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)

The Ernie Kovacs Award to Joel Hodgson. January 9, 7 p.m., Horchow Auditorium.

Edie Adams Presents Ernie Kovacs. January 10, 7 p.m., Horchow Auditorium.

Bubbeh Lee and Me. Gay and lesbian cinema has often focused on life after coming out, when you're an adult and away from the family who raised you. This should come as no surprise, considering many gays and lesbians consider this a moment of epiphany, the point at which all their disparate parts fused into one identity. The role the homosexual adult plays in his birth family is a fascinating issue documentary makers have only recently begun exploring. The documentary Bubbeh Lee and Me is a brave, touching foray into the jungle of what might be called "gene politics," or, to put it bluntly, a breeding majority vs. a non-breeding minority. Directed and photographed by Andy Abrahams Wilson and originally broadcast on HBO, Bubbeh Lee and Me is a series of conversations between the filmmaker and his 87-year-old grandmother Bubbeh, an opinionated widow living in a Jewish retirement community in upstate New York. Wilson is gay and out to his family, including Bubbeh, although only about half of the film covers this topic. The rest is about Bubbeh's life as mother, grandmother, wife, and Jew.

Bedecked in hoop earrings, loud blouses, and a frosted wig (she allows us to see her sparse white hair once, and the effect is both sweet and shocking), she is amazingly candid about her past failures, including an inability to show love to her husband while he was alive and to her children while she was raising them. Bubbeh informs us that it's her grandchildren who've been the joy of her life, because only in her senior years had she gained the wisdom to love joyfully and unconditionally. Andy Abrahams Wilson interviews his grandmother at the kitchen table, in the car, and at the local grocery store, where she operates a shopping cart like an all-terrain war vehicle. She is clearly uncomfortable whenever he broaches the subject of his homosexuality, but she's not bashful about voicing her thoughts here, either--she is most afraid Andy will contract the HIV virus, and admits that, while she wished when he first told her that it wasn't true, age has bestowed upon her the lesson that love supersedes even those things she can't understand.

A recurring motif in Bubbeh Lee and Me concerns the elderly fellow residents of Bubbeh's retirement community who repeatedly attempt to pair off the handsome Wilson with their granddaughters (they don't know he's gay). Bubbeh watches with wry stoicism. The tolerance and generosity of this articulate, colorful character will likely make the most lasting impression on viewers, but considering the bitterness that so many gays and lesbians hold toward their uncomprehending families, the forgiveness and acceptance that Andy Abrahams Wilson displays toward his beloved Bubbeh and her limits is equally touching. (Jimmy Fowler)

Bubbeh Lee and Me is half of Mishpocheh: Jewish Families. January 12, 1 p.m., Video Box.

Church of St. Coltrane. The subjects in Gayle Gilman and Jeff Swimmer's Church of St. Coltrane are members of the San Francisco congregation of St. John's African Orthodox Church, who are united in the belief that jazz saxophonist John Coltrane has brought them closer to God through his music. For a little while they come across as those suspicious types who used to appear on Real People--individuals whose fervent devotion to a rather arcane philosophy wilts under the glare of a video camera. But as Church of St. Coltrane rolls on, intertwining both the painful details of the members' personal histories with a sketchy biography of the late master instrumentalist, the link between God, bebop, and spiritual conversion is established with credibility. In the mid-'50s, less than a decade before he died, Coltrane found Jesus and began to spread the gospel (albeit in a less strident manner than many of his born-again celebrity compatriots) during his live performances. He even included an essay in the liner notes of his seminal double album A Love Supreme that detailed how his songs were, above everything else, an expression of joyful love for the Lord. Coltrane found religion after a young adulthood scarred by alcohol and heroin.

