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Provoking, Exposing, Expanding

The ninth Cinematexas International Short Film Festival

What follows, of course, is hardly comprehensive. The previews are mostly based on a pool of screeners provided by Cinematexas. So, we haven't seen everything; of what we have seen, this is what we recommend, or at least find interesting enough to warrant a little attention. Don't forget the Satyajit Ray retrospective, the Face/Off installments, the ongoing Terra Cognita, Eye + Ear (see Music Recommended, p.102), and, most notably, Saturday's Parallax View program Guilty Until Proven, featuring the Critical Art Ensemble's Steve Kurtz and Steven Barnes at American Youthworks. In addition, look for the work of local filmmakers Bob Ray ("Hillbilly Doomsday," part of the International Competition Midnite Show on Thursday at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown); Max Porter (the animated "Red Things," part of the International Competition program 1 on Friday, also at the Drafthouse); Kristin Lucas ("Lo-Fi Green Sigh," International Competition 5, Thursday at the Hideout); and Chronicle staff writer Rachel Proctor May ("Animals Were Harmed in the Making of This Movie," UT Competition 4, Sunday at the Hideout). For the complete Cinematexas 9 schedule printed in last week's Chronicle, see "Cinematexas 9 ." For admission information and more, see – Shawn Badgley

Star Spangled to Death

D: Ken Jacobs

For better and for worse, American ambition is boundless. And nothing speaks more conspicuously to a country's ambition than its imperialism. During the past hundred years or so, our country has sought to paint the world in its image, and though its reach still exceeds its grasp, that gap is shrinking, and might not be around for much longer. The new Age of Empire is here, and America's shining light has crept into almost every corner of the globe, warming for some, blinding for others.

Filmmaker Ken Jacobs has spent the past 40 years watching, filming, and commenting on this evolution, and his Star Spangled to Death is a film consumed with the idea of American ambition, and – in its own way – it, too, is boundless. Jacobs is a filmmaker for whom the image is everything and who believes the soul of America is found not in its conspicuous and timeless successes, but rather its forgotten scraps and throwaways, troubling reminders from our not-so-distant past that Jacobs has found, resuscitated, and reimagined in order to hold a mirror up to our national character. The film's found footage (political propaganda, minstrel shows, adolescent "morality" tales, ad infinitum) is most provocative when it's left to speak for itself and its viewers are allowed to free-associate as they will. His film is, in his words, "a jumbled heap, errant energies going nowhere, the talented viewer inferring form." Which is all to the good, but at its core, this is a political film, and Jacobs knows that it's not enough for his viewers to infer form; they have to intuit meaning, as well. Otherwise, these scattered images are nothing but entertainment, and Jacobs will have relegated himself to the role of distracter. So, he uses subliminal messages to highlight disparity, flashes of text moving too fast for comprehension but slow enough for the viewer to recognize intent. It's a subtle technique, respecting viewers enough to come to reasonable conclusions on their own, but gently prodding them back to cold reality when the fog gets too thick and the beating of drums begins to drown out anything even resembling critical thought.

And what about today? Jacobs' film focuses almost entirely on relics from the black-and-white era, a past that (with its casual racism and religious bigotry) can seem, at times, a thousand centuries ago. Are we off the hook? Or are we just too lost to see the similarities? A movie about a country with endless ambition becomes endless, and if America in all its vastness and contradiction is a work in progress, then so is Star Spangled to Death. Jacobs seems to admit exhaustion (as does his camera, which runs out of power only minutes before a crucial moment during last year's Iraq War protests), leaving commentary on the late 20th and early 21st centuries to another time, or perhaps another filmmaker. No matter, though. For Jacobs, all that was old is new again, and American imperialism, in all its forms, will continue to reap the whirlwind as long as our ambition continues to overshadow the better angels of our nature. – Josh Rosenblatt

Star Spangled to Death, with a running time exceeding six hours, will screen in two parts during the festival. Part I: Thursday, Sept. 23, 8:15pm, Alamo Drafthouse Downtown; Part II: Sunday, Sept. 26, 2:15pm, Alamo Drafthouse Downtown. Jacobs will also collaborate with local composer Rick Reed on Saturday, Sept. 25, 10:30pm, at the Hideout.

