Having just completed programming the fifth annual Houston Cinema Arts Festival, I’m in a reflective state of mind. I’ve been doing this job since the festival’s inception, feeling lucky and grateful to be able to weave an unusually wide range of films and live performances and installations and workshops into the mix. This is the Houston Cinema Arts Festival because “film festival” is an inadequate description of what we do here.
From the beginning, we had a taste for “live cinema” performances, especially live music and film events. In our first year, the band Dengue Fever accompanied The Lost World and Kid Pan Alley led McGregor School kids in performing songs for the silent classic Peter Pan (a school outreach effort that has blossomed into our fully grown Festival Field Trip program). This year’s musical performance lineup includes klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals performing her score for the silent film The Yellow Ticket, two members of The Gourds doing an acoustic set after All the Labor, a musician/animator from San Francisco (Jeremy Rourke), and Chinese “er ren tai” singers leaping off the screen, where they act in the visually and musically spectacular The Love Songs of Tiedan, to perform live in the Asia Society Texas Center auditorium.
Interactive and sculptural media installations have always supplemented the traditional theatrical experiences we provide. In our first year, we brought over from Europe a self-contained structure called H-Box, which people entered to view avant-garde media. The immersive experience we’re offering this year is in the Cinema 16 Gallery we’ve built in Festival Headquarters downtown. A 4-screen feature film surrounds 24 viewers on wheeled chairs; it’s an ingeniously constructed, funny, impressively filmed and acted debut feature by the Brooklyn-based visual artist Meredith Danluck called North of South, West of East.
The Cinema 16 Gallery will also host other “Cinema on the Verge” avant-garde artists, who will present works throughout the festival week. Experimental media artists making personally crafted, typically non-narrative works have been featured from the start, but never as impressively as this year. I am immensely grateful to Deborah Colton for helping us bring Jonas Mekas, the 90-year-old “godfather of avant-garde cinema,” to Houston, where he will show a film in Cinema 16 and launch an exhibition in Colton’s gallery. I’m also thrilled that, in the same year, and thanks to our long-term collaborator, Aurora Picture Show, we’re bringing Barbara Hammer for three programs, including a live cinema performance called Witness: Palestine at Aurora and a master class at the Glassell School of Art on November 3. The only reason Barbara is not called “the godmother of avant-garde cinema” is that this title is generally given to Maya Deren, whose films and programs inspired both Hammer and Mekas, and who is honored in the film Hammer is screening here, called Maya Deren’s Sink. Our honoring of avant-garde pioneers is extended this year by the marvelous documentary portrait, Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton.
The individual media artists working in low budgets are complemented, as always, by independent and studio feature filmmakers, stretching the horizons of commercial filmmaking (think of Tilda Swinton’s and Luca Guadagnino’s presentation of I Am Love in 2009 or Black Swan in 2010). This year, we’re honoring Ron Yerxa, a producer who fights the good fight against blockbuster domination, case in point being his successful navigation of Alexander Payne’s magnificent new black-and-white (!) feature, Nebraska, to its release later this year by Paramount Vantage. He’s bringing the film to us first, accompanied by formerly SNL comedian, currently rising film actor Will Forte. Immediately following Nebraska on Saturday, November 9, will be Yerxa’s other November release, Charlie Countryman, starring Shia LaBeouf and Evan Rachel Wood, and accompanied here by director Fredrik Bond.
When we brought Guillermo Arriaga from Mexico City in 2009, we signaled our interest in scanning the globe for great international talents. This year, in addition to the director Hao Jie, producer Xiaomei Xing, and three actors accompanying The Love Songs of Tiedan, we are very honored to host the Colombian photographer Juan Manuel Echavarría, who will be presenting a photo installation in addition to his first feature documentary, Réquiem NN. And, from Argentina, we’re bringing Matías Piñeiro, whose narrative explorations of theater, art, and literature have been exciting the worldwide festival circuit. Since, at 31, he has only four features under his belt, we’re actually able to do a complete retrospective of this exciting new talent.
Films about the arts are, of course, the heart and soul of this festival, and there are too many great ones for me to recount here, so I just encourage you to plunge into our catalogue or website, read the descriptions, and attend what intrigues you. I will highlight, though, the best arts documentary I saw at the Sundance Film Festival this year, Cutie and the Boxer. It became our opening night film when I learned that its director, Zachary Heinzerling, is a born-and-bred Houstonian, and that he could bring the incredibly talented and colorful artist subjects, Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, to join him for his homecoming. And, from September’s
Toronto Film Festival, the prize I really wanted to bring to Houston was August: Osage County, which will be presented by the Tony and Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright and actor Tracy Letts. I’ll also point out a lineup, on Saturday, Nov. 9 at Sundance Cinemas, that particularly intrigues me: Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, on the great actor, who turns out to also be a great singer, followed by Shepard & Dark, about the decades-long friendship of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark, accompanied by director Treva Wurmfeld and producer Amy Hobby. Capping the night will be Wim Wenders’ Houston-filmed Paris, Texas, written by Sam Shepard and starring Harry Dean Stanton!
Finally, Texas filmmakers have always been a big part of our festival and one in particular, Richard Linklater, has been here in Year One, Year Three, and now in Year Five to receive the Levantine Cinema Arts Award. This year has seen the triumphant release of Rick’s Before Midnight and the 20th anniversary of Dazed and Confused, which we’ll present in glorious 35mm. On the very same night, November 8 at the MFAH, Richard Linklater will cede the stage to the nearby cattle rancher Thomas Haden Church, who has roped us a sneak preview of his latest comedy. I’ve seen it, and it’s his best comic performance since Sideways.
The Texas focus is bigger than ever this year, as we bring one of Texas’ most acclaimed filmmakers, Al Reinert (For All Mankind, Apollo 13), to present his An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story on closing night, preceded by the world premiere of John Carrithers’ documentary Houston Ballet. It’s a cliché to cite the big-ness of this state, but it truly is too huge this year to fit into our five-day festival. This is why we’ve added two more days to our tail end and are pleased to present our Spotlight on Houston November 11 and 12, featuring four programs of world-class works by Houston-area filmmakers.
On November 13, we’ll let you get on with your life.