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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Bleary Eyes of Texas BY STEVEN KELLMAN WORLDFEST-HOUSTON: THE 26th ANNUAL HOUSTON INTERNATIONAL FILM & VIDEO FESTIVAL WEN THE 25TH annual edition of WorldFest, the Houston International Film and Video Festival, began in April 1992, so, too, did the L.A. riots. While South Central burned, ticket sales in. Montrose froze. Neither Jim Jarmusch’ s Night on Earth nor 137 other features could compete with days in hell beamed by TV into the home. It costs approximately $1,000 to screen each feature, and, while a few devoted cinephiles were developing red eyes and blue bottoms, WorldFest 1992 was wallowing in red ink. :Blood flowed in Bosnia and Waco during April 16-25, 1993, but WorldFest finished its 26th run solvent and sanguine. Founder and director J. Hunter Todd reports that attendance at individual screenings was up 200-300 percent over last year. The fact that there were fewer offerings probably helped. “After 15 years in this city,” said Todd, who had accompanied his moveable festival to Miami, Atlanta, and the Virgin Islands before settling in Texas, “I filially realized that Houston does not have the huge base of film buffs there are in Toronto.” Although Todd still claims that his is the planet’s largest film festival in terms of entries, he has reduced the roster of works actually shown to 70 features and about 100 shorts and videos. Houston is not Toronto or New York, Berlin, Venice, Cannes, Telluride, or Sundance but, after years of berating the Bayou City for its philistinism, Todd has produced a festival that even Houston can support. Like the metropolis itself, WorldFest sprawls. Although Todd has lessened the number of venues, a viewer still must choose among simultaneous offerings at the Museum of Fine Arts and at each of three rooms in Greenway Plaza. Two years ago, Todd proclaimed global ambitions by renaming his Houston extravaganza WorldFest. Though 1991 and 1992 offered a sumptuous sampling of works from abroad, literacy was less obligatory to enjoy WorldFest 1993; subtitles were rare among this year’s fare. In fact, of its 70 features, 46 were produced entirely or in part in the United States. The percentage of foreigners among the shorts was even lower. Although it opened with a Mexican morsel, Like Water for Chocolate, and included Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative liter ature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. entries from China, Ireland, Israel, Senegal, Spain and Turkey, among others, WorldFest 1993 was not quite the World Series of cinema. A Houston production received the most hoopla, a world premiere bathed in champagne and klieg lights. Directors J. Douglas Killgore and Neil Havens, stars Sam Bottoms, Karen Black, and Harold Suggs, and scores of blacktied local extras showed up for the gala debut of The Trust, which dramatizes how Captain James S. Baker grandfather of the Foggy Bottom Bush-man solved the 1900 murder of William Marsh Rice and thereby saved his lavish legacy for the founding of a university that now stands a few blocks from the screening room. Unnatural Pursuits, a British import written by playwright Simon Gray and starring Alan Bates, was shot in part in Texas. The Killing Box, a supernatural Civil War thriller directed by George Hickenlooper was -not, but producer Fred Kuehnert returned home to Houston for its premiere. In a short called Marfa Lights, a man and his uncle drive west from Dallas to seek illumination in the starry sky and their disappointed lives. The programmers of this year’s WorldFest-Houston knew their place. Todd advertises his annual event as an opportunity to “discover the Demmes and Spielbergs of tomorrow.” Todd has brought Jonathan Demme and Steven Spielberg, as well as George Lucas and David Lynch, through the Harris County flatlands on their way to the Hollywood Hills. Festivals are, among much else, cinematic Texas Leagues, a Midland on the route to Cooperstown. But not every director wishes upon Star Wars, and the Houston festival has also offered early exposure to notable offHollywood features, including Babette’s Feast, Blood Simple, Diva, Gregory’s Girl, Longtime Companion and Return of the Secaucus Seven. Festivals are marketplaces, where producers, distributors, and exhibitors make contacts and even deals, but, in the era of McTheater, they are also often the only home for foreign films, shorts, nonfiction features, and fictional features with unconventional twists or unbankable stars. The distributors of Lethal Weapon 15 do not need a festival, but viewers desperate for alternative images do. WorldFest 1993 revealed the powerful talent of Nick Broomfield, a documentarian who manages to become part of his own fascinating studies. In Chicken Ranch, the smarmy owner of a Nevada brothel evicts Broomfield for running his camera while an errant employee is run out. Driving Me Crazy records the attempt to mount a lavish musical and to make a film about it, even when funding is withdrawn and participants become hostile toward the filmmaker. In his latest, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, Broomfield becomes involved in reopening the case of a Florida woman framed for murder. A professional jury dispenses honors to WorldFest entries. In addition, viewers at each screening are handed a rating ballot to determine the festival’ s “People’ s Choice” awards. By press time, the jury but not the people had spoken. The best feature award went to House of Cards a drama, fueled by some of the same emotions as Lorenzo’s Oil, in which Kathleen Turner struggles valiantly, defying Tommy Lee Jones’ scientific presumptions, to retrieve her daughter from sudden autism. The performance earned Turner the best actress designation. Best director was Alan Rudolph, who, in Equinox, dramatizes how identical twins converge after 30 years of separation. Best actor was Corbin Bernsen, a haunted Confederate colonel in The Killing Box. Best screenplay was Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, which views the Mexican Revolution of 1910 through the prism of a hacienda kitchen. Gold Special Jury Awards went to The Trust, Bodies, Rest, and Motion which, starring Phoebe Cates, Bridget Fonda, Tim Roth and Eric Stoltz, follows twentysomethings through a weekend of revelations and Zebrahead Anthony Drazan’ s account of adolescent romance between a Jew and a black in Detroit. Sexual Healing, in which romance is telephonic, was deemed best short. Of hundreds of festivals held each year, WorldFest is, insists Todd, himself a former director, the only one run by filmmakers. That might account for a profusion of films about filmmakers. In the Soup, starring Steve Buscemi and Seymour Cassel, is a quirky tale about a penniless and hapless screenwriter who lands a gangster as his angel. In Tobias Meinecke’s The Contenders, two Eastern Europeans invade New York determined to succeed in show business. The medium is the theme in Brad Marlowe’ s The Webbers, which spoofs the disasters that befall a family when it serves as subject for “reality” .TV. In Me, Myself and I, screenwriter George Segal takes up with JoBeth Williams, a neighbor with multiple personality disorder. In his VeniceNenice, Henry Jaglom plays a director who falls in love with an attractive journalist assigned to interview him at a festival. Film festivals offer multiple attractions. 22 MAY 7, 1993