Written by Lori Moffatt
Whatâ€™s the old saying about March roaring in like a lion? In Austin this year, it seems especially appropriate: Blooming mountain laurels perfume the air with their sweet-tart aroma, bluebonnets have started to appear on the roadsides, and if you explore downtown, youâ€™ll sense the electric buzz forming as shopkeepers, bartenders, restaurants, theaters, and hotels prepare for the wildly popular event known as the South by Southwest Music, Film, and Interactive Festival, which runs March 9-18 this year.
Last year, the eventâ€™s 25th anniversary, the festivalâ€™s official registration surged 40 percent over 2010 numbers (with a total fest attendance of 286,000 people!). Here are more impressive numbers: More than 2,000 musical acts performed on 92 stages across the city; the interactive contingent drew almost 20,000 registered attendees (from 53 foreign countries!); and the film contingent attracted more than 66,000 film fans who flocked to see 140 features and 153 shorts. According to organizers, SXSW was directly and indirectly responsible for injecting some $168 million into the Austin economy. (And these figures donâ€™t even begin to consider the impact of the hundreds of unofficial events, concerts, parties, and attractions offered during the festival.)
For the past decade, Iâ€™ve experienced SXSW on the fringes, ducking into free day parties and big concerts at Auditorium Shores, standing in line for movie tickets, and enjoying the crush of visitors from around the world who descend upon Austin each year. But this year, I have a film pass (available in limited numbers for $70 in-store at Waterloo Records), and I plan to see as many films as my schedule allows. With 132 feature films and countless shorts and other events to choose from, these next weeks should be action-packed. (See my colleague Jane Wuâ€™s blog for details on some of the festivalâ€™s films with Lone Star ties.)
I visited recently with SXSW Film Conference and Festival Director Janet Pierson about the eventâ€™s growth, maturation, and significance, and why choosing a film youâ€™ve never heard of may be the most direct route to inspiration.
â€œSince the Film and Interactive Festival started in 1994, the independent film world has changed profoundly,â€ Pierson says. â€œThe digital revolution has made a huge difference. In the mid-1990s, there were hundreds of films made every year; now there are thousands. When people made films in 35 millimeter, making a movie cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and took a long time. But thanks to digital advances,Â cameras became less expensive, and filmmakers could edit well on their laptops. This year, we moved the deadline for submissions up to mid-November, because the number has been steadily increasing year-to-year. This year, we received more than 5,000 submissions, a 7% increase from last year.
â€œAs film festivals go, and Iâ€™m including fests such as Cannes, Toronto, and Sundance, we skew toward American-made films. Weâ€™re neither a regional film festival nor an international film festival. We look for balance, so our films range from comedies to documentaries, dark dramas, and may feature themes as â€˜smallâ€™ as two people walking down the road.â€
While Pierson acknowledges that the Film Festival is primarily a â€œbadge eventâ€ designed for film industry folks (film badges cost $595), she says itâ€™s still possible to see some of the movies with a pass or by purchasing individual tickets ($10)â€”as long as seats are still available. â€œWe want full theaters, and the venues vary tremendously,â€ she says. â€œI mean, if you donâ€™t have a badge, youâ€™re not going to get into the world premiere of The Cabin in the Woods (the directorial debut of Drew Goddard, the writer behind the hit TV show Lost), but you can easily see certain films at the Vimeo or Canon. Or try the Alamo South Lamarâ€”sometimes itâ€™s crowded and sometimes itâ€™s not.
â€œWeâ€™ve vetted everything,â€ she told me, â€œand we think itâ€™s all great. Take a chance on something youâ€™ve never heard of. Success for us is when weâ€™ve inspired people.â€
In line the other day to see Hunky Dory, the coming-of-age film starring Minnie Driver entered in the â€œNarrative Spotlightâ€ category at the SXSW Film Festival, I got to chatting with one of my fellow queue-standers about our experiences as passholders. She told me that had purchased a pass for the past few years and had some tips. The satellite spaces, she saidâ€”this year at the new Alamo Slaughter location and the Alamo Villageâ€”seem especially designed for passholders, and she said that once the music contingent starts, the movie crowds thin out a bit. But sometimes things donâ€™t go as planned.
