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You Can Leave Your Hat On

Watching movies in Marfa

By Jardine Libaire, Fri., May 9, 2008

You Can Leave Your Hat On
Photo by Justine Gilcrease

In dreamy, big-sky West Texas, festivalgoers from as far as Holland gathered to watch the nearly 50 films of the Marfa Film Festival's maiden voyage. From May 1 through 5, the fest's agenda of old, new, experimental, and traditional films intersected with the idiosyncratic local population of ranchers, artists, and farmworkers' families.

Founder Robin Lambaria believed in a noncompetitive event. Barbara Morgan, executive director of the Austin Film Festival, pointed out while presenting a film that festivals like Marfa's "now share the responsibility of arthouse cinema" to nurture and preserve creativity. This objective differs from festivals that pivot solely on the transaction between filmmakers and distributors, and the resulting lack of tension was lovely. Elle Martini, who screened her short "Person, Place or Thing," compared Marfa to Sundance: "You don't even need a map here. No one races around. It's peaceful." And it was. Cowboys, actors, and hipsters leaned against adobe buildings during intermissions, smoking and gossiping, soaking up sun.

The festival kicked off in surreal glory on the wind-eroded set of There Will Be Blood, 10 minutes outside Marfa, where P.T. Anderson's Oscar-winning story played on a giant screen as twilight rose from the rocks.

The festival's selections were far-ranging. The animated short "Chonto," by Carson Mell, starred a jaded guitar god and his heroin-shooting monkey. David Byrne's 1986 film, True Stories, was introduced by part-time Marfa resident Jo Harvey Allen, who was in the cast. The Masses, an art, music, and film collective, contributed a world premiere music video directed by Heath Ledger.

Most films played in Marfa's Goode Crowley Theater, whose wooden seats and rafters shined. A dog wandered aisles, and church bells and freight trains vibrated the walls. The Marfa Municipal Golf Course hosted nighttime outdoor screenings with the Alamo Drafthouse Rolling Roadshow operation. Guests stretched on blankets and watched The Night of the Hunter, drinking cold beer and eating fried peach pies as Lillian Gish's face glowed among stars.

Texas itself shimmered through a prism of films. The narrative August Evening by Chris Eska tracked a Mexican-American family in Gonzales falling apart and falling in love. Rainer Judd's short "Remember Back, Remember When" was inspired by childhood events involving her father, artist Donald Judd. David Modigliani, an Austin resident, directed Crawford, a wildly applauded documentary about the Bush ranch.

The films were interlaced with a barbecue at a defunct funeral home, a tea party with Los Angeles DJs, and some Cinco de Mayo belly dancing in the courthouse square. A few residents lamented a couple of pushy New Yorkers and too much litter, but the town seemed happy. Festival volunteer Brandon Curry shrugged, "Everyone likes movies."

Dennis Hopper was supposed to be the cherry on the sundae, but he didn't make it to present his Western The Last Movie; he apologized in an open letter in the The Big Bend Sentinel. We went to watch his film outdoors without him. A storm swept in and shut down the show, and we watched that chaos of fireworks and rain instead.

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