Generous Depth, Marginalized Meaning
Previewing Cinematexas 10
All screenings at the Hideout, 617 Congress
I watched the full slate of short films playing as part of the Cinematexas 10 International Competition over the course of about eight hours last week. It was often fun, occasionally painful, and mostly interesting, so I'm not complaining. I'm not bragging, either. Just giving you a little background. After all, it was nothing compared to the plight of programmer Ivan Lozano.
"After sitting through hours and hours, days and days of submissions," he shares in his programming notes, "I imagined myself Max Renn (James Woods in VIDEODROME), slowly mutating into a living, breathing chimera made up of human and monitor parts, probably roaming the countryside, preaching the New Flesh of the Short Format to any and all, infecting the masses with the cantankerous virus of radical cinema, probably with an angry mob of mainstream villagers in tow, threatening me with their Hollywood 'hits' and reality shows. ... DEATH to conformity! DEATH to Hollywood! DEATH to television! DEATH to the big mass communications swindle! DEATH to the vulgarization of the moving image in service of a proto-fascist (a rose by any other name...) mainstream Orwellian domination!" Anyway, read and find guidance in these impressions and reflections if you like, but keep in mind that the films are all recommendable in their own ways. Sort of like unlikely conversations with strangers, they're worth at least a few minutes of your time. I don't align myself aesthetically or politically with too many of them I'm more of a Shark Tale kind of guy, myself (stop looking at me like that, Ivan Lozano) but I do admire them from afar as provocative works of art that we are better off with than without. Shawn Badgley
Program 1, Is That All There Is?
Thursday, 7:30pm; Sunday, 4:45pmIn "My Name Is Paulo Leminski," crazy dad with camera wants toddler son to recite Paulo Leminski poetry. It ends in tears, but not before son twists an "Everything I do, someone in me that I despise always thinks it's great" prompt into "Everything I fart, someone farts the most," for instance... Otters, gators, pumas, and wolves do their thing to weird voiceover in "The Golden Horde," which seems to be about the fallacy of negative reinforcement... I hope people stop drilling for oil after seeing "Petrolia"... Six Feet Under South Korean-style, the meditative "The Time of the Dying" opens with the words "We are surrounded by death in the middle of our lives." If the guy who dies in this one didn't really die and then come back to life, he's a really good actor... "The Goodybe Couple": Who is this couple sitting on the couch, faces obscured, husband wearing red bow tie and wife's eyes shining like jewels saying goodbye to? I don't know, but the question haunts me still... Not recommended for epileptics, the Ken Jacobs-Rick Reed collaboration "Mountaineer Spinning" finds a woman's face as well as, like, an Indian chief's, in a magic lantern.
Program 2, Deprived and Depraved
Friday, 2:30pm; Saturday, 9pm"La Vie d'un Chien" and by "la vie d'un chien," I mean "a single chemical process to cause human chromosomes to mimic those of a dog" was made in Santa Rosa, Calif., but is a French-speaking black & white about a scientist who grants us true freedom from expectation. It's funny and sharp, but it will also make you want to hug your dog and hug yourself... The Richard Foreman interview/oral autobiography that is "The Ontological Cowboy" makes me feel old and cynical, because Foreman, whatever you think of his theatre, is basically old and cynical. Not to mention so fucking full of himself... My theory on "Ringo" is that its improvised conversation between two friends dictated the filmmakers' wistful, well-done scenes interspersed, which is kind of a neat idea if you think about it, or even if you don't... In "The Producer," a white-haired gentleman in glasses and gloves is on the phone spouting such things as "Anything like what I have in mind, maybe we could get that to work" and "So, when you make a film, you need to have the sense that you're in touch with someone else than what you see on the screen"... The constellations Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka are anthropomorphized in "Superpower: Dakar Chapter"... A possibly homeless stormchaser is at the center of "Supercell," a rough but affecting video about loneliness and nostalgia... What is with all of this pulsating light and these naked dudes dancing around to pop songs slooooowed waaaaaayy dooowwn? Search me, but "Extending Trainer: Pressure Suits and Broomcrafts" will also give you a seizure if you're at all prone.
Program 3, Tomorrow's Ruins Today!
