See your world on a small screen at the 11th Annual Dallas Video Festival
For 11 years now, the Dallas Video Festival has been better appreciated across the country and around the world than it has in the city whose name it bears.
You could offer this as evidence that Dallas has earned its reputation: that of a Southwestern money mecca whose residents would rather be seen at culture than see culture. Our public officials, leading philanthropists, and arts board members strive to impress international artists with shiny new performance centers and multi-million-dollar sculpture gardens rather than spend money on creative locals who could--or, in the case of the Dallas Video Festival, already do--rival the likes of New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Seattle in the areas of performing, visual, and techno arts.
Clearly, Dallas doesn't appreciate what it has in the world-class Dallas Video Festival; if it did, the Festival would still be showcased in the echoing halls of the Dallas Museum of Art, which hosted the event during its first decade. Festival artistic director, guiding spirit, and workhorse-in-residence Bart Weiss was forced to pull up stakes and look for a new home for this year's Festival when the DMA began to increase financial and "curatorial" demands on an international showcase that desperately needs a long-term local venue commitment, not programming guidance. The DMA, whose expenses on everything from guards to facility maintenance are paid for by you, the city taxpayer, would much rather hold another Impressionist exhibit (Monet comes lurching in at the end of the month). This loss by an institution that's been choking on the Kimbell Art Museum's dust ever since Rick Brettell resigned under pressure is the gain of the Dallas Theater Center, whose Kalita Humphreys theater will host the 1998 show.
But the Dallas Video Festival faces another obstacle that has nothing to do with the myopia of Dallas' arts leaders. All over the country, there's a stigma attached to the word "video" that doesn't burden film and live theater. The latter two can be considered culture, or are, at the very least, media you must leave home to witness in their natural habitats. But video is the medium that any Joe Sixpack can enjoy in his underwear if he has a hundred bucks for a VCR and a Blockbuster membership card. Moreover, Mr. Sixpack has been able to make videos himself ever since 1966, when the first video camera was introduced on the home market. We're all familiar with his work; he forces it on us at holidays and other gatherings of loved ones.
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Dallas Cowboys vs. Oakland Raiders
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Indeed, the affordability--the pure democracy--of video technology has been its bane and boon. Both amateurs and professionals, experimental artists and infomercial hucksters, have flooded our collective senses with images slick and ragged and sick, via satellite, cassette, and modem. Although formal experimenters like Naim June Pak and William Wegman have explored the technical borders of video much like other artists have explored film and painting, documentary is the form that has ingratiated itself most completely with us. But documentary--and, by extension, video technology--has changed us more than we've changed it.
Consider all the political and social upheavals that "real life" video images have caused in the last decade--from the torrent of questions about what constitutes sexual harassment following the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings; to a beaten Rodney King, whose flailing body sparked a Los Angeles race riot; to O.J. Simpson during his highway escape and trial, spectacles that got all of us bickering about legal justice and racial perception--and suddenly, video doesn't seem so pedestrian.
This bastard baby brother of the moving image has gradually earned respect in artistic fields as well. The Academy Awards' annual Best Documentary nominee roster now features most of its subjects shot on video. And in the claustrophobic world of visual arts, New York's Whitney recently opened a retrospective of old and new video artists that earned an "Arts & Leisure" feature rave from The New York Times.
But don't concern yourself with approval from Los Angeles and New York. Be your own judge of the documentaries, dramas, music, experimental, and interactive videos that have poured in from all over the world for this year's festival, which runs March 5-8. Writer-director Terry Gilliam takes a break from editing his current film project, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, to be honored for his animation work with the British TV series Monty Python's Flying Circus. The other highlight is America's preeminent video anarchist Robert Smigel, the Saturday Night Live veteran who's responsible for animated naughty bits like "Fun With Real Audio" and "The Ambiguously Gay Duo"; you may also know him as the man who got Dana Carvey canceled. And acknowledging the roots of its new home with the Dallas Theater Center, the Festival features live multimedia events by two internationally lauded performance artists--Deke Weaver and Dallas' own Fred Curchack.
