Tale of the Tapes

With headliners like Mike Judge and an impressive list of films, the Dallas Video Festival once again wins by knockout

What passes for "reality" under the great video eye of network television is pretty lame these days. Personally, we're not going to take that prefab national phenom known as Survivor seriously until someone dies of exposure, snakebite, or hunger during the show. Similarly, we'll consider Temptation Island "reality-based programming" only when one of the boyfriends starts to feel a burning sensation while urinating, and a trip to the health clinic includes a video log of the mundane horror of gonorrhea.

Thank God, the Dallas Video Festival returns for a 14th year to remind us that everyone has a story to tell, and whether they're documentary or fictional, creative or crappy, these tales won't stand or fall on how well a national cross section of 18- to 34-year-olds receives them. Entertainment pundits are watching the signs--How many HDTVs are being bought? How many major distributors picked up video features at Sundance? How will the next Star Wars episode, to be partially shot in a digital process developed by Lucasfilm, perform at the box office?--for when digital video has started to compete with film and television for America's entertainment dollar. We haven't arrived there, but as the nation's three largest video festivals--DVF, New York Video Festival, and AFI's Los Angeles Film and Video Festival--demonstrate every year, video has distinguished itself as a medium that's unusually accessible for artists, maybe even more so than for audiences. As more people get to tell more weird, personal stories in weirder and more personal ways, it's inevitable that the number of viewers for each tale will be smaller. We remain hopeful that artist and audience can connect more intimately after the thrill-seekers are weeded out.

So when we say there's something for everyone at the Dallas Video Festival, we don't mean that each of those "somethings" is intended for everyone. They're drama, comedy, history, documentary, music, and experimental works whose only link to one another is their format. A very popular--and artistically laudable--exception is this year's Ernie Kovacs Award recipient, former Dallasite Mike Judge. The creator of Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill will be honored March 17 at 7:30 p.m. in the Kalita Humphreys Theater for his contribution to television. When the notoriously shy Judge comes to pick up his award, Garland residents can marvel at how much he sounds like Arlen's most successful propane salesman. Score another one for the Dallas Video Festival, and video in general--even Hank Hill's nationally popular stories can only be fully appreciated by a small group of listeners. ¯Jimmy Fowler

Rene Moreno, stricken with Down syndrome, can't fathom why he can't do what other men his age can in Duane Graves' Up Syndrome.
Rene Moreno, stricken with Down syndrome, can't fathom why he can't do what other men his age can in Duane Graves' Up Syndrome.
Rene Moreno, stricken with Down syndrome, can't fathom why he can't do what other men his age can in Duane Graves' Up Syndrome.
Duane Graves
Rene Moreno, stricken with Down syndrome, can't fathom why he can't do what other men his age can in Duane Graves' Up Syndrome.
Robbie and Sarah prepare to say their farewells to each other and American High.
Robbie and Sarah prepare to say their farewells to each other and American High.
The Hills of Arlen, Texas, welcome their creator, Mike Judge (inset), to the Dallas Video Fest, where he will receive the Kovacs Award this year.
Fox Broadcasting
The Hills of Arlen, Texas, welcome their creator, Mike Judge (inset), to the Dallas Video Fest, where he will receive the Kovacs Award this year.
Aaron Fischer goes for the Popcorn! record in his funny and, finally, inspirational film.
Aaron Fischer goes for the Popcorn! record in his funny and, finally, inspirational film.
Ross Perot's supporters were Flirting With Power in 1992.
Russ Monroe
Ross Perot's supporters were Flirting With Power in 1992.
Still Life With Animated Dogs: sounds better than living with the real thing.
Still Life With Animated Dogs: sounds better than living with the real thing.
Tonight on Real Sex 69: a screening of Show World, which isn't so...revealing.
Tonight on Real Sex 69: a screening of Show World, which isn't so...revealing.

The 14th Annual Dallas Video Festival happens March 14, 15, 16, and 18 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. March 17 events occur at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, 2301 Flora St., and at the Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood. Tickets are $5-$15 for single-day passes and $45 for all-festival passes. Call 1-800-494-TIXS. For a complete schedule, check the DVF's Web site at www.videofest.org/2001/.

