You Don’t Have to be Young to Have Fun at SXSW

Maybe you thought everybody at the recent South by Southwest festival was young, hip, whiplashed into skinny jeans, fedora’d, tattooed, drunk and/or preternaturally cool. If so, you must have missed me.

I was the deranged harpie screaming at the pickup truck that almost sideswiped me, the exhausted film-goer who spent the few remaining good years of her life collapsed on the sidewalk while waiting in line for yet another movie, the frantic coffee guzzler, the canny enthusiast who picked out movie seats based on their proximity to the women’s restroom, the early-bird seat-holder who glared at your backpacked posterior when you tripped over her feet and didn’t say “excuse me,” all the time muttering questions to the universe about whether you were raised by wolves or hatched by homicidal chickens.

Yes, that was me!

I was also the downtown Austinite who was happy to see you all clearing out after 10 days of bacchanalia, trash, sidewalk vomit, and ear-shattering mega-decibels of music and cacophony and wailing ambulance sirens.

But, still — don’t feel sorry for me. I had my fun, too, in the midst of the hazy and muted and oddly pleasurable joie de vivre that persists after both pride and skin elasticity have departed and you no longer — how to put it politely? oh, yes! — when you no longer give a fuck.

So, I hotfooted it from movie to movie, seeing documentaries and feature films picked out on the basis of my current mood, rumors, reviews and whether I liked the title or not. Here are two true SXSW film stories:


Early on, I picked out the documentary Good Ol’ Freda as a must-see, since it told the story of the woman who was the secretary and personal assistant to the Beatles. Then, I heard from a very good source (i.e., another woman of my vintage who was waiting in a film line and had already seen Freda) that, although Freda was quite discreet and wouldn’t answer directly, it was pretty clear to her that Freda had slept with all four of the Beatles.

“Oh, my God,” I said. “All four?”

“I think so,” she said.

I personally found this so thrilling I could hardly stand it. “Freda’s a heroine for women our age,” I announced to no one in particular.

Then, I ran into my friend Barbara at another movie and she told me she’d loved Freda — both the movie and woman — too. She agreed that there was something there. Yes, Freda had been a bit evasive about what happened or didn’t happen, she confirmed.

“All four — do you think?” I asked.

Barbara shrugged. “Maybe,” she said.

“After all, it was the sixties,” I said. “I bet it happened. I hope so.”

Minutes later, Barbara went across the lobby to talk to another friend. I looked at the woman standing next to me. “Freda,” her badge proclaimed.

“Oh, my God, are you the Freda?” I asked.  “Freda Kelly? The one in the documentary?”

She said she was and introduced me to the documentary’s producer. They gave me a free ticket to a later showing, since I was such a big fan.

I knew what I wanted to ask Freda, but, as usual, I didn’t have the nerve. “Who’s your favorite Beatle?” I asked.

She said it varied. Right now, since he was in the documentary, it was Ringo. (I thought this was, perhaps, significant.)

After Freda and the producer left, I went running up to Barbara to tell her Freda had been in the lobby, we had talked, and she’d given me a free pass.

“Freda was here? Where is she?” Barbara wanted to know. “How did I miss her?”

“They had to go back to their hotel,” I said.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized: 1) since Barbara had beaten me (badly) the last time we played Scrabble, it probably served her right that I got to meet Freda and she didn’t; 2) given that Freda and I were now good pals, did this mean I was practically a Beatles intimate myself?; and 3) what did her remark about Ringo signify? Was she hinting at something?

I saw the documentary. I loved it. I’m still wondering about everything else.

2) Nixon

My husband and I particularly loved Our Nixon, the doc about home movies taken by Haldeman, Ehrlichman and the impossibly young Dwight Chapin during the Nixon presidency. We’re both big Watergate junkies and veteran Nixon-haters, so we were delighted by the glimpses of Sam Ervin, the North Carolina senator who called himself “just an old country lawyer” as he eviscerated administration witnesses, and that pipe-smoking thug, John Mitchell, the attorney general who spoke so poetically of tits and wringers.

At the end of the documentary, the producers held a Q&A, first noting they had bobbleheaded H.R. Haldeman dolls as prizes for Watergate trivia answers. My husband nudged me. “You’re going to win one,” he said.

I had no idea what he was talking about. As you can see from this earlier, heartfelt post, he thinks I thrive on a diet of pure trivia and gossip. This ignores the fact that I am really a very serious person who spends her life pondering metaphysical questions and the imbroglios of the human condition. So I ignored him.

The apres-film presenter asked two or three questions that didn’t especially interest me. Then she homed in on a subject of great significance: Who was the former Bond girl who dated Henry Kissinger?

