Made on the Margins

For 15 years, the Dallas Video Fest has flickered on the fringe

From High on the Hilltop and Life After Death From High on the Hilltop is a dry but fascinating look at the early history of Southern Methodist University. (Well, fascinating for an alum. You, maybe not so much. Go Ponies.) From its unlikely birth (once they lost Vanderbilt to future hell-dwellers, the Methodists established SMU and Emory to compensate) throughout its first 40 years or so of achievement and frustrations, this documentary looks at the school largely through the accomplishments of its presidents, from Robert Hyer to Umphrey Lee. They took it from a one-hall university and prairie college to its post-World War II acceptance as a true national university. Most compelling is the look at how, even from its beginning in the early '20s, the football team had been alternately a source of pride and anti-academic shame, foreshadowing the school's 1980s national triumph to its near-collapse after the death penalty in 1987. Two quibbles: The film relies too heavily on a few (articulate and compelling, but still) voices, and it ends rather abruptly. Life After Death , which looks at SMU's football program pre- and post-death penalty, begins as the worst sort of hero worship. The angelic score, the endless slow-motion shots of Doak Walker and the Pony Express--it's almost too much for even this graduate to take. Although there is much time given to professors and writers who explain how damaging the pay-for-play scandal was to the school, the overarching theme seems to be that football is what made, and can once again make, SMU great. As much as I love the school and the sport--I was news editor of the school paper when the SMU team won its first post-death penalty game, and wrote the 1A banner headline "Mustangs Win!" in we're-going-to-war point size--this film stands more as testimonial than documentary. (Eric Celeste)

Guy Stories Three shorts that ostensibly have similar "guy" themes but have as much in common as do a dog, a frog and a hog. Pillowfight is the worst sort of hack stand-up humor: A dude's gal snores, steals his covers, hits him in her sleep and screams through nightmares. Stephanie Etie as the sleepy annoying woman is very good, actually, but it's a concept that's funny perhaps only in a commercial. Perhaps. The New Brad begins with much more promise. It's the day before Christmas Eve, and Brad (Mark Duplass) travels 600 miles from Atlanta to New Orleans to chase down his girlfriend Kelly (Rachel Harris), who has just left him. Why does he think this will win her love? "[Because] when you lock in, and when you're, like, you know, say, 'We're going to choose each other and no one else,' that, like, brings it to the next level. I think if we could get on that level, we'd get along better." Shot in a semi-verité fashion, Brad works best when it's just stoner Brad riffing in front of the camera about why the relationship went wrong and what he'll do to make it right. The staged scenes of chasing Kelly and staking out her parents' house don't hold the same slacker charm. Invisible Man is just insane. A man goes to a hotel, someone keeps anonymously leaving him presents (a Sharpie pen, a toy wind-up train, a bottle of wine and a wine glass), he gets naked, cleans his bathroom, orders food, scares off the young woman who delivered it by showing her his hangy-down, masturbates, takes a bath and rips out one of his teeth. I was not high when I watched this. Perhaps you must be for it not to seem silly. (EC)

Headcheese Trippy, moody, nonsensical, black-and-white, pretentious, devilish, stylized, spiritualized, Elvis chops on a suede-jacket-wearing dude who eats flowers, throws tires, drinks beer, smokes, wears shades, talks like Vincent Price funneled through Freddie Prinze, screws a cow's head with a drill before drilling himself in the head. What's not to like? (EC)

Shirts off our backs: See how a T-shirt Travels in this gripping documentary.
Shirts off our backs: See how a T-shirt Travels in this gripping documentary.

Details

May 16-19. Tickets, ranging from $65 for an all-fest pass including Video Association of Dallas membership to $10-$15 for single-day passes, are available at the door or at www.videofest.org. The opening-night film, Hotel, will screen at 7:30 p.m. May 15 at the Magnolia Theater, 3699 McKinney Ave.
Dallas Theater Center Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd.

Hell House The only shocking thing about Hell House--a documentary about the controversial "alternative" haunted house in Cedar Hill that depicts botched abortions, teen suicides and date rapes--is that it refuses to smirk. To date, most of its reviewers have expressed faux horror at the thought of normal American teen-agers believing in anything as intellectually embarrassing as hell, demons and the like. But director George Ratliff plays it straight with good reason: He was granted unlimited access in 1999 to the teens and adults of Trinity Church of the Assemblies of God as they planned Hell House X, complete with a Columbine skit, and the camera doesn't judge. Ratliff does a great job of creeping into the subculture of evangelical Christianity and letting his subjects explain their world as they compete for such roles as "Abortion Girl" and "Suicide Girl." The kids' acting is hilariously over the top--"It's too late, you killed your baby--you're a murderer, Jan!" shrieks one stringy-haired girl--but when Ratliff follows one family, the Cassars, you begin to understand where all that passion is coming from. (Julie Lyons)

Hip Pocket Theatre on Exhibit at the Kimbell I love Fort Worth's Hip Pocket Theatre troupe, and I think the Kimbell in Fort Worth is easily the best museum in North Texas, if not the Southwest. Put one inside the other for a documentary about preparing for the performance, and what do you get: The most god-awful home movie ever shown outside a living room. Endless shots of rehearsals. No care to tell us about the personalities of the players involved. Minutes upon minutes upon years of scenes about designing their damn costumes. Go to the museum. Support Hip Pocket. Don't see this unless you are a family member of someone on screen, in which case you may pretend you like it. (EC)

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