Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Monday, November 16, 2009
Blog written by Patricia Zimmerman, codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival and professor of cinema, photography and media arts at Ithaca College
November 11-15, 2009
Houston is one of those places that sprawls bigger than the Texas plains in the national imaginary: big oil, big energy, big medicine, NASA, high technology, and a lot of plastic surgery.
But Houston, the fourth largest and perhaps fastest growing city in the United States, is also something more: a percolating arts community, with a world class opera, ballet and symphony, major museums, and an alternative arts scene. Everywhere you look, some arts event, festival or performance unfurls somewhere in the city, with a can-do Texas style that yanks away Yankee stereotypes about oil rigs, barbeque, and superhighways.
Almost unimaginable to launch a new major film festival in the middle of the worst recession in history, it seems to make perfect sense in sunny Houston. Curated by Richard Herskowitz, formerly director of the Virginia Film Festival, The Cinema Arts Festival Houston unspooled with over 40 films and events. It conjured the interweavings and cross-fertilizations between the arts and cinema.
“It's the only U.S. film festival devoted to films by and about artists of all stripes. The closest equivalent is the International Festival of Films on Art in Montreal. Ours is also conceived as a multimedia arts event surrounding its films with live performances, installations, and outdoor projections,” says Herskowitz.
A city-wide celebration at eight venues (including the historic Alabama Theater, Rice University, the outdoor Discovery Green and the Museum of Fine Arts) the Cinema Arts Festival Houston mischievously torqued preconceptions about films about the arts, a genre typically associated with flat, preachy films explaining paintings in monotone you watch on hard benches at museums. The rigorous, surprising programming jolted audiences to consider the migrations, flirtations ,and infiltrations between novels, painting, sculpture, music, performance, acting, photography, drawing, architecture, dance, writing, digitality.
Herskowitz brewed up one of his trademark, eye-opening heterogeneous programs, featuring narrative, documentary, experimental, performance, and installation. The guest list exemplifies this journey into the interstices between the arts, and between commercial and public media cultures: Academy Award winning actress Tilda Swinton, Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, photographer Susan Meiselas, experimental filmmakers Holly Fisher and Jennifer Reeves, musicians Dengue Fever and Donald Sosin, feminist techno-director Lynn Hershman Leeson, prankster Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes Men, commercial narrative film director Richard Linklater.
The festival opened with two sold-out screenings of films adapted from novels. Houston native son and Texas leading maverick filmmaker Linklater presented Me and Orson Welles (United Kingdom, 2008), based on a Robert Kaplow’s novel of the same name, the fictionalized story of Welles’ production of Julius Caesar on Broadway in 1937.Winning three awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, the other opening night film, is the story of a Harlem teenager who overcomes enormous obstacles to discover her own beauty and potential.
Arriaga screened his landmark Mexican New Wave film, Amores Perros ( Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2000) and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Tommy Lee Jones, USA/France, 2006), shot in Texas. Warm, welcoming, and wry, Arriaga, also an established novelist, shared that his non-linear narrative structures emerged out of his ADHD symptoms: “You are unable to understand logic but it develops intuition.”
Documentaries included What If, Why Not? Underground Adventures with Ant Farm(Beth Federici and Laura Harrison, USA 2009), the first film to chronicle the radical Ant Farm architectural group that made the land art piece Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo Texas, La Danse: Le Ballet de L’Opera de Paris (Frederick Wiseman, France/USA 2009), Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies (Arne Glimcher, USA, 2008), and The Yes Men Fix the World (Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano, France/USA, 2008). Most intriguing, the festival featured a retrospective of both photographer Susan Meiselas, Living at Risk: The Story of a Nicaraguan Family (1986) and Pictures from a Revolution (1991), and her deceased partner, experimental diary filmmaker Richard P. Rogers, with The Windmill Movie (Alexander Olch, 2008) and Remembering Dick Rogers, a selection of key works by the filmmaker.
The experimental work maneuvered as palimpsests, layering differing artistic practices to open spaces for audience involvement. They provided some of the most powerful, jolting festival experiences. Holly Fisher screened Everywhere at Once (France/USA 2008), an entrancing, poetic meditation on aging, memory and female psychic landscapes. It featured the images of fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh and a voice-over read by iconic French new wave actress Jeanne Moreau.
Jennifer Reeves’ stunning, gorgeous and hopeful dual projection, baroque celebration of nature and 16mm film, When It Was Blue, was accompanied by live music by Icelandic electronic composer Skuli Sverrison. Organized around the four seasons, the hand painted, bleached, scratched, and chemically altered images suggest that a truly ecological mindset finds life emerging from decay.
