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Written by Lori Moffatt

For the August 2013 print issue of Texas Highways, I wrote about a Madeira tasting, held at Austin's Red Room speakeasy, which featured the wines of Haak Vineyards in Galveston County. Haak is the only Texas winery that makes Madeira a richly flavored fortified wine that is usually produced on the Portuguese islands of Madeira.

The nightlife scene continues to heat up on Austin's Rainey Street, a former residential byway in the shadow of downtown. Transformed in recent years with bars, restaurants, and food trucks, Rainey Street draws crowds interested in craft cocktails, local beers, and food ranging from authentic Oaxacan fare (at El Naranjo) to Indian (at Raj Mahal). And now, Rainey Street boasts Austin's first food truck devoted to Southeast Asian Noodles, DFG Noodles.

In Austin, artists and musicians are finalizing prepwork for this weekend's Art City Austin Festival (April 13-14), which transforms the streets surrounding City Hall and the 2nd Street entertainment district into an outdoor art fair. Among the reasons to go: Hundreds of artists will display their works throughout the festival grounds, more than 150 pieces of art enliven the galleries inside City Hall, local food trailers offer sustenance and libations, musicians perform non-stop, and perhaps best of all-the weather promises to be spectacular! Tickets cost $8; free admission for kids age 12 and younger. It's also free if you ride your bike!

 

Interactive kids' activities at Art City Austin

First produced in 1951 as the Texas Fine Arts Association's Spring Juried Art Fair, the event, renamed "Art City Austin,” moved downtown in 2008. It's organized by Art Alliance Austin, which works to advance the city "by integrating art, culture, and creativity into public life." 

Among the many things I learned at the second annual Austin FOOD & WINE Festival, which took place at Austin's Butler Park April 27-28, here are my favorite take-aways:

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!

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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!

 

 

 

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.

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.”

 

 

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 director’s first film intended for family viewing—and a 3D picture to boot. Based on American writer Brian Selznick’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 Mèliés, a magician by training who directed more than 500 innovative films before declaring bankruptcy in 1913.

Interestingly, the Mèliés story has a Texas connection. One of the reasons Georges Mèliés 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 Mèliés 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 Mèliés 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 Mèliés’ 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 Mèliés cast himself as William Travis (and director John Ford’s older brother Francis played Davy Crockett). Students from the Peacock Academy, a San Antonio military institute, played both Texian and Mexican soldiers.

It’s a big state, but a small world.

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In January issue of Texas Highways, which we’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.

I’m particularly interested in the upcoming Whooping Crane Festival in Port Aransas (February 23-26)—not only because I love Port A, but also because I admire the birds’ 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.

Texas’ 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 hadn’t conducted a formal survey yet, but they’re estimating that 75% of the population has already arrived, with more trickling in every day. They’ll stay in Texas through March or April, depending on weather conditions.

I’m fascinated by the fact that it’s possible (not likely, but possible nonetheless) to spy these birds during migration—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 larger—more than four feet tall (the tallest birds in North America!)— and are solid white, except for black wing tips that are visible only when they’re flying.

I hope to get to the Port A region sometime this winter to see them. See arannwr_0081www.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 artists’ studios throughout East Austin over two weekends. It’s the Tour’s 10th anniversary, and it’s amazing to me to think about how it’s grown from a grassroots effort with 28 studios on tour to this year’s veritable art party.

City Park (Dallas, TX), 2008, by David LeonardI 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 photorealist’s attention to detail with the warmth and vibrancy of an Impressionist. His work is frequently featured at Austin’s Davis Gallery, but it’s fun to see his works in a home setting, and to study where and how he works.

That’s part of the appeal of the tour for me—to witness the art-making process and setting of each artist. So I’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.

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