Short takes

What follows are brief reviews of some highlights from the Dallas Video Festival, arranged chronologically. The festival runs from Thursday, March 25, through Sunday, March 28, in four different areas--the Electronic Theater, Video Cabaret, Video Lounge, and Video Box--at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Boulevard. Installations of video art are on display through April 3 at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, 3120 McKinney. For ticket and other information, call (214) 999-8999. This list is not comprehensive; consult the festival's program for descriptions of events not listed. Capsule reviews were written by Dallas Observer staff writers Zac Crain, Jimmy Fowler, Scott Kelton Jones, and Christina Rees.

Possession Is Nine-Tenths of the Law
Thursday, March 25; 7:00 p.m. in the Video Lounge
Possession Is Nine-Tenths of the Law is almost interesting despite itself, one of those so-bad-it's-good films you wouldn't go see in a theater, might rent, and definitely would watch if it aired on USA Up All Night. Possession has its moments, but it's hard to tell just what it wants to be--all-out spoof or subtle dark comedy--mainly because the acting is so wooden that the characters are almost indistinguishable from the sets, the transition scenes barely a step above those in most X-rated fare. Either way, it's doubtful that anyone really wants another X-Files-tinged parody at this point. And no one needs one. (Zac Crain)

Letters Not About Love
Thursday, March 25; 8:00 p.m. in the Video Box
This is one of those films that just fester in festivals. It's experimental, lacking both a traditional narrative and a protagonist. It just aches Art--with a pretentious, preening capital A. And it flirts with tedium every second of its 59 minutes. With these three big deficits going for it, is it surprising that Letters Not About Love was selected Best Documentary at last year's South by Southwest Film Festival? Nah. Festival judges just love to be bored by big ideas, as long as they're presented in a fresh, new way. And the idea behind Letters is novel--at least for a documentary. This film is about words, specifically the words found in five years' worth of written correspondences between two poets: American Lyn Hejinian, living in California, and Ukrainian Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, living in what was then the Soviet Union. In each section of the film, the poets ruminate on a subject ("grandmother," "poverty," "home," "violence"), their words voiced over by Lili Taylor and Victor Nord while odds and ends of footage play like a stranger's long lost home movie. The images are never personalized or explained. The film exists as a visual subtext to the narration. And although the idea of a cinema of words may be interesting to contemplate, in practice it's more like watching slides of what your aunt did on her summer vacation while listening to National Public Radio. Sure, it's educational, but it's not exactly big-time fun. (Scott Kelton Jones)

Divorce Iranian Style
Thursday, March 25; 9:00 p.m. in the Video Box
Phone sex, polygamy, arresting your husband for impotence, shacking up with a 9-year-old schoolgirl, and rounds of family fisticuffs? Nah, it's not Jerry Springer. It's Divorce Iranian Style, a look at marital woes in Salman Rushdie's least favorite vacation spot. Filmed in gloriously yawning BBC style, this ain't exactly as riveting as American afternoon yak-fests. However, it isn't without its chuckles if you dare to stare long enough. Iran is a country where men can file for divorce because their wives have a "telephone relationship" with another man and women can be court-ordered to make themselves more attractive and tempt their husbands. Yet a woman can't get an easy divorce even if her husband takes a "co-wife"--in the parlance of the people--as long as he's not so insidious as to make them share the same home. All in all, it's interesting to see how strange the social system is in different cultures. But really, didn't we figure out that Iran sucks back in the Carter administration? (SKJ)

London International Advertising Awards
Thursday, March 25; 10:00 p.m. in the Electronic Theater
As advertising agencies get better at mocking art and nailing the psychology of man, their 30-second spots that interrupt our beloved TV shows are getting better than the shows themselves. I haven't seen a bad Volkswagen commercial in years, and I'd rather watch a Beetle ad than Just Shoot Me any day. Sadly, commercials result in some of the most impressive short filmmaking in the world. From Australia to Norway, Germany to Scotland, Canada to Hong Kong, these are the most inventive, hard-hitting, or humorous (not to mention expensive) slices of TV time out there. The winners are separated into categories--automotive, personal service, public announcement, cinematography, etc. Sure, you'll recognize a few--the Budweiser frogs, some Nike ads--but most of them will be unfamiliar, and you may be surprised at how racy or edgy those foreign ad agencies can get. Nudity, profanity, violence--the kind of stuff our own FCC would never allow. (Christina Rees)  