If you get bored, move on: Four programs are running simultaneously at any given moment. The advantage of the Dallas Video Festival is that one pass gets you into everything; unlike the USA Film Festival, they expect you to browse. But just remember two things: Yes, most of this stuff will be shown on large TV screens in the Kalita Humphreys, but no, you'll never get another chance to see most of it on your home TV--not on PBS, not on cable, not even on cassette from the coolest video store in your neighborhood.
What follows are brief reviews of some highlights from the Dallas Video Festival, arranged chronologically. The festival runs from Thursday, March 5, through Sunday, March 8. All events take place at the Kalita Humphreys theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Boulevard; for ticket prices and other information, call (214) 651-8600. This list is not comprehensive; consult the festival's official program for descriptions of events not listed. The capsule reviews were written by Dallas Observer staff writers Jimmy Fowler, Christina Rees, and Scott Kelton Jones.
Part one--Thursday, March 5; 7 p.m. in the Electronic Theater
Part two--Saturday, March 7; at 5:15 p.m. in the Electronic Theater
Television is old. It hasn't had a major upgrade since the 1950s, when something called color was introduced.
Sure, things have been tweaked over the years. The idiot box sitting in your living room looks a far cry better than that old cathode-ray tube of yesteryear. And now you might very well have a cable or a satellite dish bringing you hundreds of channels in wonderful digital stereophonic sound. But these are minor enhancements. Nips and tucks, really. We aren't talking about the difference between Michael Jackson on Off the Wall and the Wacko Jacko of today. You can still recognize television.
And for a society that is so in love with gadgetry that our computers and cell phones and cars are outdated within a year of purchase, it's amazing that the one gadget we love the most, television, has remained so static.
Well, television's big upgrade--its major makeover--is in the works. It's called HDTV, or High Definition Television. HDTV brings a widescreen picture, the more theatrical 16:9 ratio than today's 4:3 format. But that's just for starters. New high-end television sets are already adopting this wider look in anticipation of consumers wanting their TVs to be more like going to the movies. More striking, though, is HDTV's greater range of colors and up to six times the resolution of today's television. Although that may not seem like a big deal when reading about it in print, it is impressive to see on screen. It's as if someone wiped away a year's worth of dust from your old set. Things on HDTV look almost hyper-real to the unaccustomed eye, like they are in relief, and you get the impression that if you touched the picture, it would flake off on your fingertips.
So, if this major transformation is such a big to-do, why are you not getting the hard sell? Why is a large-breasted woman in a skimpy bikini not lounging over one in an advertisement subconsciously telling you that if you own a HDTV set, you'll score some action? And why is it that when HDTV is showcased these days--as it was at this year's State Fair--it's pitched like the bearded lady or Giles, the albino monkey-boy?
Well, the sets won't be on the market until the turn of the century, and HDTV won't make a major incursion into most homes until well after that. But electronic companies and network affiliates have started name-dropping HDTV in their promotional material. In fact, HDTV work from KXAS-Channel 5 and WFAA-Channel 8, as well as other projects from Dallas-based HD Vision, will be given the showcase treatment by the Dallas Video Festival this year. The subject matter of these HDTV programs ranges from nature documentaries to Broadway shows, but it really doesn't matter. They could feature a Dallas Mavericks game in HD, and it would make for riveting television.
