Something For Everybody
by Phillip Lopale
Houston International Film Festival offers a wide range of films but shows lack of boldness by excluding the work of avant-garde directors.
In the five years I have been going to the Houston International Film Festival, I have watched it evolve from a pretty careless, ragtag emporium of celluloid product into a much more consistent and professional operation. This year had probably the best lineup of films ever. One could see a bunch of independent little films that had already opened in New York and gotten good reviews (sometimes, as it turned out, unjustified), such as Smooth Talk, My Beautiful Laundrette, Parting Glances, Always and Sugarbaby. There were also some big studio movies that were about to go into general release, but premiered during the ten-day event, such as Salvador and Violets are Blue. But where the festival really performed a service was in bringing to light a few gems that had not yet opened anywhere, and maybe never will. having fallen through the cracks of commercial distribution in the United States. This year I saw a better crop of pictures in Houston than at the New York Film Festival (admittedly New York’s weakest in twenty-two years).
Over the years the Houston International Film Festival has developed a distinct personality. It likes to take chances on low-budget features, preferably comically oddball, amiable, and not too demanding. It also has a soft spot for first features made in the Houston Gulf Coast region. Unfortunately, many of these little films are independent only by virtue of budget size. Utterly conventional in sentiment and style, they seem made for the sole purpose of impressing the big studios. Likewise, the foreign titles shown at the Houston festival often turn out to be the commercial schlock of other countries, no more sophisticated because subtitled.
In short, the Houston International Film Festival does not operate from a very strong or clear aesthetic viewpoint. Intentionally, I think.
“We’re after a wide range of films, to pull in different audiences,” says Steve Buck, the festival's program director.
A typical Houston Film Festival will have something for the new-wave-music crowd, something for the gays, something for different ethnic groups, something for the yuppies, something for those who get off to really crass, campy movies, and even something for film buffs like myself. It’s the kind of festival that offers a generous if uneven potpourri in a laissez-faire, egalitarian spirit, like a rummage sale where one is encouraged to go through the bins. This can be fun; it can also be frustrating
Let me explain. We film buffs tend to follow the careers of certain directors, because we subscribe to the idea that movies are an art form, and the director is usually regarded as the auteur of the artwork. Film buffs' appetites are whetted by the chance to see a new work from a filmmaker who has given us pleasure in the past, or about whom we’ve read in magazines such as Sight & Sound or Film Comment. Half the fun of seeing a new picture can be the anticipation of wondering how an old favorite will handle the assignment, whether it be Fellini doing Ginger and Fred or Sergio Leone shooting a gangster film in America. The real film buff is not ruled by snobbish notions of genre superiority. He may find more art in a supposedly exploitational horror picture such as David Cronenberg s The Dead Zone or Billy Freidkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. than in a more culturally pedigreed project such as Ragtime or Out of Africa. What makes a movie artistic is its internal integrity, its complex freshness of vision (cinematic and moral), and its stylistic choices, not high-mindedness.
As a film buff, I admit I would appreciate a more curated festival, where one could expect each selection to come up to a certain artistic level, which included some retrospective of hitherto lost older films and restored classics, and which had both a stronger sense of historical continuity and a better representation of the cutting edge of current world cinema. Each year at the Houston Film Festival I find myself wondering why there aren't any works by those young and old lions of the avant-garde such as Chantal Akerman, the prolific Raul Ruiz, Godard, Bresson, Jacques Rivette of France; Angelopolous of Greece; Antonioni (whose last two films have still never shown in Houston, though both were at the New York Film Festival) of Italy; Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas. Yvonne Rainer, Lizzy Borden, and Mark Rappaport of the United States; Joao Botelho and Manuel de Oliveira of Portugal; Leonel Broca of the Philippines; Imamur and Oshima of Japan; the Straubs, Rainer Haupt, Werner Schroeter, Daniel Schmid, and Rosa von Prouheim of Germany; Peter Greenaway and Chris Petit from England; Nelson Pereira dos Santos and Ruy Guerra of Brazil; New Indian Cinema; Tarkovsky from Russia; Zanussi of Poland, etc. etc.? These may not be all household names but they are among the film artists most intently discussed in cinematic circles today. Their exclusion year after year from the Houston Film Festival suggests a rather serious lack of daring, not to mention scholarship, on the part of festival organizers.
Now, I can anticipate the festival’s counter argument: There’s no audience in Houston for those esoteric filmmakers: we would lose our shirts if we showed them. Perhaps so. But the only way to build a knowledgeable, adventurous audience for film art in this town is to begin to slip in some more difficult and challenging fare, along with flicks that go down as easily as a gulped oyster A film festival has a pedagogic as well as an expositional function—or should have.
