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Raising the Bar

Burgle me this: Jayne Mansfield and Dan Duryea in Paul Wendkos' B-noir

It had become sport in recent years to dismiss the USA Film Festival for what it wasn't rather than what it was becoming. No, it is not a South by Southwest Film Festival or an Austin Film Festival, where would-be independent filmmakers gather each year to discuss a project or debate the process of filmmaking outside the studio system; and, no, it is not a Sundance or Toronto, a fest doubling as an auction house where art-house impresarios pay dollars on the quarter for prestigious product they can push well into awards season. It is, instead, what it is: "a city festival," in the words of its artistic director Nancy Fallen; meaning, something for everyone who loves nothing more than going to the movies.

In recent years the fest has accrued a reputation as a haven for Highland Parkies who could afford to be part-time cinephiles. Throughout the 1970s, the USAFF played first and best host to some of the greatest films of the era, among them All the President's Men, M*A*S*H, The Last Movie, Shampoo and Steven Spielberg's Sugarland Express. Throughout the '90s it was where Hollywood product stopped off just before it arrived in theaters or on the Blockbuster shelves.

Maybe, some locals believed, the USA Film Festival had become a moot point: Where once Dallas was an art-house wasteland for the parched cinephile craving more than Hollywood fodder, the city overflows with indie offerings. The Angelika, a New York import and home to this year's festival, and the homegrown Magnolia, which doubles nicely as a revival house with its dense sked of Rialto restorations, and the part-time indie house the Regent Highland Park now duke it out with the venerable Inwood for off-Hollywood offerings, shuffling the latest from indie distributors on and off their screens so quickly patrons can barely keep pace with the celluloid parade. The Magnolia's also programming the screen at the Modern in Fort Worth, and come October the Collin County resident jonesing for an indie fix will have to drive only to Legacy Road and the Dallas North Tollway, where the Angelika is building its Plano-Frisco-South Oklahoma annex.

Ironically, when the Angelika opened two years ago and the Magnolia followed a year later, it was believed by some film-bizzers there wasn't enough of an audience to sustain a dozen art-house screens within a few miles of each other. Yet the expansion of the so-called boutique cinema in Dallas has been only a good thing for audiences, who are exposed to more quality films than ever before, and the theaters and distributors, who make more money in Dallas with some films than in any other city. (One-Hour Photo and The Quiet American grossed more locally than in New York City, and those are but two of many examples.) "There has been an increase in business," says Magnolia's Tearlach Hutcheson, "and an increase in interest."

This year's USAFF schedule reflects that: It's more vibrant and varied than any in recent memory, perhaps a result of distributors taking Dallas more seriously as a film center and audiences realizing they need not suffer what Hollywood offers. The opening-night film--one of two, actually--sets the tone, suggesting a fest that values quality over the quantity of stars it could gather for a first-night shindig: Peter Sollett's Raising Victor Vargas (April 24, 7:30 p.m.) is the filmmaker's funny and profoundly touching film about a Lower East Side kid (Victor Rasuk) who thinks he's all dat but realizes he's not much of a man without the respect of his grandmother and would-be girlfriend. Sollett has it both ways: The movie's sweet and funny, touching and tough on Victor; the filmmaker doesn't let the kid off, but doesn't punish him too severely just for being a cocky teen who commits no crime other than being too big for his baggy britches and tank-top tees he can't keep on in the sweltering summertime.

Though Raising Victor Vargas opens in Dallas on May 2, its screening at the festival is a special occasion: Victor Rasuk and Judy Marte, the object of the Brillo-padded Victor's affections, will attend a post-screening Q&A session, which ought to be special. The two appeared in Sollett's short film Five Feet High and Rising and have become the filmmaker's young stand-ins; they're also the kind of rookies you insanely root for, because theirs is a rare and special kind of promise.

"And I think that's where the live cinema element comes in," Fallen says. "We try as much as we can not to program a film that will have a theatrical release unless we have a filmmaker in attendance. We're not serving the community that way, if a guest isn't here and the audience can see the movie two weeks later."