â€œA few nights ago, I was in the pass line at the Alamo South,â€ she told me, â€œand it was looking pretty good. I was pretty sure Iâ€™d get in.â€ She paused for effect as another passholder leaned over to hear the story. â€œAnd then, a busload of badges pulled up. Dang it! It was all over. So I came up here and got into the documentary about Deepak Chopra. Which was excellent.â€
Such is the nature of readjusting plans during South by Southwest, and maybe life itself, a theme echoed by the film See Girl Run, a movie that delved into the rich dramatic potential of exploring what could have happened if we had made different choices in our lives. What if we had chosen a different path? In one scene, the father of the protagonist, a young woman on the verge of abandoning her marriage to reunite with a lost love from high school, compares maintaining a relationship to a high-tech missile. Unlike old missiles, he explained, which canâ€™t be adjusted once they are launched, newer missiles can readjust course in mid-flight to stay with the target. I liked that analogy, as life has the tendency to throw curveballs just when things seem steady. And even something as simple as a conversation has its inherent readjustments and allowances for give-and-take. In a Q&A after the movie, the director noted that if you go into a conversation knowing exactly what youâ€™re going to say, then youâ€™re not really listening and thus, not really having a conversation.
Many of the films Iâ€™ve seen so far, really, seem to have secondary themes of change and adjustment, acceptance of change, and the perils and rewards of growth and decay. The documentary Welcome to the Machine, for example, examines how technology has change the world we live in, and poses the (unanswered) question: Is humanity better or worse thanks to technology? Â And is there any real way to return to the way things were, now that the Genie is out of the bottle?
Last nightâ€™s documentary, Americaâ€™s Parking Lot, follows two avid Dallas Cowboys tailgaters as their 35-year tradition at the old Texas Stadium comes to and end. We see the stadiumâ€™s implosion and the two fans attempting to piece together a new tradition at Jerry Jonesâ€™ new 1.2 billion Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. Yes, itâ€™s funnyâ€“one protagonist names his daughter Meredith Landry and unabashedly admits he thinks about the Cowboys more than his wife. And yes, itâ€™s a rather scathing study of how pro football has evolved into a rich manâ€™s game. But Cowboys fandom and economic politics aside, itâ€™s a story of change and tradition, and what those two intangible concepts mean.Â Life seen through the lens of football? Now thatâ€™s a Texas tradition. Seek this one out, even if you canâ€™t see it during SXSW.
Itâ€™s the dead of winter, supposedlyâ€”February 2â€”and a quick survey of mid-afternoon temperatures across Texas (70 degrees in Austin, 72 in Houston, 73 in Dallas, a frigid 50 in Amarillo, a balmy 77 in Brownsville) makes me think weâ€™re in for an early spring.
But donâ€™t take my word for it. Instead, listen to Remley the Babirusa at the Houston Zoo, who agreed to stand in for the traditional groundhog this morningâ€”and predicted an early spring. (Groundhogs donâ€™t like the hot and humid weather typically found in Houston, but Babirusas- small hairless pigs native to Indonesiaâ€”find it quite agreeable.)
This morningâ€™s ultra-scientific weather-prognosticating ceremony offered Remley two choices: a two-foot paper â€œsnowmanâ€ filled with watermelon slices and other tasty Babirusa treats, and a pink-and-white picnic scene featuring the same edible enticements. The rest of the ceremony followed tradition: If Remley chose the snowman, weâ€™d have six more weeks of winter; if he chose the picnic scene, spring is on its way. My sources tell me that while Remley flirted with the winter scene, he ultimately dove into the picnic setting and decreed an early spring. So it's official.
Iâ€™m consistently impressed with the creativity and imagination of the folks at the Houston Zoo, an AZA-accredited zoo that dates to 1922.Â I believe that if Remley could talk, heâ€™d say, â€œNow that the weather is warm, come visit me. I am a master of camouflage and move like a deer. And obviously I have great taste and a sense of humor.â€
Like a lot of women in Central Texas, I imagine, I once dated a soldier stationed at Fort Hood, the lifeblood of the military city of Killeen. On most weekends during our short courtship, he'd visit me in Austin, where we'd frequent the live-music venues on Sixth Street and along Guadalupe, the road that parallels the UT campus. On a few occasions, though, I made the one-hour trip to the base. This was a few years before Operation Desert Storm and many years before 9-11, and security concerns weren't the same as they are now. So on one night when he had guard duty at one of the post's motor pools, I accompanied him. I assume this was allowed but can't be certain. Regardless, no one stopped us. And so I have a rather surreal and oddly romantic memory of a warm night curled up on an armored tank, watching the stars.
