Mia & Peter & Liza & Mazursky

The USA Film Festival offers an unapologetic orgy of movie delights

Friday, April 18, 7 p.m.

Rod Serling: Writer. Even before The Graduate gave a single image to youth culture's sense of urban alienation, Rod Serling had given that theme a peculiar, singular, psychic vibration. The Twilight Zone, his phenomenal anthology series, largely reflected the uneasy confusion that both preceded and followed the assassination of John Kennedy, and a zeitgeist was born. Even before The Twilight Zone, however, Serling was already the most respected writer working in TV. His scripts for such Playhouse 90 dramas as Requiem for a Heavyweight, The Comedian, and Patterns are contributed heavily to the Fifties' reputation as the "Golden Age of Television." This lively and informative documentary on Serling's surprisingly brief life (he died in 1974, at age 50) intelligently and scrupulously documents his prolific career. No scriptwriter outside Broadway was as famous as Rod Serling. (It was later that his staccato delivery and ever-present cigarette would make him an icon.) In today's era, series "creators" like Steven Bochco (L.A. Law, NYPD Blue), David Kelley (Chicago Hope, Picket Fences) and Matt Williams (The Cosby Show, Roseanne) trade on their prominence as producers--"handling" stars, putting together packages, and marketing a look; Serling actually had the talent to say something. Whatever the plot of his stories may have seemed (from fanciful Twilight Zone episodes, 92 of which Serling wrote himself, to tales of over-the-hill boxers and troubled executives), at its heart his writing was about himself. His life experiences--from shell shock in World War II to his nostalgia for his hometown--weaved their way throughout all his plots, and the complex characters he created are merely pieces of the mosaic of his psyche. Milan Kundera wrote: "A writer destroys the house of his life and uses the stones to build the foundation of his writing." Adhering to this philosophy, Serling was, and remains, the patron saint of commercial dramatists, an inspirational genius whose dialogue, use of metaphor, and timeliness with issues transformed a medium. Rod Serling: Writer is a suitable eulogy to his consuming talent. (AWJ) Filmmaker Colin Strayer in attendance.

Friday, April 18, 9:10 p.m.

Skidoo. Perhaps the brashest, most rewarding conception the Festival dares to expose is how really awful movies are just as easy to come by as good ones (even more so). Thus was born the annual program "Bad Movies We Love," an inspired celebration of the crass and campy. Audiences would be hard-pressed to uncover a film more deserving of the label "bad" than Skidoo. Camp--the appreciation of something so bad, it's good--was the bastard offspring of the auteur policy of film criticism, a philosophy that gained currency in the 1950s, when French critics began watching pre-WWII movies in repertory. It naturally followed that once we learned to value the work of prior generations of filmmakers for their inherent worth, we'd also learn to appreciate wretchedness for what it is. The one constant about true camp is that it can't be wholly intentional (Airplane! isn't camp; Airport is.) Skidoo is a dreadful little "comedy" starring Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Austin Pendleton, and a slew of other actors who had all seen better days. The film is little more than a series of escapades a la the druggie, hippie comedies from the '60s. Most of those movies weren't very good, of course, but at least they featured people who knew what the counterculture was about, and what the generation wanted. No self-respecting acid-head would ever have an acid trip as dull and awful as the one in this movie. Skidoo doesn't even have the good taste to give itself a hip title. I'm opposed to the term "guilty pleasure"; if you enjoy a movie, you should never be ashamed to say so, and there's no disgrace in liking "bad" movies. I found the camp of Skidoo tedious, but others, without shame, found it hysterical. That's why a program like this is a wonderful addition to any celebration of film. (AWJ) Austin Pendleton in attendance.

Saturday, April 19, 7:10 p.m.

Reckless. Director Norman Rene and writer Craig Lucas enjoyed a fruitful collaborative association prior to Rene's death in 1995. Together, they made two sincere and mature parables about AIDS and homosexuality: first the beautifully simple Longtime Companion, then the more metaphorical Prelude to a Kiss. Sadly, their swansong is this misguided stab at comedy, the unfathomably named Reckless. Mia Farrow plays a nagging housewife who is astonished to learn, on Christmas Eve, that her husband (Tony Goldwyn) has paid a hit man to kill her. After she escapes execution, her travels and the people she meets serve as the plot. There's the slightest indication that something wild and unhinged will happen to this mousy, beset housewife, but the plot twists seem neither real nor fun, and the gummy sense of comedic timing never generates anything more than mild amusement. (AWJ) Mia Farrow in attendance.

Saturday, April 19, 7:10 p.m.

Eye of God. As one of the most rewarding films to see at the festival, Eye of God is a structurally inventive, thematically rich tale of murder, religion, and the slow desiccation of small-town America. Set in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, Tim Blake Nelson's story begins with a murder investigation involving a disturbed 14-year-old boy (Dallas native Nick Stahl) and an unknown victim. Through an intricate series of flashback and parallel time lines that intersect like the lines of a Spirograph, we learn about Ainsley (Martha Plimpton), a local girl whose pen-pal relationship with Jack, a prison inmate (Kevin Anderson), reaches fruition when he is released from jail and seeks her out. What starts out as charming romance grows more sinister as Jack uses his born-again religious fervor as a club against his new wife, first seducing her with tenderness, then dominating her with his warped view of what a "proper Christian house" should be. Equal parts The Stepfather, A Place in the Sun, and explication of the parable of Abraham, this peculiarly humane, cyclical tale of sacrifice in the age of modernity is intelligent, sincere, and quietly moving. With exceptional performances from Hal Holbrook, Richard Jenkins, and Margo Martindale, Eye of God raises the bar for what independent films can--and should--be. (AWJ) Mary Kay Place, Nick Stahl, and writer/director Tim Blake Nelson in attendance.

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