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.

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.

Actually, devoting a festival to the pure love of movies is a great idea, but barring a full-steam-ahead transformation in that direction, the USAFF better make sure it has the clout and the resources to bring in the artists audiences really love. They might start by doing some internal repairs. If they fix their leaks, they'll resemble the Titanic a lot less. But if they don't fix their programming, they'll start to look like The Love Boat of American film festivals: a perpetually drifting barge of celebrities with suspiciously open schedules.

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