The primary character in Gilman and Swimmer's documentary is the Bishop of St. John's (even his children call him "the bishop"), a saxophonist who idolized Coltrane throughout his own rocky relationship with smack. God and Coltrane helped him kick that deadly habit, and although the Bishop repeatedly insists that this church is all about serving the Lord and not a legendary musician, it's difficult to separate one savior from another in terms of their impact on him. This is the glorious mystery that fuels The Church of St. Coltrane and, once the Bishop's story gets going, you no longer think of him as a publicity-seeking quack (although it's hard to completely abandon the more polite adjective "eccentric"). Many of the members of St. John's African Orthodox Church have similar stories to tell, and after a while, jazz fans will find themselves remembering those moments when their favorite musical form escorted them off this earthly plane. One woman relates that the first time she heard Coltrane was not the first time she listened to him. As I recalled the first time I understood Miles Davis' "In a Silent Way" (which was not the first time it had been played for me), listening to my clock radio in the dead of night during my college days, it occurred to me that I knew exactly what she meant. (JF)

Church of St. Coltrane. January 9, 9 p.m., TV Diner.

Daddy Says So. In an era when Christian conservatives dominate American grassroots politics, the six-year-old evangelical Christian men's movement known as Promise Keepers is the unique feather in the peacock tail of fundamentalist activism. Founded by former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney and touring sold-out stadiums in every major American city, Promise Keepers mixes just enough weepy talk-show confessionalism into its right-wing agenda to confound potential critics. Pundits determined to nail PK for its flashes of sexism and homophobia are disarmed by the group's penitent, "men are pigs" rhetoric and its radical embrace of favorite liberal causes--namely, racial reconciliation.

Documentary filmmaker Niklas Sven Vollmer understands that the traditional secular humanist barbs won't work when critiquing Promise Keepers, so he lets the facts--not to mention the Promise Keepers--speak for themselves. Daddy Says So is an engrossing exploration of the many contradictions that Promise Keepers represents. Vollmer takes a camera to one of PK's 1995 stadium revivals and talks to everyone he can find. As expected, the PK leaders spout hyper-humble soundbites at press conference appearances; they're echoed by the ticket-buying faithful, who support these sentiments with more stirring sincerity. The title Daddy Says So isn't some smart-aleck outsider's diagnosis, but a direct quote from a speech by a fiery African-American pastor who finds his status in the household compromised by a son who can't understand why he has to take out the trash. The reason? "Daddy says so." The speaker then turns the command on a stadium full of Christian men: "Why should we do God's work? Because Daddy says so." Vollmer doesn't have to interject secular criticisms into his documentary--the daddy complex that burdens most of the participants here speaks for itself. (JF)

Daddy Says So. January 12, 5 p.m., TV Lounge.

Herbert's Hippopotamus. Ever since the '90s began, right-wingers like George Will and Charles Krauthammer have lined up with leftier social critics like Camille Paglia and Elinor Burkett to lambaste the so-called "PC thought police" for their rabid vigilance against insensitive language, legislation, and behavior. Problem is, the political correctness of the right wing is just as prevalent and probably more dangerous because it has gone largely unrecognized. Documentary filmmaker Paul Alexander Juutlainen dips back to the California student protests of the '60s to uncover a once-infamous radical leader whose reputation, then and now, suffered a PC campaign of distortion spearheaded by conservatives as various as the Pope, then-California governor Ronald Reagan, Navy leaders, and the American Legion.

Herbert's Hippopotamus is Juutlainen's engrossing, insightful, and finely detailed attempt at character reparation, both for Herbert Marcuse and the radical student movement that has been characterized as monolithic anarchy by revisionist conservative pundits. To be sure, the political philosophies espoused by University of California at San Diego professor Marcuse threatened many people in power--he had a dread of the state's arbitrary exercise of force, the dehumanizing effects of materialism, and the tyranny of the majority. These concerns were based on his memories of a Nazi Germany he fled in the 1930s. The 70-year-old European expatriate made international headlines for his late '60s participation in American and European student demonstrations, labor strikes, and Vietnam War protests. His most famous disciple and staunchest supporter was a former student named Angela Davis, who would make the cover of Newsweek as a black radical and later be acquitted on federal charges of kidnapping and murder.

The company Marcuse kept infuriated his powerful enemies more than anything; the lies they printed and spoke about him were a premeditated campaign designed to establish guilt by association. He was frequently labeled a Communist by reporters and detractors when in fact he never joined the Community Party, publicly disagreed with Angela Davis' decision to do so, and railed against Stalin's brutality. He was often characterized as an advocate of violence, when one TV interview after another made clear he only supported it in self-defense. One Legionnaire even compared him to a Nazi, absurd in light of his terrifying escape from a democratically elected Hitler.