Fallen laughs when it's suggested to her that the USA Film Festival this year is a celebration of oddballs, but certainly there's a loose strand binding some of the filmmakers coming to town and being honored over the next few days. The fest pays homage this year to misanthropic auteurs (Neil LaBute, maker of In the Company of Men and the brand-new The Shape of Things, screening April 30 at 7 p.m.), forgotten filmmakers (Paul Wendkos), lowbrow visionaries (Lloyd Kaufman, founder of Troma Entertainment), stubborn geniuses (Alan Rudolph, bringing The Secret Lives of Dentists, screening May 1 at 7:30 p.m.) and late-great influences (Italian horror director Mario Bava).

 

Wendkos, who was scheduled to attend till a death in his family this week, is certainly an odd and brave choice: The 80-year-old has a filmography that reads like the best of Nick at Nite, including stints directing such series as The Untouchables, The Rifleman, Route 66, I Spy, Hawaii Five-O, The Big Valley and The Wild Wild West. In the '70s through the '90s, he wound up helming dozens of made-for-TV movies and miniseries, among them The Legend of Lizzie Borden (with Elizabeth Montgomery as the ax-wielder), A Woman Called Moses starring Cicely Tyson and several offerings starring some combination of Dennis Weaver, Ned Beatty, Martin Sheen and/or Denver Pyle. Which makes him, most likely, the most prolific and widely seen director ever honored by the USA Film Festival.

The fest is showing perhaps his best, and least-seen, feature film: 1957's The Burglar (April 26, 8 p.m.), one of the great lost B-noirs, buried most likely because Wendkos is the only filmmaker who ever thought Jayne Mansfield could act (and she tried like hell to prove him wrong). The Burglar, in which Dan Duryea leads a grubby band of thieves who steal a $150,000 diamond-and-gold necklace from a saintly Samaritan and wind up tangling with crooked cops and bendy girls, came from respectable roots: The book and screenplay were written by David Goodis, who also penned the novels that became Dark Passage and Shoot the Piano Player. Wendkos treated the material with more respect than it deserved, which likely sealed its fate as a relic and oddity; its flashbacks and quick cuts play more like art-house experiments than the moves of a man trying to make a fortune in Hollywood. Two years later, Wendkos made a film that was The Burglar's exact opposite: Gidget.

At the exact same time Wendkos was making his one great genre film in Hollywood, Mario Bava was leaving bloody footprints on Italian soundstages. Though he wouldn't get credit on a film till 1960, Bava was already reinventing the horror film in the early and mid-'50s, as the cinematographer who began directing whenever filmmakers walked off the set and left him in charge. Long after his death in 1980, Bava would influence the likes of Martin Scorsese, Roman Coppola (whose 2002 debut, CQ, was an homage to his campy sci-spy film Danger: Diabolik!), Brian DePalma and anyone who ever directed a Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street film.

For some reason, Bava's films, among them 1960's Black Sunday and The Girl Who Knew Too Much ('63), are heralded as masterpieces of Gothic horror--these eerily lit psycho freak-outs that commingle eroticism and violence. In fact, they're all a bit camp when viewed today, none more so than the two selections the USA Film Festival has chosen to screen: 1963's trilogy piece Black Sabbath (April 27, 10:30 p.m.), in which Boris Karloff plays a vampire who preys on his own family, and 1973's Lisa and the Devil (April 25, 9:10 p.m.), which stars a demonic Telly Savalas and Elke Sommers (and, c'mon, the casting alone suggests a put-on). All of Bava's films were like campfire tales with gotcha punch lines, a scream that melts into a laugh; at the end of the restored Black Sabbath, screening here, Karloff shows up at film's end to remind you this was all a big, phony joke.

Lloyd Kaufman, director of The Toxic Avenger and Tromeo & Juliet and dozens more, doesn't need the disclaimer; his low-budget gore-fests are nothing but punch lines dolled up beneath shoddy special effects and freak-face masks that look like last week's pepperoni pizza. Kaufman comes to the festival with Apocalypse Soon (April 26, 10 p.m.), about the making of 2001's Citizen Toxie, a production that appears so ramshackle you're astonished anything actually stuck to the celluloid. "You can't complain, because you're only complaining about one idiot to another idiot," says one of the assistant directors, which sums up a movie in which the cast is always late, the crew is always missing and the director looks and sounds like Mel Brooks making a movie that's supposed to lose money it never had in the first place. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant.

