Fest intentions

USA Film Festival: Amargosa, Committed, The Devil's Swing, Dropping Out, Hamlet, Lush, The Natural History of the Chicken, Split Decision, The Target Shoots First, Steal This Movie

After some hectoring and pleading, the Dallas Observer got another crack at USA Film Festival coverage. And if we get our face slapped again, we just hope good intentions and honest impatience justify our impudence.

Last year, as you may recall, the Festival chose to deny access to the Observer after 1998's withering depiction in these pages of infighting, lawsuit threats, extortion allegations, and a USAFF logo striking and sinking at the edge of an iceberg. Although we never invoked that straw bogeyman "censorship," one unlikely source did -- The Dallas Morning News, whose small piece in the "Overnight" section compared The Met's selection as "official" USAFF weekly to the official publications of totalitarian states. Chivalrous, if a tad exaggerated.

Frankly, we were a little perplexed that the perfectly understandable two-step many major Dallas arts institutions perform for Observer dealings -- kiss us on the cheek, stab us in the back -- wasn't used by the USA Film Festival. Bad publicity is still publicity, a lot of Dallas readers don't agree with our opinions anyway, etc., ad infinitum. But the festival seemed to betray its own self-awareness by keeping videos and screenings away from us. They knew they'd be giving us the opportunity to deliver a swift kick in the ass, because the schedule itself was such a big, white, inviting target: the dregs of other, more relevant festivals; films already on video or destined for direct-to-video or -cable release; inexplicable omissions from tribute programs; films with national opening dates just a whisker's length away from their USAFF debut. Vigorous conversations with friends, neighbors, and colleagues suggested we weren't the only ones to spot these vulnerabilities; we were just alone in planting our footprint there.

Courtney Love plays Joan, wife of Naked Lunch author William S. Burroughs, in Beat, part of the Texas Filmmaker's Showcase, Friday, April 28, 9 p.m.
Courtney Love plays Joan, wife of Naked Lunch author William S. Burroughs, in Beat, part of the Texas Filmmaker's Showcase, Friday, April 28, 9 p.m.
Carefree or a menace to society? Heather Graham is Committed to not letting her man get away, Thursday, May 4, 7:30 p.m.
Carefree or a menace to society? Heather Graham is Committed to not letting her man get away, Thursday, May 4, 7:30 p.m.


Tickets available at the box office at 1 p.m. each day, or call (214) 631-2787
April 27-May 4

AMC Glen Lakes,
9450 N. Central Expressway

The year 2000 brings a new festival artistic director, Beth Jasper, and a new opportunity to make kissy-face. Well, sorta -- we got smashing access to two of the USAFF headliners, but more limited exposure to the films themselves and to Jasper. In terms of availability of its product to the press, the Film Festival ought to take a lesson from Bart Weiss, artistic director of the Dallas Video Festival; not only do we usually receive a near-complete selection of DVF programs well within deadline, we're still trying to get him to come and pick up the 1999 and 2000 tapes. As far as Beth Jasper goes, we were permitted to e-mail her interview questions. She is, by all accounts, an amiable woman who's been involved at various levels of film production and scriptwriting. Her debut year with USAFF is neither revelation nor disintegration. Just more putt-putt-putting down the treacherous middle of an increasingly crowded road.

Addressing some of our complaints, Jasper's faxed reply insists: "Of the 60-100 films screened each year, less than 25 percent have distributors which may play Dallas-area theaters. These films are included because they generally have a filmmaker in attendance, giving audiences a 'live cinema' experience that they cannot get at the local cineplex when the film goes into regular play. Also, it is not uncommon for films without distributors to be booked for USAFF play and achieve a distribution deal before the USAFF play date."

Fair enough. And on the plus side of this year's festival, the "live cinema" experience includes tributes to two tireless Hollywood craftsmen -- director Norman Jewison and cinematographer Conrad Hall -- and a Women in Film evening presentation with Kimberly Peirce, whose Dallas-shot film Boys Don't Cry was heavily feted for its performances but, unjustly, not for the vivid and inexorable way Peirce guided its well-drawn characters through tragedy. There's a fine line between honoring the forgotten and the forgettable; just like Peirce, the photography and direction of Hall and Jewison are often recalled chiefly for the way they benefit the actors. Pausing to recall the disparate and lively collection of movies the latter two are responsible for feels like an overdue discovery, the kind the USA Film Festival is in a perfect position to make on the nationwide festival circuit.

But festival organizers have chosen unfortunate bookends for the event -- Michael Almereyda's Hamlet with Ethan Hawke to open, a Tribute to Blake Edwards for the closing. The Almereyda take on Shakespeare's Danish prince is not only about to be released, but has endured weeks of mediocre-to-disparaging publicity from previous festival-circuit appearances. As for the Edwards tribute -- well, once again there's no accounting for taste, but strolling back through film-book synopses of his career, we see that his last feature was 1993's Son of the Pink Panther, the movie that almost put federal agents on alert at international airports to confiscate any further film stock containing Roberto Benigni. (Hey, a couple of the Pink Panther movies are still gutbusters, but they're nowhere to be found on the schedule, and the real reason for their success, Peter Sellers, is, um, booked up for the foreseeable future). Toss in honors for filmmaker-turned-Kmart-shill Penny Marshall, and you have an 11 o'clock Friday-night tour of the Blockbuster shelves.

It's sad enough that by 1998, the year of our last USA Film Festival coverage, Austin's South By Southwest and Heart of Film had already surpassed the 28-year-old USAFF in programming ingenuity. And while Jasper insists many festivals we've compared hers to are "market/industry" event models -- in other words, they're devoted as much to producer-distributor-exhibitor shoptalk as they are to audience pleasing -- they attract many non-industry folks with subjects/presentations for multiple audiences. So our by count, that means the USAFF is ill-serving two groups -- film professionals on the Dallas scene and laypeople.

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