Saddle Sores
Thursday, March 25; 10:15 p.m. in the Video Box
"Biological infestation and human desire make for great drama," says Vanalyne Green, a very nice, very articulate woman who also happens to have contracted herpes from a short relationship she had with a cowboy. He didn't tell her he was infected, denied that he had the disease, and afterward claimed she had put him in danger. Saddle Sores is a 20-minute video documentary made by Green about the rush of emotions she, a very un-promiscuous woman, had to deal with upon being infected with "this tacky little incurable disease that doesn't even have celebrity status anymore." Green's poetic narration takes us to the heart of her relationship with the man she calls Cowboy Bob, a situation that was probably all physical to begin with. Green interviews the friends who commiserated with her after the breakup and the infection; one of them reminds her she was interested in Cowboy Bob pretty much because "he looked good in those Wranglers." Eloquent, self-deprecating, and poignant, Saddle Sores feels as if it must have been a great exorcism for Green. Even if you don't have herpes, you'll get a little contact thrill watching Green dot reproductions of Frederic Remington's painted cowboys with little red spots. This marvelous first-person confession wouldn't have the same immediacy if it were shot on film. (Jimmy Fowler)

Only Human: HIV-Negative Gay Men
Friday, March 26; 7:00 p.m. in the Video Lounge
Maintaining your HIV-negative status would seem to be a no-brainer, especially for anyone who's stayed by a friend or lover's side during the final stages of AIDS. But for urban gay males, especially those who survived the AIDS pandemic at its height in the '80s and early '90s, funerals and hospital visits became more frequent than dinner parties and dates. When seemingly everyone around you is dying or dead, life becomes either a lot more or a lot less precious. The acrid stench of death has so utterly filled the nostrils of gay male culture during the last two decades, even the younger generation that came of age inundated by safer-sex guidelines has trouble sniffing out the parts of gay life and culture that have nothing to do with AIDS. Director Ioannis Mookas' Only Human: HIV-Negative Gay Men is half documentary and half fictional narrative, combining interviews with positive and negative men alongside the story of a Hispanic gay college student so untouched by HIV that its threat is never real to him. When addressing gay men, this enterprise is probably preaching to the choir. When addressing heterosexuals who wonder why in the hell unsafe sex practices would ever rise again, the video offers some sane, soul-searching answers. It can be summed up in that age-old attack on peer pressure by parent to child: "If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you?" For many, the honest answer is "Yes. Because if I didn't, I'd be left alone." (JF)

American Cowboy
Friday, March 26; 8:00 p.m. in the Video Lounge
Director-editor Kyle R. Henry documents the last competitive ride of Gene, a South Texas horse lover, rodeo rider, and gay man who is chomping at the bit to come out to family and cowboy peers. American Cowboy is a funny, intimate salvo fired in the cause of the decentralization of American homosexuality: Community leaders have been arguing louder in recent years that the face and size of gay and lesbian America is still impossible to assess, because right now we're only hearing from uncloseted adult urban dwellers. Gene, fussy and a little reckless (he insists on riding, against his doctor's recommendations, with a broken leg), draws us into the world of the International Gay Rodeo, where non-gay cowhands who are hired to assist squirm uncomfortably. "Do you think you and John Wayne could hang out and get along?" Henry asks Gene at one point. Gene insists they'd be fast friends. (Wayne, asked before his death what he thought of the gay-rights movement, was quoted as saying, "I don't think there's anything wrong with it, but I don't think it's anything to get excited about, either.") American Cowboy watches as a regular guy struggles to bring all of who he is into a traditional American arena that still gets riled up about it. (JF)

"Visual-Music" Compilation
Friday, March 26; 9:30 p.m. in the Video Lounge
"British Video Art" Compilation
Saturday, March 27; 7:00 p.m. in the Video Box

The video festival creates catch-all programs by separating and dumping its countless short film entries into categories called "compilations." Thing is, the individual shorts within these groupings run the gamut from fascinating to flat-out wastes of time, making sitting through them a real crapshoot. Actually, too much of the material comes off more like festival filler than worthwhile examples of fine video work. Too many of the filmmakers who consider themselves "video artists" are about as original and talented as tap water.  