While seeing HDTV won't change your life today, it's nice to see what's in store for society's old friend--and what may score you some action a few years from now. (Scott Kelton Jones)
Deke Weaver's Girlfriend and Fred Curchack's A Surprise Party
Girlfriend: Thursday, March 5; 7 p.m. in Bart's Bistro
Friday, March 6; 7 p.m. in Bart's Bistro
Surprise Party: Friday, March 6; 9 p.m. in the Electronic Theater
The Dallas Video Festival honors its new theatrical location at the Dallas Theater Center's Kalita Humphreys with live shows by two internationally lauded performance artists. One is Dallas' own Fred Curchack, whose multimedia presentation A Surprise Party remains hush-hush until it's thrown for audiences Friday night. We can vouch that Curchack, whose obsessions run from Shakespeare to Hollywood, is, at his best, a theatrical wizard, using some of the most elementary light, movement, and vocal techniques to create alternative worlds. We got a video preview glimpse of Deke Weaver's Girlfriend, and from that recommend its combination of death-related mythology from North, Central, and South America and first-person vignettes about lonely people trying to connect in the same apartment building. (Jimmy Fowler)
Puss in Books
Thursday, March 5; 7 p.m. in the Video Box
A documentary about cats who live in libraries--a trend that started years ago as a rodent deterrent and has since taken on a non-utilitarian "mascot" patina--might sustain the interest of die-hard cat lovers for its first 10 minutes, but after that the effort seems a bit stretched. Across the country, at least 30 public libraries have adopted full-time cats as token warm fuzzies, saddling them with names like "Dewey" and "Decimal." The felines live in luxury among the bookshelves and sitting areas; patrons coddle them, and librarians praise the homey vibe they bring to the potentially stuffy institutions. We've all suffered a pet owner's too-long exultation of his or her pet or been guilty of the same ourselves, but these city employees have us all beat on long-winded analyses of kitty charm. (Christina Rees)
O Night Without Objects
Thursday, March 5; 8:30 p.m. in the Video Box
Actually a trio of videos by Jeanne Finley and John Muse, the second, longer selection, titled "Based on a Story," is a documentary about a wheelchair-bound Nebraska Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon who befriends a Jewish cantor and eventually converts to Judaism. It far outweighs the other two experimental shorts by sheer heft of its true-story subject.
In conventional documentary form, "Story" unfolds the life of Lawrence Roger Trapp, an abrasive guy with a history of crippling diabetes and petty crime, who takes his misery out on everybody in his small-town path. The Klan merely validates his longtime, indiscriminate hate. When he starts harassing Michael Weissner, a Jewish clergyman new to the neighborhood, Trapp unexpectedly drops his twisted supremacy theories after Weissner thoughtfully questions his motives. In short order, lonely Trapp ends up not only denouncing his ugly past, but actually moving into the Weissner family home and leaning on Weissner's wife as his personal nurse. Trapp died in the Weissner guest room in 1992, leaving behind a conflicted family and community.
Sound squirrely? The filmmakers let the viewer decide how healthy or appropriate the increasingly blurred boundaries among his subjects really are. Is the Trapp-Weissner relationship an illustration of basic human kindness breaking down a misguided defense system, or a defense system taking advantage of human kindness?
The other two short films, "Timebomb" and "The Adventures of Blacky"--which pander to an artier contingent through unstructured visual poetics--allude to the way children's early experiences form their adult sensibilities. In the first, a woman monologues over static imagery about time she spent at a Baptist family camp as a young girl, and how the camp's after-dinner assembly games terrified her. In the last, an androgynous child (think David Bowie at 12) answers psycho-babble questions about violent picture cards of dogs, while compulsively sharpening a stack of pencils. Right. These bookends are so stylistically different from the straight-made middle documentary that any connective theme among the three seems forced. (CR)
The Last Angel of History
Thursday, March 5; 10 p.m. in Bart's Bistro