I recently went to see the new Martin Scorsese film Hugo, the directorâ€™s first film intended for family viewingâ€”and a 3D picture to boot. Based on American writer Brian Selznickâ€™s Caldecott Award-winning book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, about an orphan living in a busy, 1930s train station in Paris, the film captivated me with its characters, inventive plot, and gorgeous use of 3D-technology. The movie (and book) draws heavily on the mythology and history of real-life French filmmaker Georges MÃ¨liÃ©s, a magician by training who directed more than 500 innovative films before declaring bankruptcy in 1913.
Interestingly, the MÃ¨liÃ©s story has a Texas connection. One of the reasons Georges MÃ¨liÃ©s suffered financially toward the end of his film career was that American film companies were screening pirated versions of his films, so in 1902 he sent his brother Gaston MÃ¨liÃ©s to the United States to guard his copyrights.
Gaston, also a filmmaker, spent a few years in New York, but he eventually settled in San Antonio, possibly to treat himself to the healing sulphur waters near the ruins of the San Jose Mission. In San Antonio, Gaston MÃ¨liÃ©s established a studio called the Star Film Ranch, and devoted his talents to turning out some 70 one-reel films, mostly westerns. The San Jose ruins served as the set for at least three Star Film productions, all made in 1910. Like his brother Georges, Gaston was fond of special effects and outlandish action sequences: A May 1976 story in the San Antonio Light notes that MÃ¨liÃ©sâ€™ film An Unwilling Cowboy featured a full-blown square dance on horseback.
In 1911, Gaston and his Star Film Ranch maximized the appeal of the Alamo with a film called The Immortal Alamo, in which MÃ¨liÃ©s cast himself as William Travis (and director John Fordâ€™s older brother Francis played Davy Crockett). Students from the Peacock Academy, a San Antonio military institute, played both Texian and Mexican soldiers.
Itâ€™s a big state, but a small world.
In January issue of Texas Highways, which weâ€™re putting to bed before the Thanksgiving holiday, my colleague Nola McKey suggests an action-packed 2012 itinerary for those of you who adore a good festival.
Iâ€™m particularly interested in the upcoming Whooping Crane Festival in Port Aransas (February 23-26)â€”not only because I love Port A, but also because I admire the birdsâ€™ tenaciousness and survival skills. After all, while whooping cranes are still on the state and federal Endangered Species List, their flock size should reach record levels this year. Once numbering only 21 birds in the entire planet, whoopers in 2012 are expected to number somewhere around 290, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist Tom Stehn.
Texasâ€™ winter flock of whooping cranes spend the summer in northwestern Canada, at Wood Buffalo National Park, and usually travel to Texas through a migration corridor that crosses over the Texas Panhandle and the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Then the birds head south, where their flight path takes them over Waco, Austin, and Victoria before arriving at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in November.
A quick phone call to the refuge just now confirmed their arrival, and the numbers are looking good, folks. The park official with whom I spoke said they hadnâ€™t conducted a formal survey yet, but theyâ€™re estimating that 75% of the population has already arrived, with more trickling in every day. Theyâ€™ll stay in Texas through March or April, depending on weather conditions.
Iâ€™m fascinated by the fact that itâ€™s possible (not likely, but possible nonetheless) to spy these birds during migrationâ€”perhaps even in the skies above Austin. They tend to migrate in small groups of four or five birds, and they often stop at wetlands environments or agricultural fields en route to the coast. While they resemble sandhill cranes, whooping cranes are largerâ€”more than four feet tall (the tallest birds in North America!)â€” and are solid white, except for black wing tips that are visible only when theyâ€™re flying.
I hope to get to the Port A region sometime this winter to see them. See www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/texas/aransas/
Last weekend (November 12-13) was the first weekend of the newly expanded, bigger-and-better East Austin Studio Tour, which invites the public to tour more than 145 artistsâ€™ studios throughout East Austin over two weekends. Itâ€™s the Tourâ€™s 10th anniversary, and itâ€™s amazing to me to think about how itâ€™s grown from a grassroots effort with 28 studios on tour to this yearâ€™s veritable art party.