But occasionally, something extraordinary peeks through the rest of the garbage. Of all the segments in the Visual-Music compilation and British Art Videos compilation, there are about four worth noting.

Deep into the Visual-Music section, New York artist Alix Stewart Lambert has put together a fictional short about a decadent, brash, and skanky all-girl rock band called "Platipussy." In a five-minute run--documentary-style with interviews from the girls' "friends" and "parents," and amidst music footage and band dialogue--watch the girls self-destruct. Not unfunny, or, considering that these girls are simply aping all-male bands a la Guns N' Roses, un-thought-provoking. "Lone Star" is a very tongue-in-cheek music "homage" to all the film and TV shows made in Texas these past few decades. Remember Powder? How do you feel about Urban Cowboy? Or Barney?

On the British Art comp, "Dust" is one of the most effective examples of just how far one can stretch the visual capabilities and aesthetics of video. It's an abstract and intense piece, gritty and nearly ambient as it traces the cross-desert journey of a woman swimming through sand toward some unnamed goal. It's quiet and high-contrast, and it evokes the creepy yet beautiful visuals of Jeunet-Caro's filmic outings (Delicatessen, City of Lost Children). "Drive All Your Cares Away" is a fine example of video wallpaper, the kind meant to jibe with techno music and rave culture and late-night MTV. The music's by Fruitloop, and the repetitive animation is hypnotic and satisfying. (CR)

Unmade Beds
Friday, March 26; 9:30 p.m. in the Electronic Theater
Now here's an interesting take on the documentary genre. British filmmaker Nicholas Barker wanted to make a film about the New York singles scene. So he and his crew went through 400 personal ads, eventually singling out--pun intended--four people. Brenda, a sexy Italian getting long in the tooth, just wants a man--not for sex, mind you (you can get sex anywhere), but for money. Michael, a short man just entering his 40s, is so desperate for love, he uses a dating coach. Aimee is an affable overweight woman still in her 20s, but, like Michael, she's already desperately afraid of spending her whole life alone. And finally, Mikey is a self-proclaimed screenwriter and caveman, a guy who, as the mirrored walls and erotic art of his "cave" apartment shout, "just wants a fuck." After conducting extensive interviews, Barker wrote a script and then cast people as themselves. The result is a darkly funny and surprisingly voyeuristic look at single life that, while obviously not 100 percent pure documentary, is so strange and unnerving that it feels true. And truth, after all, is all a documentary should long for. (SKJ)

The Ad and the Ego
Saturday, March 27; 12:00 p.m. in the Video Cabaret
Part of the problem with all the anti-media Cassandras sonorously intoning about the insidious hypnotic effects of television advertising is that they always talk about how ads affect other people, not themselves. Moreover, they seem to be parroting self-evident truths--like buying a certain soft drink won't make you rich or pretty or smart. The Ad and the Ego, directed and edited by Harold Bolhem, enlists four different media experts to expound on what suckers Americans are. "Everyone feels they are perfectly exempt from the effects of advertising," says one, and you can't help but think, "Especially you, lady." The Ad and the Ego would benefit from having a wryer, more complex voice like, say, the wise and witty Salon media columnist James Poniewozik, who insists that most Americans simply won't keep buying products they dislike, no matter how clever and impressive the ad campaign. Nonetheless, some enlightening facts do cut through the preaching in Bolhem's fast-paced documentary, like the way advertisements stopped describing the consumable and started describing the consumer back in the 1920s. "The job of advertising is to make us uncomfortable in our own skins," says one expert, and you only have to think as far as your discomfort with your own imperfect body to realize that the body-loathing so many Americans experience is part of a highly successful indoctrination campaign from the advertising elite. (JF)