What follow are select reviews of video festival highlights written by Eric Celeste, Zac Crain, Jimmy Fowler, Bret McCabe, Patrick Williams, and Robert Wilonsky. Except where otherwise noted, video festival events occur at one of the Kalita Humphreys Theater's four venues: Video Lounge, Video Box, Video Cabaret, or Videotheque.

Wednesday, March 14

Once and Future Queen

Digital-video terrorist Todd Verow has become the darling of the New York Underground Film Festival for his features and shorts, which combine the trash-collectivist aesthetics of John Waters with the technical ability of the Dogme '95--he loves to wallow around with self-destructive urban characters who crave fame and money, but when Verow and his editor-cameraman Jim Dwyer boast about using only available light and handheld cameras, they have the technical chops to incorporate these limitations into a seamless and--dare I say it--even professional style. With his latest feature Once and Future Queen, he's got a bit more up his sleeve than glamorizing suicidal East Side musicians. This portrait of an over-the-hill punk singer named Anti-Matter (a truly hilarious Philly) owes more to Ab Fab's Pats and Eddie than G.G. Allin. Whether she's draining the booze from an alcoholic friend's pad "to remove all temptation for you" or sullenly raiding the refrigerator of one of her three ex-husbands ("he's just pissed because I pulled a knife on him"), Anti-Matter is the pitch-perfect intersection of where narcissism crosses arrested ability. (JF) Adam Cohen's quest to document the death of Barcelona's red-light district in 1994--at the tail end of a street-sweeping effort similar to Rudy Giuliani's attempts to turn Times Square into Disney's latest theme park--was a noble idea. As it turns out, however, Cohen showed up too late (once teeming with sex shops and prostitutes, the area is now imprisoned under several thick coats of whitewash), and unfortunately, he also found himself without the skill to do much of anything once his grand idea had turned into vapor. Cohen's style owes much to his genuinely talented brother Jem (whose work was showcased here last year), but he doesn't have the polish to pull it off, as Fire of Time is more of a waste of time, a random assortment of camera tricks and pointed-yet-pointless imagery. (ZC)

London International Advertising

Awards 2000

We're suckers for these compilations, if only because we long ago stopped believing that art and commerce were separate entities; better to fess up now and enjoy these, ahem, "shorts" for what they are--usually, the most enjoyable part of watching prime-time TV these days (better a FedEx ad featuring the Munchkins than 30 minutes of Geena Davis). This collection of last year's finest features the usual suspects (Visa's water-ballet Olympic spot, Maya Angelou's New York Timesad, the Mountain Dew spot in which a BMX'er chases and catches a cheetah), and the standard gaggle of foreign-made spots that make you go hmmmm, among them an Argentinean advert promoting a copying-and-color-separation service by way of multiple homicides and a shoe-polisher spot that makes it appear as though a man is buffing, well, himself. Of course, you get four Budweiser "Whassup?" ads, one of which (using call waiting) is rarely shown. These spots took home the Grand Prize award; that is correct. (RW)

Thursday, March 15

American High

Fox TV canceled this R.J. Cutler-created series last year after only four episodes appeared in a two-week span. In these pages last August, Cutler blamed the demise of American High, which followed around 12 high school students in Highland Park, Illinois, on programming decisions (it had what Cutler called "the world's shittiest time slot," as it aired opposite CBS' Big Brother, which had as its lead-in Survivor), panic, and network-exec turnover. Fox's loss has turned out to be PBS' gain, and you can only hope that public television knows what to do with a series that feels like The Real World's smarter, snappier kid brother. The show existed to prove that reality television, when done with class and conscience, could indeed be powerful and personal: We saw the pain spread across Sarah's face when she discovered her boyfriend, Robbie, had gotten into the University of Colorado, meaning he was about to leave for good; we sighed when jock Kiwi failed to notice how much his beautiful best friend, Anna, was in love with him; and we ached watching Allie cope with her parents' painful divorce. If nothing else, American Highexisted to prove to adults how little we know about today's teens. The video fest is showing two remarkable episodes: the debut and a later show about prom night. (RW)