I made it to a few stops last Saturday, including the home painting studio of my friend David Leonard, who paints cityscapes, landscapes, and industrial settings. See his painting at left, titled City Park (Dallas,TX), which he completed in 2008. I admire his work because he somehow marries a photorealistâ€™s attention to detail with the warmth and vibrancy of an Impressionist. His work is frequently featured at Austinâ€™s Davis Gallery, but itâ€™s fun to see his works in a home setting, and to study where and how he works.
Thatâ€™s part of the appeal of the tour for meâ€”to witness the art-making process and setting of each artist. So Iâ€™ll hit the streets again this Sunday, spend a little money to support artists whose works grab me, and no doubt find inspiration in details both large and small. See www.eastaustinstudiotour.com.
I took a vacation day recently to celebrate a milestone with my husband, and we decided to play tourist in Austin. First, we took the dogs to the new hike-and-bike trail that wends through the cityâ€™s growing Mueller neighborhood, where local artwork embellishes the trails, and where botanists with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center have helped restore a swath of native prairie grassland. Then, intrigued by the promise of more public art, we ventured downtown to the swinging 2nd Street District, where we browsed the shops, checked out the new Violet Crown Cinema (finally! an art cinema downtown!), and spent a rewarding few hours exploring the artwork found throughout Austinâ€™s beautiful, limestone-and-copper City Hall, which was designed by architect Antoine Predock. (The angular, copper â€œarmadillo tail,â€ which juts above 2nd Street, â€œliterally shouts â€˜Here I am!â€™â€ according to architect Phil Reed of the local firm Cotera +Reed.)
Modern architecture aside, what a surprising treat this art collection is. This is the 7th year that City Hall has hosted its year-long Peopleâ€™s Gallery exhibitâ€”a collection of more than 150 visual artworks by local artists. The program, part of the cityâ€™s Art in Public Places initiative, is designed to encourage public dialogue and the understanding and enjoyment of visual art, and Iâ€™d say it accomplishes that goal. Edgy sculptures, contemporary paintings, intriguing photographs, and mixed-media pieces galore are displayed in the hallways, foyers, lobbies, and meeting rooms throughout City Hall, and we enjoyed admiring them as we moseyed through the warmly lit building. (Thereâ€™s free parking in the City Hall Parking Garage, too; validate your ticket at City Hall or at most 2nd Street District shops and restaurants.)
The Peopleâ€™s Gallery Exhibition 2011 remains on view through January 12, and you can cast your vote for the Peopleâ€™s Choice Awards through December 30.
Blue Scales Yellow Stamp, by Jennifer Chenoweth
A few years ago, I had the good fortune to participate in one of Houstonâ€™s first â€œWhere the Chefs Eatâ€ Culinary Tours, a collaboration between some of the cityâ€™s most adventuresome chefs and the Houston Convention and Visitors Bureauâ€”both groups who sought to elevate the cityâ€™s reputation as a world-class food town. Instead of visiting some of Houstonâ€™s many well-regarded â€œfine diningâ€ spots, we explored a half-dozen or so casual and/or family-owned joints that the chefs frequent when theyâ€™re not cooking in their own restaurants. We toured the kitchens, met the owners, traded recipes and stories, and generally had a blastâ€”feasting on veritable banquets of barbecue, Thai entrees, Indian dishes, and interior Mexican specialtiesâ€”with professional chefs to guide us in our exploration of new cuisines, ingredients, and preparations.
The only downside to the tours? Theyâ€™re so popular that they sell out quickly. So I was excited to receive the 2012 tour schedule and to learn that the three-year-old program has grown to encompass more tours, more chefs, and more restaurants. Another interesting element: Proceeds from the 2012 tours will benefit the new Foodways Texas organization (www.foodwaystexas.com ), which opens to public membership in 2012 and whose mission is to â€œpreserve, promote, and celebrate the diverse food cultures of Texas.â€
Tickets for the first tourâ€”January 22â€™s â€œChinese New Year with Chefs Chris Shepherd and Justin Yuâ€ â€”go on sale December 1, followed by opportunities to join tours such as â€œLate night Bars and Bites with Chefs Seth Siegel-Gardener, Terrence Gallivan, and Bobby Heugel and Kevin Floyd,â€ â€œOysters with Chefs Mark Holley and Jonathan Jones,â€ and many others. New additions for 2012 include farm tours, explorations of coffee and dessert, and a look-see at citywide Day of the Dead celebrations; popular â€œrepeatsâ€ include explorations of barbecue, street food, Southern comfort food, and Vietnamese cuisine. See www.houstonculinarytours.com for a full run-down.
