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Where the Avant Garde Things Are

Cinema Arts Festival Houston , "the only U.S. festival devoted to films by and about artists," launches November 11-15, 2009.

When two New York real estate promoters, commonly known as “The Allen Brothers,” founded the city of Houston in 1836, their intention was to make the township a center of commerce and government. Houston’s bid to be the capital of the Republic of Texas was short-lived, but its status as a center of commerce has stuck like the very first ships that ran aground in what the Allen Brothers dubbed Houston’s first “port”– the shallow and silty intersection of Buffalo and White Oak Bayous. Houston’s forefathers in a long line of hucksters, Augustus and John Allen sold Houston to potential settlers, at $1 per acre, using advertisements that promoted this subtropical marsh as “an elevated land” replete with “waterfalls.”

Now 173 years later, Houston is concretely known as a place to do business – home to the largest petrochemical manufacturing area in the world, and an international hub for biomedical research and the aerospace industry. With no great range of topography, and a nose-to-nose race (on and off since 1999) with Los Angeles for smoggiest city, Houston is no high-ranking vacation destination.

So in 2008, when Houston Mayor Bill White (who has moved mountains so-to-speak to improve Houston’s aforementioned image) tapped his friend Franci Crane to spearhead a new film festival, there was no chance of luring travelers with ski slopes or sandy beaches– the likes of those at Sundance or Cannes. But what Houston did have on a monumental scale was art. Around 7 million visitors per year come to Houston for the Museum District alone; Houston’s Theater District is exceeded only by New York in its number of seats in one geographic area; not to mention the plethora of non-profit arts organizations, folk art environments, art galleries, art chapels, art parades, art festivals, and so on.

Franci Crane (a delightful Texas bonne vivante, whip smart and with a law degree in her back pocket) wisely assembled a Steering Committee representing the city’s film and interdisciplinary art institutions (Aurora Picture Show, Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Houston Film Commission, Houston Women in Film and Television, and Southwest Alternate Media Project, to name a few), and after months of midwifery, the Houston Cinema Arts Society (HCAS) was born. (Just so you know, I founded Aurora Picture Show and helped the festival with its pre-labor contractions.)

Under the leadership of Festival Curator, Richard Herskowitz (an uber energetic film scholar, and former Director of Virginia Film Festival and Cornell Cinema), HCAS kicks off its biggest effort to date with the Cinema Arts Festival Houston, running November 11-15, 2009. The festival is “the only U.S. festival devoted to films by and about artists,” and features documentaries, narrative films, experimental films, live cinema, live musical scores, video art, video installation, panel discussions, and parties. Highlighted here are some Glasstire picks for those who need help choosing from the near 40 events.

Installation View of H Box designed by Didier Fiúza Faustino

Alabama Theatre
Open Wednesday-Friday, 1-6pm, Saturday-Sunday, 11am-6pm

This Hermes-sponsored portable screening room appropriately looks like something NASA might design as a cinema on the moon (in actuality, it was designed by the Portuguese/French architect, Didier Fiúza Faustino). Installed at the historic Alabama Theatre (securing this vacant landmark for the festival headquarters was a major coup), H Box screens a loop of international video art, curated by Benjamin Weil, including work by Matthew Buckingham, Shahryar Nashat, Kota Ezawa, Sebastian Diaz-Morales, and Cao Fei (finalist for the $100,000 Hugo Boss Prize 2009– I wonder why Hermes isn’t promoting this news?), among others. Previous stops for H Box were the Centre Pompidou, Tate Modern, and the Yokohama Triennale

50x50 Foot Pillow, Ant Farm, Altamont, 1969

What If, Why Not: Underground Adventures with Ant Farm
Directed by Laura Harrison and Beth Federici
University of Houston Gerald D. Hines School of Architecture
Presented with Aurora Picture Show
Thursday, November 12, 7pm
(Additional screening Angelika, Friday, November 13, 9:45pm)
The greatest art collective of all time, says me, Ant Farm has a long history with Houston, including the time they kidnapped Buckminster Fuller on route to his lecture at the University of Houston in 1969, as well as their phallic vacation home design, The House of the Century, created for visionary arts patron, Marilyn Oshman in 1972. From inhabitable inflatables to Cadillac Ranch, and everything in between, this documentary captures the “mordantly funny” and genius antics of Ant Farm.

When It Was Blue, Jennifer Reeves, 2008

When It Was Blue
Live cinema performance by Jennifer Reeves with live music by Sküli Sverrisson
Rice Media Center
Friday, November 13, 7pm

Aurora Picture Show has schooled Houston well in the art of “live cinema” for over ten years, so those fond of Aurora’s Media Archeology Festival will delight in Jennifer Reeves’ dual projector performance with live accompaniment by Icelandic composer, Sküli Sverrisson (a frequent collaborator with Laurie Anderson). Reeves’ film, described as a “rush” by film critic Michael Sicinski, is an atmospheric tribute to the transforming landscape, vis a vis the cycle of seasons and onset of climate change.

Museum of Fine Arts Houston
Saturday, November 14, 6:45pm

Houston has been swooning for Tilda Swinton, since it was announced that the actress would be in attendance and featured in four of the Cinema Arts Festival screenings. Perhaps Swinton’s soft spot for an arts-centered film festival comes from her own founding of The Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams in her hometown of Nairn, Scotland. Whatever the case, we’re sure this top-secret screening will further weaken your knees.

The Lost World
Directed by Harry Hoyt with live score by Dengue Fever
Warehouse Live
Saturday, November 14, 7pm

Warning: you’ll have to clone yourself to be here and MFAH at the same time. This 1925 classic film based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel of the same name, showcases the pioneering stop-animation techniques of Willis O’Brien (animator of the 1933 King Kong film). With a live score by Cambodian pop band Dengue Fever, described by San Francisco International Film Festival as “Bollywood glitz, psychedelic rock, spaghetti Western twang, klezmer, ska, funk and Ethiopian jazz” all in one.

Directed by Isaac Julien
Museum of Fine Arts Houston
Sunday, November 15, 1pm

Derek is a triple threat for art world cognoscenti: a documentary on the late, wonderfully inventive filmmaker Derek Jarman; written and narrated by Tilda Swinton (who performed in seven of Jarman’s films); and directed by the artist, Isaac Julien, whose camerawork is always breathtaking. The screening will be followed by a conversation between Festival Director, Richard Herskowitz and Tilda Swinton.

The Yes Men: Mike Bonano & Andy Bichlbaum

The Yes Men Fix the World
Co-presented with DiverseWorks
Sunday, November 15, 1pm
(Additional screening Rice Media Center, Saturday, November 14, 7pm)
The smartest men in the room are definitely The Yes Men, performance artists who pose as corporate bigwigs and make public statements offering amends for the wrong doings of “their corporations.” Once the media picks up these stories, there’s no tidy way for the real corporate criminals to respond. Yes Man, “Andy Bichlbaum” will be in attendance, or at least we think he’s Andy Bichlbaum.

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