Detroit techno artist Derrick May calls funk superstar George Clinton a "fucking maniac" when trying to pinpoint the appeal of the musician's far-out ideas--but he may as well be referring to his interviewer, filmmaker John Akomfrah. In this piece, best described as a cultural documentary masquerading as science fiction, Akomfrah tells the story of a "data thief" from 200 years in the future who sells his soul for knowledge of the future, only to have to live in the past--our present. Within this odd, rather stiff structural device, Akomfrah presents a surprisingly compelling vision of futurism in black society, a vision that is best illuminated through music. By encompassing tribal drumbeats, the blues of Robert Johnson, Clinton's album Mothership Connection, the jazz of Sun Ra, and today's techno pioneers, Akomfrah guarantees that this piece is at least aurally and visually interesting. But put in context with interviews and commentary by musicians like May, fans such as astronaut Bernard A. Harris, former Star Trek-er Nichelle Nichols, and sci-fi writers Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler, Last Angel actually goes a long way toward proving that behind Akomfrah's far-out premise lies a not-so-crazy message: A people often regarded as obsessed with their past may have always been living for the future. (SKJ)
Rumour of True Things
Thursday, March 5; 10:30 p.m. in the Video Box
This melange of footage from satellite maps, X-rays, infrared video, microscopic cameras, security tapes, and computer screens takes a look at how we as a society use technology to look at ourselves. For all the interesting juxtaposing of images (video shot from the perspective of a race-car driver bleeding into a video game in the perspective of a race-car driver; virtual men watching video footage of a real stripper), at 25 minutes, Rumour gets tedious. While, no doubt, that's part of the desired effect--you know, the ol' "humanity's nonstop pursuit (and perusal) of technology dehumanizes us" mantra--it still doesn't keep you from wanting to hit the fast-forward button. (SKJ)
Friday, March 6; 7 p.m. in the TV Lounge
Former Dallas Observer film critic Matt Zoller Seitz may have abandoned us for the bright lights and cramped housing of New York's Greenwich Village, but he hopes to see his first screenplay produced and shot right here in his hometown. To that end, Gretchen and Julia Dyer of One Mind Productions (they wrote and directed Late Bloomers, the cool lesbian romantic comedy that Strand released nationwide to limited but enthusiastic critical notices) have collaborated with the Dallas Video Festival to offer local audiences a staged reading of Powwow, Seitz's debut script about parents thrown into an economic and emotional tailspin when their grown daughter's relationship with a different kind of guy forces everyone to scrap the family formula.
Gretchen and Julia have assembled some of the best actors in Dallas theater, including Bruce DuBose, Sheriden Thomas, Cameron Cobb, and Tina Parker, for this live reading of Seitz's fractured family saga. Recommendation to Dallas theater audiences: Even if this doesn't make it to the big screen, catch this one-time-only assemblage of top local talent. Recommendation to potential financiers: If Seitz's screenplay goes into production, keep as much of this cast as possible. (JF)
Friday, March 6; 7 p.m. in the Video Box
Tattoo's alternate title could be How Not to Make a Documentary; its makers' apparent love of their subject suffers two major, though connected, flaws: One, the maddening repetition of interviewees' points makes this come across like an informational film for morons (let's have yet a fourth person explain again why hand tattooing is a bad idea). And two, giant holes in information pervade the simplistic interview structure--as in, why is that person important enough to interview in the first place?--which ironically leaves the thrill of recognition to insiders only.
So while it posits a weak "Hey, let us, the tattooed, show you, the non-tattooed, why we do this," the uninitiated will walk away with no idea of whom they've watched prattle on about the traditions, current trends, ethics, and social implications of permanent body art (especially disconcerting after 10 full minutes of blather from an old guy whose forehead scar is the remains of a removed swastika). To boot, we don't get to see enough of the artists' work. Tattoo is textbook example of a potentially intriguing subject in the hands of amateurs. (CR)
SIGGRAPH Art and Animation
Friday, March 6; 10 p.m. in the TV Lounge
SIGGRAPH: Electronic Theater
Saturday, March 6; 1:45 p.m. in the Electronic Theater