Herbert's Hippopotamus features a long cast of '60s survivors who give fiercely partisan--though often humorous--defense of their youthful political activity. They are united in their affection of Herbert Marcuse, as much for his self-deprecating humor as his idealism. (One former student relates how Marcuse declined an interview request from Playboy, which included a promise of hefty payment; Marcuse called the magazine and said he would accept the offer only if he was also photographed naked as that month's centerfold. Playboy didn't bite). In case you're wondering, the title Herbert's Hippopotamus alludes to the subject's favorite animal, whose image he displayed in dozens of figurines in his office. He believed the clumsy gait and homely face of the hippopotamus, an indispensable mammalian link between land and water in its own ecosystem, belied its importance as a species, and that comic contradiction inspired him. Herbert's Hippopotamus will lead you back through the contradiction and subtleties of liberal student activism during the '60s. (JF)

Herbert's Hippopotamus. January 11, 5:45 p.m., Video Box.

In Harm's Way. Tolstoy said all happy families are pretty much the same, but that unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. In the Eisenhower era, there was nothing more important that being the same as everyone else, and that meant happiness, dammit! In the artificial culture that resulted from this ethic there were no shades of gray, at least as far as the media were concerned. Horrors may be present, but that's no reason to discuss them, especially in front of impressionable minds; the warnings about the dangers of the real world were often so remote and polite that children couldn't tell what they were being warned against. (The motto "Never take candy from strangers" implies that there's something wrong with the candy, not the stranger himself.) Twisted perversities that could befall unsuspecting innocents remained obscured behind a facade of Tollhouse cookies and station wagons. But behind this exterior there was sex going on: naked magazines and public masturbations are only some of the oddities filmmaker/narrator Jan Krawitz encountered in her preadolescent days, at the same time that the most risque things you'd see on TV was the occasional ogle of a pretty girl by some Wally Cleaver clone.

In Harm's Way paints the background in which Krawitz was reared and then shocks us into the present with the gruesome recounting of her rape in a Lubbock motel. But her video is less about the rape than it is how ill-prepared she was, since childhood, to cope with the terror of a harsh and ugly world. It isn't the Fisher-Price streets of playtime that we have to fear, but the real world in all its lingering brutality. To Krawitz, masking the truth with denial may be the most dire, if unintentional, legacy of the '50s. (AWJ)

In Harm's Way January 12, 2:30 p.m., TV Lounge.

James Dean I'm a Fool and Unlighted Road, two rare James Dean television appearances, are novelties of the Golden Age of TV, and they have some appeal as such. What they don't have are many dramatic credentials. Dean is always compelling to watch, but he's working with sub-par material here. The best thing about these shows is Dean, squirming around in his seat and looking uncomfortable in his suit as he offers a brief introduction to one segment; even then, his style is intense. (AWJ)

I'm a Fool and Unlighted Road. January 11, 12 noon, Horchow Auditorium.

Karaoke. What twisted pathologies ravaged the mind of Dennis Potter? A friend once referred to him as "a British Steven Bochco," but that does them both a disservice. While both are obsessed with the style of the work, there's a moral and emotional weight, a commentary on the human condition, apparent in every frame of Potter's television programs (The Singing Detective) and movies (Pennies from Heaven, Dreamchild) often missing from Bochco. (Anyway, Bochco is a producer, not a writer.) A better analogy might be that Potter is a TV version of Woody Allen, without the reliance on gags. Karaoke is about scriptwriter Daniel Feeld (played by Albert Finney), who, while working on a show called Karaoke, starts hearing the dialogue he has written being spoken on the street. Is life imitating art or vice versa? This is an intriguing premise that Potter effectively expands to a four-hour miniseries. Potter toggles us between reality and illusion--we're not always sure what world we're operating in, and ultimately that is his point. How much is happening to Daniel Feeld and how much is he causing? Like Potter's earlier work, Karaoke deals with how we view popular music and what we attach to songs--songs have both a unique personal effect on each of us that others can't understand and that goes beyond the lyrics themselves. Potter died in 1995 of cancer, and such an autobiography adds a sad layer to the story--a writer at the end of his life and career, hoping he's made a difference. (AWJ)

Karaoke. January 9, 7 p.m., TV Lounge; reruns on January 10, 7 p.m., TV Diner.

