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Today's theme: Change

Written by | Published March 15, 2012

In line the other day to see Hunky Dory, the coming-of-age film starring Minnie Driver entered in the “Narrative Spotlight” 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 said—this year at the new Alamo Slaughter location and the Alamo Village—seem especially designed for passholders, and she said that once the music contingent starts, the movie crowds thin out a bit. But sometimes things don’t go as planned.

“A few nights ago, I was in the pass line at the Alamo South,” she told me, “and it was looking pretty good. I was pretty sure I’d get in.” She paused for effect as another passholder leaned over to hear the story. “And 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.”

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 can’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 you’re going to say, then you’re not really listening and thus, not really having a conversation.

Many of the films I’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?  And is there any real way to return to the way things were, now that the Genie is out of the bottle?

Last night’s documentary, America’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 stadium’s implosion and the two fans attempting to piece together a new tradition at Jerry Jones’ new 1.2 billion Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. Yes, it’s funny–one protagonist names his daughter Meredith Landry and unabashedly admits he thinks about the Cowboys more than his wife. And yes, it’s a rather scathing study of how pro football has evolved into a rich man’s game. But Cowboys fandom and economic politics aside, it’s a story of change and tradition, and what those two intangible concepts mean.  Life seen through the lens of football? Now that’s a Texas tradition. Seek this one out, even if you can’t see it during SXSW.

Seen (and Heard) at SXSW Film

Written by | Published March 13, 2012

My SXSW Film journey started off slowly—I admit, rain plus crowds were enough to deter me from my usual energetic approach to mega-festivals. (Overheard in line on Sunday: “Glad the sun came out today. Was beginning to think this was South-By-South-Wet!”)  Also, I want to save my strength for SXSW Music this week.

Three of the five films I’ve seen so far have Texas ties: The Imposter, America’s Parking Lot, (also mentioned in my earlier post, SXSW Film—A Texas Preview) and The Taiwan Oyster. Here are my thoughts on the Texas-related films I’ve seen so far:

My first screening was the documentary-thriller The Imposter, at Alamo Drafthouse Lamar on Saturday. Based on the 1994 case of a missing San Antonio teen, Nicholas Barclay, who is presumed found in Spain three years later, the story is told through the young Frenchman, Frédéric Bourdin, who assumes the boy’s identity in order to escape imprisonment for similar false identity offenses. Bourdin also longs to experience the idyllic childhood deprived of him, having been abused and abandoned early in life. I’m not usually a fan of thrillers or Hard Copy-type shows, but I found the film intense and riveting, with occasional moments of levity. A San Antonio private investigator, Charlie Parker, is the first to expose Bourdin’s identity (with the help of Adobe Photoshop) and his candor and humor, despite the grim situation nearly steals the show.  I also discovered that I was sitting next to Parker and his wife during the screening, and had a nice chat with them. Parker and the director, Bart Layton answered questions after the film.

America’s Parking Lot, (photo at top) a documentary that’s part-drama, part-comedy focuses on two of the truest Cowboy fans and super-tailgators you could ever meet, Stan "Tiger" Schults and Cy Ditmore.  I’m a passing sports fan at best (and former Houstonian who occasionally roots for the Texans) but I came away feeling much empathy and a bit of sadness for what these guys lost when Texas Stadium imploded and Cowboys Stadium replaced it. Tiger and Cy were in attendance at the Canon Screening Room along with first-time director, Austin actor Jonny Mars. Before their Q&A, Tiger Schults led the audience in a boisterous Cowboys pep rally. Even this fair-weather Texan fan can get behind that!

The Taiwan Oyster may not sound like a movie with a Texas connection, but the director, Mark Jarrett is a 10-year Austin resident. Based on his expat years as a kindergarten teacher in Taichung (Austin's sister city) during and after the 1999 earthquake, this offbeat road trip movie follows two friends and a young Taiwanese-British woman they meet as they set out to find a proper burial home in the Taiwan countryside for a fellow American they barely knew. At times the film feels meandering, but the lush, green mountainous landscapes are breathtaking, and the culture-clash episodes are amusing, as is the juxtaposition of old-school American country and rockabilly as the film’s soundtrack.

