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.”