London International Advertising Awards. The London International Advertising Awards have virtually replaced the American Clios as the preeminent ad award since a debacle in years past when the Clios went bankrupt. These winning television commercials from around the globe demonstrate genuine creativity in video production--a nifty mix of visual expertise, comic gags, and lots of salacious innuendo. Highlights include a painfully powerful public service announcement about heroin, a female undergarment ad that will astonish you with its sly and suggestive sexuality, a cheeky Guinness commercial, and the usual collection of memorable Nike and Reebok ads. (AWJ)

London International Advertising Awards. January 11, 1 p.m., Horchow Auditorium.

Socialism or Death. The "rock 'n' roll will never die" cliche is revived with chilling enthusiasm in Socialism or Death, a searing documentary by filmmakers Bengt Norborg and Bo Sand. The duo recorded a series of painfully intimate interviews with a Latino youth culture that has received scant attention in the international press--the so-called "rocqueros" of Cuba, teenagers and twentysomethings whose identification with the nihilism and anger of America's pop music poets led them to take a rather unique stand against Castro's police-enforced conformism. Their rebellion is to inject themselves with syringes full of blood from HIV-positive friends. Most of the self-injected "rockers" were compelled to infect themselves because of a 1988 law that empowered police to arrest practically any youth who was determined a "danger to society"--long hair, controversial T-shirts, tattoos, unemployment, and obnoxious musical tastes are all grounds for detainment or fines. Those most affected by the law were long-haired, occasionally dreadlocked, body-pierced, tattooed, chronically unemployed young men (and a few women) who were painfully aware of the difference between communism on paper and in practice. Of course, the first AIDS cases had begun to appear in Cuba just a few years before, and many of the disaffected youth were already associating with the outsiders most affected by HIV.

Socialism or Death chronicles their daily routine, which alternates between ecstatic nights at the local rock 'n' roll clubs and slacker days supported by their beleaguered parents. Those who've advanced from HIV-positive status to full-blown AIDS get the "privilege" of living in Cuba's state-funded hospices. Chronicled two years ago by 60 Minutes, these quarantine facilities provided free food and housing with restricted visitation privileges. Still, among the poor "rockers" of Cuba, the idea of being fed, clothed, and allowed to spend idle hours listening to their favorite tunes was too attractive to pass up. Besides, many of them reasoned, American researchers would find a cure before they got sick. An activist Catholic priest interviewed in Socialism or Death confirms that almost all the first wave of injectors died before they turned 25, confident until the end they would be rescued by the powers of foreign medicine. Perhaps the most heart-stopping image in Socialism or Death is a 19-year-old, self-infected HIV-positive man praying in the Catholic church he has just rediscovered. During the mass, he wears a T-shirt with Kurt Cobain's picture on it. (JF)

Socialism or Death. January 11, 3:15 p.m., Video Box.

Vatican II. I grew up in a post-Vatican II world--that is, after the congress of bishops changed the way Catholic doctrine was expressed, from using the vernacular instead of Latin at Mass to embracing Protestant brothers. I had heard of the liturgical differences from my mother, but never experienced them myself. After watching Vatican II, I have a newfound appreciation for why my prep school vocal group was allowed to sing rock songs (and traditional hymns with rock arrangements) during liturgies. This four-part video, of which only part one is screening at the festival, is full of humor and human interest, and it's told in a dramatic and compelling way. You don't have to be Catholic, or even Christian, to appreciate this testament to the religious glasnost that the Second Vatican Council represented; you just have to have an interest in the scope of its importance, and revel in watching history in rerun form. (AWJ)

Vatican II. January 12, 2 p.m., Horchow Auditorium.

