Cowboys and Controversy
By Marc Savlov
MAY 11, 1998: Austin filmmaker Kyle Henry's hour-long documentary American Cowboy - which screens next Wednesday at the Alamo Drafthouse as part of the ongoing Texas Documentary Tour - takes a look into the world of gay rodeo competitions, and in particular the trials of rider Gene Mikulenka, a Houston-based, semi-closeted rodeo star with more on his mind than just busting broncs. It's a noteworthy glimpse into the phenomenon of the International Gay Rodeo Association, a gay and lesbian group that exists in the shadows of the more staid and straight rodeo associations that are generally better known. Henry's film, however, tackles a lot more than just gender politics and roping calves. Using Mikulenka as its Everyman, American Cowboy examines family, friendship, pride, and prejudice with a light touch that's at once steadily disarming and deeply engrossing. It's a story of Old West traditions moving - sometimes kicking and screaming - into the Nineties, and new traditions coming into play.
On an even more provocative note, Henry is at the vanguard of the movement to reinstate the University of Texas' Union Film Program, a student-led movement that has become something of a cause célèbre both in Austin and around the country, pitting the university against its own student body.
I spoke with Henry about his work on not only American Cowboy, but also upcoming projects for John Pierson's Split Screen (a weekly show that airs every Monday at 7pm on the Independent Film Channel - Henry's piece will be included in this week's May 11 episode) and the ongoing (and extremely emotional) controversy over UT Austin's canceling of the lauded Texas Union Film Program.
Austin Chronicle: You came out of the UT Film Department, right?
Kyle Henry: I'm in the last year of the graduate film program there.
AC: What had you done before American Cowboy?
KH: Well, for my undergrad, I went to Rice and did a film called Pop Love while I was there. That was a black comedy, a domestic melodrama, 65 minutes long, shot on black-and-white 16mm. It did really horribly, and very few people have seen it. Thank god. I also shot a couple of shorts while I was there, but that was about it.
AC: How did American Cowboy come about? Had you been interested in doing a documentary?
AC: Had you been aware of the IGRA [International Gay Rodeo Association] before reading the article?
KH: Nothing. I kind of knew there was a group called IGRA just from going to gay bars and stuff, but I didn't know what it was or what it was about. I thought it was some sort of... well, I didn't know what the hell it was, but I did not know that it was an actual, professional rodeo association.
Originally, I thought the film was going to be a 24-minute piece, but so many things happened along the way and I just kept shooting and shooting and shooting - maybe it was the fact that it was my first documentary and I just didn't know to stop - but I wasn't shooting for an hour length when I started it. It was only about halfway through - when we had already shot like 20 hours of footage - that I knew that the plot structure of the film could already handle an hour. It's weird, though, because some people have said it should be shorter and some people have said that it should be longer. No one's ever satisfied.
I had taken a class at Rice on Western Genre Films, and so I sort of knew what all those classic Westerns were up to, and the revisionist Westerns that were done on those same themes, and that's kind of what I saw an opportunity to do with the documentary. It was a way to take classic Western imagery and maybe turn it on its head a little bit and subvert it through this one character.
AC: Had you always been interested in Westerns?
KH: I'm interested in every type of film, but as far as Westerns go, I really like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, High Noon, and ambivalently The Searchers. I love parts of that film, but it is such a racist movie that I cringe at certain parts. It's so racist that it's kind of like disgusting so I kind of forgive it, you know? John Wayne is just so evil in that. You can even take a film like Aguirre: The Wrath of God and call it a Western just by identifying the different genre elements. Did you see The Big Lebowski? That film is sort of like a cross between the noir and Western genres, replacing Philip Marlowe with a pot smoker who not only doesn't know what the mystery is but doesn't even care what it is.
AC: How did you get the financing for American Cowboy? Did you back it yourself?
KH: No. I had two administrative assistants at Rice University who I would have coffee with all the time. When I was back in Houston over Christmas, I just sort of mentioned this idea to them and said, "Boy, wouldn't it be great to have my own producer." And they said, "Well, we'll do it," not even knowing what the hell they were agreeing to, and so they sort of became the producers of the film. They had connections with some wealthy, gay community types, and would throw little parties and such and show various cuts of the film, and the money just sort of came in. Before that, I had met Elizabeth Peters from the Austin Film Society [former managing director] when I went to get the film sponsored by the AFS. Elizabeth kind of acted like the film psychologist. I would go to her and say, like, "Ohmigod, the film is falling apart and I don't know what I'm doing," and she would help provide the guidelines I needed to keep on course: how to set up a DBA, what kind of accounting I should be doing, they filtered the money that was coming in, they kind of just monitored the progress and helped me out anyway they could. They were also really helpful in suggesting other grants to apply for. Half the business with grants is knowing that they even exist because they're such a secret society.
AC: I heard you were working on some stuff for John Pierson's Split Screen. What's going on with that?
KH: Yeah, that's myself and this guy Spencer Parsons, who's a first-year MFA student at UT. That's what my next project is about: the closing of the Union Film Program. Now it's branched out more into how that's representative of how the University of Texas works as a bureaucracy and what, exactly, are UT's priorities (especially from the top down), and how it's reflected in the decisions they make, and how student power has changed over the last 20 and 30 years.
