Mia & Peter & Liza & Mazursky

The USA Film Festival offers an unapologetic orgy of movie delights

The USA Film Festival follows Robert Redford's Sundance Festival in Park Cities, Utah, by about three months. If you were to rank the importance of the USA Festival against Sundance among industry types and star-gazers, that distance would seem more like three million light years.

And yet, as evidenced at the last two Sundance gatherings, there's something sinister afoot in the world of American independent filmmaking. And despite Robert Redford's good intentions, Sundance has more blood on its hands than any other suspect. Blood from big studio holdings like Miramax and Fine Line, whose cockfight mentality last year caused near-public fistfights between company heads and filmmakers detained against their will over the gentle-spirited Shine; from the hardworking filmmakers whose subtle efforts are annually ignored for the remainder of the festival if their initial screenings don't generate buzz; and from moviegoers, who've plunked down their hard-earned money on films like The Brothers McMullen and Clerks and Girlstown only to discover that what has been feted at Sundance with audience and jury awards is the promise of talent by first-time filmmakers, not the clear expression of it.

Dallas movie fans should be grateful that the USA Film Festival isn't Sundance. Robert Redford protests every year that commercial considerations are nonexistent in the selection of movies, but major studio money, in cahoots with the entertainment press, has performed its usual feat of incitement, transforming a talent search into a philistine mob.

Meanwhile, in his third year as artistic director, Alonso Duralde has applied the standards of one gourmand's palate to the movies submitted for his approval. Sure, a few decisions are pragmatically market-driven, such as the irrelevant preview of the Tommy Lee Jones disaster flick Volcano or the screening of a God-awful Mia Farrow comedy Reckless that was pulled from national release two years ago. Both stars make appearances in Dallas pretty much because the Festival fit into their promotional tours (Farrow to sign her new book). Still, the festival is elitist enough to win Plato's approval, while Phil Gramm would wax disparaging. But above all, the 1997 USA Film Festival is intensely satisfying. The biggest victory to report here is the sheer festivalness of the 1997 USA. The breakdown goes like this: one imminent major studio release, 13 independently distributed features, and a whopping 26 features with no U.S. distributors.

In short, the combination of modest expectations and Duralde's droll eye for selection ensures the USA Film Festival serves the moviegoer, not the industry. It's a dirty little secret that the biz won't admit, but fly-over country has a unique vantage point that the coastal capitals of entertainment don't share. Pauline Kael once said that no good film criticism comes out of Los Angeles and New York, because the writers there are hopelessly co-opted by the glamorous hospitality of film companies before they have the chance to develop a vision of cinema.

With the understanding that Park Cities, Utah, has become a captured moon of the industry capitals, Kael's axiom will soon apply to film festivals. Virtually ignored, The USA Film Festival is in a unique position to remake itself as both critic and maverick on the American festival circuit. Duralde slyly gleans what the big boys have left behind; his 27th Annual USA Film Festival is an armful of overlooked treasures chosen to suit the film lover, not the distributor.

Note: The 27th Annual USA Film Festival runs Thursday, April 17 through Thursday, April 24. All screenings are at the AMC Glen Lakes theatre, 9450 North Central Expressway at Walnut Hill Lane. All tickets, available exclusively through Ticketmaster, are $6.50 ($5.50 for Festival members), except for closing-night tickets to Volcano/Master Screen Artist Tribute to Tommy Lee Jones, and Cabaret/An Evening with Liza Minnelli, which cost $20 ($18 for Festival members). Seating for all programs is general admission. Call 821-NEWS for more information. Observer film critics Jimmy Fowler and Arnold Wayne Jones wrote the following reviews. denotes a film that the Observer recommends.

The Graduate. With only his second film, Mike Nichols took a gem of a script (by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham) and crafted a modern classic, as timely today as it was when first released 30 years ago. Despite being best remembered for the notorious May-December affair between recent college graduate Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) and the spidery Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), The Graduate is really about something else entirely: youthful alienation, of which the affair is merely a symptom. Even before Woodstock, this was a powerful theme, one that held a generation captive to free love and drugs as means of escaping the war in Vietnam and the South's Jim Crow laws and opening the door to what liberalism would become. Even in 1967, these were radical issues for American cinema, but The Graduate was a phenomenal popular success (second only to The Sound of Music for all films released in the '60s). What accounted for such obvious crossover appeal? Probably its centrist, all-American approach: The film may be about the alienation of youth culture, but its hero is cut from the cloth of Wally Cleaver and Opie Taylor. Ben Braddock isn't a long-haired, pot-smoking, parent-hating rebel; he's a middle-brow, upper-middle-class, buttoned-down college boy, the kind who never had to worry about going to Nam and didn't know a downtrodden minority aside from the family maid. The effect of this canny little twist was to confer The Graduate currency among all viewers: Stolid young folks were given a license to radicalize, and the radicalized kids saw in The Graduate a metaphor for middle-class indifference, hypocrisy, and apathy. (Ozzie and Harriet went to see the film as a domestic drama, and its reputation as a tremendous inside joke only grew.) From Ben's confusion about love and life, and the cryptic promise of "plastics," The Graduate explored themes of sexuality without showing sex, of finding a life-direction without getting preachy. This anniversary reissue reminds us of the commonality that young people have always shared, whatever their generation. (AWJ) Buck Henry in attendance.

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