The Advance's Retreat
Is this the end for Cinematexas?
By Marrit Ingman, Fri., Sept. 14, 2007
Austin film-gazers will see one fewer star in this year's constellation of fall events. The Cinematexas International Short Film Festival, the experimental festival lauded in The Village Voice as "an oasis of radicalism deep in Bush country," is no more. At least for now.
On May 14, Programming Director Ivan Lozano announced on the group's official site that "Due to the loss of support from our biggest contributor, and the loss of our office space, we are financially unable to continue bringing you the very best in moving-image art." Lozano added, "Hopefully we can rise again, but we can't promise anything. We are going into a (semi-permanent) hibernation."
Cineastes grumbled. "Where else could film students have michillindas at the San Jose Hotel with Werner Herzog, just after an electric screening of his 'science fiction' film Lessons of Darkness?" festival watchdog Mike Jones wondered in his Variety blog. "To lose such a respected festival that celebrated film as art within its students' work is [a] major loss."
One part of the festival survives: the Cinemakids program, which screens projects by youth filmmakers and offers free, hands-on workshops to kids ages 7 to 12 (see "Cinemakids Survives"). Gone are the other programs: the International Competition, the political media symposium Parallax View, the exhibitions of audio and image called Eye+Ear, the site-based installations of Terra Cognita, and Face/Off, a forum for artists to explore their personal and geographical landscapes through film and video. Gone are the visiting artists, guest curators, and special retrospectives: shorts by Abbas Kiarostami and Satyajit Ray, the "film poems" of Margaret Tait, retrospectives of animators Oskar Fischinger and Mary Ellen Bute, multimodal presentations by Miranda July and Bruce McClure, and screenings hosted by Jim Jarmusch and Todd Haynes.
Also gone is the University of Texas Competition. The impetus for the festival's founding in 1995 (or 1996, depending on whom you ask) by Athina Rachel Tsangari and Bryan Poyser, the competition would eventually put student-made projects under the same banner as curated material like Andy Warhol's early featurettes and a Jan Svankmajer collection from the National Film Archive in Prague.
Poyser explains: "I was a film student back in 1996, and [Tsangari] was my TA for my Film 1 class. She wanted to put together a film festival for UT, kind of like how Columbia and NYU and all the other top film schools have a yearly festival for their student films. Without really knowing what that meant, I said, 'Sure, yeah, I'll help you.' That whole summer we went all the way back to 1990 or even earlier and tried to get [UT] student films that had been successful on the festival circuit."
Poyser and Tsangari also showed I Am Cuba, a 1964 Soviet-made anthology film making the repertory circuit that year on the strength of its Scorsese-approved long-take dolly shots.
"We brought in the cinematographer, who was sort of on tour with the movie," Poyser says. "And the idea behind that was to add another component to the student-film festival, so it wasn't just about showing students' work to the public but also showing really interesting, inspiring works to the students. We wanted to improve the quality of films made at UT by [showing] examples of really interesting work done outside of the university," Poyser says.
"You got a sense that it was incredibly laid-back and incredibly egalitarian," says Matt Dentler, who stumbled into the Cinematexas loop as an undergraduate in 1997 and now directs the comparatively massive South by Southwest Film Festival. "What we saw at Cinematexas [was] that we are all students of film at one point or another." Dentler adds, "It wasn't a snob festival."
David Barker, the festival's artistic director between 2001 and 2003: "Anybody could come up with any idea they wanted to [for an event], and I would coach them into how to make that happen. They would ultimately be the people who produced it and raised the money. That was, to me, really exciting. Basically all the money was raised by undergraduates. They would come in thinking it was impossible, and by the time they left a year later, they would know they could do whatever they wanted to. And that's why so many of them went on to run other festivals and do pretty amazing stuff."
Amazement was common at Cinematexas events. "Cinematexas was supposed to be about showing things that wouldn't get shown anywhere else," Lozano says. "Showing things that weren't necessarily entertainment and trusting in the power of the moving image to affect social change or change people's point of view, even if it's a movie that's three minutes of a close-up of some guy's balls."
Case in point: the festival's infamous midnight screenings at the Alamo Drafthouse, then a fledgling enterprise.
Poyser says, "We kind of tried to pick the more out-there, outrageous, perverse, and violent and really funny or really disturbing, odd, crazy stuff and put it all together, which really kind of worked with the audience that the Alamo was trying to develop."
