This is a small film festival.
Of course, Marfa, TX (pop. 2000) doesn’t have anywhere close to the resources for a large-scale festival, but the precise implications of its smallness did not become clear until I arrived at the opening party. I saw more dogs than celebrities. In fact, this might be the most dog friendly film festival in the world. Someone in my group thought that a short, bearded man might be someone notable, but this seemed more aspirational than anything: after all film festivals are supposed to prime opportunities for celeb gawking, right?
The dinner provided by the festival’s organizers consisted of sausage wraps, pico de gallo, potato salad, and tequila and grapefruit cocktails heavy on the grapefruit. It was a decidedly Texan affair. My editor’s last ditch effort to get me press credentials seems laughable. After an hour, it felt like I might have met or at least made eye contact with everyone attending the festival, and the following night and morning seem to confirm that suspicion.
I see the same people standing in line at the porta-potty, asking locals for directions, picking up our festival badges (printed on blocks of wood), petting the same dogs, reading the same edition of the Big Bend Sentinel, going back for another tequila grapefruit cocktail, etc. The organizers – one of which, while swinging a bottle of tequila, told me his unofficial title was “shadow emperor” – billed the festival as a family getting together to celebrate film, and that sounds accurate.
Marfa’s identity as a destination for artists and the grandeur of the surrounding landscape makes it ideal locale for film watching. The opening film, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, from writer/director David Lowery was shown under the big, bright stars of the Texas night on an inflatable screen provided by the Alamo Drafthouse.
With its Malick-inspired lyricism and minimal plot, the film could not quite live up to its backdrop but did have seriously thrilling moments. Casey Affleck stars as Bob, a criminal trying to reunite with his wife Ruth, played by Rooney Mara, and his daughter Sylvie. Both give admirable and reserved performances, but Affleck is perhaps punching out of his weight class. He has a knack for choosing work but is more suited to be that coward Robert Ford than band-leader Jesse James.
I am staying at El Cosmico, a “Bunkhouse hotel” opened by Austin-based entrepreneur and hotelier Liz Lambert. Unless you can set up tents on the beaches of Cannes, I doubt there are other film festivals out there where you can came so close to the festivities. For the sake of accurate reporting, El Cosmico is best described as a camping site for hipsters. There are teepees, renovated trailers and bicycles to rent. The blue-tiled lobby is decorated with mid-century modern couches and animal print rugs. Every open outlet is taken by someone trying to charge his or her iPhone, and an iPod plays an eclectic mix of Fleet Foxes, Loretta Lynn and little Eddie Veddar ukulele diddies.
A distressed bird, whose eeeee-eeeee-EEEEEEEUPH call sounded like the air being let of a children’s toy, woke me up early, but the free wi-fi and coffee provided in the lobby should keep me awake for todays films.