By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
This fall, two local film festivals celebrate their second birthdays, and already both have learned to run before they bothered to crawl. The Vistas Film Festival, which had its run last month, proved that no line exists between "great Latin cinema" and "great cinema"; Vistas featured some of the best films we've seen all year, most of which will never receive release outside the incestuous fest circuit. This week, the Deep Ellum Film Festival makes its return, and its schedule contains enough high-quality, high-profile releases to make us wonder if the USA Film Festival hasn't become a moot point 30 years on. Any fest would be proud and delighted to claim one of the following--E. Elias Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire, Ken Loach's Bread and Roses, Griffin Dunne's Famous, and Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count on Me--but the Deep Ellum Film Festival doesn't have to settle. It boasts all four, which astounds writer-director-actor L.M. Kit Carson. "That's kind of impressive, isn't it?" asks the local-born Carson, subject of last year's DEFF retrospective, old friend of Dunne's, and--oh, yeah--co-founder of the USA Film Festival.
The festival has also lined up a rather impressive roster of talent to attend this year's proceedings, which transpire all across town--from the opening-night party on Wednesday at the Gypsy Tea Room to screenings at the Lakewood Theater, Club Clearview, Club Dada, even Expo Lounge and Deep Ellum Live. John Pierson will be around all week to discuss his years of distributing, exhibiting, and producing independent cinema, as well as creating and hosting the Independent Film Channel's Split Screen. On Saturday at the Main Street Internet Café, you can even attend a lunch with the author of Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema and bust his balls about Kevin Smith, Spike Lee, Michael Moore, Terry Zwigoff, and Lizzie Borden. He'd love that.
On Wednesday night, legendary photographer-collagist--and onetime fixture on the Studio 54 scene--Peter Beard will attend an opening of an exhibition of his work at the Boyd Gallery. And dozens of the filmmakers showing their movies in the fest will attend; most impressively, Merhige will appear at the Thursday-night screening of Shadow of the Vampire, and Griffin Dunne will show up for screenings of films he's directed (the terribly underrated Addicted to Love) or ones in which he starred (An American Werewolf in London). Indeed, for the screening of Martin Scorsese's After Hours, he will be joined by castmate Rosanna Arquette. About being the recipient of a retrospective, Dunne can only say it's his first such honor and, he hopes, his last for quite some time. "I'm still, ya know, young," he says, sort of laughing. "I'm honored, but I'm also just getting started."
So too is the DEFF, but founder-director Michael Cain's child ranks among the most promising ideas this side of counting ballots by hand. Cain started the fest in 1999 both to raise money for cancer awareness (Cain moved back to Dallas from L.A. in the fall of 1998 to care for his father) and to expose local audiences to independent films being made nationally and in their own back yards. To that end, last year's fest featured about 40 films, among them Chris Smith's extraordinary, hilarious American Movie, Carl Franklin's indie benchmark One False Move, and nearly a dozen locally produced features. This year's roster has expanded exponentially: The DEFF will present nearly 70 films, host a handful of seminars for aspiring filmmakers and concerned filmgoers (among them, "The Future of Arthouse Exhibition" and a writing seminar with Kit Carson), and overwhelm Deep Ellum with parties and premieres throughout the weekend.
"The festival, as much as anything else, teaches local filmmakers what the game is," Cain says. "Here's Griffin Dunne, go talk to him. Here's John Pierson, the guy who discovered Steven Soderbergh and Kevin Smith and The Blair Witch Project. Those guys can put you ahead, and they're here for five days, so there will be a lot of late-night conversations. And we drink a lot. Last year, we tried to create a filmmaker's film fest, because they're the ones who go out there and say, 'These people treated us well.' We started with that and grew from there. Last year, we had 43 filmmakers show up--43 people saying to their distribution companies or agents or fellow filmmakers, 'This is a good place to go.' That will open the door more than me calling people and begging for their movies."
It is often said that a film festival shouldn't feel too comfortable until its fifth birthday, after it has suffered though the requisite growing pains. But for the Deep Ellum Film Festival, the birthday party starts this week, and it deserves all the presents its has received--and, in kind, bestowed upon local filmmakers and filmgoers. The child has such promise.
What follows are a few of the festival's highlights and major screenings. For a complete list and schedule, go to www.def2.org.
American Nightmare It takes only a few minutes of watching The American Nightmare, which premiered last month on IFC, for the viewer to get the point: Real life is far more horrific--more brutal, more bloody, more visceral, more abhorrent--than any fiction ever created. Director Adam Simon, a masterful film-history documentarian, splices footage of fact and fiction together until they blend into a grisly whole: Are we watching scenes from a movie (Last House on the Left, Night of the Living Dead) or documentary footage from the battlefields of Vietnam and Mississippi and Kent State? Or, in the end, does it matter? As Simon posits, through the voices of John Carpenter and George Romero and Tobe Hooper and other filmmakers, their violent films of the late 1960s and early '70s were nothing but reflections of the turmoil surrounding them. They were documentarians, of a sort, posing as artists: The climax of Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead--when the Southern cops kill the film's hero, Ben (Duane Jones), mistaking him for a zombie before tossing him on a pyre--is no less chilling than the black-and-white photographs of lynchings and burned corpses that hang from trees like charred Christmas-tree ornaments. Simon has eradicated the stench of camp that has long lingered around Romero's low-budget, blood-drunk horror film. It is possible once more to watch Night of the Living Dead and be genuinely horrified by it: A black man is gleefully gunned down by white cops who treat his body as something to be defiled and destroyed--as so much trash, to be burned and not buried. When director and makeup artist Tom Savini talks about how he learned the tricks of his trade by traipsing through the corpse-strewn rice paddies of Vietnam, we're at once sickened and amused by his indifference. He talks about stepping over limbs, snapping photographs of blown-to-bits bodies (some of which he has preserved to show us 30 years later), and of shutting out emotion through the distance provided by the camera's lens. The tone of his voice suggests that he's more than a little ashamed, but he's also proud--proud he survived, proud he used horror to create horror. "I was actually able to look at bone and blood and placement and geography," says the man who created the gore for such films as Friday the 13th. A cynic might dismiss The American Nightmare as too highfalutin, giving the lowbrow such highbrow treatment; interviews with directors are intercut with commentary from experts who explain the obvious. But Simon's point is well taken, right through the skull: The most terrifying things in this world take place not on a screen, but right in front of us. November 17, 10:30 p.m., Lakewood. (RW)
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