This is the first in a series of posts about food and film, and how the two have similar artistic goals, production strategies and relationships with community. I include video when using the term, film. The series is leading toward March 28 when we will present a public art performance that includes film screenings and a nine-course chef’s tasting menu.
Ownership in Food and Film
One thing that film and food have in common is ownership, aesthetic and financial. Aesthetic ownership refers to the fact that the film represents the filmmaker’s ideas and that its structure is personally crafted to best express those ideas. Financial ownership is simply who owns the rights to the film, usually whoever put up the money for the production. Most film and video artists fiercely want both aesthetic and financial ownership. This because financial control implies aesthetic control and filmmakers cherish their independence in the making of a film, its content and structure. The independent film movement and the micro-cinema movement both are driven by the need to preserve and promote independent personal visions and freedom. The financing schemes of corporate-controlled Hollywood are geared toward formulaic, homogenized formats, so different from the more personal and distinctive productions of independent and micro-cinema.
Grassroots Ownership, SWAMP
In Houston there is an organization that for 36 years has been working with individual artists who want ownership, both aesthetic and financial, and helps them negotiate financing. This means that at one time or another the artist or his work must deal with not only financial institutions but also social, political and religious establishments, the existing power centers.
The Southwest Alternate Media Project is historically connected to all of the great independent filmmakers of Texas and the Southwest, including Richard Linklater (Slackers) and even earlier, Eagle Pennel whose work, The Whole Shootin’ Match, was heralded by Robert Redford as the example of what independent film could be in the USA.
What is the secret of SWAMP’s success? It always works in ways that are in keeping with two words in its name: “Alternate,” and “Project.”
The programs and services that it offers are “alternate,” far from the centers of power that most often attempt to control the artistic voice. SWAMP provides technical training for grassroots, always emerging and economically disadvantaged, voices. It opens up social spaces where ideas and new works can find expression. It works tirelessly to develop audiences for works whose world view is personal, certainly the alternate to the homogenous mainstream formats.
It has always remained a “project,” an ongoing, non-establishment process of a community. Its identity as a “project” means that it deploys a coherent strategy that identifies vitality and promotes relationships. It is remarkable that SWAMP still has offices in a miniscule A-frame house that is modest to a fault and in no way advertises the nurturing, substantial power that it exercises in the independent video and film community. I have often heard predictions, over the past 36 years, that SWAMP would cease to exist because its administrative structure is too flexible and its connections to the power establishment too tenuous. But the opposite has happened. SWAMP has found a way to relate effectively to the centers of power while garnering respect for not wanting to get too close. The success of independent visions and microcinema in the region is due, to a significant extent, to SWAMP maintaining its status as alternate and as a project. Now what does this have in common with food?
Artists and Food
When interviewing Chef Johnny Hernandez, Chef Owner of La Gloria in San Antonio, I heard the voice of an artist. Similar to a filmmaker, he cherishes his independent vision and his freedom to create culinary dishes that are an authentic expression of himself personally and of his community. A successful dish depends on the chef having aesthetic control over the food: the ingredients, the culinary techniques employed, and the presentation as it meets the guest. Making reference to Texas Mexican food, he explains that the cuisine has acquired a badly distorted, inauthentic image because of “the commercialization by a handful of operators.”
The cooks in these corporate-controlled chain restaurants do not have aesthetic ownership of the food. There is a diminished connection between the cook’s touch and the cuisine. Referring to the cherished cook’s touch, Hernandez explains that “When you look at an industrialized, commercialized product, you lose it in volume.”
Chef Hernandez is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and his resume includes impressive culinary leadership in hotels and restaurants across the US. But he returned to settle in his hometown, San Antonio. He exemplifies a new generation of Chicana and Chicano chefs, classically trained, duty-bound to artful technique and aesthetically rooted in the tastes and textures of the Mexican American community of Central and South Texas. He calls for inventing financing schemes that will lead to more Mexican American chef/owners, thus closing the gap between the food and the artist. The food will then be more personal and genuine, just what a filmmaker wants.