Walk into a room, sit in a chair, don an Oculus headset and bam: you're in the back seat of a car driven by the parents of a gay man who has died. Part video game, part short film, Queerskins: a love story is a 15-minute virtual reality experience where visitors become collaborators in the storytelling.
Richard Herskowitz, artistic director for Houston Cinema Arts Festival, says the installation is one of the best things in this year's film fest. "You are equipped to reach in the back seat and pick up things, [there are] scrapbook materials you can read. The chair you sit on evokes the feeling of a moving car. It’s an impressive use of the latest technology and most of all it’s very moving."
This isn't the first year that HCAF has experimented with immersive cinema: In 2016 they presented Fulldome Dance and Animation at The Houston Museum of Natural Science Planetarium and in 2012 viewers floated underneath Vanessa Renwick’s Medusa Smack jellyfish screen.
But when it came to virtual reality, Herskowitz always found it frustrating and isolating, in defiance of the festival experience which should be collective. But new technology that sparked sales at Sundance Film Festival this year, a VR theater space called The Box, changed all that by simultaneously running 360 video-sync technology on multiple headsets and allowing everybody in the audience to share the same experience.
That shiny new technology is a big component in this year's HCAF. Organizers have built a 360 Cinema theater space at Silver Street Studios and will show six short films that explore strange new worlds, dance, music and animation. It's so effective, however, that those susceptible to motion sickness might experience some discomfort.
Art, music and big screen blockbusters also have strong showings at this year's festival. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is screening a film about comedy writer Steve Young's passion for forgotten albums in Bathtubs Over Broadway, the Julian Schnabel directed flick about Vincent Van Gogh and starring Willem Dafoe in At Eternity's Gate, the Natalie Portman-Jude Law vehicle Vox Lux and a behind-the-green-curtain look at art world secrets in The Price of Everything.
Herskowitz also has some Oscar predictions. "Closing night [at MFAH] is Green Book starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. It’s going to be a phenomenon when it’s released. [At the Toronto Film Festival] it won the audience prize over A Star is Born; it was the audience favorite. I sat in an industry screening and people applauded afterwards. That never happens; they're more jaded," says Herskowitz. "It was so funny, so moving, so well acted. It knocked everybody out. It will be an Academy contender."
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Herskowitz also puts writer-director Alfonso Cuarón's Roma on the short list of Oscar favorites. "I don't know if a better film is going to come out in the next year. It’s being released by Netflix and they recognize that people need to see this on the big screen, so in several cities with high quality projection they’re allowing it to be shown."
We did mention music. In addition to a concert at White Oak Music Hall showcasing the soundtracks of Richard Linklater, the HCAF schedule includes Maria by Callas, Das Alte Gesetz (silent film with live musical accompaniment), The Low Turn Row: A Journey in Time (based on photos taken by Wendy Watriss and Frederick Baldwin in Grimes County, where Blues great Mance Lipscomb was born), and A Thousand Thoughts (live documentary with the Kronos Quartet).
The festival has just announced the 15 finalists for CineSpace 2018, narrowed down from more than 250 submissions of films that utilize NASA-captured imagery. Directors competing for the $26,000 in total prize money are Orest Smylanets, Edgar Salas, Elena Franco, Elisabeth McKeon, Graham Uhelski, Sarah Hickey, Kevin Hughes, Stela Subashi, Charles Baldwin, Neta Ben Ezra, Kamil Dymek, Horacio Rodriguez, Susan Spano, Aidan Brezonick, Jan Turek, Prokop Jelinek and Karsten Pruehl. Winners will be selected by Academy Award-nominated director Richard Linklater and announced during the November 10 screening.
Houston Cinema Arts Festival is scheduled for November 8-12 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Rice Media Center, White Oak Music Hall, Brasil, Silver Street Studios, Poitín, Moody Center for the Arts, Asia Society Texas Center and Aurora Picture Show, cinemahtx.org, free to $21.