30 Minutes in the Wrong Body.
Come on Down and Out.
I'm from Hollywood.

Parody approaches painful levels in a trio of films--one of which is about a living parody. 30 Minutes in the Wrong Body appears to be a documentary about a man with an identity crisis, but the audience soon realizes it's a put-on: He doesn't want to be a woman, but an African bushman. The tone is so consistent, you almost believe it, although the film runs out of steam along the way.

Better is Come on Down and Out, a fake British game show where three homeless contestants compete for the grand prize: a free house to live in. The show mixes the sociology of apathy with some shockingly bitter segments. (In a Candid Camera take-off, the producers horrify a mother by taking away her baby and have a panhandler arrested, and let the audience vote on who is more sympathetic.)

Andy Kaufman's life and career didn't make sense to most people--he was a walking parody of the human condition--and the documentary I'm from Hollywood recounts how he finished his brilliant work on what was seen as a down note: his self-destructive obsession with professional wrestling. Was it all an act, or was Kaufman truly insane? To hear interviewee Robin Williams tell it, Kaufman was a tragic figure who spun out of control. But if comedy is tragedy plus time--and Kaufman considered the world his audience and his work one extended gag--perhaps he considered his descent into madness over such a long period of time the capstone to a comedy style only he was willing to explore. Maybe his death was his last great joke, a punchline for which he could never hear the laughter. (AWJ)

30 Minutes in the Wrong Body. January 11, 4:15 p.m., Horchow Auditorium.
Come on Down and Out. January 11, 4:15 p.m., Horchow Auditorium.
I'm from Hollywood. January 10, 10 p.m., Video Box.

I, Doll: The Unauthorized Biography of America's 11-1/2" Sweetheart
Jodie: An Icon
Nico Icon

In 1943, long before Jodie Foster, Nico Icon, or the Barbie doll had been born, Gerald Johnson said: "Heroes are created by popular demand, sometimes out of the scantiest material." That could be the motto of three films screening at the Festival, all investigating the public's need for celebrity and the odd ways they go about satisfying that need. The lesbian community, for example, has never had the kind of sexual role models that straight society has, so it seems only natural that they would find one, even where it may not exist, and derive a raging fetishism out of it. For the maker of Jodie: An Icon, Jodie Foster fits the bill nicely . Through interviews and clips, director Pratibha Parmar posits the notion of Jodie as androgyne who, despite being secretive about her sexual orientation, has become a lesbian-presumptive sex object. Based mostly on Foster's early butch roles (when only she, Tatum O'Neal, and Kristy McNichol played tomboys), the thesis is well-supported, especially in acknowledging the great amount of guesswork involved in selecting a gay hero out of a predominantly heterosexual culture.

At least Foster's talents were--and are--obvious and accepted outside the subculture that idolizes her. That can't be said of Nico Icon, the German singer who gained notoriety in Andy Warhol's Factory, where most people were famous merely for being famous. Nico Icon tries to dispel the notion that she was some kind of untalented hanger-on, but it becomes painfully clear that Nico allowed herself to become a freak by pandering to those who would make her one.

There's nothing especially freakish about Barbie, unless you consider her physical attributes--were she real, she'd be 5'10", weigh 110 pounds, and have measurements of 39/23/33. I, Doll humorously explores what Barbie's cross-generational (and cross-gender) popularity has to say about American culture and the icons it embraces. In doing so, director Tula Asselanis illuminates a bizarre subculture of Barbie worshippers. There are moments of genuine magic in this video--the suggestion of Nicole Simpson as a live Barbie doll, the analysis of the role accessories play in Barbie's success--tongue-in-cheek one minute, scarily serious the next. Barbie, because she has it all--something even Gloria Steinem couldn't achieve--has been as much an anxiety for little girls who can never live up to her perfection as she has been a toy. It's not a topic you might think is very important; that it makes you reconsider that position attests to its wisdom. (AWJ)

I, Doll: The Unauthorized Biography of America's 11-1/2" Sweetheart. January 12, 3:30 p.m., Horchow Auditorium.

Jodie: An Icon. January 10, 9 p.m., TV Lounge.
Nico Icon. January 11, 9 p.m., Horchow Auditorium.

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