When I initially asked about the appeal of Marfa, Texas, the answers were a bit thin on substance. I heard words like “quirky”, “artsy” and “eclectic” to describe the town NPR calls an “unlikely oasis”. But when I asked “Why?” I received a good amount of hemming and hawing before being told that I just had to go—like it was an elusive quest of some kind. So, since the Marfa Film Festival was returning from its two-year hiatus I packed up my almost-mature kids and took the 6 ½ hour drive to the wide open spaces of west Texas, where classic films like Giant and more recently No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood were shot, just a horseshoe’s throw from Big Bend National Park and the Mexican border.
The first thing that hits you is its diminutive size; Marfa maintains a steady population of about 2000. In spite of that challenge, the town’s restaurants and food trailers still receive rave reviews from the likes of The New York Times, which has often published stories about the town. A couple of standouts include Fat Lyle’s fried chicken and Cochineal’s chilaquiles. Our choice of accommodations was easy—the 80-year-old Hotel Paisano where the cast and crew of 1956’s Giant stayed, including Elizabeth Taylor (we spent the week in her suite—an extreme treat for my daughter), Rock Hudson and James Dean. There’s even a small museum near the lobby with Giant paraphernalia. (The town, and the festival, still attracts the celebs. This year, Elijah Wood dropped in just for the fun of it.) The hotel was also film fest headquarters with wee hour conversations being held around the courtyard fountain. We made one journey to nearby McDonald Observatory where we could clearly see Saturn’s rings through the powerful telescopes.
The festival melds well with the artistic eccentricity of the town, brought on in no small part by Minimalist artist Donald Judd, whose numerous works were created in and around the town until his death in 1994. Others have picked up on the trend, an example being the Prada store (there is no way to go inside) out on U.S. Route 90 and more recently (and not without controversy) a modelized Dodge Charger alongside a neon Playboy bunny just outside the city limits. It all appears to be a badge of honor for the small town, and for the festival whose events included a middle-of-the-night viewing of the mysterious “Marfa Lights” emanating from local mountains, and a closing-night Holi Party replete with Indian colored dust. Festival founder Robin Lambaria and her stalwart volunteers kept things loose enough so their act could never be confused with the big boy fests like SXSW. Mission accomplished!
Across from the hotel, a local thrift store hosted the web’s Funny or Die folks, where comedy writers handed out instant jokes from an old typewriter. Mine alluded to the difficulties of actually making it to the fest’s films because of the relaxing distractions around us. Still, I did see some terrific films. The reviews are below. Interestingly (or quirkily?) when I finally left Marfa my question of “Why?” was simply replaced with “Why not?”
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
Director: David Lowery
Stars: Rooney Mara, Ben Foster, Casey Affleck, Keith Carradine
The slow-burning fuse on this intriguing Texas tale from writer/director David Lowery does lead to an explosive end. And the performances are for the most part solid, especially Rooney Mara who plays Ruth, the wife of an outlaw (Casey Affleck) who escapes from prison to reunite with her and the daughter he has never seen. Affleck gives the usual, slightly off-center performance that he’s known for. But who cares when he continually does it so well? Ben Foster, as the local sheriff who shows an interest in Ruth and her girl, once again takes a modest role and turns it into a brilliant character study. (See 3:10 To Yuma, where he outshines both Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.) Saints’ slow pace does falter occasionally—something easily overlooked, though, with its strong cast and exceptional cinematography.
The Taiwan Oyster
Director: Mark Jarrett
Stars: Billy Harvey, Jeff Palmiotti, Leonora Moore
Set on Taiwan’s majestic east coast, The Taiwan Oyster could be a dream—a dream that feels almost real, but still surreal enough to confirm you’re sleeping. There’s a melancholic gloom about it, and the scenery looks almost too mystical to be true. The narrative moves strangely from place to place, forming a rite of passage for strangers in a foreign land. These strangers are Simon (Billy Harvey) and Daron (Jeff Palmiotti), American twenty-somethings who teach kindergarten in Taiwan and, in their time off, drink heavily to fill a void of purpose in their lives. When a fellow “countryman” dies in an accident, the two best friends, indifferent toward their future, set off to give him a proper burial, and their lovely new friend, Nikita (Leonora Moore), joins them, slowly falling for Simon along the way. Director Mark Jarrett, who wrote the script with his brother Mitchell and Jordan Heimer, paces the story warily and builds an eerie momentum toward the unpredictable finale. Exploring meaning and spirituality, Jarrett entrances us enough visually to look past the supercilious dialogue, but it sometimes becomes too much to bear, as does the bleak concept that fills the vision—a concept that believes in no rock bottom but, instead an unending ocean of unhappiness. --David Roark
Hide Your Smiling Faces
Director: Daniel Patrick Carbone
Stars: Ryan Jones, Nathan Vamson, Colm O’Leary
In spite of comparisons to Stephen King’s Stand By Me, writer/director Daniel Patrick Carbone’s look at the rural lives of young boys touched by death is much darker than King’s story, which is saying a lot. In classic Hitchcock form Carbone takes us to the edge in numerous scenes, causing us to squirm in suspense. It is a talent, to be sure. But Carbone uses it relentlessly. By the time the film is over I am exhausted from the constant anticipation. I still haven’t decided if that’s a good thing.
