From October 16–22, 2000, HYBRID reviewer Jennifer Prestiagiacomo and I attended the Cinematexas 5th international short film + video festival. Cinematexas is a project of the Department of Radio-TV-Film at the University of Texas at Austin. RTF faculty member A. Rachel Tsangari founded the festival, which takes place in theaters, on streets, and at galleries and eateries around Austin. Staffed mostly by UT student volunteers, Cinematexas suffers an inverse relationship between the quality of its programming and its technical organization. Not one of the screenings I attended began on time. The record was an International Program that started 50 minutes late. Festival-goers took it in stride, readily adapting to the way things go at Cinematexas. More than once, I overheard exchanges like this:

"Whoa, I'd like to go catch that show!"

"Nah, too tight, it starts in 5 minutes."

"We can make it — they'll be late."

Be that as it may, most of the programmed films were well worth waiting for. The breadth of the programming showed an incredible knowledge of short films and an equally incredible devotion to the medium.

More than anything else, Cinematexas' programming shows that short films aren't just practice for the real deal — they are the real deal. Each program grouped shorts around a theme. These subtitles represent the programmers' attempts to categorize short films — a task about as easy as categorizing Dennis Rodman's hair colors. I'm grateful to have had an opportunity to see all of these films, even the ones I'm about to slag. And I can't wait 'til next year.

— Roxanne Bogucka

Press Play to Agitate: Pirates, Parodists, and Prank-Documentary

Host: Craig Baldwin

These are the most important films I've seen all year. I'm not exaggerating when I say they've changed my life.

The video salon was emceed by Craig Baldwin, director of the classic SONIC OUTLAWS, who described the salon as a collection of works of "pranksters, hoaxsters, malcontents, media assassins … what I call the Trojan Horse … appropriation of news media, coming from kind of a collage-basis."

The filmmakers, whose imperatives are decidedly from the left, used methods ranging from outright creations of prank news stories to staged media events to subversion of commercial and news media. One of the best of the "created news" stories was that of J. Robert Dobbs, whose organization, Arm the Homeless, was covered by a California TV station. Addressing the camera earnestly, Dobbs assured the reporter that he was performing this civil disobedience because there's no legal channel for those without a permanent address to register for ownership of guns.

Other films documented inventive citizen actions. In FAX ATTACK, a man who's tired of receiving unsolicited faxes strikes back with a punishment that fits the crime — he runs a document partway through his faxer, tapes the ends together to make a loop, then sends the fax, all night long, to the offender.

I especially admired the creative actions documented by Igor Vamos. In one short, a team of suit-clad men and women gobble from pitchers of red, white, and blue "goop," then march to a plaza and stage a barf-in in all the colors of the American flag. Vamos described this as "a reverse peristalsis painting for Dan Quayle's appearance in Portland."

The subversion of existing signage was a common technique for these filmmakers. Also in Portland, Vamos recorded the work of a group protesting a controversy over the naming a street for MLK Jr., by creating and mounting green-and-white "Malcolm X St." signs over the city signs for Front St. In Vancouver, Jennifer Lau filmed a group that alters commercial billboards. With their faces partially blacked out, groupmembers gave how-to lessons ("you need this kind of 4-in-1 screwdriver, 'cause that's easier than keeping hold of 4 different screwdrivers"; "just go to the hardware store and get regular wallpaper paste and a squeegee…"). Lau filmed these guerrillas in the act of "reclaiming public space for social comment." Some of these reclamations were dead brilliant, as in the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE advertisement that was changed to read SUBMISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, with Tom Cruise's picture papered over by a photo of Malcolm X.

My personal fave of the salon was MANIFESTOON, Jesse Drew's cartoon collage/rant on economic systems. Images of Porky Pig and the Looney Tunes gang and other stars of early animation are seen going to work, worrying about the farm's mortgage, and engaging in family-economic relationships against voice-over from a famous 1848 work by Messrs. Marx and Engels.