The Houston Film Festival’s amnesiac personality, which treats each title as an isolated expression unconnected to the director’s past work or other patterns of cinematic culture, may be partly explained by the fact that all three of the event's organizers are in the business end of movies. J. Hunter Todd, the festival’s chairman, runs Casablanca, a film import and production company; Steve Buck, the program director, works for AMC Theaters, overseeing the Greenway 3; and Woody Woodward, the festival director, is employed by Warner Amex. Regardless of how much pure love these men have for movies, their festival is conditioned by an exhibitor/distributor mentality, ie. a market-research pragmatism which views each film as a discrete commercial package: How can we sell this one? They could stand more input from knowledgeable film critics and scholars, the way the Telluride Film Festival uses William K. Everson or Tun Luddy as consultants, or the New York Film Festival turns to people like Susan Sontag and Andrew Sarris.
Having said this, I want quickly to add that Todd, Buck, and Woodward have rendered incredibly altruistic, heroic service to the community in keeping this festival going They take no salary, putting the festival together in their spare time as a hobby, and they run a smooth operation on a shoe-string budget without the sort of corporate sponsorship or local arts-council support that virtually every other film festival in the world enjoys. Perhaps their scattershot programming approach is more appropriate to these times, when there has been such a falling-off in the availability of great new art films or even great entertainment movies.
The Houston Film Festival deserves particular credit for digging out The Lightship by Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski. It was made a few years ago by a movie company that went bankrupt, and now sits on the shelf in distribution limbo. Skolimowski is himself in that limbo of emigre Eastern European directors, along with Dusan Makavejev, Ivan Passer, and Andre Konchalevsky, who are unable to make films again in their native countries because of politics and censorship, and who must hustle motely financing deals and low budget crews all over the globe. A genuine if extremely erratic auteur, Skolimowski, director of Deep End and Moonlighting. may have achieved his most perfectly sustained piece of filmmaking inThe Lightship.
This brooding, Conradian sea yarn has a masterful anchoring performance by the Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer as a Coast Guard captain, and a more debatable star turn by Robert Duvall as an elegant gang leader who holds the ship hostage with his psychopathic stooges. Duvall chose to mumble his lines with the mannerisms of late Brando —an interesting performance, and not so flawed as to sink the film's other virtues. Chief among these is the cinematography with its complex mise-en-scene that fully exploits the tightness of the set, while poking around here and there to relieve the potential claustrophobia. I especially enjoyed one tracking shot which bobbed from the upper to lower to upper deck along the entire hull, giving the audience a visceral sense of oceanic swell.
The film revolves around tensions of motion and stasis; a lightship, we learn, is never meant to move, but to caution other vessels with its revolving light. Duvall and his goons try to force the captain to liberate the ship from its immobility and sail away, while the crew and the captain’s teenage son are contemptuous of him for not rushing the gang and fighting them off. The captain's refusal to budge—seen at first as cowardice the product of past disgrace—ultimately comes to seem curiously active and courageous.
Another happy discovery was Sherman's March, subtitled A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During the Era of Nuclear Proliferation. This witty, quirky feature poses as the film diary of Ross McElwee, who has been commissioned to make a documentary about the Union general's march of devastation, and keeps getting sidetracked into recording, cinema-verite style, his own bittersweet pursuit of women. I say "poses" because, though the film wears a guilelessly autobiographical air, anyone who has ever tried to make narrative art out of his or her life will know how much shaping, pruning, and self-distancing are needed to carry it off as successfully as it is done here. Ross's horny, lugubrious, romantic debauch threatens to depopulate the South of available young women, as one after another of his intended sweethearts leaves shortly after he meets her. Along the way we are treated to poignant glimpses of the New South: fanny tucks, Burt Reynolds groupies, survivalist freaks, the Rapture, cellulite exercises, Scottish clan gatherings. The film may be too long by half an hour (and several courtships), but the accumulation does enforce the point that bachelors such as Ross seem ruled by patterns of attraction they feel powerless to change. In his caserthese patterns include a fear of well-scrubbed, church-going women, an ambivalence toward women as intellectual as himself, and a decided soft spot for marginally talented, sexy-looking bimbos, trying to break into show business.
McElwee has been called a “Tarheel Woody Allen”. Actually, we come to know the people in his movie, including McElwee, with much more truthful shading than anyone in the fairy-tale world of Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters.
Letter to Brezhnev, a British new-wave film about a pair of Liverpudlian working-class girls who pick up two Russian sailors, was another fresh, delightful surprise. The Liverpool milieu of Victorian buildings, seedy waterfront hotels, and neon-splashed youth clubs has wonderful local color and gritty detail, and the script and direction never break stride. Though the color photography has that slightly acid brashness of punk, the characters are treated with good old-fashioned sympathetic humanism.
I was glad I saw Belizaire the Cajun, the best of the features made in our region. It had a lively music score, good period research, mundane visual pictorialismr but likable characters—all in all, a perfectly satisfying example of the conventionally made, amiable little independent film that is a Houston International Film Festival specialty.
Violets are Blue left me with a good feeling in spite of the fact that Sissy Spacek was never believable for a second as a tough photojournalist and Kevin Kline's role as the husband caught in a triangle was woefully underwritten. The film's overall lingering charm may be attributed in part to its poetic feel for place-Ocean City, Maryland, with its carnival-beach atmosphere—and in part to its dazzling night sequences when the director, Jack Fisk, rouses himself and shows what a first-rate filmmaker he could be if he kept his mind on it.
