Mia & Peter & Liza & Mazursky

The USA Film Festival offers an unapologetic orgy of movie delights

Monday, April 21, 7:15 p.m.

David Searching. The implied contract between low-budget filmmaker and low-budget audience is this: in exchange for the filmmaker providing interesting themes, important but under-exposed topics, and creative techniques, the viewer agrees to overlook a certain lack of polish. David Searching breaches this agreement, and the result is a film that doesn't work regardless of its poor editing and tinny soundtrack. Anthony Rapp plays David, a struggling New York documentarian whose magnum opus is a two-hour film of talking heads--people across the country offering their answer to the question "What do you consider to be an absolute truth?" If such a documentary sounds pompous and boring to you, you've pretty much stumbled upon one of the fatal flaws that doom this movie. The misunderstood and underappreciated filmmaker is fast becoming a tiresome and abundant archetype in independent films--at the Festival alone, no less than eight features concern people on the periphery of the movie business. How could the writer-director, Leslie Smith, conceive of a sympathetic character whose excess of ambition is only matched by his arrogant presumptions toward art, and then never expose his hubris for what it is? The reason must be that Smith believes in David, and his blind devotion to him tanks the film. (AWJ) Anthony Rapp and director Leslie Smith in attendance.

Monday, April 21, 9 p.m.

Ben Johnson: Third Cowboy on the Right.
Ben Johnson was the quintessential "background" cowboy. As L.Q. Jones says in an interview here, the stars were all that changed in the Hollywood Westerns of the '40s, '50s, and '60s; the supporting cast remained more or less the same. The likes of Johnson and Ward Bond and Warren Oates anchored these movies; they held the frame steady while the larger-than-life personalities of John Wayne, Gary Cooper, or William Holden bounced around their heroics. Johnson received his greatest success in two dissimilar movies: as the lead (his only one) in Wagonmaster, and for a supporting performance of uncommon depth in The Last Picture Show. The latter film makes for the best anecdote related to Johnson: how he refused director Peter Bogdanovich's offer of the role because the dialogue was too "dirty," how Bogdanovich cajoled legendary director John Ford into convincing Johnson to take it; and how Johnson eventually went on to win the Oscar for his performance, one of the most deserving awarded in the '70s. (Johnson died last year, after a beautiful, final bow in The Evening Star.) (AWJ) Writer Tom Marksbury in attendance.

Monday, April 21, 9:10 p.m.

Cabaret. This racy, raunchy, frank, dark musical, set in Weimar-era Germany, centers on a flighty American singer, Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), and the men in her life (Michael York, Helmut Griem). The director, Bob Fosse--who had only one previous film (Sweet Charity) to his credit--set most of the musical interludes in a dank, seedy cabaret presided over by the Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey), a cadaverously eerie, androgynous mole. Did this really exist, or was it a metaphor for the sloth and corruption that let Hitler rise to power? You could argue either way, but one thing was certain: Cabaret revolutionized the movie musical. Its brooding, serious themes ruined the splashy MGM-style family entertainment that dominated the genre. (In the 1960s alone, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and Oliver! all won Best Picture Oscars.) (AWJ) Liza Minnelli in attendance.

Tuesday, April 22, 7 p.m.

Scream, Teen, Scream. Scream, already the all-time highest grossing horror film (or slasher flick, to be specific), has been rereleased to push the film's gross to the $100 million mark. It is, we've been reassured in mysteriously glowing reviews from major critics, a spoof of slasher flicks. This reminds me of an SCTV segment with Dave Thomas as Phil Donahue and Catherine O'Hara as a panelist on his show. O'Hara insists that she's not a stripper--she just performs critical parodies of strippers. "But do you take off your clothes in front of strangers for money?" he asks. "Yes," O'Hara confirms, "but you're supposed to watch me and think, 'That's what a stripper does.'" The ironic distance Scream placed between itself and its subject matter wasn't big enough to crawl inside for a nap, which is the only distance I really wanted after the retarded opening sequence with Drew Barrymore. Scream is a dumb teensploitation exercise masquerading as a smart commentary, while Scream, Teen, Scream!, the shot-on-video parody by director Joshua Rosenzweig and writer-drag actress Jackie Beat, is spry and unsmug, snapping cliches together into new shapes as colorful as Lego sculptures. With Wigstock and the role of Helen Lawson in a recent New York theatrical version of Valley of the Dolls under her Gucci belt, Beat has acquired enough discipline and on-camera savoir faire to know the difference between bad acting and a skillful impersonation of bad acting. Divine eventually nailed this cold until, by the time Polyester rolled around, he was capable of giving a genuinely affecting comic performance that didn't rely on making fun of Francine Fishpaw, his swept-away housewife. In other words, Beat practices drag as characterization, not as commentary, which is the only hope to save this venerable art form from an eternal table wait in Wong Foo's restaurant. Beat, Alexis Arquette, looking like Nigel Tufnel in Pat Benatar hotpants, and Robert Ring star as a trio of comely teenagers celebrating on the same Halloween night when The Apricot Hankie killer is on the loose. Scream, Teen, Scream! is a more successful parody than Wes Craven's tedious hit, if only because it honestly plays around with the brittle bones of the fossilized thriller form, like tracking shots into screaming faces and "slasher cam with breathing soundtrack," where Scream actually believed it could scare you. Scream, Teen, Scream! has twice the brains, all the laughs, and not a single pretension under its neatly sculpted red nails. (JF) Alexis Arquette and Jackie Beat in attendance.

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