The Answer to ‘Who Are You?’

Every spring, a jillion people descend on Austin for the SXSW Festival for several days of music, films and interactive info.  They’re mostly young, hip, intense and dressed in black.  This year, they’re wearing lots of layers of jackets and scarves.  If they’ve ponied up the money, they also — quite self-consciously — wear badges hanging around their necks.  Believe me, during this festival, you’d rather have one of those badges than a necklace from Tiffany’s.

I have neither, of course, and if I put on too many layers, I’ll be shedding and losing clothes all over town.  However, my friends and I do have passes to the film festival, which means we’re a little higher in the pecking order than the line waiting to buy individual tickets.  Given the whole caste system, though, we’re tragically insecure.  We’re always looking over our shoulder, certain we’re going to miss a movie because one of the “badges” will barge in and get priority over us.  After a while, it makes me want to become a Marxist.  All power to the pass-holders.  Too bad Communism’s so unfashionable these days.

Yesterday, I got to one of the theaters early and immediately headed to the first row of the audience to save seats for my friends Betsy and Leland.  I sat there for 45 minutes, hogging three seats and giving Betsy update phone calls about how there was plenty of room on the first row, as long as they hurried.

“They won’t let us in,” Betsy said when she called.  So I got up and marched to the door, where she and Leland were trying to persuade the guy in charge to let them in.

“I’ve got seats saved,” I told him.

He whirled around and stared at me.  “So, who are you?” he wanted to know.  “The director of the film?”

Whoops.  “I’m … nobody,” I said with great confidence.

Well, so — big shock —  Betsy and Leland didn’t get in, after all that.  I went back to my seat and decided that after this film festival, I’m definitely becoming a Marxist.  I believe the general ethos of that group is that Everybody is Somebody in Marxism, even if they don’t wear layers or badges, so I’m looking forward to the upgrade.

In the meantime, my unschooled opinions about the movies I’ve seen so far:

Sunshine is an excellent, extremely moving documentary about a young single woman (the filmmaker herself) who gets pregnant and keeps her baby.   What makes her particular story even more resonant is that she was given up for adoption herself and had already been getting to know her birth mother.  Compare these two women’s stories — one in the early 2000’s, her mother’s in the early 1970s — and you see how dramatically society has changed in the intervening decades.  Once, these women were hidden away and made up aliases and excuses for themselves before they gave birth and gave up their babies; today, as the filmmaker notes, they are merely “single moms.”

ExTerminators is a feature film in the female-anger tradition of The First Wives’ Club and Thelma and Louise.  It’s such a great idea: Women meet one another in a rage therapy group, then decide to kill the men who are making their lives miserable.  It could have been great, dark fun if it had only shown more spirit and camaraderie and momentum.  Somehow, somewhere, though, it loses its nerve. 

The Way We Get By is a wonderful documentary, telling a story that centers on three elderly people who serve as greeters for troops coming back from and going to serve in the armed forces in the Middle East.  Unlike Young at Heart, last year’s documentary about a choir of elderly people (which, to be fair, just about everybody but my husband and me loved), The Way We Get By lacks the whole ain’t-they-cute vibe.  Instead, it tells the stories of people finding meaning in the last years of their lives by greeting and seeing off a long procession of soldiers.

Until next time, all power to the badge-free people.

(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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