Cola Conquest
Part 1, Saturday, March 27; 1:15 p.m. in the Electronic Theater
Part 2, Saturday, March 27; 7:30 p.m. in the Video Lounge
Part 3, Sunday, March 28, 6:00 p.m. in the Video Cabaret

This is a pretty solid trilogy of hourlong documentaries about how corporate giants Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola grew up and waged war on each other. It's not just a series on the companies and their different schemes--it's more a study of how advertising can turn mere sugar water into cultural iconography.  

Coke is the most recognized ad symbol in the world. Pepsi struggles like hell to stay on its heels. Since these soft drinks' post-Civil War inception (yes, the original Coke contained coca leaves, which founder John Pemberton hoped would relieve all those wounded veterans of their morphine habits), with Pepsi as the strongest of Coke's imitators, both companies have been two of the most powerful advertising pioneers in history. While Pepsi has tried to get its image off the back porch and into the living room, Coke has coasted on its fame as a tonic for high energy and well-being.

Packed with wry commentary from ad execs, sociologists, paraphernalia collectors, and pop-culture gurus, The Cola Wars is often as humorous as it is accurate, and the video format works perfectly here. Granted, sometimes its message about how Coke's ad campaign has made the drink a type of modern-day god gets a bit strained after a while, but overall, this is entertaining and thought-provoking stuff. (CR)

Saturday, March 27; 2:15 p.m. in the Electronic Theater
How could a documentary about a high school marching band be a good idea, you ask? If you could see the intelligence, the awkwardness, the earnestness of these Waxahachie kids, you'd understand. We've all been there--motivated by an internal drive and a team solidarity that creates a dramatic process: in this case, beginning with the very first summer practice and ending with the big state competition. Whether you were a band geek, a drama geek, or a spelling-bee champ, everyone's adolescence carries some kind of official struggle, some history of victories and defeats. This is high school band as Everyman.

Miserably, filmmaker Duane Conder bogs the whole thing down, and not only with his dull, on-screen meditations about his past as a band geek. Worse, he uses staged psychotherapy sessions as a framing device. As in: "Why can't I get over my past as a band geek?" So just when things are getting interesting with the actual kids and their band director--not an uncharismatic group--Conder cuts to his misguided and out-of-place drivel.

Actually, what could have been a Hoop Dreams for the brass-and-wind set is undermined by technical and stylistic flaws. Conder never focuses on any one student, he never lets the camera rest on an engaging scene, and he never allows his audience to become embroiled in the interpersonal or political conflict. Oh, you do catch hints that some kids are passing out in the 107-degree practice-field heat, that a flute player flirts with a heroic drum major, that the band director is a better parent to these kids than most of their real parents are. We just don't get to explore any of it. What a shame. (CR)

Home Page
Saturday, March 27; 3:00 p.m. in the Video Cabaret
This film may have been prescient about five years ago, but at this point, watching one man's exploration of the World Wide Web is about as useless as standing in line to watch paint dry. If you liked hearing Barbara Walters ask Monica Lewinsky just what is phone sex anyway, then you might appreciate the ridiculous questions posed in Home Page. Seriously, even the town where I grew up--which boasts a booming population of just under 2,500 people--has its own home page. Next up: an in-depth look at one of the most startling inventions of the last few years--the computer. (ZC)

Naked Pavement
Saturday, March 27; 3:15 p.m. in the Video Box
How do you get 100 New Yorkers to lie in the streets naked? If you are photographer Spencer Tunick, you just hand out fliers. Yankees will apparently do anything to get a free print. Me? I just go to Eckerd for doubles. This short but crisply shot documentary follows Tunick, infamous for his photos of naked people in public places, as he pursues his art. The film isn't all that insightful. Other than listening to Tunick offhandedly make some connection between a wave of naked rumps in front of gasoline pumps and war in the Middle East, you don't really learn much--except that people who wear gold (read: snobby) won't pose, but people who wear silver (read: down-to-earth) will. But as Tunick readily admits, the fun of this kind of project comes from looking at naked bodies. If you ask me, it comes from tricking 100 idiots into spreading their hoo-hoos on the grimy streets of Manhattan. (SKJ)