From the Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics' annual festival come these reviews of the best in computer animation and special effects. Some familiar images show up here: the Toy Story guys; scenes from the Bruce Willis flick The Fifth Element; a commercial for a GM minivan featuring an opera-singing baby (all in Electronic Theater); the band KMFDM's "A Drug Against War" video from MTV self-promotion bumpers (in Art and Animation). But even Walt Disney would grow antsy sitting through these hour-plus reels all at one time. Because these programs showcase the wide world of animation, many of the pieces are either painfully esoteric or examples of how precise computer animation can be (see "Digital Smoke," a rendering of--you got it--smoke, where the credits just might be longer than the animation) or, even worse, both. Still, there are some can't-miss gems: "Mass Manipulator," an Argentinean offering that presents a demagogue who ends up using his audience as toilet paper, and "Digital Truth in Tian An Men," a virtual, first-person look at the tragedy of the student protests in Beijing. (SKJ)
La Pommose d'Adamour
Friday, March 6; 10:30 p.m. in the Video Box
French video artiste Sandrine Vivier gives us something that plays out like a Saturday Night Live "Sprockets" clip turned self-serious. This experimental interpretation of the Snow White tale smacks of early '80s Euro-pretension. It's dense, confusing, and self-congratulatory (read: misguided performance art). There are lots of vinyl pants and plastic mask-wearing people jerking around robotically and having sex to shrill Casio-keyboard plinking in a half-hour mime that screams, "I'm provocative!" Overall, this looks like amateur art-school sensibilities punched up with once-new video technologies, or, at best, an homage to early Mark Mothersbaugh--without his saving irony. (CR)
London International Advertising Awards
Saturday, March 7; 1 p.m. in the Electronic Theater
Tabasco's exploding mosquito, Nissan's G.I Joe scoring a date with Barbie, Levi's-wearing youth swooning in elevator mating fantasies...these popular TV ads have a rightful place among this year's winners of the global contest of advertising companies' creative genius. But the U.S. commercials' thematic familiarity makes them not nearly as intriguing as the foreign ones, and the real gems--produced everywhere from Scandinavia to South Africa, Japan to the consistently impressive U.K.--show an adventurous, intelligent (not to mention racy) spirit often missing in American ads. Look for the Guinness Stout and Tango soft drink commercials from Ireland and England: Each is more entertaining and sophisticated than any television program it's designed to interrupt. (CR)
Saturday, March 7; 1:30 p.m. in Bart's Bistro
Everyone who's ever been bored by poorly taught Shakespeare in public schools should get a small kick out of Shakespeare's Children, which shows how a small team of driven theater teachers steps into an inner-city school's talented and gifted program and imposes a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
These non-black teachers guide (and, in some cases, pester) a group of black and white kids at Malcolm X Elementary in Berkeley, California, into pronouncing and emoting Shakespearean language. Although probably of chief interest to educators, Shakespeare's Children does suggest some intriguing cross-cultural issues that the Bard himself might appreciate. Is mastery of arcane Elizabethan English any richer or more relevant for a black kid from the ghetto than African-American slang? Certainly, neither is a ticket out of poverty. And to contemporary mainstream ears, Shakespeare's dialogue is as rhythmic, specialized, and stylized as that of the late Notorious B.I.G., and both deal heavily with themes of revenge and violence: Why is one better for a minority kid than the other? You may think the answers are obvious, but the questions are never even posed here. Shakespeare's Children invites us to feel good about watching disadvantaged kids get culture, but it assumes too much about some hotly contested educational issues. (JF)
Saturday, March 7; 2:15 p.m. in Bart's Bistro
How to describe this one without repelling the reader upfront? How about this preface: A story is only as good as its teller, and What's Up features a swarthy bunch of New Yorkers who know how to get a laugh. Even if they're telling stories about, well, vomiting. Everyone's got a Technicolor spin on this universal experience, and hindsight not only softens the harsh vulgarity of throwing up, it also injects the subject with comedy. How about a guy who had to figure out, and fast, a way to purge his puke through a wired-shut jaw? Or how a woman who engulfs her food without chewing it unwittingly pioneered a new kind of exit? These tales of nauseous woe are engaging because they're so recognizable, and by the end, even the most heave-o-phobic naysayers will be caught laughing. (CR)
Saturday, March 7; 3 p.m.in Bart's Bistro