Iâ€™m learning to love wine. A few years ago, a friend organized a series of wine-tasting parties based on recommendations from Master Sommelier (and SMU graduate) Andrea Immer Robinsonâ€™s book Great Wine Made Simple. As we progressed through the first chaptersâ€”learning to differentiate between light-bodied and full-bodied styles, identifying characteristics of â€œThe Big Six Grapesâ€ (Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz), and building a vocabulary of â€œflavor wordsâ€ like tannic and oakyâ€”I began to think about how the pleasures of drinking wine encompasses not only taste, but also tradition, history, agriculture, geography, chemistry, geology, and travel. Robinson, now one of fewer than 20 women in the world who have been made Master Sommeliers by the Court of Master Sommeliers, makes the wine world approachable and fun. After all, her own education began while she was a college student in Dallas, when she took a wine-tasting class at The Grape, a popular restaurant on Greenville Avenue.
Last night, I had the opportunity to attend a wine-tasting event at Austinâ€™s Barr Mansion and Artisan Ballroom, a beautiful event site in northeast Austin that is the nationâ€™s only certified organic event facility. A two-story clapboard Victorian home anchors the site of a former farmstead, and past a series of native-plant gardens and sprawling oak trees (a Certified Wildlife Habitat), a modern, glass-and-cedar ballroom (recently rebuilt after being destroyed by fire last year) hosts events for up to 600 people.
This particular tasting, hosted by the Loire Valley Wine Bureau, offered opportunities to sample an array of delicious varietals from Franceâ€™s Loire Valley, which benefits from the temperature-moderating influence of the Atlantic Ocean. There are some 65 appellations (wine-growing regions) in the Loire Valley, and the primary grapes used include Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, and a grape called Melon de Bourgogne, which lends itself to crisp, dry whites.
Since one of my favorite varietals is Sauvignon Blancâ€”a grape used in Texas wines produced by Fall Creek Vineyards, Spicewood Vineyards, and other Texas producersâ€”I was particularly interested in exploring the differences in style between French versions (often made in the Sancerre appellations) compare. This, I learned, is a classic â€œOld World/New Worldâ€ comparison.
Seems to me that Texas Sauvignon Blancs, like their New World siblings from Australia and New Zealand, seem slightly effervescent and bright, while the French Sancerres seemed creamier, with an expressive floral nose and a still-spritely mouthfeel.
I enjoyed chatting with an aspiring sommelier named Justine Langston, who currently buys wine for the small wine-bar chain CrÃº and will be sitting for her Sommelier Certification exam in October. Langston told me that in Europe, wine-drinking is rarely intimidating, and is in fact transcends all classes of society. The days of snooty sommeliers in America is over, she assured me.
In a room filled with so many outstanding French winesâ€”some from vineyards that date back hundreds of yearsâ€”I couldnâ€™t help but wonder how the young Texas wine industry compares. One vendor told me that the difference wasnâ€™t necessarily a difference in quality, even as he acknowledged the challenges of growing certain varietals in Texas simply because it gets so dang hot here. So we grow the ones that DO perform well here, he saidâ€”much as vineyards do the world over. The difference, this fellow told me, is more a result of scale. Texan growers simply cannot produce as much wine as large vineyards in France, Italy, Chile, and Spain, for exampleâ€”and so in general, a high-quality Texan wine costs more than a comparable bottle from more-established wine-producing regions. Any thoughts on this, wine folks out there?
I donâ€™t mind paying a few extra dollars to support a local industry. But I still like to experience how a style is made in other parts of the worldâ€”to compare, contrast, and become more knowledgeable. Itâ€™s a fun endeavor, and one of the few educational paths where repeating a lesson is encouraged. Cheers.
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- Mavis Staples takes us there
- the bike zoo