Sunday, 3pmAmong the competition's most well-executed and moving entries is "Evening Star," a woman's one-day study of her grandmother, apparently, a lifelong housewife going about her chores and rituals. Amid bittersweet assurances that "everything has a meaning," she laments a life at odds with her "different spirit"... I have nothing to say about "Les Skateurs," other than that it was made in Morocco... "Legal Errorist" looks like a Calvin Klein commercial, and its naked performance artist's gyrations are a mess of manipulated emotion that's probably a statement on modern womanhood... The silence in "Null X" is suffocating... Vivid, diverse, ambitious, disorienting, and familiar, "Anthology of American Folk Song" is all about absorbing all of it. Let me take this opportunity to admit that I have no idea how Ivan Lozano came up with the titles to these programs.
Program 4, Flat Screen Fantasia
Thursday, 9:15pm; Friday, 4:30pm"O Almoço"'s pastoral, pastel-flecked family dinner in Portugal quickly gives way to a disturbing slapstick take on domestic abuse, as three couples and a matriarch dine outdoors. In one woman's case, dining means being force-fed and nearly stabbed; in another's, chugging a bottle of wine to tolerate her partner's boorish advances... Musicians of all ages play soundless accordions in the Netherlands' "Striving for Improvement." Actually, they do make a sound: a wheezing gust of futility... And now for Martha Colburn's "Cosmetic Emergency," which, to just come out and say it, is one of my favorites. Recalling the work of Joan Gratz, paintings of mostly faces mutate back and forth between the grotesque and the cartoonish, the realist and abstract, the blotchy and severe. Chubby cheeks are skinned into skulls. Jesus has tits. Artificiality is the target, as is, at one point, the American military, but Dutch Ambassador of Cosmetic Surgery (?!) Marijke Helwegen bears the brunt in a brain-numbing live-action conclusion. A seamless (and, with its shifting media, it has every reason to show seams) minor masterpiece with great music... How do you follow up a seamless minor masterpiece? With that nut Don Hertzfeldt, of course. "The Meaning of Life" is at once hopeful and soul-crushing, Tchaikovsky the soundtrack for a cacophonous parade of wasted time under a chalky-blue sky of smoke. Walking, talking fish then give the universe at large another chance to not give a shit about what goes on down around these parts. One of the animator's most beautiful efforts... How do you follow up one of the animator's most beautiful efforts? Don't ask "iMovie inbetween/shifting," one of the most boring things I've ever seen... If you stand in front of the screen with "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" going and have someone take your picture, you won't have to pay for a trip to the strip-mall portrait studio. Better yet, time the camera so that the someone may join you, assuming they're special... "Ariadne" might be what your senses experience when you die. Barely discernible close-ups of pottery wheels, looms, and a woman's face fill the screen in Halloween hues, operatic strains interrupted only by what sounds like a nervous titter... In "View From a Floating Raft," the landscape is synthesized into oblivion, as hypnotic shifting bands of tans, blues, blacks, whites, pinks, and oranges lead me to lick the screen hoping for a high. What a way to finish off one of the more sustained, high-caliber, highly recommended groupings. The jury has quite a task on its hands here. I don't envy them, whoever they are.
Program 5, Printer Showdown: Optical vs. Contact
Friday, 7:45pm; Saturday, 6:15pm"Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine" comes down to cameras and guns, which I decided after watching way too many minutes of footage from a Western melded with an Ahab-looking dude on a subway focusing his camera. Rich and nicely rendered. Also, yet another seizure waiting to happen... "Interlude" is just that: etchings of fish swim against a distressed background to a xylophone. You might see this on a giant monitor in a South Beach hotel bar, to give you a better idea... Everyday household appliances, foodstuffs, and other immediately recognizable wares float against alternately garish and rather desirable wallpaper as Kamiel Tolenaars' mournful but poppy tune accompanies. What I just described for you is "Wall of Sound Flowers"... "Eclipse" opens with its point of entry, a big semi-opaque dot, sliding quietly offscreen, only to return to the action, which reminds me of rusty helicopter blades. Maybe it's meant to evoke the sun. Or maybe Vietnam... Give it up for the Enlightenment, y'all. When I first started watching "The Great Art of Knowing," I almost puked at its pretense, especially after reading its subtitle, "A Bibliography in 27 Constituents." But this soundless ode to the senses, imagination, and intellect might give "Cosmetic Emergency" a run for its money. It's definitely longer. Concerning the early 1700s auction of the Byrd book collection in the Virginia Commonwealth, it joins inky, at times ornate, imagery with journal entries, ruminant wanderings, and a metaphysical gravity that demands attention as notions of flight and taking flight assert themselves... Guy Maddin is not the only creepy Canadian, it turns out. "The Bleeding Heart of It" is a warped anti-war blend of enhanced reds and greens (the Christmas theme is not coincidental) overtaking a family sitting on a porch... "Mirror Mechanics" is an interesting trick, as sets of reflections seemingly compete for the viewer's attention, which inevitably rests at the unattainable center of the screen.
