AFF 2013: Vintage Austin Double Feature

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AFF 2013

Austin Film Festival may be well behind us, but I am still thinking about some older Texas films at the fest that I stumbled upon almost accidentally. As I was planning my schedule for the Sunday of the fest on Saturday night, I noticed some oddly named films at the Rollins with descriptions that included "Texas independent film." I ended up skipping My Man Godfrey (which I can watch any time) to see what this screening was about.

All I knew about Invasion of the Aluminum People (1980) and Speed of Light (1981) were that apparently Jonathan Demme liked them, since he was going to "present" them. I assumed "presenting" meant he would do a nice intro, then scoot, as is typical at many such events.

The theater was about halfway full and I was one of the younger audience members. Later I would learn that many people in the audience had worked on one of the two films, or provided music, or been in a band with someone involved with the film. Both films employed a lot of musicians as their cast and crew. Well, it was Austin in 1980, I kind of assumed most of the people living here were musicians (or claimed to be). Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater sat a couple of rows in front of me, and I took that as a good omen -- this must be worthwhile.

Jonathan Demme and Louis Black took the stage to introduce the two short films. Apparently Black showed them to Demme back in 1981, and he liked them so much that the two put together a screening in New York with a few other Austin indies. Demme engaged the filmmakers to work on Stop Making Sense, and used some audio and footage from these films in the background of Something Wild. David Boone, who directed Invasion of the Aluminum People, died in 2001. Brian Hansen, who made Speed of Light, died in 1987.

Invasion of the Aluminum People was shot primarily in Dallas, although I thought I saw a glimpse of the Paramount and Congress Avenue, and the State Capitol. Its non-narrative plot was obviously heavily influenced by the Church of the Subgenius, something I hadn't thought about since my college days. It's in black and white and a lot of the sound is asynchronous. It was shot on Super 8.

I was more absorbed in Speed of Light, which had a stronger semblance of narrative. It's set in the early 1960s, is shot in very striking color, and focuses on a young mother who appears to be running away from something in her (fabulous) convertible, and finds herself stranded in a small Texas town (which I believe might have been Taylor).

One of the film's writers, Paul Cullen (pictured at top with Demme) was at the screening and shared a number of details after the screening -- for instance, the sun footage was part of NASA's Apollo footage, the same used in For All Mankind. The lead actress was Austin musician Sally Norvell, then of The Norvells. I wasn't the only person taken with her wig in the film -- "the wig itself is a character," Black noted -- which was meant to evoke Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy.

Several other audience members chimed in about their experiences on one or both of the other films -- it was a cozy atmosphere, and the small Rollins theater felt more like a bull session in someone's very large basement than a public screening. The crowd spilled out into the lobby after the screening and just kept chatting.

Jonathan Demme closed by noting that "These are major American films." If so, I wish we had more opportunities to see them. Texas Independent Film Network screened Speed of Light a few years ago around Texas, but it would be great to have more access to these and other earlier Texas indies.

For more details about the films, check out a preview Louis Black wrote in the Austin Chronicle. Or you might enjoy browsing the blog Aluminum People, which contains a lot of ephemera -- scanned newspaper articles, etc. -- about both films and their filmmakers.

[Photo credit: "Jonathan Demme and Paul Cullen, AFF 2013" by J. Kernion, all rights reserved.]