AUSTIN -- South by Southwest’s split personality was on full display on opening night Friday. No, this is not about the traditional tentpoles of music and movies that have been the long-running festival’s mission. That’s next week.
No, for now, it’s movies dividing the time between technology and television, and it’s in the latter where so much of the energy seems to be. The buzz seems to be less about hot new directors than the fact that Seth Meyers, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden are here, the latter two thanks to the wonders of the digital age.
So Friday’s spotlight film, the world of premier of Chef, was followed in the same theater, the Paramount, by a screening of the new Fox and Nat Geo TV documentary series Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey (co-produced by Seth MacFarlane of all people) and an appearance from host and scientist Neill Degrasse Tyson. It’s the kind of pairing that would have been unthinkable at SXSW a decade or two ago. Now in this era where lines between technologies are blurring -- and SXSW Interactive is where much of the hype is these days -- it seems natural.
As a film, Chef, the new comedy from Jon Favreau ( Ironman) about an L.A. chef who rediscovers his joy of cooking through a food truck, didn’t feel as groundbreaking. But it is sweetly funny, has a great cast (Dustin Hoffman, Bobby Canavale, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, and Favreau in the title role) and is a crowd-pleaser for sure, especially for the Paramount Theater audience. It’s partially set in Austin and features cameos from musician Gary Clark Jr. and Franklin Barbecue’s Aaron Franklin.
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More than that, it’s Favreau's most personal film since he wrote Swingers in 1996. It’s also head, shoulders and every other body part above last year’s opener, the odious Burt Wonderstone.
If nothing else, Chef, with its celebration of food and the new Food Network culinary aesthetic, will make you very hungry when it comes out in May. All the food looks great and the soundtrack -- a wide-ranging mix of R&B and Latin -- is a treasure. Though the advisor on the film, real-life celeb chef Roy Choi (who makes an appearance in the end credits), said he didn’t want to make a film where the chef's life looks pretty. Summing up a real chef’s actual life in the Q&A after the screening, he said, “We don't have bell peppers stacked in pyramids.”
Whereas Chef is about one man’s quest to find his place in the cooking universe, Cosmos, an update of the science series popularized by astronomer Carl Sagan in 1980, is simply about man’s quest to find his place in the actual universe.
The series, beginning its run Sunday night on Fox, focuses on where humans came from and where they’re going. All the information is conveyed by Tyson on the spaceship of the imagination, a similar approach Sagan pioneered almost 40 years ago. It’s beautifully produced, even if some of the animation seems oddly retro. But that’s not what might stir controversy in some quarters; instead it’s its unapologetically pro-science and pro-evolution point-of-view.
The topic of the current political climate came up a few times in the post-screening panel but Tyson and co-creator Ann Druyan (Sagan’s widow) were not shy about the mission of Cosmos and why they wanted to make it now at a time when creationism is in the news . “The good thing about science is it’s true whether you believe it or not,” said Tyson. “We're showing the viewer how science works.”
Referencing how the show will be seen in some 171 countries, Druyan said, “I don’t know if there’s any country that needs Cosmos more than this one.”