I also saw a couple of non-Texas films: SELLEBRITY and See Girl Run.

SELLEBRITY is an eye-opening documentary, which covers the preposterous lengths paparazzi go to fuel our obsession with celebrities, and how that fuel is generated by the media and unwittingly, by fans. The film also documents the history of the public’s fascination for star gossip, beginning with Mary Pickford and the silent film era. Musician Sheryl Crow is one of several stars who appear in the film, and made a surprise appearance with the director (and noted celeb photographer) Kevin Mazur and his crew to answer questions after the premiere. Gilberto Petrucci, one of the original paparazzo who inspired Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, also appears in the film and was at the Q&A.

See Girl Run: Described as “what happens when a 30-something woman allows life's "what ifs" to overwhelm her appreciation for what life actually is,” and “… digging into her romantic past in hopes of invigorating her present,” I was expecting more of a chick-flick comedy. Instead, the film was more of a romantic indie drama about the relationship road not taken, as viewed not only from the lead character, Emmie, but her brother, parents, and grandmother as well. Robin Tunney (of The Mentalist) plays Emmie, and Adam Scott (of Parks and Recreation and just-released film Friends With Kids) plays the “one who got away.” Nate Meyer directed the film, and was set and shot in Maine and in Brooklyn.  I admired the film’s ending montage of waterfronts, boat docks, and small-town street scenes, which seemed to evoke an Edward Hopper-esque quality.

Before this SX Film coverage for TH, I have never seen more than one or two films during the film festival, and the last time I went was more than ten years ago. It’s been a fun and fascinating experience meeting all sorts of film-goers in line, elderly couples, teens accompanied by parents, women as well as men going solo, as well as the stereotypical groups of hipsters in black leather. I enjoyed lots of discussions and tips on which movies to see from my new film friends. Heard much buzz about KID-THING, Trash Dance (also see Lori Moffatt’s latest blog), Los Chidos, and Girl Walk // All Day.

But I’m not done yet. Check back for more SX Film insights and observations.

Five films in three days

Written by | Published March 12, 2012

It’s day four of the South By Southwest Film festival, and I’m reflecting on the busy weekend. So far, my experiences as a passholder have been positive—I’ll admit I was worried about standing in line only to get bumped by badgeholders, but so far this hasn’t happened. Friday night, the opening night of the festival, I attended a packed showing of one of last year’s festival favorites, the Australian horror movie The Loved Ones. I knew it would be dark (reviewers billed it as Sixteen Candles meets Carrie), but I was unprepared for the level of gore, and it was only when I began to focus on the makeup skills required for such effects that I could open my eyes fully during certain scenes.

Day two began with dark skies and nearly continuous downpours. My first plan, a midday screening of the documentary about musician Charles Bradley, a James Brown doppelganger whom I had seen perform at this year’s Austin City Limits festival, didn’t pan out. Screening at one of the 40-person theaters at downtown’s new Violet Crown venue, the film filled up before I got in the queue, so instead I headed to the Paramount, where a long line of people snaked around the building, huddling beneath umbrellas and hoping to gain admission to the World Premiere of the film Trash Dance, a documentary about choreographer Allison Orr’s spellbinding dance project with the City of Austin’s Solid Waste Services.

Orr, whose Forklift Danceworks (www.forkliftdanceworks.org) has created ballets with firefighters, service dogs, and Italian gondolas, orchestrated a dance with garbage trucks, cranes, and other sanitation equipment on the abandoned tarmac of Austin’s old Mueller airport, an event I witnessed live this past summer.  This, the documentary about the project, illustrated how Orr won the trust of the 24 Solid Waste Services employees who starred in the production, most of whom entered the project with healthy skepticism. With a score by Austin composer Graham Reynolds, the film made me (and many other audience members) laugh and yes, cry. After the show the cast and crew took the stage amid stand-up applause and cheers, I realized that this moment—the marriage of audience and cast— is what makes seeing a film in a festival setting unique and worthwhile. It was a theme I’d witness multiple times over the weekend–the sense that somehow we’re all participating in this creative endeavor together.

