SXSW 2016 began with a moment of triumphant, traffic-stopping fanfare: President Obama was flown into Austin to deliver a speech about the onward march of technology and its potential to improve lives, but also the care and caution with which it must be exercised. Nine days later the festival ended on a sharp note of unease, with gunshots fired in the air on one of its most crowded avenues — an isolated one-man incident that passed mercifully without death or injury. Yet it couldn’t help but shatter the nerves of attendees who had no doubt grown accustomed, like most Americans, to the frightening ease with which gun violence and mass panic can appear in a public setting.
Neither of these two bookending incidents was directly tied to the film strand of SXSW, though it’s surely no accident that the strongest movie I saw in Austin last week seemed to speak to both of them, at least in retrospect. “Tower,” Keith Maitland’s galvanizing, multi-prize-winning documentary, uses survivor testimony, dramatic staging and rotoscopic animation to reconstruct the 1966 sniper shootings at the U. of Texas at Austin; it also draws on present-day interviews to grapple with the lasting legacy of that watershed massacre, 50 years and many more shootings later.
Playing in theaters located barely a mile from the campus where the events unfolded, Maitland’s film landed with a particularly painful resonance, though its message should reverberate well beyond Texas borders: It succeeds not only in tapping into into the moment-by-moment terror of that terrible day, but also in evoking a more innocent historical moment when public shootings were far from commonplace, and law-enforcement officials were, for better or worse, less prepared to deal with the fallout of a terrorist’s rampage.
Touring the Texas university campus some days after seeing “Tower,” I couldn’t help but give in to morbid curiosity and wonder about the coordinated response that would greet such an event if, God forbid, it happened in the present day. SWAT teams, which didn’t exist in 1966, would be called in to defuse the situation as quickly as possible, and a social-media frenzy would ignite within seconds — spreading waves of hysteria across the campus and beyond, no doubt, but also doing its part to keep civilians out of harm’s way. Time and again, technology has demonstrated its uses when it comes to the rapid dissemination of information in moments of emergency and crisis. But as headlines over the past decade have reminded us — and as Obama addressed directly in his keynote — technology has also forced us to continually reassess the issue of user privacy, and how willing we are to sacrifice it for the sake of the public good.
SXSW, of course, devotes an entire strand to the ubiquitous world of interactive media, to the point where you’re sometimes not entirely sure if you’re navigating a festival, a conference or a proliferation of hashtags. As film festivals go, SXSW is hardly the only such event where technology poses something of a double-edged sword. The smartphones that enable moviegoers to share their enthusiasm for what they’ve just seen are also the devices that threaten to eclipse the movies themselves — whether by steadily dampening the audience’s interest in the big-screen experience, or by lighting up a darkened theater with annoying frequency, no matter how many times the Alamo Drafthouse runs those trailers warning about the grave consequences of texting on the premises.
As the days wore on, I was struck by just how many films seemed intent on warning us of the dark side of our onward technological progression. Perhaps no movie brought home the perils of life in the digital age more emphatically than “Beware the Slenderman,” Irene Taylor Brodsky’s documentary about a horrific crime committed in 2014 by two impressionable 12-year-old girls to satiate the notorious Web-based bogeyman of the title. But even gentler, less frightening movies seemed to go out of their way to make a similar point.
Susan Glatzer’s energetic documentary “Alive and Kicking” waxed effusive about how the joys of swing dancing provided a much more vital form of human intimacy than, say, liking a friend’s post on Facebook. “The Seer,” a gorgeous hymn to agrarian life from the Austin-based filmmaker Laura Dunn (“The Unforeseen”), pauses in between its hypnotic outdoor reveries to introduce us to a young farmgirl who notes, shyly but happily, that she doesn’t have a phone and feels none the worse for it. She is, like most of the subjects interviewed in “The Seer,” a member of a community that places a higher value on connection than on connectivity.
The narrative features I saw at SXSW weren’t always quite so cautionary: “9 Rides,” Matthew A. Cherry’s moodily absorbing tale of an Uber driver shepherding people across Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve, expresses an unfashionable optimism about how technology can bring us into productive contact with people we might have otherwise never have met. Other films sidestepped the issue altogether by virtue of being set in a pre-digital past, like “Everybody Wants Some,” the glorious new ’80s college comedy written and directed by hometown hero Richard Linklater. Or perhaps “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,” which, despite its ostensibly present-day setting, meticulously re-creates the brightly colored, retro-styled world of the character’s past big adventures.
Speaking of retro style: No filmmaker gave us quite so strange and singular a vision of an earlier era as the writer-director Adam Pinney did in “The Arbalest,” a highly eccentric fictional account of obsessive, unrequited love and artistic struggle. Skipping among three different time frames — 1968, 1976 and 1978 — and delineating them through clever nuances of camerawork, production design and hairstyling, Pinney’s film evinces the sort of playfulness and archly whimsical attention to detail that may remind you, not unreasonably, of a not-yet-fully developed Wes Anderson.
Entrancing and irritating by turns (a description that might also apply to Mike Brune’s central performance as a toy inventor), “The Arbalest” was a widely polarizing pick for the narrative competition’s grand jury prize, and an inescapably fascinating one. Running a sleek 76 minutes, the movie hinges on an unguessable last-minute twist that puts forth a mordantly funny alternate history for the origins of our violence-saturated culture. It also suggests, not at all implausibly, that the human will to do harm to others is rooted in a peculiar pathology born of jealousy, intense isolation and a crushing sense of one’s own failure. A more different film from “Tower” could scarcely be imagined — or, for that matter, a more unexpectedly fitting companion piece. See them both, and put your phone away: Here are two movies in which something we hear all too often, on screen and off, is made to sound radically and terrifyingly new.