Boxes

Don't let Kovacs Award recipient Mike Judge near the screen when Boxesis showing; he might be tempted to wonder why director Rene Besson and writer James Portolese felt it necessary to remake his 1999 film Office Space, only with no money (it cost $300 bucks, so they insist), no laughs, and no appeal. Judge's movie captured perfectly Still Life in the Cubicle: inane, cliché-obsessed bosses droning on and on about memos and motives; dull-eyed co-workers with nowhere to go but sideways; efficiency experts whose titles seem somehow ironic; and machines that work just long enough to break down and frustrate. Besson and Portolese mine the exact same material in the exact same place--in a maze of cubes, beneath the life-sucking fluorescent lights--but without the charm or chuckles or, for that matter, the point. The poster for Office Spacehad more to say: "Work sucks." Yeah, especially when it's your job to watch Boxes. (RW)

Store Wars

It's hard not to be annoyed by most everyone in Micha Peled's engrossing documentary about how tiny Ashland, Virginia, is torn by Wal-Mart's decision to try to open a store there. The argument for it: People need to shop. Against it: Yeah, but it's big and corporate and evil! Sure, the company appears clueless at times, like when it buys a full-page ad in the local paper that misrepresents a professor's study about how a Wal-Mart opening affects small local businesses. (Hint: Business don't get bettah.) But when the passel o' Ashland idiots claim they're against a Wal-Mart because they want to keep the hamlet's small-town heritage, then meet to discuss anti-WM strategy at a friggin' Hardee's...well, the anti-chain gang loses what little credibility it may have built up. (EC)

Show World

HBO likes to portray itself as the network of class and quality--home to The Sopranos, The Larry Sanders Show, Boycott, and all things Emmy-worthy. But the cable outlet fills its late-night hours with poor excuses for soft-core porn; this week on Real Sex 59, couples who get off watching G-String Divas. Rosalee Tsoo's 26-minute doc, taped in front of one of New York City's best-known titty bars, plays like Real Sexintros and outtakes--those perv-on-the-street interviews ("What's your idea of fantasy?" "What turns you on?" "What kind of woman are you trying to meet?") that break up the monotony of watching old folks grope old folks on a New Age kibbutz. This is all Q&A, blahblahblah street-corner confessions: One woman admits to taking part in a circle-jerk (with vibrators, no duh); another guy asks Tsoo, "Can I sniff your fart?"; most often, they ramble, insult, and threaten. (RW)

Friday, March 16

Divine Trash

Here's one of your last big-screen chances to catch Steve Yeager's light-hearted, engrossing documentary about the early career of director John Waters up to the filming of Pink Flamingos. Its wide variety of sources--new and stock interviews with Waters, the late Glenn "Divine" Milstead, shlock movie influences the Kuchar Brothers and Herschel Gordon Lewis, Waters' parents, and Divine's mom--provide the texture that the best documentaries have, when the testifiers provide little moments of character beyond the subject they testify about (watch Divine's mother insist poignantly that her son was a role model for fat people and gay men). Waters emerges with his usual contradictions intact--a kind-hearted, articulate, and unusually charming man who, as a director, juxtaposed images of Christ's crucifixion with Divine groaning in pleasure as rosary beads are shoved up her ass in Multiple Maniacs. Divine Trash may be the most entertaining Waters flick he never made. (JF)

Confederacy Theory

"Symbols are never any better than the people who use them," declares one Southerner and Confederate flag-bearer in Confederacy Theory, a subtle and detailed exploration into the ongoing controversy that ensnared Dubya during the presidential campaign--the Dixie flag flying on the South Carolina statehouse. Writer-director Ryan Duessing talked to everyone conceivable--past and present S.C. senators and governors, NAACP activists, ministers, historians, white supremacists, and Civil War re-enactors--and some inconceivable--the black grandson of a Confederate soldier who proudly has Dixie pinned on his wall--to achieve the unlikely: the realization that both sides of this debate are correct in their contentions. The Confederate flag represents slavery, and it represents fallen ancestors. (JF)

Settlers

British filmmaker Sean McAllister has built his reputation with an ambitious, aggressive style that examines large social issues with an economy of means. Armed with only a camera and his own fearlessness, McAllister travels to Jerusalem to explore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as seen through the lives and eyes of two of its inhabitants. Ali Juddah is a black Muslim who served 17 years in prison for planting a bomb in his youth; today, he's a tour guide. Dov is an Orthodox Jew from New York who hosts a radio show that espouses political commentary in a gonzo style that recalls Wolfman Jack. The title refers to the pockets of Israelis who move into historically Muslim neighborhoods, creating a palpable tension on the streets they now share. There are moments in Settlers where McAllister, who spends entire days and nights with his subjects, catches their most private, intimate moments--their hopes, their fears, their rage, their doubts--and as a result, his work offers a more eye-opening view into the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than even newspapers and television news programs have thus far been able to provide. (BM)

Superstarlet A.D.