Program 6, Recreation Myth
Friday, 9:30pm; Saturday, 6:15pm"Mariko's 30 Pirates" is a digressive celebration of single-8 stock that finds its symbolism in an old Japanese college building. It's a student film at its most essential, but this Mariko kid is one hell of a student. His enthusiasm as a salvager and researcher enlivens with youth and vibrancy. Digging among the forgotten and discarded is often rewarding, and so it is with this short... Across the Pacific and then the continent, some NYU kid with a DV got his buddy (not Richard Dreyfuss) to fondle himself while scanning the "Worlds Beyond Our World" chapter of The Guide to Interplanetary Travel and decided to film it as "World Contact." And then he decided to submit it to Cinematexas. And then it was accepted at Cinematexas. If you ask me... A superior companion piece is "Resident of Earth," wherein Paul wants to go to the moon. In the meantime, he's doing a documentary on the fattest kid ever. One of the more polished from approach to production to content narrative efforts in the bunch... Remember Andrew Cunanan? "I Feel Love" does... There's no explicit action in "A Free Ride," which finds its thrust in setting. I think it's trying to get inside the minds of the very first filmmakers, which is to say everyone's minds.
Program 7, the not-quite-midnight show
Friday, 10:30pm; Saturday, 11pmJennet Thomas, who worked on and appears in "Resident of Earth," presents the equally excellent in a different way "Double Dummy," which defines 21st-century quirky. It's like sitting in a particularly colorful lost-and-found bin, if you know what I mean, which would make one of us... Fast-forwarding 3X on your DVD player will sync up the background shuffle with the motion of "Shape Shift"'s focal point a guy experimenting with wardrobe changes and motion creating a weird live-action animation but, unfortunately, you won't have that option in the theatre. And so you will likely have a seizure... Guy Maddin conjures all of his considerable talents in the frenetic, ostensibly absinthe-fueled "Sissy Boy Slap Party"... In "Fit," a stylized guy in his underwear flexes while a fireball gazes on approvingly... Iconography, animals, propaganda, and Eighties-era colors conspire with a computerized feminine voice reading the Bible out of order in "Spine Face"... "Perpetual Motion in the Land of Milk and Honey" is one of the few of these 40-some-odd films to look and feel truly new. Perhaps if Ivan Lozano hadn't packed four DVDs in one case, causing this one to scratch, technical problems wouldn't have kept me from truly appreciating it. But perhaps then it wouldn't have looked and felt so truly new... "Dedicated Control Mechanism": Is that Nick Cave's or the Cowardly Lion's head rotating without pause? Or is it the intelligent designer's? Go figure it out for yourself.
