The Austin Chronicle

Page Two: Made in Texas

Lighting fires for creativity and community

By Louis Black, November 20, 2015, Columns

Sitting on the small porch outside our hotel room, I'm thinking a lot about Austin and film though I'm in Portugal at the Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival. We are in Estoril, which is an upper-class suburb of Lisbon. The festival shows films all over the two cities, here in the latter at the rather grand theatre at the Casino Estoril that's up the hill. Just a bit in front of me the Atlantic laps at the shore. Later we'll walk by it along a path by the beach to visit a small town just north of us. Spain and Portugal sat out World War II, though the former went through its particularly brutal and devastating civil war the decade before. That leaves Portugal as one of the few European countries to have escaped serious destruction. It is mostly surprisingly preserved, a combination of old and modern that can't help but charm, though any awareness of its fascist-leaning past or very troubled economic present leavens one's enjoyment.

The festival, in its ninth year, is offering a special focus on Austin film. The retrospective includes a number of films by directors not in attendance: Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Bernie, and Boyhood by Richard Linklater; Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse, Mike Judge's Office Space; Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud by Jeff Nichols; and Andrew Bujalski's Results. A complete David Gordon Green retrospective with the director in attendance is another highlight. Bob Byington is here with 7 Chinese Brothers in competition, Geoff Marslett with Loves Her Gun and presenting the ensemble effort Slacker 2011.

Jonathan Demme is also being honored with a retrospective of 20 works he directed. Combining his retrospective with the Austin focus, the festival kicked off Jonathan Demme Presents: Made in Texas, a program of six Austin shorts first shown at the Collective for Living Cinema in NYC in 1981. It really wasn't until we premiered the restored and remastered program at this year's SXSW Film that the program seemed anything more than a collection of films by friends. Ron Mann pointed out to me that at that time there was no regional cinema – that showing six films from Austin was not only innovative but groundbreaking. Mark Rance, Sandy Boone, and I have produced a DVD Made in Texas package that the University of Texas Press will be offering in 2016.

I guess that story begins when Ed Lowry suggested we see Caged Heat (1974), Demme's first film, at an Austin drive-in in 1976. Falling in love with it, CinemaTexas – the graduate-run film society of UT's RTF department back in the day – screened Crazy Mama (1975), his second. I don't remember where we finally saw Fighting Mad (1976), but Lowry and I watched Handle With Care (aka Citizen's Band, 1977) at a drive-in in Dallas with a bottle of rum and two liters of Coke on a double bill with Floyd Mutrux's great American Hot Wax. The film did little business but did garner critical attention, as did 1980's Melvin and Howard. Somewhere in there we sent Demme basically a fan letter. When he came to town to work on a script with Bud Shrake, he called us and we all met.

It is odd watching 35-year-old films made by your friends and yourself with an audience in Portugal. The program began as simply the stack of films by friends we had sitting in the living room when, after three days of hanging out with Demme hearing as much music as possible, I asked him if he'd like to watch some Austin films. It was thrilling when he decided to present them in NYC. Now, this many years later, the power of these films surprises even the filmmakers.

We came to Lisbon after screening Joe Nick Patoski's Sir Doug & the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove, a documentary I executive produced, in Barcelona. After a life as an addicted film-goer, sometimes critic, occasional programmer, and SXSW Film Festival co-creator, there is something especially sweet about attending festivals as a filmmaker. The Barcelona screening was packed, as so many of the Sir Doug screenings have been, and it was gratifying to discuss Doug Sahm with a European audience.

This may seem all too much autobiography or egocentric preening, but the real story is that the world is paying attention to the film scene here in Austin. As a community, we are all part of it, nurturing every new generation of filmmakers. But in Lisbon when they asked me about why the Austin film scene had grown so spectacularly the way it has, the answer had to be because of its remarkable film-loving audiences. An appreciative and receptive community nourishes and encourages creativity.

We flew from Lisbon to Newark. Catching our return flight to Austin, we heard the TSA staff talking about something going on in Paris. The conversation spreading and expanding. It threw a serious pall over what had been such a remarkable experience, not just for us personally but as proud and engaged members of our community. Learning more of what had happened, it overwhelmed any other emotions. Coming home to find militants on the right and the left using that horrendous, inhumane terror attack as a way of dehumanizing those whose beliefs or ideologies are different from theirs was profoundly depressing. It is this very activity of malevolently mischaracterizing others as not just lacking humanity but actually being inherently evil by their existence that is the very soil out of which these unspeakable acts spring. When the response to one group so completely denying another's humanity as to allow them to think cowardly slaughter and carnage are somehow noble and brave is to echo these exact sentiments – though, of course, applying them to groups different from one's self – the Möbius strip of inhumanity and terror seems inexorably sealed.

In Barcelona and Lisbon, film, music, art, and creativity crossed boundaries and ignored heritage in a shared communal celebration of humanity. Those precious candles lit now seem so meager against the spreading of hate and pervasive inhumane contempt for others. Which, I guess, only means we all need to light more fires, so many that they can't be snuffed out, until their brightness is so great it dwarfs the darkness that seems to be spreading everywhere.

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