Finally, there were Alex Rivera's hilarious shorts. His DIA DE LA INDEPENDENCIA is a 1-minute Diez y Seis riff on the movie INDEPENDENCE DAY. WHY CYBRACERO? begins with old Labor Dept. footage explaining the Bracero Program, then zanily spirals off into the Cybracero Project, where Mexican farmworkers operate robotic produce pickers from their homes across the border via high-speed Internet connections!

Not to be missed!

ROBERT FRANK PROGRAM #1: ME AND MY BROTHER, PULL MY DAISY

Host: Jim Jarmusch

An audience of mostly film students and filmmakers (esp. of the faculty type turned out for this late night program, which, yes, started late.

Jim Jarmusch introduced the films, telling us that ME AND MY BROTHER was recut by Frank just last year. Robert Frank became know for his book, "The Americans," then began to make films so he that wouldn't be pinned down as a creator of static images. The film M&MB, about Peter and Julius Orlovsly, said Jarmusch, is strong in that Frank made the structure of the film out of alignment, just as the mentally ill Julius was out of alignment. For PULL MY DAISY, Frank told Jarmusch that they recorded Kerouac's word-jazz narration in two takes at the Bleecker Street Theater.

So PMD starts, and the film freezes in front of the bulb and melts. Audience horrified, not the least from having just heard that these beautiful prints are on loan from a Houston art museum. Instead, the projectionist spools up M&MB fist, and five minutes in, I'm thinking, "The emperor is nekkid!" Basically the film involves hauling Julius around the country while Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg rant and read their poetry and stage sexual scenes with persons of both genders. This may have seemed like raging against the machine once, but now it just seems like Peter used his own brother, Julius, who was surely non compos mentis at the time, for his art. M&MB does have bizarre appearances by a very young Christopher Walker and Roscoe Lee Browne.

PULL MY DAISY is a better (as in entertaining), less morally questionable work, about a family, music, and houseguests, with running commentary by Kerouac, based on his play "The Beat Generation." There's a momma, a poppa, a son, the neighbors, a piano, some brass, and an incredibly young bishop and his momma and sister, all in a dingy little apartment one night. Just when it starts to seem the storyline might start to make some sense, Kerouac veers away like he put his hand down on a hot burner. Indescribable but strangely compelling.

INTERNATIONAL PROGRAM #1: Stay Out of My Room

Program #1 started out pleasingly with THE MOSCHOPS, from the Highlights of the Permian Era Series, an animated tale of the evolution of love from sex. This was followed by three examples of the kind of experimental works that unfortunately produce tedium more often than revelation. Pawel Lozinski's SIOSTRY (SISTERS) captures eight decades of sibling relationship in 12 minutes during which we observe the dominance hierarchy of the two surviving sisters of a once-large Polish family. You can learn everything you need to know about how these women get along by just watching their exchanges at the park bench.

The best in show, however, was Anula Shetty's thesis film, PADDANA. Ms. Shetty melds the ululating songs of the ancestors, mother-daughter troubles, and a locked room into this literal coming-of-age tale about a questioning young girl in India. This was last on the program, and I was jolted from my drowsiness by it. First of all, it's really nice-looking, plus it gave these American eyes some "foreign" sights to take in. The Indian settings, music, and clothing just underscore that this movie is all about universality — universality of the relationships of mothers and daughters, the universality of the experience of being a woman. Highly recommended.

INTERNATIONAL PROGRAM #7: Text on the Brain

Technical difficulties caused this program to start nearly one hour late. And then, only the 16 mm shorts could be shown. What I saw was "cherce."

CAN'T KEEP A GOOD SNAKE DOWN used found black-and-white footage, much of it seductive stuff used to advertise movies from the 1920s and 1930s, and backed it with music of harps, pipes, and bodhran. There were lots of burning eyes and a recurring snake (and even snake eyes!) in this not-so-subtle "Voulez vous…?" short.

For NU, writer-director Marah Strauch filmed a 3-minute daydream of black-and-white male nudity. "I dreamed I asked him to be in my movie, nude," she muses, to the tune of the pop song "Ce Petit Coeur" (by yè-yè girl Francoise Hardy) plays in the background. Really beautiful.