Later on Saturday, I stood in line with other passholders at the Alamo Village, chatting with strangers and hoping to gain access to the film The Babymakers, a comedy about a young couple trying to start a family. After failing to conceive, the male protagonist stages a heist of the sperm bank to which he had donated years ago–and hilarity ensues. A Q&A after the film with director Jay Chandrasekhar and fellow star Kevin Heffernan made the experience doubly worthwhile.

The third film I screened on Saturday, the Seattle-made Fat Kid Rules the World, blew me away. It tells the story of an overweight teenager who finds salvation of sorts in the discovery of punk rock, and the characters were so fully drawn that I felt as if I knew them by film’s end. The cinema was full of cast and crew, so energy was high, and a pre-movie chat with my neighbor, who worked with lighting design, gave me an appreciation for an aspect of filmmaking I hadn’t considered. When the director, Matthew Lillard, told us that he had been an overweight teen himself, I realized why certain scenes seemed so authentic. As with the screening of Trash Dance, the appearance of cast and crew reinforced the sense of a supportive and involved movie community.

The sun emerged on Sunday, and with the sun came the crowds. Plans to see the documentary The Source, about a group of LA followers of controversial restaurateur-turned-spiritual-leader “Father Yod” in the 1970s, were thwarted by parking problems. But later in the day, I once again headed north to the Alamo Village to see the Texas-made movie Kid+Thing, a moody drama about a young girl in East Texas who discovers—yet chooses not to rescue—a woman who had fallen down a well. While the scenery was evocative and the young star—12-year-old Sydney Aguirre—excellent, the movie didn’t speak to me personally. But others in the audience disagreed, and that inconsistence reminds me of the subjective nature of moviegoing, and what a wonderful thing it is that we all have different tastes!

Five down, more to come. Stay tuned!

Pass to Inspiration

Written by | Published March 7, 2012

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What’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, you’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 event’s 25th anniversary, the festival’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 don’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, I’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 Wu’s blog for details on some of the festival’s films with Lone Star ties.)

I visited recently with SXSW Film Conference and Festival Director Janet Pierson about the event’s growth, maturation, and significance, and why choosing a film you’ve never heard of may be the most direct route to inspiration.

“Since the Film and Interactive Festival started in 1994, the independent film world has changed profoundly,” Pierson says. “The 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, 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.

“As film festivals go, and I’m including fests such as Cannes, Toronto, and Sundance, we skew toward American-made films. We’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 ‘small’ as two people walking down the road.”

While Pierson acknowledges that the Film Festival is primarily a “badge event” designed for film industry folks (film badges cost $595), she says it’s still possible to see some of the movies with a pass or by purchasing individual tickets ($10)—as long as seats are still available. “We want full theaters, and the venues vary tremendously,” she says. “I mean, if you don’t have a badge, you’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 Lamar—sometimes it’s crowded and sometimes it’s not.

“We’ve vetted everything,” she told me, “and we think it’s all great. Take a chance on something you’ve never heard of. Success for us is when we’ve inspired people.”

I’m ready!

 

 

 

SXSW Film: A Texas Preview

Written by | Published March 7, 2012

The SXSW Film Conference & Festival 2012 begins in Austin on Friday, March 9 (along with SXSW Interactive) and runs through the 17th. SXSW Film brings together up-and-coming and veteran filmmakers, industry dealmakers, actors and celebrities of all stripes, serious film geeks, and avid moviegoers with a taste for discovery. Since its inception in 1994, the conference and fest has emerged as a major player on the U.S. and international film festival circuit, with small-budget indie films given equal buzz with premieres of more mainstream releases.