Forced to name my favorite movie of the ten days, I would probably select Kuei Mei. The Story of a Woman. I am told this Taiwanese drama is considered the best film ever made by the Republic of China. What a pity that the People's Republic of China withdrew its highly-touted entry Yellow Earth, on political principle. According to Steve Buck, it finally came down to a dispute over national flags decorating the Green-way 3 lobby: the Communist Chinese consulate said the festival could have its film if Taiwan's flag were taken down, and the festival organizers understandably refused. Myself, I have fewer principles: I would have taken all the flags down just to be able to show both Chinese films. (Next year hang balloons, guys.)
In any event, Kuei-Mei traces the adult life of a beleaguered but strong woman, as she marries a man who turns out to be a compulsive gambler, raises his rebellious children from a previous marriage, works as a domestic in a wealthy Chinese home abroad, slaves to start her own restaurant, parts from her husband when he is unfaithful to her, comes back to him reluctantly, grows old and eventually is seen dying of uterine cancer. The director’s delicate but unsparing handling of this "woman's picture" material owes much to the Japanese film masters Naruse, Ozu, and Mizoguchi, but he has clearly arrived at a mature, philosophically measured style all his own. Most remarkable is the title performance by a great Chinese actress who ages believably, from a pretty, pony-tailed teenager to a pregnant wife, to a chubby matron no longer appealing to her husband, to an old woman wasting away in the hospital—all the while keeping a consistent spine of character.
It’s interesting how this severely truthful film was dismissed by a local critic as a "soap opera" simply because it dwelt on a woman's suffering, while the same critic gushed over the macho melodramatics of Salvador, which was infinitely more sentimental and cliched. One hesitates to criticize an American studio movie that takes on so serious a subject as U.S. imperialism in Central America, and whose heart is so obviously in the right (or should I say left?) place. Nevertheless.Salvador proved to be such a vulgar cartoon of history, so hamfisted in its treatment of heroes and villains, that for the first—and I hope, last - time in my life, I almost found myself sympathizing perversely with the right-wing death squads, just for dramaturgical balance. Not that their opponents, the dewy-eyed campesinos with rifles, were given any more dimensionality. Indeed, in this new movie genre of the jaded war correspondent who learns commitment to the People’s cause from getting too close (actually, it’s the old action-war movie genre disguised as Hollywood social conscience), only the white reporters get to have inner lives. You could shuffle the images from Under Fire, Year of Living Dangerously, andSalvador — the voyeuristic treats of charred bodies, gasoline explosions, brown-skinned masses armed with sticks rioting against government tanks boring down on them—and nobody would be the wiser. What makes Salvador unique in its class is its pig-out, frat-house buddies, played by James Wood and Jim Belushi, as if director Oliver Stone were eyeing theAnimal House audience as well.
I regret to say that Salvador was chosen best picture by the festival jury.
Closing night brought the festival a touch of glamour, with the appearance of an honest-to gosh movie star, Alan Alda. Here to plug his film Sweet Liberty, which he wrote, directed, and starred in. Mr. Alda fielded questions for half an hour with graciousness, intelligence, and insight, turning what could have been a dull self-promotion into an exhilarating teaching situation. I wish I could have liked Mr. Alda onscreen half as much as I did in real life: but he still has a directorial tendency to smooth things over and to let the obnoxious goody-goody character he plays off the hook. (He should take lessons from Albert Brooks.) As in The Four Seasons, Sweet Liberty has its funny moments and sharp little behavioral observations, but every time it veers toward the irreconcilable stuff of great comedy it shuffles back for cover to the diffuse, defanged "feel-goodism” of TV sitcom endings.
The Houston Film Festival has an enthusiastic devoted following, but for some odd reason it is still not treated as a major event in the city's artistic life, which it certainly deserves to be. I wonder, for instance, why it hasn’t yet caught on with the Art Crowd, those opinion-makers who give an event in town a certain modish luster. Perhaps it's because the artists, museum and gallery workers, writers, bookstore owners, photographers, architects, etc., who take so many chances in their own fields, all become tired businessmen when it comes to seeing a movie; they want something that has a big advertising budget behind it and promises to be diverting and undemanding. Perhaps, too. the Houston Film Festival has an image problem. Half commerce, half art. it never has developed a cultural patina, at times seeming more like a testing ground for the Greenway 3’s regular programming than an independent event
The Houston Film Festival has proved itself again and again. Whatever faults I may find in it, it's a lover's quarrel: I'm deeply grateful for the cinematic feast they lay out year after year, as are others adventurous and fortunate enough to attend.
Though the festival had opened at the Windsor Theatre, it moved quickly to the Greenway 3; and by the end of ten days, the belovedly icky Greenway lobby had become home away from home. A camaraderie had developed among the red-eyed stalwarts, those festival regulars who kept bumping into each other in line. “What have you liked so far?" we would ask each other, and preserve some diplomacy when someone's tastes violently differed with ours. When the last film was over, one of the regulars turned to me and said, “Now what will I do with my life?"
Phillip Lopate’s new novel The Rug Merchant(Viking), will appear in March 1987. H co-programs the films at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.