 

The fest's roster also brims with the debut offerings of first-timers: Sollett's Raising Victor Vargas; actor Thomas Haden Church's dopey-quirky road trip Rolling Kansas (April 25, 7 p.m.), about five men seeking a marijuana field of dreams; writer-director Damien Nieman's all-star Shade (April 25, 7 p.m.), a poker-hustle starring Sylvester Stallone, Thandie Newton, Jamie Foxx and Gabriel Byrne that has distribution from the resurrected RKO, co-owned by local financier John Muse; and Roberto Sneider's Two Crimes (April 27, 4:45 p.m.), a hit in Mexico in 1995 about a man wrongly accused of murder who takes refuge with paranoid, greedy relatives. Also screening is Emanuele Crialese's wondrous, dreamlike Respiro (April 27, 9:20 p.m.), in which Valeria Golina plays a wife and mother of three who's trapped in paradise--a Sicilian island, where it must smell like fish all the time--and believed to be a manic depressive, when all she wants is to swim with her kids, sleep with her husband and avoid contact with those who would damn her for being different.

There's light comedy: The other opening-night film is the directorial debut of The Drew Carey Show's Craig Ferguson, who arrives with I'll Be There (April 24, 7:30 p.m.), in which Ferguson plays an '80s pop idol who finds out he has a kid (Charlotte Church). And there's heavy fare, including Jeff Byrd's Jasper, Texas (April 29, 7 p.m.), the made-for-Showtime film in which Lou Gossett Jr. and Jon Voight cope with the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. There are several made-in-state features, as part of the Texas Filmmaker Showcase; a handful of documentaries, including the Oscar-nominated Winged Migration (April 28, 7 p.m.); a few films due for release shortly and others that have been sitting around indefinitely; and others that might never get seen at all were it not for the festival circuit.

One of those offerings is Vikram Jayanti's searing James Ellroy's Feast of Death (April 30, 7 p.m.), in which the author of L.A. Confidential and White Jazz once more opens the unsolved case of his murdered mother and finds only his own face staring up from the coffin. Jayanti's film is the hardest to watch--it overflows with grisly crime-scene pics--but among the most rewarding, because it's a doc that gets beneath the skin of its subject till it sucks out every last drop of blood.

"We don't want to be the same thing every year," Fallen says. "We're excited about the diversity of this year's festival. We can hit all segments of the community that way. People can look at the schedule and always find something they'll be interested in. Some years it's more successful than others, but that's always at the front of our minds, trying to do something that will hit all segments as much as we can."

To that end, the USA Film Festival will co-host several screenings this year with such local organizations as the Mexico Institute of Dallas, whose founder, Clara Hinojosa, helped bring Two Crimes to Dallas; and Black Cinematheque, which is bringing Charles Burnett's documentary Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (April 26, 4:30 p.m.) to the festival this year. Indeed, the USAFF has gone out of its way this year to include arts organizations that normally exist well below the radar screen: Black Cinematheque hosts regular screenings of hard-to-find films at the South Dallas Cultural Center, as well as monthly film fests, including the forthcoming Stand Up! Rise Up! Resist! Black Man's Film Festival in late May.

Intentionally or not, there is one film here that links the USA Film Festival with its heritage: A Decade Under the Influence (April 30, 7 p.m.), directed by screenwriter Richard LaGravenese and the late Ted Demme, who brought in LaBute, Alexander Payne and other indie filmmakers to interview their spiritual fathers about movies in the 1970s. What you'll see at the fest is an abbreviated version of a three-part documentary due to air on the Independent Film Channel in August, which is why it feels as though it treads over the same ground covered in Trio's recent Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. But the stories told by Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Dennis Hopper and others who once came to Dallas for this very festival can't be heard enough, especially by those who need to be reminded there was once a period in American filmmaking when studios made personal, powerful movies--the kind now relegated to independent cinema, the kind that make the rounds at festivals and play art houses but are never allowed into the multiplexes. It's as much a cautionary tale as celebration.


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