Sud (South)

D: Chantal Akerman

Chantal Akerman's most famous film, 1976's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, consists largely of long, still shots of the protagonist attending to her household chores. The effect on the viewer is a numbing one, and the study slowly morphs (during its 200-minute running time) into suspense and, ultimately, into one of the medium's seminal feminist statements. Roughly 20 years and 30 films later, Akerman's Sud, about the grisly and racially motivated killing of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, uses the same techniques as Dielman to make a different statement. Long shots of lush greenery and dilapidated houses accompany the sounds of cicadas buzzing or crickets chirping, and often include a solitary figure whiling away the time. Similarly, the camera follows the road that ended Byrd's life, stopping at the same place his attackers stopped. At first, these idyllic scenes seem quaint, until their length (no less than a couple of minutes) grows tiresome. This length has a cumulative effect on the viewer, however, as the town's history of racism is revealed, and the Byrd murder is described by witnesses and police accounts.

The testimonies recontextualize the environment, making every still shot of a simple tree the scene of a hanging and every shot of a road the road that Byrd was dragged down. Perhaps more importantly, Akerman's long-winded directing style appears more and more deliberate, transcending the singular event of Byrd's death and creating a sense of history's weight on the black community and of the subtle violence of oppression that has stretched over decades and even centuries. As shown by her often-unedited interviews, it's obvious that for Akerman the context is as important as the content. She lets the tone of the county sheriff's interview undercut his words. His diffuse and repetitive declaration that economics is the cause of the race problem in Jasper leaves us wondering if he is convincing himself or us. As an elderly woman surrounded by her grandchildren tells of Jasper's racist past, the generational differences are clear. The children are self-conscious and fidgety with the camera as their grandmother, recognizing the seriousness of the subject matter, abandons all self-awareness, allowing her words to cut straight through the camera to the viewer. For the older generations, racism was ever present and clearly visible, but current manifestations of racism seem to be in the atmosphere like so many buzzing cicadas – brought to the forefront by the recent violence only to be dismissed as an isolated incident. In the end, Sud pulls race relations in the South out of the ether, focusing notions and ideas without preaching or sensationalizing. The final shot brings us down another, longer road that fades into the credits without an end, implying that the warning of Byrd's death has not been heeded. – James Renovitch

Thursday, Sept. 23, 7:45pm, Arthouse at the Jones Center (Texas premiere); Sunday, Sept. 26, 4pm, Texas Union Theatre. Akerman will be in attendance.

International Competition

Cinematexas: to the point, unapologetic, and proud. In short time, these traits have transformed it from an event for those locals in the know to a worldwide barometer of all things film. Nowhere more so than in the International Competition, which continues to garner great work from the corners of the globe. While this listing is but a mere sampling, it should provide an idea of where the international flavor falls into the larger schema that is Cinematexas.

International Competition 1: From the Bump-Bump Room to the Barricades is a collection of pure spectacle and sensation. "Number Three: Take Step Fall" is a beguiling, calming-in-that-medicated-sense short juxtaposing the elegance of ballet movement with the violence of falling timber, traffic with stillness, where release is as unlikely to show as Godot. Punishingly brief is "Magda"; due to the fact that the stop-motion used to animate this beautiful sideshow tale of contortionist love is so seamless, it must have taken a small eternity to construct this otherworldly yet personal story. Punishing, in an altogether different yet exhilarating sense, is "Marsa Abu Galawa." Over relentlessly energetic Arabic music from Abdel Basset Hamouda, director Gerard Holthuis cuts rapidly between different scenes of underwater life – so rapidly, in fact, that they overlap in the mind's eye, leaving swarms of fish, jovial turtles, and monstrous bottom dwellers to co-exist peacefully. By the end of this 12-minute workout, an extended, tranquil shot of the ocean lingers while a scuba tank rattles in the background, letting viewers literally catch their breath.

