Pixel Pleasures

The tenth annual Dallas Video Festival shows why video is eclipsing film as the mass art medium

As electronic technology advances, video is increasingly becoming the most accessible and personal mass medium. Even the lowest-budget film is an arduous exercise--in terms of both technology and expense--compared to making a video. In video, there's no painstaking development of negatives, no tiresome editing of celluloid strips, and--particularly for emerging artists--far fewer desperate compromises during fundraising.

Beyond that, video has an allure over film because it defies expectations. Video is what it is; there are few preconceived notions about what a video creation should be. A video might last 30 seconds or three hours, be in the form of a documentary, music performance, fictional narrative, or artistic experiment with a freedom that film, more rigidly constrained by the way it is traditionally presented (in a theater, not a living room), can only wish for.

Where film is best at being vast and impressive, video is diverse, flexible, and more intimate. With the growth of interactivity, high-definition television, and the potential for near-instantaneous dissemination over the Internet, video stands poised to eclipse film as the medium of communication, entertainment, and art for the next century.

The 1997 Dallas Video Festival, which is celebrating its tenth year, has consistently delighted, amused, challenged, and annoyed its audiences, yet, inexplicably, attendance is disappointing. (Perhaps the very personal nature of video doesn't lend itself to mass exhibitions as film so successfully has.)

To celebrate a decade of offering Dallas the cutting edge of the rapidly maturing new medium, artistic director Bart Weiss has assembled perhaps the best collection yet, and the result is an exploration of human invention harnessed only by the parameters of an evolving technology. You'll find the usual mix of the wonderfully informative (a presentation by ITVS honcho James Yee about how to get financing for making a video), the wonderfully awful (the dreadfully overrated technology of pixelvision), and the just plain wonderful (the irrepressible Bullwinkle and Rocky in a show hosted by director Bill Hurtz). For those interested in seeing something new, the biggest challenge is choosing between competing presentations. (One of the best things about the festival is how user-friendly it is to modern-day channel surfers. Get bored with one show? Then just move on to the next. No deferred gratification here, and no additional admission.)

As is frequently the case at festivals, the recurring themes of the programs tend to force themselves to the surface, rather than being apparent by a mere glance at the schedule. Compilation programs, an interactive media exhibition, and the "Best of Texas Show" are standard fare each year, but different motifs always make themselves known. The following titles are showing at the festival, which takes place from Thursday, January 9 through Sunday, January 12 in several auditoriums at the Dallas Museum of Art. The list of reviewed programs is not comprehensive, but it touches not only on noteworthy videos, but many themes as well. A guide is available at the Museum or through the festival; just call 823-8909, or fax them at 651-7600. The festival's website is located at Http://www.videofest.org

Ernie Kovacs. Ernie Kovacs' contribution to television comedy is unique. Unlike clowns Emmett Kelly and Red Skelton or gag kings Sid Caesar and Milton Berle, Kovacs' humor was visual, but not physical; he made use of the full potential that early television offered. Kovacs understood that the camera could be a component of comedy. Where Kelly might mime a flashlight with the help of a dramatic follow spot, Kovacs used a change in point of view to make a joke with the camera's eye, not the audience's. Schtick like Letterman's "Monkeycam" is rooted in Kovacs' fascination with television's technology.

How fitting, then, that the first recipient of a DVF award named after Ernie Kovacs--and presented by his widow, actress-singer Edie Adams, is Joel Hodgson. Hodgson is the deadpan creator and original host of the Peabody award-winning Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or MST3K to devotees). He came up with the idea of MST3K eight years ago, and amazingly it has remained fresh and funny ever since. Joel and three robots (Gypsy, Tom Servo, and Crow) screen "classic" films--no-budget biker flicks, cheesy '50s sci-fi, embarrassing costume dramas, and the occasional "instructional" short--making non-stop smart-ass remarks. Like Beavis & Butt-head, it's the ultimate in slacker entertainment--it assumes the audience is too lazy to make its own wisecracks. But MST3K can also be unexpectedly canny and wise. Before Quentin Tarantino turned it into geek chic, Hodgson made cultural references the fulcrum of his comedic style. More inventive than tripe like Dream On, MST3K acknowledges mass communication's omnipresence in a culture reared on sitcoms and Sunday reruns, and Hodgson makes his program simultaneously nostalgic and sardonic. It has proven to be a clever and charming formula: cynicism reined in with love.

The opportunity to compare and revel in the styles of these innovators of television, separated by a generation (Hodgson was less than two years old when Kovacs died, at age 45, in 1962) is a rare and welcome opportunity, especially when Edie Adams will be talking about her life and career with Kovacs, and screening some of his work from her private archive that hasn't been seen in 30 years. Hodgson will also show videos of his work since leaving MST3K. (Arnold Wayne Jones)

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