For example, former senior programmer and curator-at-large Spencer Parsons – who is also a frequent Chronicle contributor – salutes "Steak Baby," Steve McIntyre's grotesque 16mm puppet short from 1996 as "probably the most offensive UT film ever made. ... But it's also to me one of the most exciting UT films ever made, and it was the one that said to me I'd come to the right place. If someone could make this as a graduate-school project, I had come to the right school."
Dentler: "The fact that that kind of stuff could also be appreciated for its cinematic ingenuity was really, really refreshing."
Bethany Malmgren, managing director of the festival for two years, describes bringing an investor from an Internet startup to a program featuring Kurt Kren, an avant-garde Austrian who edited his films according to a strict mathematical – as opposed to narrative – process. "So I pick him up from the airport and drive him to this screening, and there are all these naked women flailing about, getting mustard poured on them, and I'm thinking, 'What on earth is this guy going to think?' And he was blown away. He really loved it."
But "love" wasn't always quite the right word. There are tall tales of "people getting drunk and freaking out at the Alamo" and audience members threatening one another over abstract animation. ("It was a really peaceful and beautiful electronic collage, but it was like a screen saver," Malmgren admits. "And someone yelled from the back, 'Move the mouse!' Another person jumped up from the front: 'Shut up, or I'll stuff this hot dog up your ass!'")
And then there was "The Operation," Portlander Jacob Pander's 13-minute infrared opus, which transmutes abruptly from postapocalyptic surrealism to hardcore porn.
"Seeing that surrounded by an audience really kind of freaked some people out, but it was definitely memorable," Poyser remembers. "They just got really, really quiet. That was the reaction. Nobody wanted to move. Nobody wanted to make any sort of indication that what was happening onscreen was affecting them."
Video artist Benjamin Coonley riled audiences with "Pie-Eating 101: 101 Years of Pie," "a long sort of structuralist piece where basically there's this vomit sequence that gets converted from analog to digital and tightly compressed and repeated 101 times." Coonley says the festival organizers e-mailed him: "Oh, God, we had this great screening. People were yelling and throwing stuff and throwing nuts, and it far exceeded our expectations."
As the festival's programming grew – developing its sidebars, special retrospectives, and involvement by visiting artists – so did its profile.
"One of the things I wanted to do was expand the amount of press, because there was just no way that people would find out about the festival that weren't into experimental film," says Barker, who joined the festival in 2001 after co-founder Tsangari returned to her native Greece. "With Herzog, we got the most press ever [in 2002]."
"I'm not really sure how they got these great filmmakers – Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes, et cetera – to come down for this small short-film festival with no market attached to it and no commercial cachet," Coonley says. "I think they just did a good job convincing them that this was a heartfelt, serious thing. Obviously people believed them."
Malmgren: "We would say, 'I'm really sorry we don't have the fanciest stuff. We can't even pay your way as a filmmaker to come here. But if you come here, because this is Austin, we will give you tons of free booze, we will give you a free bicycle to ride on, we will give you some UT student's couch to sleep on, and we will show you an audience that really does enjoy your work. And we will put you in a fun, encouraging environment.'"
The approach worked.
"At one point [in 2002], we looked at the audience, and it was a Friday night, and there were 700 people at different Cinematexas events. I thought that was pretty amazing," Barker says. "That we could have 700 people in a fairly small city at these kind of events was a big sign that it was working."
Lozano agrees. "Cine-matexas was always to a certain extent elitist because we weren't dealing in popular media. But I don't think it was so dense that somebody who walked in off the street wouldn't be able to get something out of it or wouldn't have fun."
But it couldn't last forever, and over an Iced City Rush at Little City, Lozano explains why.
"Basically the College of Communication decided to take away our office space," he says, citing a lack of space within the department. Yet Cinematexas' office in a "completely rundown" three-story building – dubbed the "Doc Motel" – is still standing, unoccupied. "They didn't offer us a smaller space. They didn't try to cut down our office size or anything. Then they got rid of the computer labs and everything on the first floor of the communications building and put in an Internet cafe instead.
"At first we were going to have to be out of the office by October of this year, and then they pushed that back to May. That's when we decided we just couldn't do it anymore. I went over to where the office was, and it's still empty as of right now, which makes me a little angry. We already could have had the festival."
Lozano also relates the festival's demise to changes in the university's Radio-Television-Film Department. "There's not a lot of emphasis on experimentation. It's an Indiewood-driven model, which is another reason I don't think Cinematexas will happen in this town again."
