Filmmakers and filmgoers make the journey from Austin to Marfa, with an ever-expanding footprint
It would be easy to think you were in Austin as you finished your trailer-procured meal, hopped in a pedicab, rode through a rapidly changing downtown, and caught a cult classic under the stars on an Alamo Drafthouse inflatable screen. That is, until you started to count those same stars and realized you were about seven hours west, under the moonlight-tower-less skies that shine over Marfa and its third annual film festival.
And it was hard not to be needled with the shared guilt of an invading force descending on the locals this past weekend, inundating the quiet eateries and ruining the dusty streets with immaculate footwear. (Is this what Brooklynites struggle with when they walk around Austin during South by Southwest?) To its credit, the (hopefully) indomitable small-town charm of Marfa blew through most of the hipster elitism with ease, leaving the intimate audiences and partygoers to bond over five days of avant-garde shorts, desert-hued documentaries, and a few "ready for the big league" narrative features.
Tellingly, the most popular screening I attended was the Austin music doc Echotone. With his camera perched atop the cranes littering downtown and sitting shotgun in a delivery van with Black Joe Lewis during his day job at Quality Seafood, director Nathan Christ gets beautiful wide shots of the city, interspersed with the everyday struggles of independent musicians trying to live the dream Austin promises with its slogan of "live music capital of the world." The film doesn't delve as deeply into the troubles facing Austin's music scene (e.g., the sound ordinance, soul-sucking record execs looking for the next big thing), which may leave some viewers with the idea that the rapid growth and latest batch of condo-living transplants are entirely to blame. Walking from the theatre to the VIP lounge for a caffeinated pick-me-up following Echotone, it was hard not to cringe at the irony of the whole lot of us being in a town that has a reputation as a refuge for members of the art world unfulfilled by city life. This migration (admittedly only temporary in the case of the festivalgoers) gives the city new life but also gives Marfa a new, fresh face that it may or may not want. Luckily, the VIP lounge also had alcohol, and any guilt was soon tossed aside and replaced by excitement of the latest rumor of free food at the next screening.
What the Marfa Film Festival did best was program highbrow and down-home offerings without shorting either artistic mode of expression. This quality made the experimental short "Burning Palace" – a dark, erotic, surreal bit of filmmaking à la David Lynch (with the freaks replaced with professional dancers) – and the inspirational and multiplex-ready feature revolving around an Ethiopian long-distance runner feel like cinematic siblings. Thank Marfa's ability to strip away pretension from the often hifalutin art world for that. It's what put Marfa on the map back when Donald Judd was placing the town's signature concrete boxes on the grounds of an old army barracks on the edge of town: altering the landscape without ruining the view.
For more info on the Marfa Film Festival, visit www.marfafilmfestival.org.