Although SX Film is global in its movie offerings, there are usually a few Made-in-Texas or Set-in-Texas film screenings. Here is a list for those wanting a more Tex-centric movie experience. (See Lori Moffatt's blog, Pass to Inspiration for tips on getting the most out of your SX Film viewing, whether you have a badge, film pass, or purchase tickets at the venue.) Also, don't be surprised if you see the director, cast or film crew in attendance at these films. (And that includes some of the bigger premieres, like Killer Joe and Bernie.)

The Imposter:  Documentary-thriller about a missing San Antonio teen, found alive in Spain three years later but may not be who he appears, unbeknownst to his own family. The Imposter has received critical acclaim since its premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and is scheduled for theatrical release later this year.

Killer Joe:  Texans Matthew McConaughey and Thomas Haden Church star in a dark comedy set in Dallas County involving a crazy cop who moonlights as a hit man. Directed by William Friedkin (of The Exorcist, The French Connection fame). Premiered at the Venice Film Festival and Toronto Film Festival. SXSW U.S. Premiere. If you go, get there early. This is the only SX screening, and some of the stars, including Matthew McConaughey are scheduled to be there.

Trash Dance:  Austin sanitation workers perform a choreographed dance performance using garbage trucks on an abandoned airport runway in this quirky documentary. SXSW World Premiere.

America's Parking Lot: Directed by Austinite Jonny Mars, a documentary about how America's Team's move to Cowboy Stadium profoundly affects two rabid Cowboys fans. SXSW World Premiere, and in case you miss it, also screens at Dallas International Film Festival, April 12-22.

Blue Like Jazz:  Set in suburban Houston, a college student leaves his religious upbringing for "the most godless campus in America" in the Pacific Northwest. Based on the New York Times bestseller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller, who also funded the film with help from donations via Kickstarter. SXSW World Premiere.

Bernie: A dark comedy about an assistant funeral director in Carthage who befriend, and later disposes of "the town's richest widow." Shot in Austin, Bastrop, Smithville, Georgetown, and Carthage, directed by renowned filmmaker and Bastrop resident Richard Linklater, and starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey. As with Killer Joe, this is the only SX showing, and some of the cast, Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey, along with Richard Linklater, will be in attendance.

Texas Shorts: Nine short films with a total 93 minutes run time. The subjects range from The Guessing Game, set in a retirement home where a resident's birthday reveals more than his age, to Tumbleweed, "The true and historically accurate tale of one tumbleweed that did not tumble."

As Siskel and Ebert used to say, "See you at the movies!"

(CMigrator copy 3)

Written by | Published February 6, 2012
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Pig Predicts an Early Spring!

Written by | Published February 2, 2012

It’s the dead of winter, supposedly—February 2—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 we’re in for an early spring.

But don’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 morning—and predicted an early spring. (Groundhogs don’t like the hot and humid weather typically found in Houston, but Babirusas- small hairless pigs native to Indonesia—find it quite agreeable.)

This morning’s ultra-scientific weather-prognosticating ceremony offered Remley two choices: a two-foot paper “snowman” 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, we’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.

I’m consistently impressed with the creativity and imagination of the folks at the Houston Zoo, an AZA-accredited zoo that dates to 1922.  I believe that if Remley could talk, he’d say, “Now 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.”

 

 

Anticipating Blooms

Written by | Published February 1, 2012

It’s sometimes difficult to know when the seasons change in Texas, but one of the most anticipated seasons is that of the wildflower. Like brushstrokes from the hands of God, this showcase of vibrant colors is a tourism attraction in itself. So, the possibility of it not coming to fruition has been a stressor of late.

The good news is that, in the midst of the drought, each drop of fall and winter rain has brought renewed hope that this year might actually yield fields of flowers, including a bumper crop of bluebonnets.