Emanuel and the Truth about Fishes
Director: Francesca Gregorini
Stars: Jessica Biel, Kaya Scodelario, Alfred Molina, Frances O’Connor
While watching this splendid story of a confused teen searching for sanity I found myself thinking back to Donnie Darko, the film that jacked up Jake Gyllenhaal’s career a decade ago. But maybe the comparisons are related more to the films’ general atmosphere rather than to the stories themselves. Emanuel, a girl with a boy’s name, wonderfully played by newcomer Kaya Scodelario, has serious issues with her mother, who died while giving birth to her. A beautiful woman with a baby moves in next door and Emanuel immediately bonds with her in spite of (or maybe because of) the woman’s very strange secret, a secret that Emanuel is determined to protect. Jessica Biel shows a side I have not seen from her, a little reminiscent of Bette Davis’ dynamic performance in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?
Director: Bastian Günther
Stars: Ulrich Tukur, Garret Dillahunt, Wolfram Koch
While trying to meet and talk with an extremely private and well-guarded oil company CEO in Houston a German headhunter’s (Ulrich Tukur) personal life begins to unravel in this often-times-hilarious but too-often-tedious film. Writer/director Bastian Günther demonstrates an excellent touch with comedy and uses it well with Tukur and Garret Dillahunt (Burt in TV’s Raising Hope). But the film doesn’t seem to want to be a comedy, dark or otherwise. And the drama falls flat.
Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction
Director: Sophie Huber
Stars: Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Sam Shepard, Kris Kristofferson
I recall Luke Wilson telling me in an interview about his run-ins with Harry Dean Stanton while directing him in The Wendell Baker Story. “Look…I’m a highly fucking trained, professional actor,” Stanton told Wilson. While the almost-90-year-old is a bit less cantankerous in Partly Fiction, the stories he and others share make for a delightful documentary. Stanton’s personal and working relationships with masters like Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson have earned the actor the respect of Hollywood and left him with quite a few stories to tell. Kris Kristofferson relates, for example, how Harry Dean blamed an innocent Bob Dylan after being chewed out by director Sam Peckinpah for ruining a scene in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. One of the best film industry documentaries I’ve ever seen.
Paris, Texas (1984)
Director: Wim Wenders
Stars: Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell, Nastassia Kinski
It had been a decade or two since I had last seen this classic, the perfect accompaniment to Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction. A sudden shower during the outdoor screening only enhanced the experience of seeing Paris, Texas again. The late, great Roger Ebert did a lovely analysis of the film in 2002.
An Oversimplification of her Beauty
Director: Terence Nance
Writer/director Nance is an incredibly insightful and thorough filmmaker. And my gut says he’s much more talented than I presently realize. While Oversimplification is in the end a love story, rarely have I seen universally shared emotions broken down so well in all their stark and uncomfortable layers. At times, however, those numerous layers of self-analysis and expansive explanations push me near the point of sensory overload—something that could be blamed on my own processing abilities, or lack thereof.
Troian Bellisario (Pretty Little Liars) stars in, and wrote, this interesting “what if” exercise as it relates to a classic love story. Shane Coffey, also from Pretty Little Liars, co-stars in the beautifully filmed short set in and around a dilapidated trailer in the desert. Bellisario’s emotional performance stands out as the two lovers’ optimism wanes.
I am John Wayne
Sometimes a single image can cement an entire story. In this case, the shot of a black, headphone-wearing teen riding a horse down an inner city street immediately has me hooked. With brevity of dialogue, director Christina Choe allows the action to define the relationship between Taco (Jamir Daaliya) and a horse after the death of Taco’s best friend in what was my favorite short of the festival.
The surprising thing about this film is that most of its beauty comes from the famed flamenco guitarist’s words rather than from his music.
See the Dirt
It’s always endearing to watch kids in the throes of their childhood pastimes. Scott the vacuum collector, however, has turned his pastime into a real passion, and most likely a career in this engaging story.
Set It Off
There’s no storyline to this short. Just some incredible imagery centered around a stripper’s pole that extends infinitely into space as the music of Diplo pounds out the pace.
The Love Competition
How deep is your love? A Stanford lab uses high tech imaging to find out as they check the neurobiological pathways of a wide sampling of people. The winner was only slightly surprising. But message to the filmmakers: We all wanted to know who came in last!
Photos by Joey Basham