As if it's not enough that the tabloids are saturated with real-life tales of peril on the Internet, now there's this straightforward (read: pedestrian) fictional narrative about a 14-year-old boy who is addicted to online chat, the CB-like aspect of the Internet that allows real-time typed communication. TekTek (the boy's online handle) is naive and socially awkward, as 14-year-olds--especially 14-year-old computer geeks--are wont to be. To make matters worse, his father hasn't been around in years, and his mother, who, of course, doesn't understand him, would rather spend every night out on the town than with him. All TekTek has is online chat. Surprise, surprise--TekTek, and the audience, learn that on the Internet people may not be who or what they seem. In fact, people on the Internet may be downright creepy. TekTek wants to be a chilling cautionary tale about the Internet. It's not even a "very special" Blossom. (SKJ)
Saturday, March 7; 5:30 p.m. in Bart's Bistro
John Pierson, author of acclaimed indie-film tome Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes, now has his own shot-on-video series on the Independent Film Channel. (Which, by the way, Dallas' monopolizing TCI Cable still doesn't offer.) The well-connected cinephile uses each half-hour installment to explore everything from film lab technology to actors' methods to "Taranteenies"--teenage filmmakers whose crude work pays staggering homage to the sex and violence so prevalent in today's blockbusters. Droll, insightful, and occasionally too smug for its own good, it's worth a look. DVF will screen several installments of Split Screen for deprived Dallasites. (CR)
The Commercial Closet
Saturday, March 7; 7 p.m. in Bart's Bistro
Have you noticed that over the last five years, pictorial advertisements in print and on TV have featured more buff, scantily clad men than ever before? It's no accident: Major marketers of everything from underwear to outerwear to alcohol to automobiles have been aggressively courting one vital demographic--gay urban adult males--but doing it in stealth fashion, afraid if they overtly address homosexual male consumers, they'll alienate that other vital demographic--straight urban adult males. Michael Wilke, a reporter from Advertising Age, offers a live presentation for the Dallas Video Festival called The Commercial Closet that deconstructs the commercial images and explains the machinations of the '90s' most important advertising revolution that, even today, few advertisers will acknowledge. (JF)
Ernesto Che Guevara: The Bolivian Diary
Saturday, March 7; 8:30 p.m. in Bart's Bistro
All Power to the People! The Black Panther Party and Beyond
Sunday, March 8; 3 p.m. in the Electronic Theater
The Dallas Video Festival screens two first-person accounts of late '60s radicalism that eventually diverge at the crossroads of sentiment and sobriety. Lee Lew-Lee's All Power to the People! The Black Panther Party and Beyond is advertised as an insider's history of the seminal Black Power group--Lew-Lee briefly joined the Panthers in 1969 when he was 16 years old. But while the film and video documentation as well as interviews with former Panthers and infiltrating FBI agents is enlightening, the viewer can't escape the impression that the filmmaker, who served as cameraman for Barbara Trent's Oscar-winning 1992 documentary The Panama Deception, still views his formative years with an adolescent's passionate myopia. He's professional enough to pursue voices critical of the Black Panthers, but he submerges them in a flood of radical nostalgia that would feel more legitimate if the angry rhetoric were fresher.
Ernesto Che Guevara: The Bolivian Diary is a posthumous examination of the last months of the Latino revolutionary's asthma-plagued life in 1966. The film painfully documents the ideological betrayal of a man who believed in the plight of the international poor so strongly, he was willing to kill and be killed. Using real excerpts from Che Guevara's diaries, the film shows how he was slowly stripped of his illusions about communism while serving as Fidel Castro's right-hand man (or lap dog, depending on your perspective).
Desperately ill, but as wary of Marxism as he was of American capitalism, Che Guevara fled to Bolivia to oversee a peasant uprising, only to be betrayed by the people he'd sacrificed everything to help. No matter what you think of the man's politics, Ernesto Che Guevara: The Bolivian Diary is an unsentimental, sad look at a man who outgrew his ideology, but not his convictions. (JF)
Hide and Seek
Saturday, March 7; 8:30 p.m. in the TV Lounge
Contrary to what the religious right might have you think, homosexuality was not invented when philandering draft-dodger Bill Clinton squeaked into the White House six years ago. Lesbian love was alive and well in the sacrosanct 1950s, even if its expression was not.
