JOHNSON CITY, Texas -- Voters in Texas Monthly's "Where I'm From" short film contest might have thought of 73-year-old John Raven as a grandfatherly sort of Texas character when they voted "Lyndon's Hills" a finalist in the competition.
Sandwiched between works of compelling cinematography, Raven's video is short on visual pizzazz and not too high on technical refinement, either. But it's long on heart and humor.
''We call it the Hill Country because we have a lot of hills," Raven drawls in the opening minute. "Funny thing about the hills is they're just a pile of dirt. Got some trees and rocks on it, and that's about the size of it."
Truth is, Raven isn't Santa Claus or Grandpa Walton. Though he can be jovial and self-deprecating one minute, Raven can be prickly and prideful the next. But Texas character? The Texas Monthly voters don't know the half of it.
At his modest duplex in Johnson City, Raven is sprawled out on an easy chair that's had a rough go of it. He offers a business card marking him as a "Texian, Writer, Photographer, Videographer, Artist, Dr. of Barbecue Philosophy (Ph. B), Member Chili Appreciation Society International Hall of Fame, Commissioner of Barbecue, Admiral of Texas Navy and High School Graduate."
''That's in order of importance," he says.
Then he hands over a self-published booklet of his writings. On the back page is a picture of him in 1970s-era Luckenbach, massive and shaggy frame bent over on all fours and a sizable explosion in progress on his back.
That's chili cook-off daredevil Bad McFad at the height of his infamy, surviving the "Diabolical Death Machine." Confused? We'll clear it up in a minute.
Among the other "Where I'm From" finalists, Raven will be in Austin on Saturday for a screening of "Lyndon's Hills" as part of the Austin Film Festival, but don't expect him to belabor his struggles as a filmmaker.
"I didn't put a hell of a lot work into the video," he says. But he knows what his advantage was in becoming a finalist: "I sat down and read everything and understood what (Texas Monthly) wanted. They didn't want a biography, they didn't want a documentary, they wanted a story."
Over nearly nine minutes, Raven shows scenes ranging from Lyndon Johnson boyhood home to the Albert Dance Hall to a country store in Stonewall that "has everything from blue jeans to bologna." The camerawork is shaky at times, the transitions are occasionally jarring, but the narration is folksy and funny.
''I know where it could've been better," Raven says, but points out it was good enough to be a finalist.
His filmmaking background is pretty short: "Three years ago I decided I wanted to learn how movies were made. I bought me a cheap video camera, a cheap editing program and I sat down and taught myself how to make videos."
Commentary on DVDs have offered a wealth of information on filmmaking, he says, and he's always loved movies. But Raven's real motivation might come from his desire to keep learning and not become what he calls a "museum display" as an old man. "The last 10 years I challenge myself: 'Can you do this?' ... And I haven't had any real bitter failures so far."
He points to the noisy windmill in the final scene of his video: "That's my symbolism right there. Old, creaky, wore-out, but still going."
''I was raised up very introverted," the Taylor-born Raven says. He wasn't comfortable with strangers. "And I fell in with these chili people and they just took it all out of me immediately."
That was 1974. He was a sizable man, more than 6 feet 2 inches and 350 pounds, and once he found his inner showman, he didn't look back. If the chili cook-off crowd gave him confidence, he gave them explosions.
The newly monikered daredevil Bad McFad first strapped himself to homemade rockets or squeezed into homemade cannons, telling crowds at chili cook-offs and gatherings such as the Texas Folklife Festival that he was bound for the heavens.
The liberal application of Lone Star and Pearl beer would keep the audience in the right frame of mind. The black powder would produce a resounding bang and thick smoke from which McFad would emerge (mostly) unharmed.
A 1976 San Antonio newspaper story from the Folklife Festival described Raven's rocket as "six Folger's coffee cans, strips of plywood, a red cone-like top and too many wires to count." It also mentions that "the audience jumped more than McFad."
Raven produces a photograph of a crowd of 1970s spectators peering into the skies. "They say I never flew," he grins. "But tell me, what are these people looking at, then?"
The explosions, however, were crowd-pleasers. His next invention would deliver all that was promised. The "Diabolical Death Machine" was Styrofoam, plywood, stainless steel and a toilet paper roll about half-full of black powder, wrapped with masking tape.
A bigger-than-bargained-for blast in Houston retired the death machine. Later, a tamer showpiece, the "feducious oxide" rocket, would mix air pressure with two-liter bottles of liquid. At an appearance at Headliners East in Austin in 1985, the performance sprayed "a fine mist of Dixie Beer over that whole part of town."
The daredevil act would come to an end. The showman's attitude wouldn't. "I'm in awe of no one now," Raven says.
The cook-off icon
''Chili cook-offs have gone in the dumper. They suck big time," Raven says. This coming from a man named a Chili Icon by the Chili Appreciation Society International. The walls of his home are decorated with cooking and showmanship awards.
Raven is not uncertain about barbecue, either. "I know more about barbecue than anybody," he says. "People don't want to admit it, but I invented the barbecue cook-off as we know it today."
He goes on to point out how he helped straighten out a Taylor cook-off, invented the Texas Barbecue Appreciation Society, wrote rules for cook-offs that are still used today and put together the "first legitimate World Championship Barbecue Cook-off."
These days he loves barbecue as much as ever. Cook-offs, not as much. "They've gotten like the rest of the hobbies," he says. "The deal is to see how much damn money you can spend. It's not about going out and barbecuing, it's about going out and spending more money than the guy next to you."
He says he doesn't get the respect he deserves at these events and he's not afraid to tell them so. A recent cook-off visit earned him the new honorific "His Highness." He points out that it's just a polite euphemism for something far less printable. And another dispute ended with a cook-off official telling him he wasn't slighted, it was just his ego.
Raven revels in his indignance for a bit, rattling off honors he's earned in the chili world. Then he stops.
''I'm just a bitter, old man ..., " he says. He pauses long enough to let you think it might be true. Then he laughs. "... who has had more fun than anybody."