The Austin Chronicle

Page Two: Lights, Camera, Print Media

October 1985 was the strangest month

By Louis Black, September 18, 2015, Columns

It was in the second issue of the Chronicle, I'm also certain, that I launched an editorial diatribe as to why Texas was not and would never become the third coast of American filmmaking. It was a re-grouping issue. Although loaded with great content, the first issue in September of 1981 had been a disaster. The cover was an image of Richard O'Brien's face, half from the then-long running Rocky Horror Picture Show and half from Shock Treatment, his about-to-be released new film. At the last minute it was decided we should put a glint of purple in the corner of each eye to emphasize his graced lunacy. Only the instructions were written wrong. Instead of a bit of purple, the whole cover was a blotch of purple with Richard O'Brien's combined half faces barely visible. It was the worst punk cover of all time. KLBJ-FM, which had gotten on board to fully support the Chronicle, pulled out the morning it appeared. Shock Treatment never opened. But, perhaps fortunately, our distribution system was so badly thought through that many copies never reached the public.

We were devastated. Our brand-new biweekly publication had the odds stacked against it from the get-go. Launching ourselves straight into a mud puddle did not bode well for the future. Determined to survive we bore down on that second issue with a great Micael Priest cover trumpeting the coverage inside of Texas film. As I said, the content of the first issue was fine, the cover wasn't. The second issue corrected that and serious work had already been done on getting issues actually distributed. Coming out every other week at the time allowed for a lot of reinventing between issues.

There in issue No. 2 I weighed in on Texas' future as a home of regional film production. I saw the future and it wasn't there. Time has proven me dead wrong. The next three-and-a-half decades would see changing technology, the growth of film festivals, and the breakdown of the long-established traditional Hollywood production, distribution, and exhibition system completely change the game.

Richard Linklater's decision in 1991, after the success of Slacker, to remain based in Austin is the moment that marks the beginning of the emergence of a remarkable regional community of filmmakers and their films. Happening not just here in Austin but across the state.

As has so often happened, the Chronicle was part and party to this change, focusing far more on local filmmakers and films over the years than on features of traditional Hollywood filmmaking. Claiming such credit, I'm well aware that it makes me more than a bit of a shmuck, but if we don't tell our story, who will? But yes, this is from out of the heart of our community so vet that statement for yourself.

Even before Linklater's seminal decision, the Chronicle had helped promote Jonathan Demme Presents: Made in Texas, a program of six short films from Austin that screened at the Collective for Living Cinema in NYC in October, 1981. The Chronicle hosted an Austin screening: I coordinated the program.

This coming weekend I'll be the keynote speaker at the annual Southwest Alternative Media Project (SWAMP) Business of Film Conference in Houston. The Museum of Fine Arts Houston will screen Made in Texas Saturday evening, Sept. 19, at 7pm. Sandy Boone, Mark Rance, and I have re-mastered and restored the program, debuting it at this past SXSW (ably assisted in this pursuit by Hallie Reiss). Later this fall UT Press will release the package on DVD.

October of 1985 was a game changer. The first weekend of the month saw Richard Linklater and Lee Daniel screen two programs of shorts at the Dobie Theater. The much beloved Scott Dinger gave them the space. The Chronicle gave them ads. The shows sold out. This was the lead-up to the launch of the Austin Film Society.

The second week in October, 1985, Chronicle founding editor and our teacher Ed Lowry died of AIDS in Dallas, Texas. The world has never been as bright since.

The third week of that October, appropriately, SWAMP and Laguna Gloria presented Independent Images, a film conference featuring Jonathan Demme and John Sayles. Demme was a friend, Sayles became one, and eventually, if not directly, SXSW Film was born (launching in 1994; SXSW began March 1987).

In my keynote speech I'll mention what I said back in '81 and how wrong I was. When we screened Made in Texas at SXSW 2015, legendary documentary filmmaker Ron Mann (Grass, Altman) pointed out to me what a groundbreaking program it was. There was no such thing as regional cinema at the time, he argued. I just thought it was films by my friends and me.

Rick Linklater showed up for the screening. I asked if he would like to say a few words. He pointed out how he had seen a screening of Brian Hansen's "Speed of Light" and David Boone's "Invasion of the Aluminum People" at a gallery in Houston in the Eighties. The show not only inspired him as a filmmaker but also encouraged him to move to Austin.

Now stating the obvious, and in no particular order: Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, Laura Dunn, Hector Galán, Kat Candler, the Zellner brothers, Paul Stekler, Luke Savisky, Bob Byington, Mike Judge, Terrence Malick, David Gordon Green, Margaret Brown, Jeff Nichols, Hannah Fidell, Yen Tan, Tim McCanlies, Karen Skloss, Heather Courtney, Steve Mims, Geoff Marslett, Clay Liford, Andrew Bujalski, Ben Steinbauer, Berndt Mader, Annie Silverstein, PJ Raval, Bryan Poyser, Mike Tully, and A.J. Edwards.

Not to mention Elizabeth Avellán, Sarah Green, Ginger Sledge, Alan Berg, Sandra Adair, Anne Walker-McBay, Suzanne Weinert, David Hartstein, Nick Gonda, Janet Pierson, Marjorie Baumgarten, Rebecca Campbell, Kyle Henry, Spencer Parsons, the Duplass brothers. Those lists could be shorter, readers would get the idea, but I'm running scared here as to all the remarkable talents I'm not mentioning.

And of course Bill Witliff, Bud Shrake, Sarah Bird, Stephen Harrington, and Bill Broyles; along with Tobe Hooper, Eagle Pennell, Doug Holloway, Steve Swartz, Kevin Reynolds, David Schmoeller, Lin Sutherland, Richard Kooris, Wayne Bell, and Kim Henkel before Austin was a gleam in Linklater's eye.

The Chronicle was there reporting on the scene, supporting and advocating for it.

The second issue led to a third. The first year led to a second. It took a decade for the Chronicle to really break even.

Two great prosperous decades followed where the paper did right by its community (that's really your call but I hope I have it right). It grew economically, supporting a large staff of writers, photographers, and artists as well as production and advertising staffs. Largely we focused on Austin stories, local talent, while supporting many cultural, civic, and community organizations.

Every week the Chronicle still comes out. But the last half-decade has been rough. Print media took a nosedive, so many publications haven't survived or are pale imitations of what they once were. The Chronicle moves proud and unbent, though business is more of a struggle now. But that is another story.

This weekend in Houston I'll be talking about Texas and film, where the best times may well be ahead. How the story I'll be telling not only once seemed unlikely but as loud as anyone I declared it impossible, a silly dream. Thank the Lord I was wrong, so very wrong. Against the odds, by being innovative, determined, and cooperative, against odds and logic, a uniquely Texas regional film community with ongoing international impact was created and nurtured. Playing by its own rules, unlike Hollywood, it has always been about film and community, not power and money, driven by passion not commerce.

And, from my heart, thank all of you for supporting our filmmakers and films, and for keeping this publication if not unscathed then at least moving forward, its head held high.

(The lists up above of film folks are woefully incomplete. I apologize to all I left out – and to the army of supporters, tech folks, film crews, organization staff, professionals, politicians, writers, teachers, and just plain moviegoers who aren't mentioned at all.)

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