Su Friedrich's Hide and Seek is a quietly astonishing hybrid of fact and fiction, one of those video testaments about childhood that makes us realize how memory and imagination, history and narrative are fatally interlocked. Friedrich grafts real talking-head interviews with a variety of women--some of them immigrants--who grew up in the '50s and early '60s and educational films from that era about teen development onto a fictional story about a girl on the cusp of adolescence who discovers she has a crush on her female best friend. Juxtaposed with authentic memories of prepubescent gender-bending and snippets of testimony by Eisenhower-era experts who assiduously avoid the "L" word, Friedrich's little touches of poignant awkwardness--our heroine taking advantage of a discussion about sex with her friend to trade some tentative physical affection--resonate throughout the swings between documentary and drama. (JF)
Fear and Favor in the News Room
Saturday, March 7; 9 p.m. in the Video Box
Narrated by author Studs Turkel--the venerable social critic who's sort of like Norman Mailer sans the tedious macho obsessions--Fear and Favor in the News Room is a must-see for everyone who gets their impressions of the world from local and national media in print and on TV. Even if you espouse the debatable theory that journalists are more liberal than other Americans, you run up against one mammoth brick wall of a fact--most journalists work for editors who work for large companies that need to turn a profit in the local, national, and international markets. This means financial conflicts over what journalists cover frequently shape the stories you get. Whether it be controversial subjects affecting advertisers, media owners, or media board members who also serve on corporate boards, news writers are often edited away from matters of public concern and safety. Yet as reporters from The New York Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution make clear in interviews for this clear-eyed documentary, it's rarely as flagrant as that overused lefty shibboleth "censorship." Rather, writers who've uncovered some bit of big-business chicanery or a real violation of public safety are redirected (and sometimes physically relocated) by an editor who wants to remain employed.
General Electric, which owns multiple national media outlets as well as nuclear power facilities, is just one example of a business behemoth that's exerted pressure on the news stories that affect it; the purse strings revealed here stretch all the way into such supposedly "liberal" forums as PBS-TV's The McNeil/Lehrer News Hour. If Fear and Favor in the News Room makes one thing clear, it's that the American people would be wise to stop deconstructing their media in "liberal vs. conservative" terms and start examining what they read, see, and hear as the product of "private interests vs. public concerns." (JF)
It's a Strange World
Saturday, March 7; 10 p.m. in Bart's Bistro
Sunday, March 8; 4 p.m. in Bart's Bistro
A compilation of 12 shorts by U.S. artists--connected by the loose thread of general experimentation and what I'd hoped would turn up some of the festival's most interesting stuff--turns out to be an uneven waste of time and talent.
The opener is funny enough: Jim Jacobs, an annual DVF contributor, continues his helpful-hints series with "Guidelines for Public Speaking," a deadpan, well-performed parody of self-help videos. And "Beyond Asiaphilia" is a too-short though timely documentary about the burgeoning American obsession with Hong Kong cinema. But the other shorts (not short enough) lumber through bad special effects, shallow performance art, and dead-in-the-water stabs at comedy. "Rant" follows the mercilessly long misadventure of two real-life ants who've strayed from their ant hill, while voice-over actors supply the ants' uninspired "dialogue." "Understory" borrows dated Goth rock aesthetics as a camera oozes endlessly through underground sewer systems and occasionally lights on shrouded figures who chant gibberish. And local artist Marian Henley, creator of the consistently funny "Maxine" comic strip, falters with an inane live-action comedy short. Starring herself and her friends dancing through an intersection crosswalk, it ain't gonna entertain anyone but the people in it. C'mon. With all the unexplored territory of video art, a cross-country search should bring in better than this. (CR)
Blacks and Jews
Sunday, March 8; 1 p.m. in the Electronic Theater
"Why are you people always whining about the Holocaust?" a black man yells into a white Jewish woman's face. "Well, why are you people always whining about slavery?" she counters with equal ferocity.