You'll see more painted lips in Superstarlet A.D., Memphis indie wonder John Michael McCarthy's latest, than in your average Revlon commercial. The sirens, vixens, and amazons in JMM's deadpan apocalyptic comedy--a world of urban ruins where men have lost a chromosome and reverted to Neanderthal savages shot for sport by warring cults of blond-, red-, and black-haired women--sneer, pout, purse, and stretch their dark mouths, which stand in shocking contrast to their pure white complexions. What rescues it from overburdened camp concept is Steven Oatley's gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, a soundtrack of Memphis musicians who noodle in lounge jazz and Spanish guitar stylings, and the unreasonable confidence with which JMM realizes his movie-fanatic's dystopia and then guides his mostly female performers through it without a misstep. (JF)

Such a Nice Boy I Gave Birth To

Somewhere in the city of Krakow, Poland, there lives a woman who is, without a doubt, a top contender for the title Meanest Woman in Europe. She is the mother of video maker Marcin Koszalka, who should be given some sort of combat photography award for this 25-minute video, in which he relentlessly trains a camera on his mother as she runs through a series of vicious tirades against her slacker son and spiritless husband. "Why don't you go film yourself, you stupid shit?" she asks her son early on, in one of her nicer moments. "We didn't bring you, bastard, into the world to ruin our old age," and "It makes me puke, your stuff," she says later. (Other highlights include the occasional slap or tossed pan of water.) Koszalka's unblinking voyeurism of his mother's meltdowns is, simply, unpleasant to watch, but the payoff comes at the end as he films her reaction to his tape. Ever unguarded, she delivers a single look of simultaneous shock, self-loathing, shame, and defiance that no actor could duplicate--a look that makes the preceding tortuous minutes spent watching her worthwhile. Almost. (PW)

Saturday, March 17

Devotion

Hidden somewhere in Barbara Hammer's documentary Devotion is the fascinating story of Ogawa Productions, a Japanese film commune that made 18 politically charged movies from the late 1960s to the 1990s. Founded and led by the charismatic Ogawa Shinsuke, the collective's story is fragmented by a wealth of interviews--from the men and women involved and their families--whose jumbled organization obscures any clear picture of their story. Lost amid the kaleidoscope of interviews are the basic facts of Ogawa Productions--when and how it started, what informed its ideology, and even any sense of what its films examined. Hammer does a commendable job exploring the interpersonal dynamic of the group, especially the gender inequalities that existed within its core members, though a context for these stories would have given Devotion much-needed bite. (BM)

Flirting With Power

Why did Ross Perot's 1992 and '96 bids for the presidency fail? Let's see. There was the media. They were very bad. There were the dirty tricks played by the Republicans and Democrats. They were naughty, too. And finally, there was you. You just didn't have the will or energy to vote your consciences. Bad voter. Bad! Bad! Of course, the fact that Perot is something of a nutbag may have something to do with it. Unfortunately, that aspect is lightly glossed over in Flirting With Power, a dreadful softball of a documentary by Jo Streit that, despite the passage of time and broad access to members of the Perot campaigns, manages to offer little in the way of insight, balance, or depth. (It also doesn't have an interview with the man himself. Perot dislikes the media--apparently even those members willing to kiss his fanny.) Why did Perot really fail? What hidden facet of the American psyche does his limited success reveal? Was he ever truly a viable candidate? If you really want to know, we suggest you skip Streit's video and visit your public library. (PW)