“We are expecting a good wildflower crop in the Hill Country this spring,” says Daryl Whitworth, assistant director of the Freericksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.  “Many seeds that were dormant, especially bluebonnets, appear to have had good germination from the fall rains.”

He adds that “Showers have continued from early October until now and numerous people are reporting seeing many small bluebonnet plants.”

In fact, Whitworth says the drought has actually given us the benefit of a better view. With grasses in pastures and along roadsides so short, flowers should be much more visible.

“As long as we continue to receive rain, April should bring a great display,” Whitworth says.

We’re keeping our fingers crossed.

To keep track of the wildflower progress, visit these sites:

Groundhog Day, Texas-Style

Written by | Published February 1, 2012

It may be February 1 where you are, but at the TH editorial office, we’re thinking April. We just put the March issue to bed, so to speak, and now we’re awash in wildflowers as we produce our April wildflower photo feature. Look for 16 pages of gorgeous wildflower images this year, along with a rundown of wildflower festivals and other events.

Working on the April issue always involves a flurry of prognostications: What kind of wildflower season will we have? Did the rains come at the right times? Where will readers find the best displays? Inevitably, we have to fall back on the nature of wildflowers themselves—they’re wild, meaning unpredictable and, to my way of thinking, even magical. You never know for sure what they will do, and that’s one reason we love them so. Their untamed beauty remains a constant in our increasingly homogenous, civilized world.

Daryl Whitworth, assistant director of the Fredericksburg Convention and Visitor Bureau, stopped by the office a couple of days ago and gave us the bureau's wildflower forecast for the Hill Country. “We're predicting a bumper crop,” he said. “A lot of seeds lay dormant last year because of the drought, and the rains that came in late September and early October, as well as the recent rains, came just at the right times.”

I conducted my own wildflower survey a couple of weeks ago, on a trip from Austin to my mother’s home near Edna. I always try to make a trek south around Groundhog Day, since it seems like a good time for predicting what the wildflowers season holds. Sometimes I even spot a precocious Indian paintbrush or bluebonnet. No such luck this year, though I did see more green than I expected along the roadsides between Austin and Gonzales. As I drove on Texas 111 from Yoakum to Edna, it became drier and looked less promising. However, since my visit, that area has had a little rain, so again, you never know. Personally, I love it that way.

Sampling Big Bend

Written by | Published January 30, 2012

TH’s February issue features the western portion of the Big Bend region, which covers vast and remote areas where you’d do well to plan on spending at least the better part of a week. So does this necessarily mean a shorter excursion is out of the question? Not if you have a general plan which includes more urbane pleasures such as exploring West Texas food and art, as well as with surrounding yourself with spectacular vistas.

My boyfriend David and I spent a little less than three days in Big Bend over the Christmas holiday, and the trip was well-paced and relaxing. Of course, we would have loved to spend more time, but prior commitments in Austin prevented us from doing so.

Alpine and Marfa were on our radar, plus Fort Davis and even a hike in Big Bend National Park if time allowed. We also wanted to begin our trip in Marathon, in time for dinner and stay at the Gage Hotel. The hotel was booked for the holiday, but the Gage recently acquired Captain Shepard’s Inn, right behind the hotel, which had rooms available. We stayed in a warm and spacious room with a balcony.

Photo by Griff Smith

Marathon is about an hour from just about everywhere on our itinerary, so the location made for easy planning, and an ideal home base. On our first full day, we drove to Alpine, and strolled down Holland Avenue. We stopped in Big Bend Arts Council Gallery and found an eclectic and affordable selection of paintings, pottery, sculpture, and jewelry created by local artists. Avram Dumitrescu, originally from Ireland, whose vibrant paintings of landscapes, food, and animals I admire, had pieces on display, and was also minding the gallery that morning. Later, we popped into Front Street Books, where I found a copy of a book Avram illustrated (and also signed), M.F.K. Fisher Among the Pots and Pans, by Joan Reardon. We also poked in the window of TONK (Things Ordinary Not Known) studio to admire the whimsical assemblages. The gallery sign said “Closed,” but owner/artist Rachel Anne Manera saw us and invited us in.

