I talked to strangers; I brandished my cowboy mouth; I knocked out the best migas of my life, and even found the time to catch a few flicks at the inaugural Marfa Film Festival.
A conjecture: If the festival’s organizers really believed that movies alone were going to keep a body occupied for its five-day duration, would they have published a list in the program of things to do? I think not. “Climb the stairs inside the courthouse” (check), “Look up at the stars” (check), “Buy someone a drink” (does it count when the beer is free?) “See mystery lights” (accidentally — I’ll get to that).
See, being in dust-blown, Donald Judd-studded Marfa is half the fun, especially if, like me, you’re the see-the-world-in-a-grain-of-sand type. Or maybe it’s two-fifths of the fun, as the getting there ain’t half bad. If asked, I’d acquiesce to the drive again in about four seconds. From San Antonio — hometown of festival founder Robin
Lambaria — to Marfa is about a five-and-a-half hour journey via I-10 W and Hwy-67, which I spent singing and dancing (if you can call it that) to circa ’01/02 Wilco, Buttercup, and I Drink Your Mix Tape (the work of an anonymous bricoleur), until I reached Ozuna and had to shut everything off.
At that point — and perhaps it was the result of some coincidental fuck-up of my car window — but at that point the initial “reeeeeeeeehhhhhrrrrr” of Jonny Greenwood’s There Will Be Blood soundtrack unleashed itself between my ears. The entire landscape changed topographically and emotionally: total bleakness. One of my tires is going to blow out, thought I, and I’ll die by myself in the desert.
Not being particularly opposed to invented mental melodrama, I basked in the burning sunlight and entertained my silly fear to the tones of my uncanny, possibly imagined soundtrack. Speeding ever closer to Marfa, I switched mind games, attempting to identify shooting locations from There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, two of last year’s top Oscar contenders which were filmed in part around Marfa.
Neither picture, I suspect, will replace James Dean’s final film, 1956’s Giant, in the hearts of Marfans — at least where in-the-neighborhood filmmaking in concerned — but the resurgence of press wrought by Men and Blood (in addition to Marfa’s status as a modern-art mecca) make the minute town seem a more rational film festival locale than it otherwise might be. Marfa has no real movie theater, after all. (But what did Robert
Redford say about Sundance again? That it started in a basement?)
What Marfa does have, for now, is the still-standing set of Blood (nowhere close to where I had been looking, incidentally), a structural artifact not lost on MFF’s organizers, who commenced festivities with a screening of P.T. Anderson’s Oil! adaptation on the very grounds upon which it was shot. (According to Lambaria, Anderson, who could not attend, made sure a fresh print was at their disposal.)
Approximately 300 people witnessed the nighttime projection of a Tom Selleck-looking, John Huston-talking Daniel Day-Lewis onto the Alamo Drafthouse’s inflatable screen, tucked between the train depot and the storefronts of Little Boston, according to festival programmer and SA filmmaker Kevin Cacy. In addition to passholders, individual event ticketholders and even local There Will Be Blood extras showed. (Don’t I know it. Post-film, I spent a good 20 minutes being regaled with on-set stories by an elderly woman who had been among the Paul Dano character Eli’s followers. My favorite part? When she casually referred to all-around badass cinematographer Robert Elswit as “the cameraman.”)
My fragile, aged, single-serving friend then made an interesting observation, though I think she meant it more literally than I interpreted: “I feel like this was a different movie than I saw before,” she said, sure she had watched several different cuts of her starring vehicle. I skipped away from my blanketed post positive that celluloid mystically shapeshifts, like something out of Flicker, as this, my third viewing, had me in an absolutely Goldilocks state. My first screening of Blood had been too much to digest, the second was underwhelming, but there was something about the meta-ness of MFF’s screening (and a mite serving of tequila) that made this one just right.
The just-rightness wore off when the vast crowd and I realized we were freezing — Robin and her co-founder fiancé, filmmaker Cory Van Dyke are looking into heaters for next year’s outdoor screenings — and that there were only four vans and a shortbus there to taxi us back into town. As my luck usually goes, I was among the last, huddled, shivering, waiting on a dark ranch for an unmarked white van to arrive. The magical lights of the Marfa skyline were transformed into perpetual, heartbreaking illusions of headlight beams. When the vehicles never returned we were forced to make camp for the night …
OK, that never happened, but Marfa’s otherworldly hamlet vibe is more than a little conducive to story-spinning, which would explain why — at least in part — I spent the following morning, and every morning after, relishing a coffee, a straight-from-the-oven raspberry muffin (wow, just … wow) or egg dish, and the beginnings of a short story at the charming Brown Recluse, one of those places I only ever seem to read about or see in a movie. (The closed kitchen made an exception for me. Insert teary emoticon.)
My coffee traveled with me to Friday’s first screening, David Modigliani’s excellent documentary Crawford, at the Goode-Crowley building, which served as the main screening venue. The crowds were trim, likely due to the rollicking after-party that went down the evening — or should I say early morning — before, but Modigliani quaintly endeared himself to those who trucked in despite hangover: A box of sizeable breakfast tacos awaited them at the door.
The Marfa Film Festival’s programming was dominated by docs and shorts, only a handful of them premieres of any kind. Classical films like The Innocents and Night of the Hunter carried the evenings. I was aware, especially from my discussions with Graciela Sánchez about CineMujer, the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center’s femme-centric film festival, that finding quality narrative work is particularly trying. Cacy confirmed that shorts and docs dominated the 300-plus festival submissions.
However, the main bit of troublery the MFF will have to confront before next year’s installment, though — and I do hope there are many years to come — is the problem of a singular venue (Cacy says they’d like to have three next time around). Should one grow weary of the two pervading formats, or be uninterested in a particular subject, it is vital to have the option of another program. You’ll make enough of your own fun between screenings; you shouldn’t have to do so during them.
Standouts among the entrants were James Marsh’s Man on Wire (raved about recently at Tribeca and preceded here by the distressingly appropriate, primarily stop-motion short, There Goes the View), wherein Frenchman Philippe Petit recounts his clandestine tight-wire walk betwixt the World Trade Center towers in 1974. (Pfft, I wasn’t crying over its insane, indescribable beauty, I had dust in my eye). Of course Chris Eska’s Independent Spirit Award-winning August Evening astounded with its high production values and charismatic performances, regardless of its longish running time. (Eska not only directed the film but also wrote and edited it, which explains this minor flaw. Scorsese still can’t trim the fat.)
Rainier Judd brought it all back home with her short, Remember Back, Remember When, an autobiographical snippet of a disintegrating family in 1970s West Texas. During her Q&A, it became palpable that the residents of Marfa are all part of Donald’s story, like they are all a part of There Will Be Blood, and will be part of everything else that blows in — including the MFF.
As my time in Marfa waned — to meet deadline I had to hit the road on Sunday — things began to turn a hue of (classic) Lynch: I noticed this clique again, or that character. In the four short days I had spent at the Marfa Film Festival, I had already created rituals: Mornings at the Recluse, my afternoon ice-cream bar in the sun. And then I noticed a dead, headless bird (no, I’m not tale-spinning this time, thanks girl-who-cried-wolf watch), and was sure my adventures in Marfa were over. Until the wind propels me back,