Matisse & Picasso: A Gentle Rivalry

If nothing else, this examination of the "gentle rivalry" between Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso during their mutual quest to become the greatest avant-garde painter in the world (or Paris, at least) proves that even seemingly bulletproof ideas can end up with a slug between their ribs. It never gives itself a chance, missing the mark so wildly and so often, the fact that a mark ever existed becomes a distant memory. Taking the Ken Burns pan-and-scan approach to filmmaking, Matisse & Picasso reduces the works of two brilliant artists to the level of auto-paint king Earl Scheib. And as it turns out, Matisse and Picasso's rivalry is so gentle--the film's treatment of it is, anyway--you have to wonder if the filmmakers actually know what the word means. (ZC)

TV Dream Homes: The Drawings of Mark Bennett

In just over a quarter of an hour, filmmaker Paula Ezell takes you from pity to amusement to affection for soft-voiced Mark Bennett, a Chattanooga, Tennessee, native who shot to international art-world fame with his spare, precise blueprints of the homes of family TV sitcoms, including I Love Lucy, My Three Sons, The Munsters, and The Dick Van Dyke Show. Bennett was down and out in Los Angeles when an agent from the Mark Moore Gallery asked to represent him after seeing a restaurant exhibit. It was his own miserable childhood, Bennett elaborates in his Tennessee twang, that had caused him to obsess over the details of sitcom dwellings till it became "almost religious." His creative pinnacle--a map of the United States charting the wanderings of The Fugitive that hangs on the wall of New York's MOMA. (JF)

Black Indians: An American Story

Generations of Americans descended from both Native Americans and African-Americans finally get their story told in this documentary from Chip Richie; it's just too bad it feels like such a drab effort. A potentially rich history, one overflowing with the shared struggles of these two people and the children they created under years of oppression, is given a Cliffs Notes treatment. Over the course of many interviews with people who share this mixed ancestry, Richie focuses only on the ostracism they encountered from both African-American and Native-American groups--Black Indians forgets to present its subjects as people themselves. (BM)

One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich

French filmmaker Chris Marker could have retired years ago and sealed his name in film history on the strengths of his poetic works La Jetée, the source material for Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, and Sans Soleil. You can add his latest effort, a documentary of the life and art of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, to that list of fine achievements. Shot during Tarkovsky's last year in Paris as he slowly succumbed to the cancer that would claim his life in 1986, One Day offers a superb analysis of Tarkovsky's lyrical cinematic vocabulary. You'll be hard-pressed to find a more thorough explication of Tarkovsky's vision than the one provided by Marker here. It's a caring portrait of an auteur who remains underappreciated in the United States. (BM)

Hill Stomp Hollar

Bradley Beesley's documentary would work even if you never heard R.L. Burnside, T-Model Ford, or Cedell Davis speak. As long as you could still hear them sing and play, listen to their whiskey-soaked words come out of their gummy mouths while they pick and grimace their way through finger-licking, boot-kicking, backwater, backwoods, backroom, back-porch blues, you don't need anything else. Fuck Stevie Ray Vaughan: The real blues comes from the hill country of Mississippi, and as Beesley's film shows, at least a few people--namely the tiny, two-man staff at Fat Possum Records, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion--know the truth. It really doesn't get much better than this. (ZC)

Suits: The Clothes Make the Man

This charming but way-too-long doc shows us a year in the life of the Art Guys, Houston's beloved performance artists. Their gig this time: They sell corporate sponsorships/logos on their Todd Oldham-designed suits and wear them at public events for a year. It's supposed to be a statement about how artists become commerce, or commerce becomes an artist, or somesuch. I don't know. But it sure is fun (if redundant) to travel the country with these guys as they show off their duds. (Highlights: the fashion show in Times Square and rapping in New Orleans.) Although...it is extremely embarrassing when the Art Guys are shown marching in the sparsely attended downtown Dallas St. Paddy's Day parade. Psst...Guys, the one on Greenville Avenue is the happening one. And, Guys, cut this to 40 minutes, then you've got a winner. (EC)

Stalin/Eisenstein

The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl chronicled the relationship between a right-wing dictator (Adolf Hitler) and his country's most important filmmaker; this does the same for left-wing tyrant Joseph Stalin and Sergei Eisenstein, whose collaboration lasted much longer (almost 20 years) but was finally, dramatically severed. The brilliant Russian writer-director, who truthfully comes across as a bit of a wuss here, could no longer tolerate the direct orders of Stalin, who personally previewed every movie before allowing it to screen in his country. There were omissions of truth, addition of propagandistic lies, and above all, the edict to tone down his emotionally stirring "montage" style in films such as Battleship Potemkin. (JF)