The two are actors in a New York theatrical exercise, designed in a workshop to help relieve some of the ethnic tensions caused by Brooklyn's Crown Heights imbroglio of the early '90s, when a Jewish driver killed a black kid in a traffic accident and triggered riots, city council face-offs, and at least one murder in retribution. The compelling, informative, historically savvy documentary Blacks and Jews uses this chaos and the ensuing attempts to quell it to project backward through the 20th century and explain why, when so many black and Jewish leaders were in sync during the early 1900s, the relationship has deteriorated to (at best) public exchanges of epithets like "hymie" and "spearchucker" and (at worst) homicidal violence. Culling film and video footage from before, during, and after the civil rights era, Blacks and Jews shows us how mutual animosity ignites at the street level (demonstrations and riots against Jewish property owners by black buyers and renters in Chicago neighborhoods during the '50s) and at the academic level (a grimly hilarious TV exchange between Tikkun's Michael Lerner and Harvard conservative Cornel West, both noted national intellectuals, who hurl invectives rather than rocks and bottles during a childish shouting match).
But where did this animosity come from? When blacks began to leave the South for job opportunities in northern cities during the first decades of the 20th century, they crowded into poor Jewish neighborhoods. Suddenly, one set of have-nots were cramped together with another, and their ethnic and religious differences began to chafe. When Jews started to gain economic advantage, the resentment worsened. This was exactly the situation before the Crown Heights riots, which, as Blacks and Jews smartly points out, was actually a spat between minorities-within-minorities (immigrant Caribbean blacks vs. Hasidic Jews) that developed into a national conflict with the inflammatory rhetoric of folks like Louis Farrakhan. Blacks and Jews offers tentative solutions, but the questions it raises--namely, why?--are more compelling. (JF)
Culture, Water, Money
Sunday, March 8; 1:15 p.m. in the TV Lounge
The relationship between communities on opposite sides of the Texas-Mexico border after NAFTA is a situation ripe for in-depth analysis, but unfortunately, Culture, Water, Money only flirts with these tangled topics. The filmmakers introduce an intriguing subject--how man-made policies of economic development and the natural processes of erosion along the Rio Grande have combined to screw poor Mexicans, thus encouraging more crime and more illegal immigration into the United States--and then turn their attention to the River-Pierce Foundation, a cultural education group that stages performances and programs to remind said poor Mexicans that they've been screwed. When your mind is set in documentary mode, hungry for more stats and visuals about the cost "free trade" has exacted on our most poverty-stricken neighbors, you get a little annoyed with performance pieces in which artists lay down strips of raw meat and shatter mirrors in a hollowed-out Mexican church. Culture, Water, Money dwells too much on their cultural demonstrations and too little on the destitute areas they purport to advocate. (JF)
Sunday, March 8; 2:15 p.m. in the TV Lounge
At first glance, this compilation of shorts by Oakland-based artists the HalfLifers promises some oddly engaging video exploration. Donning Devo-esque jumpsuits, harnesses, and gas masks, two anonymous men skitter about in insect-like, repetitive movements in darkly distorted mini-segments. They crawl across the floors of industrial spaces, climb walls, and lay heavy equipment across one another's bodies, until the sense that they've taken on some crucial, undefined task rises from their rhythms. The muffled, high-pitched noise of their frenetic action launches this into even more surreal territory. Rescue evokes Matthew Barney's early video work without Barney's pervasive sexual angle, as well as the tension in the Japanese biomechanical nightmare flick Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Whatever the concept's possible origins, the mysterious, ritualized actions of Rescue's taskmen lend these clips a unique hypnotic strength. But walk away after the first two or three turns, because the effect loses power as the artists push the same theme through various combinations of color, setting, and sound. It could, however, work really well as video wallpaper for progressive social venues. (CR)
The Rainbow Man/John 3:16
Sunday, March 8; 5:15 p.m. in the Electronic Theater
How does a man go from childhood TV addict to sports celebrity to beer commercial star to born-again Christian terrorist who bombs bookstores and takes hotel maids hostage? You'll find out in The Rainbow Man/John 3:16, which follows the fascinating devolution of Robert Stuart, who made a name for himself in the late '70s and early '80s as a multi-chromatic wig-wearing professional fan a la our own "Crazy Ray." Featuring footage that includes prison interviews with Stuart, the filmmakers employ tons of video evidence to show how psychotic delusions of grandeur, the media cult of personality, and organized religion produced one man who sincerely wanted to save sports fans from eternal damnation. (
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