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Let's keep Austin weird!
31 Jan 2013

The Marigold Project – the very first brief to launch in The Smalls Pitch Room – comes from Austin TX rock group Southbound Drive. Now, we all know that Austin has over the past decade emerged as one of the world's most vibrant film and music scenes in the world – but how did it all start? Smalls contributor Dr. Matilde Nardelli of University College London takes a look at how the city has changed since the arrival of Richard Linklater and the start of the now legendary Austin Film Society.

Richard Linklater

"Austin has more filmmakers now than ever. Just tons. So much going on here I can’t even keep up with it. There’s features being made and distributed and winning awards that I haven’t even heard of. Just unthinkable fifteen or twenty years ago when there just wasn’t anything going on.’

The person speaking is Richard Linklater, being interviewed a few years back for the film journal The Velvet Light Trap (no. 61, Spring 2008). Both Linklater and The Velvet Light Trap are deeply connected to Austin’s flourishing film scene: both were there from ‘the beginning’ so to speak. Indeed, Linklater himself has played a major role in the development of what is sometimes referred to as – film-industry-wise – America’s ‘third coast’ (though he demurely says that ‘there’s the obvious two coasts, and there’s a lot of third coasts, Austin being one’).

After moving to Austin in the early 1980s and taking up filmmaking (starting with super-8), the now acclaimed director founded the Austin Film Society – a crucial pivot of the city’s booming film life. Since its initially modest beginning as an alternative, and cinephilic, programming venue in 1985, the organization, under Linklater enduring patronage and involvement, has continued to grow in scope and remit. It is now not only involved in administering grants to Texas-based filmmakers but, since 2000, with the opening of Austin Studios on the site of the disused Robert Muller municipal airport, it has run a production facility that has hosted the shooting of, among others, the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Cohen Brothers’ True Grit (2010) and Linklater’s own Through a Scanner Darkly (2006). So, indeed, the initiatives spearheaded by Linklater since and through the Austin Film Society have, in the past quarter century, contributed to put Austin on the map not only as ‘The Live Music Capital of the World’ – and, as technology corporations moved in in the 1990s, ‘Silicon Hills’ – but also as a hub of creative talent, production and exhibition of (more or less) independent cinema.

In this buoyant atmosphere, film schools and film departments in Austin have flourished as well, and a sign of this, as I mentioned at the start, is offered by The Velvet Light Trap, whose interview with Linklater I quoted from, and about which, in the interview itself, Linklater talks fondly as of a read that inspired him in his early days of filmmaking. As if to underline Austin’s emerging significance as a place for ‘living’ and ‘thinking’ cinema, this prestigious, long-standing journal (indeed, an institution in its own right, founded in 1971 at University of Wisconsin-Madison, and run by graduate students) has since the late 1980s had a joint second editorial home at the University of Texas in Austin itself.

As good as it would be to conclude here, with this sense of triumph and optimism, it would be incomplete not to mention some of the problems that have emerged from Austin’s multiple success as a film, music and technology capital. As the author of a New York Times article titled ‘Austin, we have a problem’ put it as far back as in the year 2000, the Austin Linklater captured in his 1991 film Slacker is all but a memory.

Slacker

Rent Slacker today and it's like flipping through a scrapbook of how much has been eradicated in one busy, busy decade. Gone are the vacant lots, the Quack's coffee shop near campus, the bookstore staffed by J.F.K. conspiracy nuts. Gone is Les Amis restaurant, where one character snapped: ''To hell with the kind of work you have to do to earn a living!'' Today the local paper publishes breathless stories about $500 bottles of wine.

As the New York Times journalist pointed out as early as 10 years ago, the rapid expansion of the music, cinema and technology sectors, and the related, dramatic, population growth of the city as a high-volume of people moved to Austin to work in these sectors – or the equally expanding service industry – have not come without downsides. From a certain loss of ‘atmosphere’, as the social misfits and outcasts of Linklater’s own film find no place in the ‘new’ city, to scarcity of school places, to spiraling costs of living, as the NYT journalist laments, not all may necessarily be entirely better for everyone. Indeed, in this article, Linklater himself sounds less optimistic, remembering how wonderfully cheap it was to live in Austin when he started out, and how this really gave him the opportunity to spend all his time ‘watching movies, editing, shooting’, while film students now ‘have to work all day just to pay [their] rent.’ Yet, as the more buoyant Linklater counterbalances a few years down the line, perhaps indeed there is a price to pay for the fact that, rather than a finding a ‘vacuum’, one now finds that everything is in place: ‘…making a film was this huge deal. And now it’s so common, and I just think it’s a good thing’.

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ATTENTION FILMMAKERS: Ready to do your part to keep Austin TX weird (in a good way)? Rock band Southbound Drive right now invite filmmakers and music video directors from around the world to create an original video for the song Marigold from the band’s new album Agnes – produced by Grammy nominated Chris “Frenchie” Smith. To compete for a $12,000 awards package including a $1,000 cash prize, a $5,000 video promotion campaign, and a showcasing opportunity at SXSW 2013 – check out The Marigold Project in The Smalls Pitch Room! 

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Article by Dr. Matilde Nardelli teaches at University College London and has written widely on such subjects as European art cinema, experimental cinema and moving image art, film and photography.