In 1987, Bart Weiss viewed his nascent Dallas Video Festival as a way to collect "ephemeral media, the throwaway stuff no one paid attention to," he says now, as the 20th Dallas Video Festival gets under way at the Dallas Theater Center and Angelika Film Center. The first festival included MTV promotional spots, TV ads from around the globe, locally made shorts and music videos and experimental whatchamacallits—in short, pretty much everything that turns up on YouTube nowadays. Fact is, the margin has become the mainstream, and the Dallas Video Festival has become one of many film fests in a town crowded with comers.
Yet the fest is programmed today as it was 20 years ago: "The only theme is, 'Hey, it's something Bart liked,'" Weiss says, "and thank God for that, because I don't have much power in the rest of my life, so at least I get to pick these things." And his taste, as always, is fairly impeccable: I spent several days sorting through the grab bag of festival entries Weiss dropped off at the office and found few features and shorts and in-betweens not worth spending at least a few minutes with, from docs about attempts to assassinate fascist dictators (638 Ways to Kill Castro) to ragged histories of the local punk scene (DFW Punk) to '70s sexploitation recreations (Viva) to lo-fi mysteries involving the death of an Andy Warhol film editor (A Walk Into the Sea) and on and on.
Truth is, something like The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, which Weiss said would hold my interest for "a good 10 minutes, after which you'll get the gist" had me riveted for its entire running time—two and a half hours, plus. And so it went with entry after entry; turns out, you probably need a good month to see everything being offered over the course of a too-quick five days. The Pervert's Guide to Cinema is in a way emblematic of everything the DVF stands for: It's a shambling, hilariously deadpan dissertation on the power of movies presented by Slovenian "philosopher and psychoanalyst" Slavoj Zizek. From the re-fabricated sets and settings of many of the films discussed in this doc, Zizek has the tenacity and temerity to link such films as Duck Soup, Blue Velvet, The Birds, The Matrix and Alien—for starters. He gets into things like ego, superego and id; sexuality and reality; the fantasyland of the movie screen and so forth. But unlike the college lecturer trying to impress the students, Zizek's almost a parody of a street-corner critic; imagine if Borat and Pauline Kael had a kid.
You'll be tempted to treat The Pervert's Guide to Cinema as mockumentary; surely, this guy ain't for real. But Weiss has always used his fest to play with our perceptions of media—its impact, its intentions—and on that front, there's no better entry in this year's fest than Alex Karpovsky's The Hole Story. Karpovsky has made an unclassifiable gem in which he "plays" a would-be travel-show host waiting for a frozen-over Minnesota lake to melt just a little bit so he can shoot his pilot episode about a mysterious "black hole" in the water. At first we see the giddy intro to his show, Provincial Puzzlers, only to realize it's culled from what appear to be fabricated interviews with unsuspecting locals who treat Karpovsky like he's a bit of a desperate idiot. In short, Karpovsky has made a rather genius what-the-fuck-umentary in which it doesn't really matter what's "fact" and what's "fiction"; brilliant's brilliant, no matter the moniker.
So too are two actual documentaries in the fest, both of which have made the festival circuit but arrive at the DVF without distribution for inexplicable reasons. The first is Air Guitar Nation, an award-winner wherever it plays. Actually co-edited by a guitar hero—former Toadies and Funland guitarist Clark Vogeler—it's about the phoniest rock stars in the world, grown men and women who take their bedroom skills onto a stage in hopes of being crowned the world's greatest faker. The film's essentially about the budding rivalry between two would-be guitar heroes—David Jung (or "C-Diddy") and Dan Crane (Bjorn Turoque)—who take their air-guitar wars from New York to Los Angeles to, finally, Finland. Slightly tamer is Ben Niles' Note By Note, about the making of a single Steinway & Sons piano—a journey that takes a year, and one populated by craftsmen and women for whom this is no mere assembly-line job. It's slightly more difficult to make a real instrument than to play a fake one, go figure.
Another worthy doc in the fest is Porter Heath Morgan's The Trials of Law School, about a handful of people sweating it through their first year at the University of Oklahoma; several of the folks featured in the doc, about the breaking and making of newbie attorneys, now practice in Dallas. But the DVF has its share of small-story gems as well, chief among them Dallas-born photographer-filmmaker-"confirmed tramp" Bill Daniel's Who is Bozo Texino?, about the lost art of riding the rails—literally, as many of the self-proclaimed hobos decorated their temporary homes with some rather artsy icons. It's a stunning film, just the kind of surprise Bart Weiss loves showing you year after glorious year.
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