After a zesty, hearty tortilla soup lunch at Reata, we headed west to Marfa. Just a few businesses were open (we found many Marfa’s shops, galleries, and restaurants typically open Wed.-Sat., and we were there on Monday). However, we did take a short jaunt along Highland Ave. and perused the one of the Paisano Hotel’s gift shops, which has an impressive art book section.

Sadly, the Chinati Foundation was closed, but in search of more art, we proceeded onward to the Prada Marfa art installation, about 5 miles past Valentine on US 90. Built in 2005 by Berlin artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, the structure still attracts curious tourists like ourselves, and also a man from Germany who was just leaving as we arrived.

There was still enough daylight left that afternoon for a side trip to Fort Davis, which we took via Hwy. 166, a scenic drive with spectacular views of the Davis Mountains. We stopped at Fort Davis National Historic Site and took a short hike up to a vantage point of a sprawling overview of the fort. We then drove to Indian Lodge, and explored the grounds to consider for a future stay. Our last stop was in downtown Fort Davis, where on State St., we found charming shops, inns and cafés, such as the Fort Davis Drug Store and Old Texas Inn, which even has a soda fountain. On the way out, we were wowed by the classic architecture and distinctive clock tower of the Jeff Davis County Courthouse. Our West Texas wanderlust was sated for the day.

After touring three towns on Day One, a more relaxing agenda was in store for Day Two. After a leisurely breakfast at the Marathon Coffee Shop, we visited photographer, writer, and artist E. Dan Klepper (who is also a frequent TH contributor) at his Klepper Gallery. I have long appreciated E. Dan’s artful images and compelling words, but I was awestruck by his graceful, minimalist assemblages of baling wire and various found objects.

It was finally time to explore the outdoors, so around noon we trekked toward Big Bend National Park. With the remaining time on our trip dwindling, we chose to hike the Window Trail. This popular trail is relatively short (5.6 mi.) and easy to navigate. However, we couldn’t help but stop every so often to gasp—not due to exertion but to admire the stunning mountain formations and surface textures. At the end of the trail, the Window’s ledge opens to a jaw-dropping, magnificent vista. On the way back, we spotted not only hawks, deer, and javelinas, but musician/artist David Byrne and a companion walking toward the Window. “Once in a lifetime?” to quote one of his Talking Heads hits.

Due to the short time and full days, we had dinner at the Gage, either in 12 Gage restaurant or White Buffalo Bar. Despite the voracious appetite worked up from the hike, White Buffalo Bar‘s Venison Fajita Black Bean Nachos made for a sumptuous meal for both of us.

On our final day, Wednesday, before heading home, we drove back to Marfa in hope of touring the Chinati Foundation as it would be open, but our luck ran out when we found the tour had sold out for the morning. So we had a delightful Swiss-inspired breakfast of knackwurst with eggs at squeezemarfa, and walked across the street to the Presidio County Courthouse to climb the stairs to the courthouse tower. The tower boasts astounding panoramic views. I thought I could almost see clear to Alpine!

Before this trip, it had been many years since either of us had been to Big Bend. This somewhat whirlwind visit will set the stage for more (and longer) trips to come, hopefully sooner than later.

 

Lunar New Year at Asia Cafe

Written by | Published January 26, 2012

Illustration by Christopher Jagmin

For Chinese New Year, Year of the Dragon 2012, my daughter Lucy, my boyfriend David and I celebrated with dinner at Asia Cafe in Austin.  Asia Cafe serves Sichuan (or Szechuan) Chinese cuisine, known for its hot and spicy seasonings.  The Chinese food here is by far the most authentic I’ve had in Austin—both in taste and presentation.