Cardoso Flea Circus
Saturday, March 27; 3:30 p.m. in the Video Box
Never has a one-joke film worked as well as this, a series of demonstrations by the participants in the Cardoso Flea Circus showcasing their peculiar talents. There is Fearless Alfredo, who tries to jump from the end of a nail file into a thimble full of water, but unfortunately misjudges his target and splatters on a table an inch away. Joining Alfredo are a pair of flea cannonballs, a flea weightlifter who picks up cotton swabs (well, they're glued to his little body), the World's Strongest Flea, get the point. But somehow it never gets old, even though it really, really should. (ZC)  

Le Petomane: Fin De Siecle Fartiste
Saturday, March 27; 4:45 p.m. in the Video Cabaret
One bright, summer's day in the mid-1860s, the narrator begins matter-of-factly, a young French boy named Joseph Pujol had a terribly frightening experience while playing along the seashore. Out swimming all alone, he held his breath and dove deep under the water. Suddenly, an icy-cold feeling pierced his gut. Scared, he ran ashore. Imagine his shock when he realized that two liters of seawater were shooting out of his ass.

So begins this documentary on Le Petomane, an apparently honest-to-goodness, genuine turn-of-the-century French cause celebre, who claimed, "My anus is of such elasticity that I can open and shut it at will. I can absorb any quantity of liquid I may be given. I can expel an almost infinite quantity of odorless gas." And he proved it repeatedly on the stage of Paris' Moulin Rouge with an act that was part contortionism, part ventriloquism, part Freudian inspiration, and 100 percent "flatulence mania"--at least, so saith the fart experts interviewed here. Apparently, Le Petomane could not only "break wind on cue," but he could also "sing" out of his tuckus, hitting tenor, bass, and baritone notes, impersonating instruments and birds, and even pulling off gunfire sound effects--not unlike that black guy from the Police Academy movies.

Now, I like a good fart joke as much as the next guy. But apparently I don't like them as much as the fin de siecle French--or these filmmakers. Perhaps the ultra-droll joke of director Igor Vamos' flick is simply that he's managed to give a "fartiste" the serious, straight-faced documentary treatment usually reserved for heads of state. (SKJ)

Saturday, March 27; 5:00 p.m. in the Video Box
It might be one of the shortest shorts at the festival (a shade over three minutes), and it also might be one of the best. Lasting as long as the cutesy Japanese pop song that serves as its soundtrack, it opens with a tight shot of an impossibly crusty old man taking an afternoon siesta, his mouth hanging open as though his jaw is busted. As the song winds to a close, the camera pans down the codger's body to his right foot, which, apparently, has been wildly tapping along with the song the entire time. It may not work in the telling, but I watched it five times in a row, and it only got funnier. (ZC)

Downtown Darlings.
Saturday, March 27; 9:30 p.m. in the Video Lounge
An oft-amusing look at the current New York rock scene, or at least a small slice of it, from the queer/glam angle. The documentary revolves around a club called Squeezebox, held every Friday night within the venerable Manhattan bar Don Hill's. Bands as wretched and self-indulgent as the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, Psychotica, and Toilet Boys take the stage in their various glitter and plumage to pseudo-shock effect. Despite spewing flames, transsexual singers, and much nudity, it's all in fun, and everyone in the hyper-colorful crowd knows it. From interviews with flat, glassy-eyed singers to overlong scenes of the various bands' sets (the sound quality doesn't help matters), the video threatens to dissolve into either self-parody or repetitive diatribe, though it never quite careens off track. The band members, often interviewed in their own teeny, squalid Manhattan apartments, are young, semi-articulate freaks who've escaped America's suffocating heartland with dreams of big-city stardom, and they've created a twisted version of it for themselves. This isn't purely drag-queen culture--it's bona fide (though specialized) live rock. And filmmaker Daniel Falcone pushes that point to greater limits by taking a clear but subtle second stance: This kind of fragile subculture is endangered by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's city cleanup effort. In the end, just forget that most of this music is awful. Downtown Darlings is about the spirit of the scene, not the particulars. Despite its flaws, it's one of the more entertaining selections I viewed. (CR)

