Rough cut

The USA Film Festival stumbles from last year's heights but still offers some exceptional fare

Before the USA Film Festival's arrival last year--its Silver Anniversary--the pre-festival buzz was a mix of hype, anticipation, and dread. Its young, newly anointed artistic director, Alonso Duralde, had held the post for only four months, didn't have a shred of experience, and was forced to start from scratch in selecting more than 50 films for Festival screenings.

Duralde dove headlong into the fray, wiping the slate clean and reinventing the Festival altogether. Rather than act as a testing ground for mainstream Hollywood projects or kowtow to mainstays of the national festival circuit, the USA Film Festival gloried in being independently, winningly itself. From last year's selection of Paul Schrader as the Great Director honoree to the inclusion of a Joe Bob Briggs "Bad Movies We Love" panel, Duralde flirted with marrying art and kitsch--and succeeded. Conceiving of the USA Film Festival as a unique entity rather than a Sundance wannabe, and recruiting a banner array of guest appearances, Duralde made great movies accessible and entertaining--and many of them were homegrown, to boot.

With tireless effort and a strong, internalized sense for what would work, Duralde seemed to be "in the moment"; last year's Festival was the best in years, and Duralde's contract--originally set to expire at the end of Festival Week--was enthusiastically renewed. At the time, the Dallas Observer called it "the best festival in years," and predicted "next year should be even better."

So much for clairvoyance.
This year's Festival suffers from the notorious sophomore jinx. The aura of gonzo fun that pervaded the 1995 Festival seems merely frantic and disarrayed this year, conceived in a state of emergency and ending up in a blind panic. Less than two weeks before the Festival was set to begin, organizers still hadn't finalized the slate of films; the assortment of scheduled attendees seemed anemic and random; and the rush to get the word out looked curiously, painfully like something out of the Keystone Kops.

To top things off, many of the films themselves suffer from an infuriating lack of creative heart: One-third appear to have been created solely for direct home-video release (or more heinously, the festival circuit itself), and another third are puzzling failures--"A" for effort, "C" for execution.

Still, that leaves another third of the movies that meet, and even exceed, the demanding expectations of Festival devotees. What's missing is last year's whacked-out sense of fun, when low-budget hoots like Joe's Rotten World and Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre ruled, as well as low-profile gems like Living in Oblivion and My Family/Mi Familia and gloriously bad fun like Spider Baby. But this year offers some of its own can't-miss films, mostly documentaries--many of which otherwise might not have made it to Dallas: a biting critique of the Hollywood system (From the Journals of Jean Seberg), a charming documentary about ventriloquists (Belly Talkers), and fascinating profiles of three cinematic greats: Samuel Fuller (The Typewriter, the Rifle, and the Movie Camera), Henry Jaglom (Who is Henry Jaglom?), and William A. Wellman (Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick).

All complaints aside, the Festival provides an annual constant of diverse moviegoing in Dallas--and it's not so bad swallowing some of the chaff to sort out the wheat.

 
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