Asia Cafe is simple and casual: walk up to the counter, grab a menu and place your order. The number of items listed start at 115 and go through the 800s!  Luckily, I had a few dishes in mind: Whole Fish with Spicy Bean Sauce (which I had on a previous visit: succulent and flavorfully spicy), House Special Green Beans (Chinese long beans), and Sesame Tofu.  The entrée portions are generous, in keeping with the Chinese tradition of serving dishes family-style, so for the three of us, this was plenty.  Drinks (water, tea and soda only) and utensils are self-serve, along with small bowls—not plates—for sharing (another touch of authenticity: in Chinese households, meals are typically eaten from bowls).

As it turned out, the Whole Fish with Spicy Bean Sauce had already sold out, as this dish is considered “lucky” to eat for the New Year. So we went with a similar entrée on the specials board, House Whole Fish with Garlic and Peppers. When our meal was ready to be picked up at the counter, the fish arrived on an enormous platter, ringed with copious amounts of soft garlic cloves (the mild taste and texture reminded me of miniature new potatoes) and tiny cherry peppers in a piquant peppercorn sauce.  The tasty long beans had that just-right crunchy-yet-tender texture, and the delicately-seasoned sesame tofu was firm, with a crispy coating.

As expected, Asia Cafe was buzzing on this New Year’s night. A couple of private rooms off to the side hosted festive gatherings (and brought their own wine), and the line at the counter was continuous but quick.  As in most “authentic” Asian restaurants, groups of Chinese diners were in attendance, but I also saw many non-Asians, possibly those from other cities who’ve had a taste of China and craving the real deal.

Asia Café is a bit of a trek from my home in south Austin, but well worth it.  Next time I won’t wait until Lunar New Year (2013 is Year of the Snake) to get my Chinese food fix.

Saturday Afternoon in Smithville

Written by | Published January 25, 2012

My sister Joan was in Austin last weekend visiting from Dallas, and we decided to forgo the usual big-city haunts and spend an afternoon in Smithville. I had written about Smithville's movie-town status in November TH, and Joan wanted to explore downtown Smithville.

Comfort Cafe's Chicken-Curry Salad

We began with lunch at Comfort Café, just off Main St., where I dined on one of my research trips but regrettably didn't have room to include in my story. (I was pleased to see in the January issue, Bob McClure had written a Reader Recommendation on the chicken salad at the café.) I have had the chicken-curry salad and it was sweetly refreshing. Since I hadn't eaten breakfast yet, I chose the Sammy Bennie, one of three Eggs Benedict dishes on the extensive breakfast/lunch menu. Generously topped with hollandaise sauce over two fluffy poached eggs, salmon and English muffins, the dish was satisfying yet didn't make me feel overstuffed. Joan opted for a freshly-made Potato Florentine Soup with a side of field greens. Open for breakfast and lunch, Comfort Café will also begin serving on Friday nights, 6-9 p.m. starting Feb. 3.

We strolled down Main St. and stopped at Tom-Kat Paper Dolls, as Joan has fond memories of playing with and collecting paper dolls growing up in Hong Kong. As I mentioned in the November story, I continue to be amazed at the range and scope of sartorial themes played out in illustrator/shop owner Tom Tierney's paper-doll books. Some of the newest ones depict the royal newlyweds William and Kate and the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen. Joan bought a book of designer fashions from the 1950s-90s, and we marveled at and recalled some of the trends of those times.

SACS on Main

As with many small-town downtowns, Smithville's Main Street has antiques stores galore. But we discovered a new and somewhat different type of shop, Sacs on Main Resale Boutique, which opened two weeks ago and swarming with customers. Sacs is much like Buffalo Exchange's trendy and youthful resale womens apparel but without the cramped racks. There are also new, handcrafted accessories in the mix, such as headbands topped with fabric flowers and jewelry from next door neighbor Scattered Light. Be sure to check out the back room of the store, everything is $1, and I saw some great buys, like a tailored vintage black brocade cape, and a slim brown floral 60s-inspired sheath dress.

It was a relaxing yet not unfamiliar change of pace from our usual Austin jaunts.

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