True Fans

It's obvious that Dan Austin thought he had a Big Idea when he and friends decided to bicycle across America to the NBA Hall of Fame, where they would present to its administrators a basketball. Not just any basketball, though, Austin tells us in his Radio Guy voice and overwritten narration. No, this would be a ball signed by heroes, true heroes, the sort of heroes one meets when one is out on that great highway of life, where all of your day-to-day concerns fade as you hug that white line. Yes, it's that pretentious. And because of the overbearing narration, we never get a sense of Austin or his friends or the "heroes" (read: any of the odd folks they meet don't look like they chill at Austin's fave SoCal beach). (EC)

Beaver Trilogy

The big hit at last summer's New York Video Festival was this recently assembled dramatic triptych from the archives of Utah professor-occasional maverick filmmaker Trent Harris. The story: In 1979, Harris videotaped a guy named Larry Huff he accidentally met in a TV station parking lot, then accompanied him to a mortuary, where the makeup artist bedecks Huff in pancake base and long blond wig for a drag tribute to Olivia Newton-John at a local talent contest. In 1980, Harris shot almost the same piece starring a pre-Fast Times at Ridgemont High Sean Penn in Olivia's golden tresses. Fast forward to 1985, when Crispin Glover gives a typically overwrought but hypnotic performance in an altered scenario, this one recorded on film and edited to look like a network TV movie about following your dreams. The result? The shorts are shown together to mountains of oblique critical praise but provide an actual viewing experience that alternates between oddball and laborious. (JF)

Sunday, March 18

Compilation: Jewish History Revisited Plus

The four shorts gathered for this compilation program are ambitious efforts whose big themes are hindered by limited means. Diane Nerwen's In the Blood examines how the attitudes of contemporary American Jews toward Germany, its language, and its people have been shaped by knowledge of the Holocaust: Respondents two generations removed from World Ward II recall tales of visiting Germany and immediately feeling like unwanted outsiders. This interesting cultural dynamic is, unfortunately, undermined by the short's visual approach: a collage of first-person documentary images, newsreels, and movie excerpts cut and pasted together that reaches for a poetic lyricism but never feels like more than a haphazard experiment. Ever more perplexing are Jay Rosenblatt's Worm--a brief that tells the story about a boy remembering the day it rained worms--and King of the Jews, the tale of a young Jewish man who grew up absolutely petrified of Jesus. King takes a unique approach to examine Catholic anti-Semitism but does so in a manner that recalls Ira Glass' creepy, monotone melodrama, "This American Life." Rosenblatt's Nine Lives, however, earns a half-hearted chuckle for being the wild card in the lot, a riff on James Thurber's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, with a cat as its dreaming narrator. (BM)

Still Life With Animated Dogs

"I think we are all born with a predisposition to connect with nature," animator Paul Fierlinger says late in this brief, moving tribute to various dog companions he has had throughout his life and the valuable lessons they taught him. "To be in awe of nature and let go of all other thoughts is to become connected to God." Written, narrated, and animated by Fierlinger--whose simple drawing style here is reminiscent of James Thurber's New Yorker cartoons--Still Life tracks Fierlinger's series of pets from his bitter, younger days in Cold War Czechoslovakia to middle-class America. "To live under totalitarian rule is to live without a past and without a future," he says of life behind the Iron Curtain, where a dog named Roosevelt taught him how to deal with heavy-handed authority: "Get sneaky and do everything under the table." Fierlinger's language here comes across like a prose poem that is beautifully measured, deceptively complex. His memories of his dogs--and the observations of humanity they led him to--are heartfelt and sentimental without being maudlin. Of course, that's the way any honest expression of gratitude and love should be. (PW)

