The Epicenter of Pop Culture: South by Southwest

It was a no-brainer to say yes when the South by Southwest festival asked if I’d like to do a live version of my podcast in Austin this year. My colleague Baron Vaughn and daughter Jessie (my other partner in crime) were all for it. But we never could have imagined that our guests would turn out to be one of this year’s star filmmakers, comedian-storyteller Mike Birbiglia, and his producer, Ira Glass, the genius behind NPR’s This American Life. Jessie and I got to see Mike’s new film Don’t Think Twice at its debut screening Sunday night and didn’t just like it—we loved it. The film portrays a tight-knit improv troupe and what happens to its family-like dynamic when one of its members gets hired by a popular TV show. The cast includes Birbiglia, Keegan Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard and Tami Sagher.

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The beautiful, historic Paramount Theatre is a great place to watch any movie—especially one as good as Mike Birbiglia’s ‘Don’t Think Twice’

Mike and Ira were wonderful guests, and the response of our audience (which had already seen us record another episode of the show) sparked everyone’s energy and enthusiasm. You can hear the results by clickingHERE.

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SXSW cofounder Louis Black, Richard Linklater, ‘Last Night at the Alamo’ star Sonny Carl Davis, yours truly, and Ethan Hawke following a screening of the restored movie

Jessie and I made the most of our, all-too-brief, visit to Austin. The festival, which keeps growing year after year, was cofounded by my pal Louis Black, whom I’ve known since we were 12. (No, he’s not related to the comedian of the same name who spells his name Lewis.) He scheduled a panel discussion where we reminisced about our youthful adventures visiting movie memorabilia shops in Manhattan and meeting Buster Keaton. I didn’t think anyone would show up for this personal nostalgia-fest but we actually had a good turnout and they were very receptive.

Sonny Carl Davis-Rick Linklater

Austin’s own Richard Linklater poses with the star of pioneering Texas films Sonny Carl Davis—who also turns up in Linklater’s ‘Bernie’

Following that panel, and the double-podcast recording, we zipped over to the Alamo Draft House movie theater on Sixth Street for a screening of Eagle Pennell’s landmark Texas movie Last Night at the Alamo, which Louis just helped to restore with the participation of IFC and Richard Linklater. Watching this flavorful slice of life from 1984 was a treat, especially on a big screen in pristine condition. I happily conducted a q&a afterwards with Louis, Rick, the film’s star Sonny Carl Davis, its restorationist Mark Rance, and several key people involved in its production. Linklater’s frequent collaborator Ethan Hawke was in the audience cheering us on.

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SXSW regular Elijah Wood following a screening of his new film ‘The Trust’

All of that didn’t leave much time left over, but I did get to see one other film, a debut feature by directors Alex and Benjamin Brewer called The Trust, starring Nicolas Cage and Elijah Wood as crooked Las Vegas cops who try to pull off a daring heist. If you like Cage when he’s larger than life you’ll definitely enjoy this film, which showcases him at his wildest, with Wood doing equally fine work as his wary partner. A nice bonus is seeing Jerry Lewis in a brief appearance as Cage’s father. (The young filmmakers said Nic had always dreamed of having Jerry play his dad.)


South by Southwest has grown exponentially from year to year, with separate components for film, music, gaming, internet, and more, and boasted the ultimate headliners this year for its opening and closing keynote addresses: President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle. I feel lucky to have been a small part of it.

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The whole of Austin, Texas becomes a performance stage and promotional blitz. Here, a vacant lot becomes a carnival promoting ‘Mr. Robot’

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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April 2024