I wish I could be a fly on the wall when actor Ethan Hawke opens his thank you present for participating in this week’s Cinema Arts Festival Houston. How much fun it would be to watch his famous face light up with that recognizable grin and maybe even hear him chuckle a time or two because Houston film festival folks are so dang clever.
No ordinary gift or ho-hum statuette would do for him or any of the festival’s guest artists. It is, after all, an event that focuses on artists and naturally demands something unique, quirky and, well, artistic.
All 34 festival special guests will receive an individually unique, hand-carved and painted whistle.
Ethan Hawke’s whistle is a director’s chair carved from pine with a tiny Eiffel Tower and two keys resting on its seat because his film, A Woman in the Fifth, is set in Paris and hotel rooms play into the story where he becomes rather deranged.
They don’t look like whistles, and sometimes you have to look hard to find the whistle part, but these charming folk-artsy wooden sculptures were created by Connie Roberts, known to the art world as The Whistle Lady.
Many other notables around the world, including filmmaker Steven Spielberg, actresses Maggie Smith and Carrie Fisher, comedian Whoopi Goldberg, then-chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan, New York City’s longtime mayor Rudy Giuliani and world-renown cardiac surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey, have been lucky recipients of Robert’s art pieces.
Spielberg’s gift was in fact a whole lot of whistles incorporated into one big design. It was commissioned by the wife of famed film composer John Williams, who at the time had collaborated on 10 movies with the director. Spielberg’s sculpture included elements from all ten, mixed with a healthy dose of Robert's humor.
Of course, there is his shark from Jaws (a film reel opens and closes his mouth); there’s E.T.’s pointy finger and the signature hat of Indiana Jones. One whistle component would make an old Scrooge smile — a giant plate of mashed potatoes from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Don’t you just love it?
Robert’s art is shown and sold here at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft where Franci Crane, Cinema Arts Festival board chair and president, discovered the little wooden wonders.
“I frequently browse in its Asher Gallery for great gift ideas. Without exception my eyes are always drawn to Connie's fantastically whimsical whistles. They bring an enormous smile to my face," Crane says. "As The New York Times recently put it, ours is a film festival with a distinctive twist — it's by and about artists — visual, literary and performing. What better gift than to give our festival filmmakers a distinctively artistic gift.”
“Fun” plays a starring role in Robert’s whistles and she concentrates on bringing happiness to whistle owners through her wit and talent.
“I have loved woodworking since I was a kid messing around in the garage with my dad and older brother," she admits. "I have equally loved things that are humorous from Mad magazine to Monty Python to the evening news.”
Some of her pieces on exhibit at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft are takes on familiar objects, like the cigarette pack of “Marlburros.” This piece is two whistles, the pack itself and the “Marlburro Man’s” head sticking out of the top.
Sometimes she’ll take a more serious piece, such as the one she carved about Russian history, but still make it fun by creating a container whistle, in this case a teapot, with many small Russian icons – each a whistle – nestled inside.
Shove snooty out the door
When working on larger, more labor intensive pieces, Roberts often takes time out by creating less complicated whistles if the muse inspires her. A Big Bag Wolf in bunny slippers happened that way.
Too many people associate art culture with snootiness, she says, and her art takes snooty and shoves it right out the door.
Another misconception is that original art is unaffordable for us regular people. Her whistle fantasies range from $10 to $7,000 in order to offer something for everyone. This artist and her work are real people-pleasers.
Her mantra is, “The essence of good art is that it is attractive enough to draw you in for a closer look, yet has sufficient content to make the time you spent with it worthwhile.”
Where's the whistle?
The sculpture gifts she created for the Cinema Arts Festival’s participating artists are captivating and have that “draw you in” thing down pat. They make your eyes linger, looking for the secret whistle and the little details that are inside jokes, puns, nostalgic, or just plain wonderful to behold.
For the festival, Roberts set about researching all the guest artists and their films and performances. Her resulting carvings are three-to-four-inch little darlings and feature attributes for each person specifically.
Ethan Hawke’s whistle is a director’s chair carved from pine with a tiny Eiffel Tower and two keys resting on its seat. Roberts explained that his film The Woman in the Fifth (screened 7 .m. Saturday at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) is set in Paris and hotel rooms play into the story where he becomes rather deranged.
The film Upstream (1 p.m. Sunday at MFAH)) will be accompanied by live music from the Donald Sosin Ensemble featuring singer Joanna Seaton. The whistle created for these performing artists is a miniature music stand with sheet music and a microphone.
Upstream, by the way, is a 1927 silent film by legendary director John Ford (Stagecoach, The Searchers) that was considered lost until being rediscovered two years ago. Ford was a four-time Oscar winner and the opportunity to view this comedy/drama is rarer than rare.
The whistles for Art Car: The Movie co-directors Carlton Ahrens and Ford Gunter are director’s chairs but with clapboards and funky, colorful tiny cars.
The whistles for Art Car: The Movie co-directors Carlton Ahrens and Ford Gunter are director’s chairs but with clapboards and funky, colorful tiny cars. (Art Car: The Movie will close out the festival at Miller Outdoor Theatre Sunday at 7 p.m. and real art cars, seen in the film, will be on display.)
With all this talk about whistles and movies I’m reminded of a quote that true film buffs will recognize from an old classic that features two mega-watt stars of the time. It’s still one of the most evocative lines of dialogue (in my opinion) written for the screen.
We’ll close here with a trivia question about that quote because I can’t figure out any other way to work it into this story.
Question: What sultry actress said, “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”
Answer: Lauren Bacall to Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawk’s 1944 film To Have and Have Not.
The moral to this story is don’t you blow it. Take advantage of a festival that’s sure to prove to the rest of the world that culturally, Houston ain’t just a bunch of cowpokes sitting around a campfire eating beans.
Oh dear, now that’s got me to thinking of things that blow in the wind.