Figures of Speech

One of the few films to emerge from Sundance with much b-b-b-buzz was Richard Linklater's Waking Life, in which actors talktalktalk about the meaning of life. Only, you never actually "see" the actors: They've been animated by artists who use computers to render humans as living-breathing-moving-morphing paintings that shift shapes according to words spoken or emotions hinted at. The technology will no doubt be the filmmakers' play toy for a long time; even if the story's weak and the dialogue's dodgy, you'll be wowed by the dreamscape unfolding. Tommy Pallotta and Bob Sabiston's 30-minute short Figures of Speechdoesn't even bother to offer a narrative; rather, they went out and interviewed folks in Austin, Texas; Flagstaff, Arizona; and San Francisco, California; let them ramble on and on about boys and hurricanes and acting and other bits of life's errata; and then brought them to vivid, animated life using this new woweetechnology. The result is hypnotic, even if it is a strictly BYOB (Bring Your Own Bong) affair. (RW)

Up Syndrome

One of the most remarkable movies to screen this year is the documentary Up Syndrome, written, produced, directed, and edited by Duane Graves while he was still a University of Texas student. Graves returned to his hometown of San Antonio to shoot more than a year's worth of footage with one of his childhood chums, a 23-year-old with Down syndrome named Rene Moreno. What makes Up Syndrome such a minor miracle is that, unlike documentaries about the developmentally disabled such as Best Boy, it plunges through sentiment and sadness to locate the personality of people who're often blurred into angelic smudges. Never institutionalized, Moreno grew up playing with "normal" boys and absorbed their tastes and habits--popcorn, girls, slasher flicks, basketball, toy guns, fart jokes, the middle finger. That would seem to be ideal, but when he reaches young adulthood, he's so smart and confident that he's baffled at the category other adults place him in--Moreno's bewildered that he can't do what other men his age can. Graves' technical mastery of the digital video camera has us ricochet between moments of sadness, when Moreno is fired from his job at Albertson's, to lunacy, when he fakes a violent death after a mock shootout. (JF)

Ten Stories from Toxic Texas and Save the Trinity

Many of the 10 tales of environmental woe shown in the first short film--problems caused by the TXI Midlothian plant, the Pilgrim's Pride plant in Pittsburg, Texas, and the Elf Athochem plant in Bryan, among others--have been told before in this area, and this makes the film's quick-hit approach so frustrating. To say it doesn't scratch the surface is to suggest it touches the surface. (Ten problems examined in just more than 20 minutes? C'mon.) Save the Trinity is also well-meaning but ultimately suffers from the same problem. Do yourself a favor and read Jim Schutze's archived columns about the Trinity River Plan at www.dallasobserver.com for a more in-depth look. (EC)

The Last Days of a Dotcom

The Pseudo.com Web site remains up, if not exactly running: It promises to return in the fall of 2001. Josh Harris' 6-year-old company, which began by providing streaming content for Prodigy wayback in the day, went busto last September after myriad "reorganizations"; its assets were purchased, for a mere $2 million, by Manhattan-based INTV/Interactive Television, which still looks to make good on Pseudo's promise of providing programming on demand, 24/7. (Your grandparents used to call it "TV.") Jim Downs happened to be employed by Pseudo when it was gasping its last desperate breaths and interviews colleagues about Pseudo's chances of making it ("Probably not," opines one rational dude) and tries to figure out how it all went so wrong so fast, with the answer being that Pseudo spent too much on too many employees making too much content for too few viewers. Downs' film is awfully short (12 minutes) and, for that matter, short on context; it would have been nice to have learned a little of its history and to have seen a little of its actual content. (RW)

Popcorn!

Aaron Fischer's self-chronicled attempt to get in the Guinness Book of Records is everything True Fans wants to be but isn't: honest, funny, warm, compelling, and ultimately inspirational. It is the simplest of concepts: Fischer, a quiet, unassuming guy who admittedly has done little with his life to-date, decides he is going to pop the world's largest container of popcorn. How big is that? To start: He needs to rent a warehouse in which to construct the container. His friends think he's nuts...and so do we, especially in the film's many funny-sad moments. (Such as when Fischer, going over his numbers, realizes he's made a crucial math error and will need not 1,000 pounds of popcorn to pop but 16,000 pounds.) It's hard to explain why Fischer's struggle is so engaging. There's something noble, almost mythic, about the way he's merged the impossible with the stupid. (Not to give away too much, but the man pops corn all day, every day, for more than a month...and still ain't near done.) On the hundredth time Fisher answers the question, Why?, his response is so disarming and perfect, it's moving. "It's my dream," he says. "If you're not using your life to fulfill your dreams, what are you doing with your life?" (EC)