Yet almost everyone agrees that Cinematexas wasn't necessarily built to last – for a number of reasons.
"There's a big venue problem in Austin," says Parsons, for one. "There are just real difficulties in where and how you put on a screening. If you're a small festival, how do you do that? South by Southwest has done pretty well, obviously, but they're the big dog, and they still have to set up their own screen in the Convention Center.
"The Alamo of course is a wonderful venue, but the early days of Cinematexas were also the early days of the Alamo. They needed events like Cinematexas to build their programming. As they became a more successful business, more money was necessary up front from the Alamo."
Parsons adds, "It's not as if they're leaving us little guys in the dust. They have their own rent to worry about."
Moreover, turnover among the group was endemic, leading to a lack of what Lozano calls "institutional memory."
"It wasn't run by cultural administrators or academics," Lozano says. "It was run by filmmakers and artists. That was definitely something that kept it lively but also made it a lot more difficult to keep alive.
"So much of its energy derived from young, excited, somewhat naive students and also people who are filmmakers," says Poyser, who went on to write and direct 2004's Dear Pillow and serves as director of artist services for the Austin Film Society. "We all gave it as many years as we possibly could but ultimately had to go on and decide whether we wanted to be filmmakers or film 'showers.'"
"I think that by and large you'll find that a lot of microcinemas are run on the enthusiasm of 22-year-olds," Parsons says. "You can't be 22 forever."
Meanwhile, the same grassroots energy that fueled the festival often burned out its participants.
"It runs you into the ground," Lozano says, "and people would eventually explode and leave."
"It really asked a lot from all the people who [were] so dedicated to doing it," explains Malmgren, who describes working 60-hour weeks for a $4,500 salary – $500 of which she invested back into the festival. "It was great and an amazing experience, especially as a young woman, to have done that, and yet at the same time, I think people just need to move on."
The program's "anti-institutional" attitude – described by Parsons as "Fuck you, we're Cinematexas" – also proved a blessing and a curse.
"[It] helped us with our programming, and it helped us with our audience," Parsons says. "But at a certain point, when there's nobody there to help you make things happen anymore, then maybe it's time for somebody else to take over the mission with a different attitude and a different name and a different sense."
"It was a constant process of burning bridges," Lozano says. "Projectors eating film or a check not clearing on time. I still have nightmares about tech emergencies to this day."
In response – Lozano credits programmer Julia Halperin with the idea – the festival's 2006 program featured artwork of a burning bridge on its cover.
But what about the movies? For now, Lozano says, AFS has agreed to adopt Cinematexas' tape archive, and plans are being made to digitize the materials for better preservation. "UT wasn't even willing to take all the UT films into their library. We gave them some boxes of some stuff, mostly the winners, which is all they said they have space for."
Meanwhile, microcinema enthusiasts can scour venues like MonkeyWrench Books, Spider House, and Nueva Onda for their occasional programming fix. Cinematexans also tout Screen Door Film, a collective headed by UT alum Ryan Long, as well as Houston's Aurora Picture Show, a nonprofit cinema with monthly screenings and a viewing library of more than 800 titles.
"The new Blanton is doing a good job of including film and video right now, mostly with video installations," Lozano adds. But there are drawbacks to the gallery setting, he says. "In the movie theatre, you're supposed to sit in the dark and look at something. You're forced to confront the element of time."
The Cinematexans are also ambivalent about video sharing as a venue for microcinema.
"On the Internet, attention spans are so short that only a short work that's immediately sensational can really succeed," says Coonley, whose "Valentine for Perfect Strangers" became a YouTube sensation. "[Festivals] are able to show stuff that might require more of a commitment from the audience than just a casual click and a forward."
Malmgren says, "I hope some other students will come along and reinvent Cinematexas into what they want it to be – whether it's digitally, through the Internet, or whatever."
Parsons: "I won't say that YouTube killed the short-film festival – maybe it will – but if we were founding [Cinematexas] now, we would have to be a very different thing because of the nature of the technology and how people are seeing media.
"Maybe times have changed enough, even if it was only over 11 years, that it's better for somebody else to come in and renew the spirit. Go back to the bridges that have been burnt and build their own. See if they can make a better day of it."
*Oops! The following correction ran in the September 21, 2007 issue: In "The Advance's Retreat: Is This the End for Cinematexas?" (Screens, Sept. 14), the director Gus Van Sant was identified as a past guest of the festival. In fact, Van Sant never attended Cinematexas. The Chronicle regrets the error.