SXSW Film 2014 Day 2: Olivia Munn Fails at Interviewing and Smaug Takes on BitcoinA column article, Shot For Shot by: Nick Hanover
In what is becoming an annual tradition, SXSW's first weekend was marred by horrible weather, causing my Saturday schedule to be determined less by my interest in events than by my desire to not get pneumonia. I mostly stuck to smaller events that didn't force me to stand outside in the rain for a couple hours, which is why I wound up seeing exactly zero films. The day began with the Inside Late Night with Seth Meyers panel, conveniently located directly across from the press room. Actually, I should say the day started with a Neil Degrasse Tyson panel that I accidentally attended because I got to the Seth Meyers event a little too early.
After editing Dylan's day one write-up, I couldn't shake the image of Tyson as “the Grumpy Cat of Scientists,” but even if I had more self-restraint, I'm not sure I would have enjoyed Tyson more. Dylan and I are probably in the minority on this, but I just don't understand Tyson's appeal. His smug, condescending demeanor and incessant need to “promote” science by doing things like publicly poking holes in Gravity or whatever other semi-science related film is out this week isn't just irritating, it's a handy representation of why so many “norms” struggle with geek culture. The panel, which I think may have been for Cosmos, was structured as just Tyson and a moderator, who didn't interview Tyson so much as stroke his ego. Though Tyson made plenty of valid points about the need to better educate our children if we want a better future (as well as a more competitive economy), he never missed an opportunity to partake in what seems to be his favorite past time-- destroying your suspension of disbelief. One anecdote Tyson told was about how he gets around childhood myths like the Tooth Fairy with his daughter, which revolved around him never outright telling his daughter the Tooth Fairy doesn't exist but instead forces her to ask questions about this Tooth Fairy information she's heard. It's worth pointing out that this anecdote came up after Tyson spoke about how amazing it would be if the Macy's Day Parade changed its slogan from “Believe” to “Question.”
I'm all for getting people into science, but just as Christopher Hitchens encouraged legions of atheists to become as fanatical and infuriating as many of the fundamentalists they spoke out against, Tyson is equally representative of a new kind of scientific antagonism that mistakes anal retentiveness for charming evangelism. There is no reason why science can't be tied to wonder, and any good teacher can tell you that incessant scolding is far less effective than encouraging the positive aspects of a budding passion.
Still, Tyson knows his audience and knows how to play to their interests and desires, which is more than can be said for Olivia Munn, who moderated the Seth Meyers panel. Munn has long been held up as an unfortunate example of geek pandering, with her looks being perceived as the sole reason why she has gotten anywhere. Show business is all about using every weapon at your disposal and I think it's ridiculous to pass judgment on anyone for playing to their strengths, but the Meyers panel served as ample proof that interviewing is not one of Munn's strengths. Beginning with an opening question that she confessed was “pure Barbara Walters,” Munn seemed out of her element. When she wasn't distracted and staring at the ceiling, Munn would interrupt Meyers and producer Mike Shoemaker, frequently cutting them off before they had even answered her question. Many of Munn's questions were self-centered, awkwardly tying her own experiences to Meyers' new gig or his SNL past. The best interviewers converse with their subjects, subtly encouraging them to open up while commenting on their statements in a way that provokes further thought. Munn is the worst kind of interviewer, the kind who believes she's the actual center of attention and who is clearly less passionate about her subject than she is self-serving.
Even without the Munn problem, though, the Late Night panel was awkward. Meyers seemed to realize this, as he commented on how weird it was to start the panel with a “greatest hits” reel for a show that has existed for less than a month. The “greatest hits” clip was poorly edited, and it did little to build interest in the show; the only section that seemed to click with the crowd was the back-and-forth between Meyers and bandleader Fred Armisen. Every Late Night host has struggled to find their footing for the first year and Meyers certainly has potential, but for the moment his biggest weakness is his clear discomfort with being the center of attention. Meyers briefly spoke about this when he was asked why he wasn't in many sketches on SNL and he confessed that he just wasn't good at characters, because he always felt like “a guy in a wig.” He elaborated on this by saying that comedians like Armisen are able to turn a silly outfit and wig into a fully fleshed out character, but Meyers always looks out of place and isn't able to craft a character. The new Late Night host was a lot warmer and more open when the panel was opened up to audience questions and Meyers would be wise to find a way to channel his comfort with audiences into the show.
I went from the Late Night panel to a few parties, including a heavily hyped journalism get together that was bogged down by the rain, but I didn't go to another event until 7:30, when I wandered into “Conspiracy Theory Live with Jesse Ventura” at the Hideout. Rather than an accidental comedy event featuring the real Ventura, CTL stars James Adomian as the former governor, who is hosting an “unofficial” panel with guests like local whacko Alex Jones, a mysteriously still alive David Koresh and even notorious gold advocate Smaug the dragon. The format is pretty brilliant, with Adomian's Ventura serving as a weirdly endearing nutjob ringleader whose theories seem pedestrian in comparison to the insanity the other performers bring to the table. Improv is always hit or miss, but the panel format kept everything interesting while also keeping it contained. Matt Besser stood out as Smaug, which he played as a misunderstood dragon who is constantly belittled, whether by people who can't get his name right (“it's SMOW-GGGHHH”) or jackass hobbits hellbent on taking the gold he rightfully earned. Adomian and Besser had a natural chemistry, which was especially apparent when Adomian's Venturay questioned Smaug about bitcoins (for the record, Smaug hates them, because you can't make a bed out of digital currency: “How would you feel if all the feathers in your pillows suddenly went digital?!”) and then suggested Smaug might want to consider raiding Scrooge McDuck. Unfortunately, Besser's Smaug was the last guest presented, and his stage time seemed shortened thanks to a Koresh bit that went nowhere and dragged on for what seemed like hours.
Since I had missed every film I was trying to see anyway, I decided to follow up the Hideout showcase with a string of parties, including a visit to an EFF featuring “moonshine margaritas.” I may have avoided pneumonia, but the morning after I'm thinking moonshine margaritas are a potentially deadlier malady.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he's the last of the secret agents and he's your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Comics Bulletin, or at Panel Panopticon, which he started as a joke and now takes semi-seriously. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover and explore the world of his musical alter egos at Fitness and Pontypool.