— Roxanne Bogucka

International Program 2: Can’t Get There from Here

Maybe because I'm Sicilian and my dream, for as long as I can remember, has been to travel to Italy, I enjoyed BLOOD ORANGE SKY. This short consisted of about 30 minutes of non-narrated shots of Catania, Sicily. Scenes ranged from shots of Sicilians conversing to beautiful orange sunsets. I could almost smell the scaly fish in the Catanian seafood market. Interesting high-speed scenes showed a volcano spewing forth blood-orange lava against the inky backdrop of night. A vast array of background music, from local Italian music to heavy metal accompanied the shots. Throughout the short I felt like I was watching director Jem Cohen’s home movie from his trip. It made me long for my own Sicilian home movie.

BABIE was a disjointed documentary memorializing Jonathan Michal’s deceased grandmother, Babie (pronounced Bobby). There were a couple of cool images peering out a rain-studded window, but other than these few stylized shots, the five-minute narrative was uneventful.

Toward the end of the program, the shorts became progressively longer. I have never done this before, but I actually walked out on THE LOST DAYS (46 minutes). A voice-over narrator (as if writing a diary entry) took the viewer on an unknown journey through blue-filtered, distorted alleyways and landscapes. Dripping with existentialist apathy, the journey represented the narrator’s search for meaning in life and relationship. Unfortunately, the journey never ended, and I had to end it for myself.

UT Competition Program 2: Breaking Some Eggs

Many shorts in this program weren't worth mentioning. I merely present the highlights.

BREAKFAST was unique in that it was comprised of side-by-side projectors displaying two adjacent images. The shots were artfully manipulated so that one character would continue his motion into the other image. Two roommates, the directors, Jeremy Fleishman and Jonathan Thornhill, carry out the not-so-simple task of making breakfast. BREAKFAST posed the challenge of focusing on two ongoing shots at the same time. The plot was artfully laced with situational humor. As one roommate would make coffee and turn his back, the roommate in the other shot would come in, mistake it for his own coffee, and drink it. Simplistic yet innovative, this short distinguished itself from the other single-screen shorts.

Hilarious in the extreme, PILLOWFIGHT explored the comedic side to sharing a bed with a spouse. Snoring like a chainsaw, the wife squirmed about, stealing all the covers. The husband timidly tried to salvage a corner of the sheet for himself, until his wife’s spasmodic arm motion whacks him in the head. After many attempts to coexist in bed, the husband has just enough time to whisper "I love you" in his wife’s ear before her snoring begins again. It was sheer laughter.

Midnight Program 2: Resistance Through Absurdity Pffft!

My favorite Cinematexas program, Midnight Program 2 was screened at the Alamo Drafthouse, a restaurant/movie theatre in Austin. Again, this program contained a gazillion shorts so I'll briefly recount the highlights.

REJECTED was a refreshing look at an old theme — cartoon characters beating the crap out of each other. Animator Don Hertzfeldt's hilarious stick figures did everything from poking each other’s eyes out to spewing torrents of vomit. It cracked me up!

Taking a poignantly funny look at auto consumer culture, CAR HUNTER followed a distraught native in his exploration of vehicles on the University of Texas campus. The car hunter, dressed only in a loincloth, antagonized motorists on "the Drag" and other streets near campus. The voice-over translation of the car hunter's grunts totally made this short riotously funny.

In SPAGMAR, director Sebastian Castillo showed us a man eating a bowl of spaghetti that soon became a man-eating-bowl-of-spaghetti. After the man indulges in his bowl of noodles, the pasta begins to cover him completely in high-speed motion. Although watching it made me hungry, I wasn’t exactly sure what this film was trying to tell me. Beware of man-eating spaghetti? Or try pizza next time?

THE NUTTY PROFESSOR was definitely the most bizarre of all the shorts I viewed. Basically this three-minute short, by Buck Spoonley, consisted of a man trying to suck his penis up with a vacuum cleaner. Using the avant-garde technique of shock, this short left me with a not-so-fresh feeling.

— Jennifer Prestigiacomo


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