Picturing you scanning this website, I feel sympathy for your plight. A film festival is a thicket of unfamiliar titles, many of which will become more familiar when the films are released in the months ahead. Several may get major award nominations, others will get great reviews that will spark your interest and then, inevitably, your regret: “Didn’t that play at HCAF a few months ago? Why didn’t I catch it then?”
So the purpose of my annual introduction is to help you navigate through the wilderness, like Reese Witherspoon in Wild (one of the films we’re showing, by the way, which is likely to rack up awards).
Our festival’s focus is, as always, films about the visual, performing, and literary arts; so the clearest way to navigate through the program is by following the art forms that most interest you. Some arts are touched upon, like architecture, whose ambassador is Joanna Hogg’s striking feature Exhibition, and fashion, beautifully represented by Dior and I with its director Frédéric Tcheng and the screening’s host, Lynn Wyatt. As I previewed films over the last year, three art forms — literature, photography, and theater — emerged with compelling stories and subjects that have grabbed healthy chunks of our 2014 program.
The focus on literature includes films about two of the most important writers of the twentieth century, William Burroughs (Burroughs: The Movie) and Susan Sontag (Regarding Susan Sontag). But the emphasis is on literary adaptation, and that includes inventive cinematic translations of Edgar Allan Poe (Man of The Crowd, presented by Brazilian director Marcelo Gomes), William Faulkner (James Franco’s The Sound and the Fury, with producer Lee Caplin), Wild (from the Cheryl Strayed memoir), and A Lesson Before Dying (by Ernest P. Gaines). The most creative literary adaptation I came across this year was a college sport I could hardly believe exists, called Quidditch, adapted from Harry Potter, and documented entertainingly in the film Mudbloods.
The center of our literary focus, however, happens to be the most esteemed of cinema’s literary adaptors, our 2014 Levantine Cinema Arts Award honoree, James Ivory. The first feature film Ivory directed was an adaptation of a novel by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, The Householder, which he and his partner Ismail Merchant convinced her to adapt as her own first screenplay. Ivory and Jhabvala collaborated 21 more times, including the three adaptations of modern novels Ivory will present here: The City of Your Final Destination, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, and The Remains of the Day. The City of Your Final Destination, Ivory’s most recent film, was Jhabvala’s final screenplay. Ivory and City’s novelist, Peter Cameron, will talk about the translation of book into film, and their memories of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.
Photography is the second art form we’re emphasizing this year. Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People features, of course, acclaimed talents like Gordon Parks, Carrie Mae Weems, and Lorna Simpson. But it also delves provocatively into vernacular family photography. Director Thomas Allen Harris is inviting Houstonians to show and tell Third Ward family photographs at the “Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Roadshow” that will follow the screening in the Eldorado Ballroom.
Most of our attention to photography this year is directed towards the genre of street photography. It is the 90th birthday year of the great street photographer Robert Frank, and, with the help of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, we’ve excavated a rarely screened street masterwork by Frank, C’est Vrai! That film’s continuous, hour-long careen through the streets of New York is complemented by the dazzling Street, by James Nares. Nares stretches three minutes of high-speed photography to 62 minutes, capturing countless, wondrous images of street activity and portraiture. You can see Street in the Menil Collection lobby projected theatrically on Thursday night, or come to the Brandon Gallery, where it will be on view as an installation along with street videography and photography by Ken Jacobs, Jem Cohen, and Cheryl Dunn.
Theater is the third privileged art in this year’s program. Juliette Binoche , who appears as a photojournalist in 1,000 Times Goodnight, also represents the theatre arts by appearing as an actress returning to the stage in Olivier Assayas’ film, Clouds of Sils Maria.
The great Texas playwright Horton Foote returns to the screen through the beautifully directed film adaptation of his short play, One Armed Man. Visiting director Tim Guinee is an accomplished actor, director, and HSPVA alumnus, and is also Foote’s son-in-law.
Shakespeare is the playwright most people consider the world’s greatest, and the implications of that intimidating stature for actors and directors who tackle him, is explored in the lively and illuminating ‘Bardumentary,’ Muse of Fire. One of Shakespeare’s most imaginative directorial interpreters, Julie Taymor, who is interviewed in Muse of Fire, also graces our opening night with a new film of her recent, stunningly inventive theatrical production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Julie Taymor’s visit is the centerpiece of our particular focus this year on New York’s greatest avant-garde theater artists. You will also find here the recently completed video of The Wooster Group’s classic performance of Rumstick Road, a wrenching autobiographical work by Spalding Gray made well before Swimming to Cambodia, to be presented by Wooster Group archivist Clay Hapaz. The Mabou Mines theater company, including Joanne Akalaitis and David Warrilow, populate Robert Frank’s Keep Busy, which will be presented by one of that film’s crew members, DeeDee Halleck. (Halleck is coming to the festival to present not only the media activism for which she is widely known, but her important collaborations with artists, including Frank, Robert Smithson, Richard Serra, and Nancy Holt). Finally, theater artist Andre Gregory is represented by Jonathan Demme’s film of his many-years-in-the-making theater work, Ibsen’s A Master Builder, starring Wallace Shawn.
Our focus on theater expands into a broader interest in performance, with a special appearance by choreographer and action architect, Elizabeth Streb, accompanying Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity. “Live cinema” performances abound in our programming this year, as always, with live dance and film with the Revolve Dance Company (Revolve on Camera: The Performances), video and performance art by Deke Weaver (Wolf), and a live Nervous Magic Lantern performance at the Aurora Picture Show by Ken Jacobs.
Jacobs, a legendary avant-garde filmmaker for over fifty years, also has 3D films screening at Sundance Cinemas and 3D street photography on view at the Brandon Gallery. So there is a Ken Jacobs “mini-festival” within the larger festival that I encourage you to seek out. His political, abstract expressionist cinematic art, first exposed to me when I was his student many years ago, has had a profound impact on my life, and I am thrilled to share it and all the films of this year’s festival with our audience in Houston.