Reel People

It's about the artists, not the stars at the 31st annual USA Film Festival

A meeting of the Dallas Observer minds found us arriving at a happy--and unusual--consensus: Yes, there's some good stuff playing at the 31st Annual USA Film Festival, but the programming is eclipsed by the people being imported for after-screening Q&As. We're not talking a Cannes-like cavalcade of A-list names. No actor attending USAFF 2001 can "open" a film, as they say in the business; no filmmaker here will be entrusted with a $100 million budget. And that's what tickles us to death--these people are artists, not stars.

Here's a sample from the roster of luminaries confirmed at press time: The Literary Lions (Ismail Merchant and James Ivory); The Art House Ingenue (Uma Thurman); The Eccentric Character Actor (Gary Oldman, receiving this year's Master Screen Artist Tribute on May 2); The Misunderstood Genius (Wim Wenders, who snags the Great Director Tribute on April 29); The Master of a Thousand Comic Voices (Harry Shearer, who's being feted April 30); The Cross-Dressing Clown (Dave Foley); and The Renegade Documentary Maker (Penelope Spheeris). These are the type of creators whose work speaks to cults, not crowds. They bypass the communal thrills of moviegoing to grab you by the lapels, not terribly interested in whether anyone else gets it.

What follows is a random collection of suggestions (and warnings) about USAFF screenings (in chronological order), as well as advance chats with some of the headliners who'll talk with ticketbuyers after their movies are shown. For Robert Wilonsky's interview with Shearer, check out the "Stuff" column on page 15. All in all, this could be a year that you'll wish you'd become a USA Film Festival member; considering the above participants, there should be some damned interesting conversation at the after-event parties.

Pie in the Sky: The Brigid Berlin Story
Pie in the Sky: The Brigid Berlin Story
Pie in the Sky: The Brigid Berlin Story
Digne Meller Marcovicz
Pie in the Sky: The Brigid Berlin Story

The 31st Annual USA Film Festival happens April 26-May 3 at Cinemark 17, 11819 Webb Chapel at LBJ. Tickets are $8 per event and $7 for USAFF members at the theater box office. For advance tickets call (214) 631-ARTS. For event information, call (214) 821-FILM or visit the USAFF Web site at

75 Degrees in July
Thursday, April 26, 7:30 p.m.

Hyatt Bass, a member of Fort Worth's philanthropist family, was producer-writer-director for this well-crafted family drama that soon gets mired in its own bitterness. Karen Sillas plays an internationally successful sculptor who returns to her rich Texas family after a long absence and discovers everyone is jealous, unsatisfied, controlling or generally bitter. Parents Shirley Knight and Harris Yulin don't understand her art and think she looks down on them; sister Heid Swedberg envies her professional independence and attempts to restart a singing career; brother-in-law William Moses desires Sillas and wants out of Yulin's grasp. Well-acted (Sillas is a knockout as usual) and slickly photographed, 75 Degrees in July starts to turn unintentionally comical the way Woody Allen's Interiors did with its monotonous self-seriousness--every scene ends with an angry, hurt statement like "What did you mean by that?" and "You've never taken me seriously." So much undiluted dissatisfaction drains every drop of sympathy we have for these people. Writer-producer-director Hyatt Bass and actress Shirley Knight are in attendance. (JF)

A House on a Hill
Friday, April 27, 7 p.m.

Chuck Workman has made a life of sifting through--and, consequently, absorbing--cinema; more images have passed though him than a thousand projectors. For years, he was the man responsible for crafting the montages screened during Oscar ceremonies, and his 1986 film Precious Images contains the most memorable scenes captured on celluloid; one imagines Workman is, in a sense, living cinema. Little wonder, then, that his second feature feels less like a linear narrative than a pastiche of images and sound--fragments of a barely remembered dream, highlights of a life lived and, finally, lost. The life belongs to Harry Mayfield (Magnolia's Philip Baker Hall), an architect yanked out of retirement by a rich, vapid couple who want him to complete a house he began decades ago on a Malibu hilltop. The house, and Harry's family (including his ex-wife, an art dealer played by Shirley Knight), was destroyed by a fire decades ago, and Harry's reluctant to take the job--too many tragedies beneath the ashes, none worth stirring up. But he's vain and driven enough to sign on, even with a documentarian (Laura San Giacomo) on his ass all the time; he wants to be remembered, and the house will stand as testament to his genius. But as it all begins again, so does it collapse: The couple splits, the filmmaker splits, and Harry's left holding the bag of bad memories. Workman lays the film out as Harry would--as a blueprint or model constantly evolving, with bits and pieces always being torn down or reshaped. The size of the images constantly change; sometimes Workman uses only a small bit of the screen, as though he's yanked a photo out of an old album and made it breathe, speak, sigh. Writer-director Chuck Workman and actress Shirley Knight are in attendance. (RW)

Radio Free Steve
Friday, April 27, 9:15 p.m.

Ostensibly, this is a "lost" made-in-1984 movie about a pirate broadcaster, Steve Glenn, roaming the postapocalyptic, mutant-infested Texas bandlands circa 1990; he shoots mutants, yells at his girlfriends, breaks stuff, swears. Actually, it's writer-director Jules Beesley's tricked-up home movies made with some friends and computer-generated, ahem, "special effects." Bonus: Lone Gunman Dean Haglund (the one who looks like Dana Carvey's Garth) shows up as himself. Full disclosure: spent 20 minutes watching movie, which was 19 minutes too long. Director-producer Jules Beesley, producer Amy Raymond and actor-producer Ryan Junell are in attendance. (RW)

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