Judging by the audience’s mixed reaction to the opening night’s feature, Downtown Express, it was hard to envision that the 2011 edition of Cinema Arts Festival Houston would exceed the heights of last year, which ended inside the halls of Ryan Middle School with an ecstatic audience cheering on the hometown heroes of Kashmere Reunion Band at the end of the almost-cancelled screening of the documentary Thunder Soul. Although Downtown’s screening at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston was well attended, the crowd’s reaction was lukewarm at best, despite cautious praise for the film’s music performed by musicians such as singer-songwriter Nellie McKay and violinist Philippe Quint. But the festival’s programming in days to follow had thoroughly exceeded my expectations and it was encouraging to see how the festival’s unique identity has taken shape in its third official year.
Since its preview test run in 2008, Cinema Arts Festival has always set its focus on arts of various forms (including cinema) and the artists themselves. Each year, artists of international acclaim and local filmmakers present their work and share their insights at the largest film festival in Houston. In the last couple years, appearances of movie stars like Isabella Rossellini and John Turturro had sparked interest from the usually apathetic Houston moviegoers and cinematically challenged local media. These appearances had been instrumental in making the festival the talk of the town in early November. With Ethan Hawke as the lone (and borderline) red carpet attraction, this year’s lineup is less glamorous but certainly has more to offer to dedicated cinephiles.
And what’s a better way to cultivate a new generation of cinephiles than exposing young’uns to independent filmmaking? Early in the morning on Thursday, November 10th, three local documentary filmmakers—Alex Luster of Stick ‘Em Up, Jena Moreno of Stitched and Ford Gunter of Art Car: The Movie—presented clips from their respective projects and discussed the blood, sweat and tears behind their labors of love with Houston Film Commission’s Alfred Cervantes. A group of high school students was among the audience, eagerly asking the filmmakers questions related to the artistic process.
Later that day, I opted for the screening of Lynn Hershman Leeson’s documentary !Women Art Revolution at the Musesum of Fine Arts Houston after I missed it the day before. Hershman Leeson, who was a guest of the festival’s preview year in 2008, returned to Houston with a documentary chronicling the Feminist Art Movement from the late ‘60s to today. Guided by the director’s narration of the movement’s trajectory, WAR is surprisingly personal and intimate because her own evolution as an artist and woman is inseparable to that of the fate of her peers. The relatively straightforward documentary is unlike her experimental work in form, yet its exploration on the concept of identity is a thematic continuation of her repertoire. In addition to the film, Hershman Leeson also created an interactive video installation (which was presented at the MFAH as well) and she uploaded hundreds of hours of interview footage on her website to celebrate this underrated part of history.
Documentaries are particularly enticing in this year’s program. Friday night features the 1981 groundbreaking Koyaanisqatsi. In its glorious 35mm print, Director Godfrey Reggio’s visual poetry remains as awe-inspiring as it was when first released nearly thirty years ago. Koyaanisqatsi transcends the confines of time’s passing—its images are both historic and prophetic, warning us to the pitfalls of a life out of balance and foretelling the perils of an industrialized existence. Philip Glass’s musical score is also definitive to the film’s energy and it is safe to say this is one of the great achievements by the legendary composer. The post-screening Q&A with Reggio was quite a captivating experience. The New Orleans native, who has spent many years of his life as a community organizer, teacher and member of a Catholic order, was eloquent and thoughtful in his responses to the questions from the audience. For a director who does not have a single spoken word in his films, he surely is one riveting speaker.
To put it bluntly, Saturday’s midday screening of Thomas Mao at Edward’s Greenway was a bore. The fictional feature revolves around the interactions between a European artist and a Chinese innkeeper who is hosting the confused traveler in his secluded hut in rural China. Gags in relation to cultural misunderstanding were trite and off the mark, which I suspect much of it is, ironically, lost in translation since actor Thomas Rohdewald’s English dialogue is awkward at best. The dream sequences and the twist at the film’s end were not sufficient enough to spark life into what seemed like an poor imitation of an Apichitpong Weerasethakul film. In the evening, Rice Cinema hosted Nostalgia for the Light, a Chilean documentary set in the Atacama dessert that draws the link between the star-gazing astronomical observatories and a group of women looking for the remains of their relatives who have disappeared for political reasons during Pinochet’s regime. A standing ovation is well-deserved for director Patricio Guzman, who has woven a narrative between two seemingly unrelated subjects which results in a work of genius that is heartbreakingly human and yet profoundly enigmatic at the same time. His attempt to strive for universality through the cosmic draws coincidental yet unavoidable comparisons to the most talked-about film of the year, The Tree of Life. While Malick’s gorgeous-looking film is guilty of hard-selling its vision of a higher ground, Guzman’s empathic documentary pave the way to a spiritual connection rather effortlessly.
Just how much should technical proficiency weigh in our assessment of a filmmaker? The success story of Jersey Village native Robbie Pickering’s Natural Selection could very well be a case-in-point on the state of American independent filmmaking. The SXSW-winning feature about a religious woman who embarks on a journey to look for a young man who could have been the product of her husband’s secretive sperm donation is a well-executed debut feature with a carefully constructed screenplay, fine acting performances, and professional cinematography on a budget. But like many of its indie counterparts, Natural Selection relies too much on quirks for laughs and the sum of its parts has not quite brought anything new to the table. This is not to discount Pickering’s abilities because with the right fortune, he will be equipped to be a career filmmaker. But such is the problem with American cinema—many burgeoning directors either go on to take the helm for major studio projects or produce technically-sound “art films” to please the awards-dispensing establishments. Filmmakers who feel compelled to take bold artistic risks are consequently short in supply (and low in demand).
Also shown on the last day of the festival, John Ford’s 1927 lost gem Upstream is decidedly more daring than its cinematic descendents. The ensemble comedy features a group of struggling performers in a boarding house, with the love triangle between a knife thrower, his target girl and a bashful thespian taking center stage. These were the days before Ford became a household name and the young director was not shy to experiment with narrative structure and comedy. Though it is not as polished as his later works, Upstream is a delight nonetheless and the live music provided by composer Donald Sosin and company is a real treat for fans of silent cinema.
My adventure with the festival ends with a sold-out screening of Wim Wenders’s 3D documentary Pina. The sudden death of its subject, dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch, two days before rehearsal filming almost put an end to the project before it even began. Thankfully, Wenders and the dancers of Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal go outside the box with a dance film to pay tribute to one of the most influential modern dancers. Pina consists mostly of a series of Bausch’s choreographies by her company’s dancers, who all take turns recalling their relationship with their beloved friend and leader through whimsically constructed interviews (conducted in each dancer’s native language). The 3D technology provides the space for viewers to fully experience Bausch’s visceral and evocative choreography. Though my knowledge of dance is admittedly limited, it did not take long for me to recognize how gender dynamics and the agony of yearning are heavily embedded in the motions. Wenders does not dare to dissect Bausch’s craft with any explanation because he sincerely believes that the art can speak for itself.