Earlier this year, a great film programmer, Amos Vogel, passed away. Vogel founded Cinema 16, New York’s pioneering film society, and co-founded the 50-year-old New York Film Festival, through which so many classic films have been introduced to the U.S. I was Amos’ teaching assistant for two years, and am one of many film programmers he influenced profoundly.
“Cinema 16” was named by Vogel after 16mm film, the smaller and more affordable gauge of film that enabled independent filmmakers to make movies without the resources of a major studio behind them. John Cassavetes is the best-known figure to utilize 16mm to make a feature-length film, Shadows, which many credit as the urtext of the American indie feature movement (Linklater, Jarmusch, Tarantino, Soderbergh, etc.). But in that lineage of boy heroes, the missing person is the pioneer who launched the “American New Wave” movement of independent features in the 60s alongside Cassavetes – Shirley Clarke. Two of Clarke’s independent features (The Connection and Ornette: Made in America) are in our program, presented by the invaluable distributors – Dennis Doros and Amy Heller of Milestone Films – who have devoted the past few years to recovering and restoring the lost films of Shirley Clarke.
Doros and Heller’s lecture on their “Project Shirley,” accompanied by two of Clarke’s 16mm short films, will be presented in our newest screening room, sited at 4411 Montrose. Its name, in homage to Vogel, is Cinema 16. The screenings we have planned there November 8-11 are mostly in 16mm, the medium that used to be, before Digital Video, the primary medium of truly independent, experimental filmmakers like Clarke. That is, the filmmakers who will present their 16mm films to our audiences (J.J. Murphy, Stacey Steers, Phil Solomon, and Vanessa Renwick), directed, filmed, edited, and animated their films largely on their own, like painters or poets working with their art forms. J.J. Murphy, who made his classic 16mm structural film, Print Generation, here in Houston in the early ‘70s, will present that film on November 11 and will also screen rare 16mm films by Andy Warhol on November 8 (Murphy is author of the recently published The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol). The Cinema 16 series, in fact, kicks off with a “Warhol Walk” from The Andy Monument in front of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston to Murphy’s “Rare Warhol” program at 4411 Montrose.
16mm happens to be in the midst of a revival among young artists; many are not ready to let the granular beauty and physical materiality of film be destroyed by the digital. Watch what Phil Solomon does with film’s chemical particles at his Cinema 16 screening and in his American Falls installation downstairs at 4411 Montrose, and you’ll see what I mean. That downstairs space is part of Cinema on the Verge, a mind-blowing gallery of interactive, sculptural media art installations by many of the same artists featured in Cinema 16 screenings. At 4411, you will be able to float underneath Vanessa Renwick’s Medusa Smack jellyfish screen, play with the interactive animations by Stacey Steers, George Griffin, and Joanna Priestley, and watch two computer terminals arguing in The Light Surgeons’ Dialog. At the Cinema on the Verge satellite sites, Project Row Houses and Aurora Picture Show, you can see two more remarkable installations by the eminent artists Chris Johnson and Eve Sussman.
What excited Amos Vogel about 16mm was its potential for democratizing both the cinematic depiction of individuals and communities and the accessibility of filmmaking tools. For those of us still working under Vogel’s inspiring influence, this democratizing mission is a huge part of what drives us. And democratizing is something film production still needs, as evidenced by the premature burial of Shirley Clarke’s memory, which the Milestone folks and our programming this year are attempting to exhume. That Clarke’s gender has a lot to do with her sidelining can’t be empirically proven, though the following facts can be: 1) Women accounted for 5% of directors of 2011’s 250 top features; 2) They account for 4% of the cinematographers, 14% of writers, and 20% of the editors working on these films. These statistics come from the website of Women Make Movies, the media arts organization founded in 1972 “to address the under representation and misrepresentation of women in the media industry.” This year, we are celebrating Women Make Movies’ 40th anniversary, in collaboration with Women in Film and Television Houston, by presenting four programs of their films. Two of these will be presented by one of WMM’s, and the world’s, most important documentary filmmakers– fresh from her recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art– Lourdes Portillo.
Our emphasis on women filmmakers this year, which goes deeper than I can summarize in this short introduction, is reflected in the bracketing of our program by opening and closing night films by women directors. Twice Academy Award-nominated director Liz Garbus will walk the red carpet on opening night to present her newest feature, Love, Marilyn; the film is a powerful, feminist reappraisal of the popular image of Marilyn Monroe, in which Garbus is joined by many famous actresses who re-enact Monroe’s recently unearthed letters and diaries. On closing night, on the eve of Fashion Houston, we will bring Lisa Immordino Vreeland to present her documentary on her husband’s legendary grandmother, the enormously influential force in fashion and publishing, Diana Vreeland.
While I’ve been highlighting emphases that are new to this year’s festival, I should turn now to what remains consistent in our fourth year. The heart of our programming is my selection of the best new films by and about visual, performing, and literary artists. Mentioning Beauty is Embarrassing (with guest artist Wayne White), Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp and United in Anger: A History of ACT UP with their directors, Jorge Hinjosa and Jim Hubbard, just skims the surface of our selections; delve into the catalogue or website to take in the whole feast. Speaking of which, I’m particularly happy that this year’s program includes our first film on the culinary arts, which is also a film about music: Mugaritz BSO.
Special attention to the works of Texas filmmakers has always characterized our programming, and that’s no less true this year, with Trash Dance, Big Boy, Pictures of Superheroes, Apocalypse: A Bill Callahan Tour Film, and Texas Filmmakers Showcase. Last year, we began to complement the local by broadening our global selections. That direction continues this year with a particular emphasis on Asia, including the multiple Hong Kong Academy Award-winning film, A Simple Life, brought by its producer and co-screenwriter, Roger Lee; Tatsumi, KanZeOn, and the live music and cinema performance of SuperEverything* by The Light Surgeons with Ng Chor Guan. The focus on Asia reflects the arrival of one of our newest partners, Houston’s magnificent new Asia Society Texas Center. Featuring live performance with films is another one of our familiar habits, continued by The Light Surgeons and by Lincoln Mayorga, who will accompany his A Suitcase Full of Chocolate: The Life of Pianist Sofia Cosma with a short piano recital.
Finally, every year, we have honored legendary talents like Tilda Swinton, Isabella Rossellini, and John Turturro, whose interests reflect our own in a wide range of art forms. Coming this year to receive the Levantine Cinema Arts Award is Robert Redford, whose Sundance Institute supports not just independent filmmakers, but also adventurous visual artists, composers, and playwrights. Most of all, Sundance has built on Shirley Clarke and John Cassavetes’ legacy and done more than any other institution to democratize feature filmmaking in this country, a mission we are proud to honor and share.