"Einspruch III," or, "Recently at the Swiss Border" opens IC 3: Make Anger Work for You. Beginning with a cheeky, sitcom-style credit sequence set to a muzaked "The Look of Love," this Swiss short quickly confounds expectations. As a wheelchair-bound Algerian refugee with a prosthetic leg is busted crossing the border from Germany, the last thing to expect is a canned laugh track and cornball synth music cues, but that's what "Einspruch" delivers. As the situation deteriorates, the sitcomisms continue, highlighting the absurdity of government bureaucracy in the face of such abject humanity. While "Einspruch" uses familiar trappings to slyly underscore its points, "Planet of the Arabs" explodes with all the subtlety of a rocket-propelled grenade. Inspired by author Jack G. Shaheen's examination of the Arabic stereotype in Hollywood, Reel Bad Arabs, "Planet" is a TV Carnage-style mash-up of those plane hijackin', Jew hatin', camel ridin', saber rattlin' Ay-rabs. As hilarious as it is cringeworthy, "Planet" culls material from prime-time TV, gigaplex blockbusters, old Warner Bros. cartoons, and the odd Chuck Norris vehicle (whose blatant racist vitriol in one scene is sure to elicit gasps). Far from desensitizing, "Planet" ends in a call to arms, courtesy of Seventies classic Network, to turn it off! – Wells Dunbar

International Competition programs (as well as UT Competition programs) run throughout the festival. Consult schedule for specs.


D: Jem Cohen

A ruined mall. A gleaming, neon-bedecked shopping center. Airports. Transportation hubs. New York. Melbourne. Somewhere else, maybe. Jem Cohen's documentary films, from the Fugazi-inspired (and inspiring) Instrument to the inspired, grimy beauty of his portrait of Atlanta blues hustler Benjamin Smoke, carry the weight of the immediate. They are frantically of the now, even when the events and portraits contained seamlessly within are sometimes of the past. Chain, Cohen's feature-length version of an ongoing project he has been working on for several years (and which showed at MOMA in a triple-projected version) documents the destruction of the regional landscape by the encroachment of corporate culture. Hence the malls, which, to all appearances, could be anywhere on Earth, now that American culture has slipped the bounds of good taste and infected the global status quo. Zeitgeist or ghost in the machine? Either way the spirit appears to be malevolent. – Marc Savlov

Sunday, Sept. 26, 1:45pm, Hideout. Cohen will also collaborate with the minimalist composer Terry Riley on Friday, Sept. 24, 8pm, at the First United Methodist Church. For more on that, see Music Recommended, p.102.

The Will of Dean Snider

D: Jaime Kibben

After completing The Will of Dean Snider, director Jaime Kibben found its release blocked by his subject's friends. They accused Kibben of capitalizing on Snider's struggle with Parkinson's disease and subsequent suicide to make an overly sensational film. Over several months, we see Snider abandoning the joys of former years made impossible by the reduced capacity of his body. However, the reduction of mental capacity scares him the most: "I suffer a lot every day, and I can handle that because I've done that for 10 years, but if I don't have any control over my mind anymore, then that's enough for me." Watching Snider wrestle with his own limbs over an average day (even finding time to complete unfinished works of art) without a complaint is inspiring, but the reality of his illness robs Snider of all hope, leaving him to focus on the one thing he can control: his death. To see a man so logically defying the self-preservation instinct, from choosing the right bullet to (unnecessarily?) practicing at a shooting range, is startling. The question remains, when is it time to take the camera off your shoulder and lend it to your subject to cry on? Certainly the source of the controversy, the final Blair Witch-style shot, is sensational, but also undeniably riveting. Like Snider himself. – James Renovitch

Friday, Sept. 24, 10:15pm, Arthouse at the Jones Center










Short Cuts

Invest in the fests!

Cinematexas 8 Announces Geckos

Cinematexas 8 Schedule
Friday, Sept. 19, Through Sunday, Sept. 21

More Austin film community, Austin filmmakers, Film Festival & Series stories:

The Sources + the Resources [2004-02-20]
'The Austin Chronicle' Guide to Film + Media arts groups

On Ondine on Film [2003-10-17]
The pope and the artist, the hotel and the factory

SXSW Film 04 Awards [2004-03-19]
The best of the Fest

Elvis Costello & the Imposters
Record review [09-17-04]

Cinematexas International Short Film Festival 9
September 22-26 [09-17-04]

Screening Process
The Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund Panelists [08-13-04]



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