Lynn Hershman Leeson presented a reprise of her feminist cult classic film, Teknolust (US/Germany/UK, 2002) with actress Tilda Swinton, who plays scientist Rosetta Stone and her three half human, half computer, Self Replicating Automatons. Their deeply collaborative process combined high end HD technologies, improvisation, and an arrhythmic acting style to splice together science, viruses, machines, digitality, sexuality, and artificial intelligence. A mobile cinema constructed from aerospace honeycomb aluminum and designed by Didier Fiuza Faustino, H BOX screened 10 international shorts. Audiences jammed into the small space. The Birth of RMB City (2009), by Chinese digital artist Cao Fei, composed with Second Life machima, was a highlight.
As festival curator Herskowitz observes, “Houston has some of the best arts institutions in the country-- the Menil Collection, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Aurora Picture Show, the Alley Theater, the Contemporary Art Museum Houston, FotoFest, etc. It's been a revelation to me on my many trips here this year. So the festival has involved the collaborative participation of eighteen arts organizations who have had a hand in the conception and execution of our programs. I think it will alert the world that Houston has more than NASA and rodeos going on.”
Friday, November 13, 2009
"It's more about a kind of structuring, where the viewer is at the center of the piece," offered experimental filmmaker and editor Holly Fisher. She described her improvisational process in dealing with images and editing strategies: "It's a weave."
I am sitting in the art deco Alabama Theater in Houston, Texas, at a workshop on Experimental Cinema and the Visual Arts on day two of the newly launched Houston Cinema Arts Festival, curated by Richard Herskowitz. Holly Fisher and Jennifer Reeves are discussing their films and their digital arts practices. They jettison narrative for layers of psychic and emotional immersion, for a sense of liveness and tactility that transcends the image as representational. They conjure the image as a threshold into sensual and psychic experience.
Last night, Fisher, an influential figure in American experimental and documentary cinema (she was the editor of the landmark documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin? in 1989 and is the director of Bullets for Breakfast made in 1995), screened her new work Everywhere at Once. It's what I would call a cinematic portrait of how women are visualized and idealized in what the festival program says is a "sumptuous" film reflecting on love, beauty and mortality. It felt like one of those only-in-Texas-bigger-than-life-screenings: a difficult and demanding experimental work in a multiplex theater in downtown Houston, with an image as big as the Texas sky, with great sound to boot. In this context, the film had an epic quality few experimental films can sustain (so epic and operatic for the audience that none of us knew until after the screening that the digital video had been mistakenly screening in 4 x 5 format rather than the more horizontal 16 x9). All of the audience stayed for the discussion, utterly entranced.
Repurposing and conjuring the photographs of arts and movie stars by sophisticated fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh, Everywhere at Once features an evocative voiceoiver written by poet Kimiko Hahn. The voice over is read by Jeanne Moreau, a major iconic figure of the French New Wave. Her gravely voice contrasts with the sleek modernist fashion images. The film is an opera of the everyday and the psychic labyrinths women inhabit. It's a film about dreams, about feelings abandoned, inaccessible and lost. The first image of the film provides a clue into its visual strategies: a woman is photographed from above in a fetal positon, a spiral into the self where leg and hand and back transform into a spiral.
In the stunning Everywhere at Once, the interiority of the mind scrapes against the balanced compositions of the photographs of women posed for glamor shots, modeling fashions, selling films. A close up of Moreau's craggy, aging face repeats throughout. Is this a biography of Moreau's psychic landscapes over time? Is this a fiction about aging, about the small moments of life like hotel rooms and the textures of fabric on skin? Is it a film about memories floating down the rivers of the mind and then bubbling out in the small details of life? The film functions as a series of transformations and layers: photographs are spun and lit with shadows, clips for Moreau's films waft like apparitions, post minimalist music comes and goes. It's exquisite.
As Fisher shared in the post-screening discussion, the film dances on the "edges between biography and fiction." After seeing Lindbergh's photos (who shares a codirector credit with Fisher on Everywhere at Once), she told him she wanted to rip the coffee table books apart--- the images where too pretty. With a skilled animator, she played with light and shadows over the images in the studio, and plotted complex moves across the photos that exorcise the images. It couldn't be further from Ken Burns, whose style treats images like holy relics.
Fisher's oeuvre hovers between rigorous structure and improvisational plays. Resonating with her other works, Everywhere at Once is composed of layers: music, poetry, photographs, archival images, movie clips, and the everyday. It's a film that takes large iconic images ladened with cultural associations (images of Isabella Rossellini, the model Verushka, Moreau) and scrapes them down and washes away their overderterminations.
In the question and answer period, Fisher shared that when Jeanne Moreau saw Everywhere at Once in Paris, she turned to the director and said, "You are a witch." Indeed, Fisher brews up the most complex yet evocative order. She creates palimpsests, those scrolls where words and images are scraped and reused and layered. Fisher is a sorceress of the palimpsest, that space that is comprised of many spaces, many feelings, many journeys, many voices, many dislocations.