Program 1, Te Amo Chingados
Saturday, 4:30pm, Hideout (not previewed)
Program 2, War and Love
Friday, 6:45pm, Hideout; Sunday, 2pm, Hideout
Program 3, Grab-Bag Surprise
Saturday, 2:45pm, Hideout; Sunday, 3:45pm, HideoutThe heart of Cinematexas has always been the UT student competition, and this year's batch of talented and promising filmmakers are a warmly embraced addition to the Austin filmmaking community. Berndt Mader's stylistic standout "A Neutral Density" follows a seemingly normal paper-pusher through a typical day with the added insight of his innermost thoughts and his newfound hopefulness for the future. Fictional "Hope's War" tells the story of an Iraq war POW and the implicit horrors and subsequent emotional problems that ensue. Marjoun of "Marjoun and the Flying Head Scarf" rebels against her strict Muslim upbringing by crushing on a white boy and wearing blue jeans. Marko Slavnic's documentary "Soldier" is arguably the strongest work here, following the heartbreaking relationship of Sarah and Jay as he fights in Iraq, returns home, and tries to assimilate back into his old life/world. The titular "Booth" is at a prison, with a sole woman employee witnessing the attack of an inmate and what she does to try and save him. Ever tried finding a date whilst being wheelchair-bound? Well, it ain't easy. "Below the Break" expounds. The Grab-Bag Surprise begins with "Re.Vi.Ver," wherein a Y2K-obsessed widower and his 11-year-old daughter bond over The Gilmore Girls. Ben Steinbauer celebrates the positive power of the smile in "Smile and the World Smiles With You." "Kitchen:Mation" is a stop-motion animation/puppetry delight. Asian-American UT students learn to swing dance and socialize in "SLOSH." "Tuber" explores the dynamics of eating with your spouse and birthing a tater/child. Katja Straub's "The White Bunny" is an artsy, creepy, David Lynch-influenced gem. "Spiral" follows Jeanne Stern's meditation on time, aging, and other ramblings. Julie Hanus' "50 Brides on a Fire Escape" is a nostalgic and sentimental experimental journey of matrimony, and a fire escape. René Pinnell directs the poolside-party video of the Handsome Charlies' catchy love tune "Makes Me Love You." An old lady and a "bird suit" turkey fight it out in Nicole Elmer's "Making Turkey Soup." Stephen Stephanian spins the bottle between anxiety and joy in preteen "First Kiss." In tribute to the educational films of yesteryear, "Death Is a Disease" chronicles the problems of the "differently living," aka zombies. What to do when your 20-sided die is pilfered pre-big tourney? Find out in "Dungeons and Darryl." "A Normal Life" for some isn't always that easy. Gaby Yepes exposes the American dream as being far from grasp for many. Mark Fagan
Film Poems: Friday, 6:15pm, Hideout; Islands: Saturday, 9:30pm, HideoutSome like Margaret Tait's work for the artistry of what she described as her "film poems"; some for what she represented as an independent female filmmaker (who even started her own film company in the 1950s); and still others for the "ethnographic" merit of these short films, in which she captured the details of life in midcentury Orkney (her homeland, off the coast of Scotland). There are also those who simply cherish the thrill of seeing a shot of the old corner grocery on film, like the Orkney equivalent of an Austinite watching Slacker. But while the late filmmaker is beloved in Scotland, she's largely unknown here, and it'll be interesting to see how people react to her short films, which have no narrative per se, but rather shots, often still shots at that, of people, places, and things, randomly cut together. Or at least that's how they can seem. Of course, knowing the term "film poem" can help in understanding what Tait was doing when she paired together shots of snow and then fire or grouped similar things together, like the various shots of insurance company signs in "Where I Am Is Here," creating a sort of textural view of her environment. But what's most interesting about her films is less what she was trying to say than what they say about her. You can sense her thrill in just holding the camera to her eye something not possible today except maybe in children, though the comparison only vaguely accounts for the innocence of her vision (i.e., long shots of flowing water or of a crane moving sand) and not at all for her lovely composition or for the way she used the camera to capture how her mother smoked a cigarette or how some local kids ran madly around a bonfire after excitedly lobbing an old couch into it. Tait's work offers a reminder of the simple beauty of self-expression through film. Nora Ankrum
El Mundo No Escuchará
Thursday-Sunday, 11am-6pm, Lora Reynolds Gallery, 300 West Ave.*Filmmaker Phil Collins posts an open call for people willing to sing songs from the Smiths' compilation album The World Won't Listen. Anywhere in the world, if Morrissey built it, they will come. This anywhere is Bogotá, Colombia, and Collins films and presents uncut karaoke versions of the king of mope's catalog in front of a painted backdrop of tropical paradise. The lack of edits seems ill-advised at first, but contributes to an atmosphere of raw emotion and freedom. As in many of his films, Collins wants the viewer to feel slightly uncomfortable. In this case, he contrasts karaoke as an American form of light-hearted escapism with biting political statement. Clearly escapism means something wholly different to the citizens of Bogotá. The violent imagery of "murderous desire" in the songs is recontextualized from Morrissey's metaphors of emotion to the participants' stark reality of constant political unrest. In a heart-wrenchingly direct moment, a man barely opens his eyes for the entirety of "Asleep" singing straight from the heart, "There is a better world, well, there must be." James Renovitch
* El Mundo No Escuchará also runs in parts between shorts in the Phil Collins: Greatest Hits series: Thursday, 5:30pm, and Friday, 4pm, at the Hideout.