AC: And how has it changed?
KH: It's become consumers versus citizens. I think that students have been positioned by universities to be passive, to not know what their rights are, to not know even what to expect out of a university education, and they've even been positioned as bad consumers. $2.8 million is collected in student fees for the Texas Union [at UT-Austin], and that money is supposedly going for programs that benefit students culturally. In their [UT's] founding statement, that money is supposed to be set aside to promote democracy and broad culture and all this mumbo-jumbo, but it's not. When the film program was closed down, even in the worst year - which was last year - close to 20,000 people went to the program. Still, it lost $30,000. The reason it lost that money was because it was suddenly designated as a "revenue center" by the university (which it never had been in the past - before last year it was just a "program"). That was something the university just came up with out of thin air.
AC: Why would they do that?
KH: Well, one of the things I'm now finding out is the disdain mid-level management at the University of Texas holds for the students there. They don't know why the students are there. I think people who have day-after-day contact (like the administrators of departments, faculty, and so on), they're connected to the students; but mid-level management (like the Vice President of Student Affairs and various different people like that) I don't think they have a clue what they're there for. When they are actually confronted with students who ask them questions, pointed questions about budgets and such, they freak out, they cannot handle students questioning their authority. They'll hold these meetings where they'll talk to you but they won't give you any answers, they'll just give you the runaround. And that seems to be all they're good for.
AC: It sounds like a very corporate mentality at work there.
KH: Yeah. That's the problem with universities. They are becoming more and more corporate. They don't have the kind of mission that they've had, that they had after WWII, where they were educating citizens. They're just imposing these rigid values on you and the values are how to be a good consumer. Or how to be a mindless consumer, which is the best consumer of all, the one who buys, buys, buys without questioning.
It's really disgusting. The more and more we dig, the more horrible stuff we find.
AC: How did you get caught up in this whole debacle in the first place?
KH: I worked at the Union as a projectionist over the summer and also I was one of the programmers for CinemaTexas (the short film festival that's run at UT), and that's when we found out what was happening with the program. But by then I was so busy with my film, and so exhausted, that I couldn't keep track of everything. There were about 30-40 students last semester who were doing the day-to-day battling to keep that film program alive, and then at the very last minute, they came to me and asked if I would grab a bullhorn and head up this final rally at the Union.
Up to that point, I had been wanting to videotape the whole mess, but I didn't really know why. I didn't have a rational reason to do it, but it just struck me as something that was necessary. In the end, I decided not to film the protests, but luckily other people did. And that's one of the things that the documentary is allowing me to do, is to do some sort of activism that I wouldn't be able to do as a film student. As a grad student, if it's not specifically your project, you're usually so overwhelmed with your own stuff that you barely have time to keep up with everything else.
This film has allowed me to keep an eye on the university and simultaneously annoy the hell out of some people and agitate for the film program.
AC: Is the university aware that this film is going to be run on national cable television?
KH: Yeah, they are. They've got some sort of mole in our group, too.
KH: I'm serious. They've got someone at the Union that apparently signed up to our Film Society e-mail list as a mole and they've been intercepting our mailings and sending out their own - university-wide - warning people against our salacious propaganda and how it's all untrue.
AC: Are you concerned about personal repercussions from the university?
KH: I don't give a shit. Those fuckers deserve everything they get and anyway, I have nothing to take away. What are they gonna take away from me, my CD collection? My 10 CDs? No. Not at all. My department certainly isn't going to do anything to me - they love what I'm doing. It's actually doing something that I'm personally involved in and care about and is going to make a better film.
AC: How did you hook up with John Pierson?
KH: Spencer called him the week before the protest and said hey, I think this would make a really good segment for Split Screen. Pierson wasn't really interested at that time, but later he changed his mind and asked us to put together something. I don't think he quite expected what we gave him, which is a pretty complete piece. It's a lot more than just the normal magazine-type bit.
AC: How long is it?
KH: It's six-and-a-half minutes. And it incorporates some of Luke Savisky's installation footage - old corporate training films about how to fuck with your employees - into the body of the piece. Those damn things are so apropos to the way the University of Texas runs. They're like the backbone of the piece, cutting from interviews with university representatives to these industrial films and so on. The industrial films become the embodiment of the university, and actually articulately lay out the plan and the strategy and the framework of the university's actions against its students.
I think when we're done with the longer version - the full documentary on the university, as opposed to just the Pierson piece - it should be something like Philip Marlowe meets Thomas Pynchon. We'll start off investigating one small case, i.e. the Union Film Program, and that will open up like an octopus into all these other areas which will then reveal this overarching structure behind the University's machinations.
AC: So does this mean documentaries are now your forte, or are you going to move into narrative work?
KH: I don't know. I started out in drama, and I was actually a history major, but I did a lot of theatre. I hope - to take somebody as an example - to be like, say, John Schlesinger or Lindsey Anderson, who began in documentary and documentaries sort of shaped the way that they saw the world, and them moved on to having political and social concerns within their narrative work. I definitely want to move in that direction. We want to bring confrontation back to filmmaking. The camera is a weapon.
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