in mind, Brodksy is an incredibly talented director and Beware the Slenderman is a fascinating glimpse into several little understood worlds.
We called it a night after that because with SXSW you might as well go easy in the beginning before the real chaos starts. But the next day has some very promising films on the docket, including the bizarre Baby Bump and more personal documentaries like The Dwarvenaut, as well as some of the festival’s biggest premieres, including Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City. When he isn’t doing that, he gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.