That sinking feeling

The USA Film Festival resembles the highest grossing movie ever. It's been leaking like Titanic for a while, but the 28th Annual schedule suggests it may be going down fast.

Since January, someone with inside knowledge of the USA Film Festival has regularly trickled anonymous letters, legal correspondence, and inter-office memos to both the Dallas Observer and The Dallas Morning News that suggest some pretty nasty conflicts tearing at the soul of the organization. But nobody in Dallas arts journalism quite knows what's happening, because the ziplock mentality of the festival has sealed in the spoilage.

Over the telephone, USAFF administrative director Ann Alexander berated an Observer writer who wanted to know if it was true, as leaked documents suggest, that she tried to have former volunteer-turned-employee Cindy Sherwin arrested for embezzling money from the festival coffers. "I only answer legitimate questions!" she snapped.

Actually, neither she nor artistic director Alonso Duralde answer any questions on the subject at all, leaving local arts writers to sift through a deposit of tantalizing hints. But the festival doesn't take kindly to snooping journalists; a recently leaked 1995 letter from an anonymous USAFF board member to The Dallas Morning News threatened staff writer Al Brumley with a libel suit if he decided to "fabricate" a story about the controversial ascendancy of Alonso Duralde, who was chosen as artistic director against the will of the official search committee. This is atypical behavior for a nonprofit arts group, to say the least: The letter's author promised he or she would go on the record if Brumley instead chose to investigate former USAFF board member and documentary filmmaker Cynthia Salzman Mondell, who was ousted after she publicly protested the selection of Duralde.

But that's all blood under the bridge. The latest intrigue inside the festival is even thornier, whispered about to the local press through a series of anonymous faxes and deliveries:

There was a letter from ex-employee Cynthia M. Sherwin to various board members, claiming that Ann Alexander tried to have her "indicted" by the Dallas police, refused to give Sherwin a final paycheck at the end of her nine-month employment, tried to get her fired from her current job, and was still accusing Sherwin of stealing money from the festival's checking accounts and CDs.

Also sent was a letter from Mark Mueller, Ms. Sherwin's attorney, to Carl Weinkauf and Gina Betts, USAFF attorneys, that sharply denied the embezzlement allegations item by item, implied Ann Alexander directed Sherwin to forge checks, and suggested Sherwin resigned after nine months rather than risk possible retaliation for bringing already existing financial problems to the attention of the board of directors.

The source of the leak for the Sherwin vs. Alexander imbroglio would seem to be obvious: the embattled Cynthia Sherwin. But Sherwin's attorney denied to an Observer reporter that the leaks had come from his camp, and said his client wouldn't answer questions because she feared retaliation. Since neither side will discuss the issue either on or off the record, it's impossible to say if any of the accusations have merit.

But the implications of such intrigue are significant. Threatening journalists? Collecting and publicly disseminating confidential correspondence? Alleging embezzlement, forgery, and harassment? The USA Film Festival would seem to have everything on its mind but movies...but that seems obvious from a quick glance at the 28th Annual USAFF schedule.

To be sure, some frisky delights emerge. Connie Stevens and Paula Prentiss will personally host Susan Slade and Where the Boys Are, their respective "Bad Movies We Love." There are a slew of delightful gay-themed films and inspired, sometimes profane oddities by Asian-American filmmakers that will likely never show in Dallas again. And then there's Master Screen Artist Christopher Walken, a fascinating actor whose best performances can raise goosebumps with their combination of macho menace and feminine sensuality.

But the 28th Annual USA Film Festival, as a whole, is flabby, mediocre, and slapdash. No outsider can say for sure whether the USA Film Festival's fractious operation has affected the quality of programming, but it's painful to watch a major Dallas cultural institution struggle with what appears to be an identity crisis as the end of its third decade approaches. The festival seems to want to borrow from its brethren, taking Sundance's retreads, the New York Film Festival's previous world premiers, and Hollywood's most available journeymen, then jumbling it together and coming up with something, well, jumbled.

Bluntly phrased, the festival is too insignificant nationally to be capable of dazzling us with marquee names, and apparently too fame-hungry to realize it. Would Walken even have agreed to appear if he weren't promoting his soon-to-be-released Suicide Kings, a film that's been bumped from release repeatedly over the last year? And what's up with "Great Director" Alan J. Pakula? Sure, he directed what remains the greatest Holocaust movie made by an American filmmaker (Sophie's Choice, 1982) and a classic reporter-gets-in-over-his-head thriller (The Parallax View, 1974), but his '90s resume (Dream Lover, Presumed Innocent, Consenting Adults) is torpid. Was Pakula chosen to please movie fans bent on stargazing or traditional Hollywood, so the festival could continue its fame-seeking fare? He doesn't quite fulfill either agenda.

And look at the closing-night event: A Gen X comedy called Mr. Jealousy, executive-produced by and starring Eric Stoltz, the Pat Paulsen of independent cinema. He's emblematic of a whole plate of mediocre slacker sausage at the festival that includes The Clockwatchers, Courting Courtney, and other products that've been through the Sundance mill. Festival planners had the chance to organize into two separate mini-festivals a slew of films by Asian-American and gay directors, many of whom are visiting to speak. But both categories are scattered indiscriminately throughout the event's eight days.

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