“Jill St. John,” I screamed.

Bingo! A winner!

“I knew it,” my husband muttered loudly. “See?”

Later, when I toted my little HRH bobblehead home, I lamented that they hadn’t asked a follow-up question about what Jill St. John’s IQ was (162) or what Nora Ephron called Julie Nixon Eisenhower (a chocolate-covered spider).

I might not know which of the Beatles Freda slept with — still. But I do know a little something about the human condition when it comes to the Nixon administration. And I have the prize to prove it:


(Copyright 2013 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read about SXSW 2012

23 comments… add one
  • So funny. I love how your blog always makes me laugh.

  • I just hope she slept with Paul, because he’s the only one I would have done. Now I have to find out if this movie will ever be playing my area because I need to see it.

  • Kathy Checkley Link

    Laughing out loud at work…. thanks!

  • Linda Link

    OMG, Ruth. This has to be one of my favorite blog entries of yours to date. So funny. I used to play the “Beatle Game” with my girlfriends when we were little so the whole idea of Freda having them all is just so delicious. Talk about walking away with the prize. Thanks for sharing this hilarious SXSW experience with the rest of us.

  • Sounds like a hoot. I never got to go when I was a grad student in Austin. Too poor and too busy.

  • Joan Dentler Link

    So glad to share a small bit of it with you! And Very Glad to now be following your blog!

  • Display that bobblehead with pride. I can’t name a single Bond girl, more or less specific one. Good job.

  • You slay me, Ruth. Thanks for the laugh.

  • Craig Link

    To show you what a loser I am – I probably would have slept with Pete Best the asterisk Beatle.
    Tell Jimbo to put that Haldeman on the dashboard of the Prius.

  • Wish I was there. Sounds like a really good time. Love your stories, especially the Freda part. Now you got ME wondering…

  • I’ve not been to SXSW in a good few years, but I always enjoyed an alternative, so to speak, way of experiencing it, seeking out concerts by the likes of folk/country based songwriters such as Caroline Herring, Kelly Willis, and Carolyn Hester, exploring the tradeshow, and heading to my favorite far away from the craziness parts of Austin as the nights wore on. your post brings back memories…

  • Dena Link

    I was introduced to your blog by Huffington Post last November and have been a fan ever since. Thanks for sharing!

  • Deborah Lee Link

    I love your pieces, and this is one of the funniest!

  • Glad you had a good time. That seems very long for a festival. I think I’d be frustrated, too.

  • This is funny, but you always make me laugh.

  • So your husband knew you’d win did he? Do you ever listen to Talk of the Nation on Wednesdays–it’s political junkie day, you can start a collection. Is you answer the trivia question right on the show you win a no-prize t-shirt.

  • Ruth, you could make any event funny. Do you regret not asking Freda THE question?

  • Great post, Ruth. As a fellow downtown dweller, I say, “Amen.” The times we went to late movies and then tried to walk back to our condo were, um, exciting, to say the least. Dodging drunk twenty-somethings walking five abreast and with cigarettes poked out to the side (hey, that’s cool, man!); bike riders who think that sidewalks are their personal highways and pedestrians are a minor inconvenience; and camera crews set up on every other corner is way too much for this rickety old guy.

  • I love reading your blog… but I have to confess I was in Austin attending the South by Southwest festival. Sorry for the mess. I really enjoyed the festival but am truly sorry for the thousands of us who collectively lose our manners when we are properly wasted. That being said, I’m glad you have written two wonderful movie reviews for all of us to consider. I had previously heard about each of these films and am taking your advice to heart. I need to wait, however, for each one to come to town but based on your description I’ll probably be checking out the Nixon film first. My husband is a huge Beatles fan so anything referencing them (i.e., Freda) becomes part of his encyclopedic knowledge. Thanks again for the advice. I hope to know as much about the Nixon film as you did.

  • Christine Link

    George for me – back when I used to smoke.

    My mother had a large orange cat that she named HR Bob – obviously this was in the ’70s. We always say that if she knew how my younger brother is in his politics, she would roll over in her grave if she had one. She HATED those ‘publicans.

    Are you planning on seeing the Holland Taylor – Ann Richards one woman show? Have you talked about this and I’ve missed it already?

  • Still trying to get to SXSW one of these years. I’ll be the one who’s less cool than you. And by the way, you’re really cool.

  • Really funny. Loved this post. I still haven’t made it to SXSW but hope to.

  • Love your humor.
    For better manners come to NXNW Oct 26 & 27 Oktober Fest. OMA

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