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Days of Thunder

Daniel Craig, center in top photo, is an unnamed drug dealer in Layer Cake; Gayle Jones is a race car driver in the doc Dirt.

Of the 30 or so films playing the USA Film Festival, now celebrating its 35th anniversary, only one has never been shown to an audience before: former D magazine contributor Jeff Bowden's directorial debut, Dirt, which documents a season of dirt-track racing at the Devil's Bowl Speedway in Mesquite. Shot in 2002, Dirt is a wonderful documentary: a narrative populated by thrill-seeking oddballs, mud-covered eccentrics and the patient and supportive women (and, in one case, the man) who love them; a thriller filled with mud-spattered scenes of wipeouts and near-misses; an ill-fated romance between a female driver, her Days of Thunder-obsessed husband and the guy who'd like to replace him; and a heartbreaking comedy about the big-time dreams of small-time racers for whom the Devil's Bowl is as close to race-car heaven as they'll ever get. "We may never get to Daytona," says track legend Thomas Weeks, "but the Devil's Bowl is our Daytona 500 every weekend." What makes Dirt even more compelling is the fact these folks live and work among us, sweating through their blue collars in anonymous jobs while waiting for the bright lights and thick mud of Saturday nights, when they're cheered by autograph-seekers for whom a city of Garland employee is as close as they'll ever get to meeting Jeff Gordon.

The well-done Dirt is the perfect movie for any film fest; Sundance or South by Southwest could have extended it an invite without needing to double-check the guest list. But it's a particularly good fit for the USA Film Festival, which has struggled for more than a decade to figure out just where it fits into the fest landscape, a playground long since overgrown with weeklong events dedicated to films that will never sell popcorn in the googolplex. Dirt's inclusion could almost be read as a symbolic link to the early days of the fest, which was founded in 1970 by L.M. Kit Carson, who realized you often have to leave home before the locals realize your worth. With SMU prof Bill Jones, Carson began the fest so the hometown crowd could see his mock-doc David Holzman's Diary; Bowden, too, should be feted by his friends and neighbors before strangers offer him their hearty mazel-mazels.

The USA Film Festival, once in danger of programming itself into irrelevance, will never be what it once was; Sundance and Toronto and SXSW and Telluride--not to mention cable TV and the abundance of art houses, especially in these parts--have seen to that. There's no shortage of indie films and places to see them. This year's Sundance smash Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story debuts this very week on the USA Network, of all places, and it's easier than ever to find foreign fare in your neighborhood rental joint before it screens here. The elegant and clever U.K. gangster offering Layer Cake, a closing-night movie starring The Man Who Would Be Bond, Daniel Craig, has been available on DVD in England for weeks and can be picked up at Premiere Video when I decide to return it. So what's a fest to do, when all that's available are seconds and scraps from someone else's table?

In this instance, the USAFF offers an amiably eclectic schedule, with decidedly lightweight documentaries (about, among other things, a competitive eater, female wrestlers from the 1950s, a small-town sheriff, funkmaster general Bernie Worrell and immortal comedian Phyllis Diller), another Sundance raver (the wonderfully idiosyncratic romance Me and You and Everyone We Know) and a handful of vanity vehicles. Among this year's bigger offerings, meaning they star actors the Highland Parkies have heard of, are The Thing About My Folks, in which Paul Reiser (the movie's writer) bonds with papa Peter Falk during a road trip through upstate New York; Jiminy Glick in Lalawood, a wildly uneven Lost Highway parody starring Martin Short's obese celeb sycophant; and The House of D, David Duchovny's soppy directorial debut, which debuted at Tribeca last year and stars Robin Williams in one more ghastly sad-clown role, this time as a retarded delivery man whose false teeth almost distract from his outsized ears. The Glick screening does provide the festival with one of its finest guests in a long time: producer Bernie Brillstein, who has eaten more showbiz shit in his 50 years in the biz than most folks will ever make in their entire lives. Where's the movie about him?

The fest will also screen two movies by once-beloved visionaries whom the industry has lost sight of in recent years: Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin wasn't available for early screening but is said to be extraordinary, which is the antithesis of Hal Hartley's alleged sci-fi satire The Girl From Monday, which sadly was available for preview. If you didn't know better, you'd swear The Girl From Monday, about media mergers and the value of the consumer in a post-revolutionary future that looks a whole lot like 2:38 this afternoon, was made by some clumsy, inept first-timer, not the same guy responsible for the charmingly, wondrously deadpan films Trust, The Unbelievable Truth and Flirt. In short, it's the kind of movie in which people say things like "Let's fuck and increase our buying power," a line you might find funny were you not searching for a revolver to suck on.

But any fest offering a sneak peek at Crash, the directorial debut of writer Paul Haggis, is worth attending. Without understating it, Crash is an important movie that also entertains, an L.A.-stories portmanteau about the suffocating embrace of racism that's alternately disturbing, heartbreaking, shocking and, at times, even funny. The whole film grows out of a line uttered by Matt Dillon, as a cop whose actions are loathsome (he damned near rapes Thandie Newton in front of her T.V. show-directing husband, played by Terence Howard) but who is not entirely unlikable or unredeemable. "You think you know who you are," he tells his naïve young partner, played by Ryan Phillipe. "You have no idea." It's a line that applies to the entire cast, from Don Cheadle's detective to Ludacris' car-jacking hood to Brendan Fraser's upright district attorney; there's bad in the good people, and corruption to be found even in the righteous.

Also worth noting is director Robert Brinkman's engaging Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party, starring the Dallas-born character actor doing nothing more than telling stories to a group of friends over beer-simmered sausages. Tobolowsky reminds one of Spalding Gray, with his ability to render the mundane profound and the personal universal; you could listen to the man talk for hours, and are delighted to have received an invite to his shindig. Tobolowsky will attend the screening; stick around for the Q&A, which serves as a sort of immediate sequel to the glorious gabfest you've just seen.

And do not miss The Education of Shelby Knox, Marion Lipschultz and Rose Rosenblatt's four-years-in-the-making documentary about a high school girl in Lubbock trying to reconcile her faith in God, family and country with her newfound activism and liberalism. Shelby Knox, as charismatic and savvy as a sitcom character, wants the town's school district to teach sex-ed to its students to combat high STD and pregnancy rates among Lubbock's teens. Of course, the school board blanches at the suggestion--it's not proper, not Christian--but Shelby doesn't back off, at the risk of alienating her God-fearing folks and the pastor who persuaded her to sign a True Love Waits pledge her freshman year. With its savvy off-screen narration and too-perfect plotline, which finds Shelby pitted against a classmate with political aspirations, the movie, which airs on PBS this spring, occasionally plays too much like a prime-time pilot--Joan of Arcadia's So-Called Life, perhaps.


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