Buzz Box Re-Mix and Krypton Is Doomed
Saturday, 1pm, HideoutHow does one follow up the six-hour spectacle that was Star Spangled to Death? For Ken Jacobs, he returns to Cinematexas with a film that involves less of a time commitment but just as much of a psychic commitment; the warning of epileptic seizures due to flashing lights should hint at that. The flashes turn out to be more like a rapidly rotating light source. Illuminating what, you ask? That's the question that could have you squinting and tilting your head for the full 34 minutes. Revealing only small portions of what appears to be a Renaissance painting consisting of forms and architectural elements, the shifting light gives the 2-D work a holographic quality that serves only to further obscure the visuals. In contrast is the crystal-clear audio reproduction of the first installment of the Superman radio show. You know the story: On a distant planet, a man tries to convince a council of his peers that their planet is in its final death throes. His warnings fall on deaf ears, and as the planet crumbles, the man launches his only son into space. As changes come slowly for the film's imagery (sometimes fading to black altogether, putting an even finer point on the audio content), the viewer has time to think about parallels to the narrative of unheeded warnings leading to catastrophe. Think the memos to the president warning of terrorists flying planes into buildings. Think the studies about the effects of a hurricane on New Orleans. These bits of information become one of an endless number of flashes revealing only part of the larger story that is in constant, revolving motion. Trying to put the visual pieces of "Krypton Is Doomed" together proves fruitless. For Jacobs, there is no dissipating the fog of war. Even the encouraging escape of the boy who would become Superman is tempered by the final moments of the film, absent of light, as the boy is hurled into the "blackness of space."
Slightly less nuanced than "Krypton Is Doomed" is "Buzz Box," directed by David Daniels, whose unique visual style can be seen in Pee-wee's Playhouse and numerous commercials and music videos. "Buzz Box," however, is not child's play. It is rather a caterwauling diatribe about modern media that Daniels himself calls "insanimation." Far from the stereotypical notions of claymation, Daniels innovated the process of strata-cut. Using a long clay column that is sliced with each frame (conducive for melting faces and other such deteriorations) strata-cut has the effect of warping not only the typical three dimensions but the ever-tricky fourth dimension that is compressed to make a week's worth of network news fit into the strait-jacket of "Buzz Box"'s nine minutes. This "Re-Mix" coincides with the 20th anniversary of its initial release and remains largely true to the original, barring a few digital alterations and topical updates to the 21st century. James Renovitch
Sunday, 1pm, UT Art Auditorium 1.202Winter Soldier begins with Vietnam veteran Rusty Sach's casual explanation with chagrined and apprehensive smiles, as if recounting the story of an old summer-camp prank of how men in his squadron would "blindfold" prisoners with safety wire and compete to see who could throw them the farthest out of flying airplanes. "We were told, 'Do not count prisoners when you're loading them on board the aircraft,'" he remembers. "'Count 'em when you unload 'em.'" The demeanor of the veterans as they recount the war crimes they've witnessed or committed is the most alarming part of this 1972 documentary about the Winter Soldier Investigation, even more so than the horrifying scenes described: scenes of women being raped and gutted or of soldiers pelting a 3-year-old Vietnamese boy with the biggest rocks they could find and laughing about it. More than 125 veterans testified during the 1971 investigation organized by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, some stoic, some breaking down, many slipping seamlessly from Cleaver-isms ("golly") to hippie-speak ("that's not my bag, man") as if demonstrating before our eyes the range of their transformations from 19-year-old patriots to 23-year-old veterans you can see that many are just beginning, awkwardly and painfully, to comprehend the horrors they've seen and their culpability in them. Despite the presence of reporters from major news organizations, little of the event's coverage made it to air or print, leaving it largely unnoticed save for the handful of filmmakers who edited together this grainy relic and were able to circulate it among a few festivals (including Cannes) and little else. Because of John Kerry's participation in the event (blink and you'll miss him in the doc), it began to crop up again in recent years. It's probably unnecessary to point out that the war in Iraq makes the film particularly poignant today, but I can't help but note the immediacy of its most frightening message, to which all the testimony points: that war crimes were not exceptions, but part of standard operating procedure. Nora Ankrum
A discussion with David Martinez, Rahul Mahajan, and Carl Webb takes place after the screening. For more on the Parallax View part of the festival, in which Winter Solider is included, see News. For a preview of the Eye+Ear portion, see Music Listings.