Earlier this week we told you about the talented roster of Film Independent Members headed to Austin for this year’s SXSW Film Festival, which begins today and runs for nine consecutive bat swarms worth of indie film premieres, press and filmmaker networking, frequently of the “extremely drunken” variety.
But Austin isn’t just home to SXSW and the titular City Limits. The amber-colored capitol of America’s largest contiguous state has also been home base for a vibrant community of indie auteurs. What’s more, Austin itself has served as both muse and backdrop for more films than perhaps any other berg of less than one million—so sorry Portland; tell Kelly Reichardt to speed it up!
Here are a few of our favorite films (and one TV show) to enjoy Austin vicariously while sitting at home this week. Go Longhorns!
Mike Judge’s 1999 comedy proved that despite every cultural guru’s prognostication to the contrary, there was indeed life after Beavis and Butt-head. Opening to meek box office and tepid reviews, Judge’s ambling satire of late-20th century cubicle malaise soon found a rabid cult audience, even going so far as to shame Swingline into manufacturing the film’s iconic red stapler.
The exact location of Initech’s personality-free office park and surrounding environs is left purposefully vague. This dispiriting collection of dusty suburban freeways, obnoxious chain restaurants and shithole apartment building could be anywhere.
But it’s not anywhere—it’s Austin, which despite bumper stickers to the contrary, can, at its margins, be as aggressively un-weird and generic as any other American city from Bangor to Bakersfield.
Death Proof—Quentin Tarantino’s contribution to 2007’s unwieldy, nostalgia-mongering vanity project double-bill Grindhouse—was an idiosyncratic pastiche of 1970s muscle car actioners like Vanishing Point and Two-Lane Blacktop, featuring Kurt Russell as the most terrifyingly sociopathic stunt driver this side of Ryan Gosling’s satin tailored scorpion jacket.
While the second half of the film moved the mayhem to Tennessee, the first part of the film takes place in Austin, following Austin DJ “Jungle Julia” (Sydney Tamiia Poitier)’s ill-fated attempt to hitch a ride home from Russell’s “Stuntman Mike” in the dark days before Lyft and Uber.
Debate continues as to Death Proof’s artistic merit and place within the Q-Man’s filmography, but there’s no denying its effectiveness in making Austin look like the most fun place to drink beer excluding a Guinness tasting room.
Like Office Space, mumblecore stalwart Andrew Bujalski’s 2009 relationship dramedy emphasized Austin’s ordinariness, eschewing cartoon cowboy imagery to depict a bright, modern Texas town that was only slightly bohemian—the ideal backdrop for this low-key tale of sibling rivalry and frustrated romance.
Starring real-life identical twins Tilly and Maggie Hatcher, Beeswax tells the story of sisters Jeannie and Lauren, who cope with all manner of mounting personal and professional frustrations as they edge toward middle age.
Bujalski’s Austin in one of natty thrift shops and weatherworn, inexpensive single-family housing—a milieu that will be recognizable to anyone who’s spent more than a year or two (or 20) aimless postgraduate years stuck in the same college town.
AUSTIN STORIES (MTV)
You thought the TV show on this list was going to be Friday Night Lights, didn’t you? But you’ve been caught in a technicality—while Lights was indeed filmed in Austin, it actually takes place in the fictional West Texas town of Dillon, a full 300 miles away from the this listicle’s purview.
Austin Stories—which ran for one brief season on MTV between 1997-1998—was the brainchild of creator James Jones, and starred comedians Laura House, Howard Kremer and “Chip” Pope as a trio of disillusioned UT grads coping (badly) with an uncertain future in-between beers and cigarettes.
The show (largely forgotten and sadly unavailable on VOD) anticipated the genre of meandering 20-something misadventure seen today in shows like Broad City and Happy Endings, but as filtered through a very ‘90s (and very Austin) Gen-X lens—it’s sort of like Slacker: The Series. How great does that sound?
Drew Barrymore’s 2009 directorial debut didn’t exactly launch a new roller derby craze in America, but it did perfectly capture the vibe and energy of the female-friendly sport in ways that made Derby’s odd mix of performance art and raw athleticism look like pretty much the most fun you could have on eight wheels.
Like several other of the movies on this list, Whip It has gone on to garner a dedicated cult audience. The film follows Ellen Page’s Bliss, who—feeling stymied in her the small Texas town of Bodeen—absconds to Austin (though, okay, the movie was shot entirely in Michigan) and discovers a talent for roller derby, reinventing herself as “Babe Ruthless.”
The film’s depiction of roller derby encapsulates Austin’s unique fondness for unconventional—and often alcohol-infused—adult recreation, from bicycle pub-crawls to beer league softball. Austin, it seems, is where grown-ups go to play.
Matt Warren / Film Independent Digital Content Manager