Big Tea Party's Unconventional Coverage: The Message and the Means

"Big Tea Party" is a Philadelphia-based cable access show hosted by one Elizabeth Fiend, a wiry-haired, horn-rimmed rabble-rouser whose mission seems to be making democratic organization, street demonstrations, and other anti-establishment actions seem fun and funky. Acting as writer, producer, and guide, Fiend takes us to the streets outside the 2000 Republican National Convention to reveal what she insists is the mainstream media's misrepresentation--that the protesters' message was confused and unwieldy and that they were all "twentysomething white guys." She proves the latter to be wrong, as people of all ages and colors march, chant, and participate in some cheeky street theater to support HIV funding and attempts to stop suburban sprawl, among other topics. Unfortunately, Fiend's quick, superficial activist-on-the-street chats suggest--fairly or not--that such theatrical methods generate more adrenaline than results. (JF)

Jobbing in Fast Food

The language may be French (with English subtitles), but the protests about fast-food service employment in Christophe Gauthier and Benoit Labourdette's documentary cross cultural lines--just as McDonald's has bulldozed borders to fatten slender France. Ten different young adults who work there and at a rival chain called Quick give plenty of face time to describe (and sometimes demonstrate) the crushing monotony, the unreasonable demands (spend no more than 90 seconds per person; if you have nothing to do, clean the counter again even if you've just wiped it), and the low pay. They're more articulate than most--the filmmakers have chosen college students going for degrees in law, drama, and Russian history, among other pursuits--which might account for why most of them seem unusually embittered, even melodramatic about their jobs. (JF)

The Buffalo War

According to Matthew Testa's The Buffalo War, since 1985, more than 3,000 of the last remaining, free-roaming bison in America have been killed, most frequently by Montana State Officials who are trying to protect the state's livestock from the spread of the disease brucellosis. Bison are routinely rounded up and tested for brucellosis, which causes a significant reduction in a cow's milk-making ability and can cause sterility and other reproductive problems in cattle. The negative ones are released. The positive ones are sent to slaughter, as are all pregnant females, despite the efforts of a loose coalition of activists, conservationists, and Native Americans in Montana and the Dakotas, who engage in the sort of nonviolent intervention that has been landing hippies in jail since the 1960s. What may sound like an exercise in environmentalist propaganda is actually a competent, even-keeled, compelling, and exquisitely photographed documentary about one of the last vestiges of frontier mentality in the U.S. of A. (BM)

The Nanthology

Friends either love or loathe Dallas-based DNA Productions' Nanna and Lil' Puss Puss; there's no in between when it comes to the old lady with the drooping breasts ("It looks like I have snot hanging off my chest," she moans) and her pet kitty, who isn't above gnawing at Nanna's corpse, even if the old lady isn't quite yet dead. This 45-minute collection of shorts--some of which have been part of the Spike & Mike Twisted Animationtraveling sideshow since the invention of sound, some of which have been little seen--posits that Nanna and Puss Puss actually had their own variety show in 1954, which was canceled around the very moment it debuted. And so we're given clips from their, ah, never-before-seen pilot, including outtakes in which the cartoon characters flub their lines (it's clever, if obvious) and scenes featuring a British lad who urinates a stream of 100 percent Vermont maple syrup. (RW)

Accordion Dreams

You wouldn't believe that the accordion is a sexy instrument, the kind of musical toy accompanied by crotch thrusts and screaming teen-age girls. And you may not believe it after watching Hector Galan's tribute to the past, present, and future dreamers who have made conjunto the most popular style of music among Texas' Mexican-American population. But the proof is right there, as young Jesse Turner thrills a young audience of lip-licking female fans with his, uh, accordion pyrotechnics. Or as Juan Lopez celebrates his 75th birthday by breaking out the squeezebox to the delight of pretty much anyone in the general vicinity. Narrator Tish Hinojosa walks viewers through the German origins of the instrument, the newest crop of conjunto superstars, and how important the music is, was, and probably always will be to South Texas. As one of the musicians says, "You can't hear a polka and be sad." (ZC)

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