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.

This is the worst schedule since Alonso Duralde was appointed artistic director three years ago. The selection of Duralde--about whom one writer said at the time, "he eats, drinks, and sleeps film"--seemed to point the festival in some sort of direction: His encyclopedic knowledge and love of film for film's sake suggested that USAFF would be transformed into a movie fanatic's playground. He had scheduled the "Bad Movies We Love" series based on his days writing a cable TV column for Movieline magazine, he brought in cultist visionaries like Paul Schrader and Peter Greenaway, and appeared poised to remake the festival in reaction to heavy-hitters like Sundance and Telluride: The schedule would be programmed with audiences, not producers and distributors, foremost in mind.

But a major push in that direction has never occurred. What Dallasites get instead is a festival that's one-third smart, distinctive flourishes of vision and two-thirds recycled buzz from the national festival circuit and Hollywood. The latter comes in the form of too much over-hyped fare from Sundance and the New York Film Festival as well as the haphazard dedication of Great Director and Master Screen Artist honors to Hollywood troupers who wouldn't receive such an excess of credit anywhere else. How many times can indie bridesmaids Eric Stoltz and Alexis Arquette appear to tout low-budget projects that (if they're lucky) will go straight to video? Even more telling is a peek back at the last few years' major honorees. Master Screen Artist Richard Dreyfuss? Great Director Sydney Pollack? A tribute to the career of filmmaker Martha Coolidge?

We can only speculate on the origins of this fun vs. fame approach to programming. When Duralde first took the post, many thought that Alexander overrode the selection committee to handpick him and lobbied former board president John Maloney for his appointment because she wanted a young, talented artistic director who would feel indebted to her. Her pound of flesh would come in the form of her exerting more creative influence on programming. And Alexander, whose talents as a fundraiser are undisputed, was always pushing for more stars, bigger artists, hotter names.

There's just one problem: Movie stars and directors have no reason to visit Dallas, except as part of an already planned publicity tour for their latest imminent release. Certainly, the festival in its present form offers no overarching purpose, no grand design to keep it aimed at a horizon that other festivals can't see, thus enticing bigger names to participate in something that happens nowhere else.

Maybe this year's USAFF programming wouldn't look so weak if our neighbor city to the south, Austin, wasn't currently conducting two festivals that have leapfrogged over USAFF in the last couple of years. You could argue that both the South by Southwest Film Festival in March and the Austin Heart of Film Screenwriters Festival are indie showcases for Hollywood types, not a movie lover's playground. As anyone who's attended either can tell you, the workshops and panel discussions that drive both festivals are sometimes wearying. And neither is above touting soon-to-be-released Hollywood flicks as premieres: SXSW heavily hyped Richard Linklater's The Newton Boys (although, Austin being Linklater's hometown, and he its reigning muse, the choice had some resonance).

Acknowledging that, reports out of both recent festivals indicate highlights that the USAFF would never be able to achieve in its current incarnation. Want to hear former Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh talk about scoring film? Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan discuss the transition from critical favorite (Exotica) to Oscar-nominated director (The Sweet Hereafter)? You missed both if you weren't at the last SXSW. How about a panel discussion among Buck Henry, Scott Thompson, and Carl Gottlieb about what it means to be funny on film? Or King of the Hill's Mike Judge and Johnny Hardwicke goofing on the subject of writing for animation? A chat by Oliver Stone on fact and fiction in historical films? Last year's Austin Heart of Film delivered all this and more.

Both SXSW and Heart of Film have succeeded because they know what they are: an oasis for truly innovative (and sometimes bloody famous) film artists who come because they want to escape the wheeling and dealing of coast festivals, relax, and just talk about what they do and where they want to go. No pressure to hype their latest project; no need to take advantage of some photo op with Miramax's Weinstein brothers.

Meanwhile, the USA Film Festival blindly pursues whatever movie stars or film directors are at the end of a national tour to promote their latest work. Yet nothing besides a dubious "honor" is delivered once they get here. And if veteran film professionals are regularly handed Great This or Master That awards just because they're willing and able to show up, the awards' reputations will decline precipitously with both industry folk and those die-hard Dallas cineastes who can figure out by their own moviegoing habits whether these people's work is still worth a bucket of popcorn.

The common culprit among these problems? The chronic pursuit of fame over originality. The USA Film Festival might consider that the best way to make everyone happy--Dallasites and festival pundits alike--is to define itself against what New York, Los Angeles, Telluride, Park City, and now Austin are doing, to have the smarts to figure out their blind spots and the courage to illuminate them in Dallas, Texas.

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