The Girl Next Door
Saturday, March 27; 9:30 p.m. in the Electronic Theater
This documentary about porn starlet Stacy Valentine (star of such films as Anal Professor, Up and Cummers 31, New Wave Hookers 5, and a few dozen other adult films in the past four years) isn't as titillating as it might seem. But that's not really the point. The main idea in The Girl Next Door--besides showing how Valentine went from a flat-chested housewife in Oklahoma to a busty temptress in a few easy steps--is revealing just how boring her job really is. Sure, the film has more sex scenes than the average late-night flick on Cinemax, but most of the time the sex is just an explicit form of physical comedy, like when Valentine and her partner have to stop because she's kneeling on an anthill, or when a shot in the pool comes to a halt because she can't stop shivering. Most of the time, though, she just sits and waits. And Valentine is so matter-of-fact about her job, she takes all the fun out of it, listing her various on-screen talents like she's reading off a grocery list. She's even ethical--almost righteous--about it, instructing girls wanting to join the industry that they'd better do it for the right reasons: If the girls aren't on the job because they really like sex, Valentine informs us, the dollar signs in their eyes will ruin the scene. Say what? The right reasons? The real highlight of The Girl Next Door is the supporting cast (the various directors, crew members, other stars, and bottom-feeders), especially director Fred Lincoln, who gives a memorable explanation of the de rigueur facial money shot: "I don't know why we do it. We just do it." Squeamish moment: Watching Valentine's plastic surgeon remove her silicone implants and replace them with smaller ones. (ZC)  

The Fearmakers: Jacques Tourneur, John Carpenter, Jack Arnold
Saturday, March 27; 10:00 p.m. in the Video Cabaret
Based on director John McCarthy's book of the same name, The Fearmakers is your run-of-the-mill career retrospective of three horror-movie pioneers. Most people are familiar only with John Carpenter, the director who made Jamie Lee Curtis scream in 1978's Halloween and single-handedly gave rise to the slasher phenomenon (see: the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street series) of the early '80s. He's been coasting pretty much ever since, but can still pull off a surprise every once in a while, like last year's better-than-it-should-have-been Vampires. Carpenter deserves to be included in any serious discussion of the genre, but it's strange that he's included with Jacques Tourneur and Jack Arnold, two unjustly overlooked directors who made films that couldn't have been any more different from Carpenter's work. Both Tourneur and Arnold managed to scare their audiences by not showing what they were supposed to be frightened of, focusing instead on the terror that the strange creatures in their films were causing. Tourneur (1942's Cat People, 1943's The Leopard Man) and Arnold (1953's It Came From Outer Space, 1957's Seeds of Wrath) dealt in shadows and implication, while Carpenter's films are nothing if not blood-spattered. But as The Fearmakers suggests, these three directors weren't as different as it might seem--Carpenter just took his gore more seriously. The fact that the filmmakers make sense of this supposition transforms a slightly less-than-average documentary into a, well, slightly average documentary. (ZC)

Flat is Beautiful
Sunday, March 28; 1:00 p.m. in the Video Lounge
Filmmaker Sadie Benning came to national attention a few years back as a lesbian teenager whose penchant for atmosphere is as gritty and grainy as the Pixelvision camera--a present given to her in childhood--she wields. Flat is Beautiful is her eerie, poignant, hourlong drama about Taylor, a Milwaukee fifth-grader grappling with the onset of menstruation, a father who globetrots with artists across the European continent, and a gay roommate named Quiggy who may be helping her come to terms with her own sexuality. All the actors in this film wear stylized black-and-white paper masks; it's a conceit that's both grotesque and melancholy at the same time. The wintry Pixelvision look is appropriate, but the real coup here is the background sounds, from video games to children playing on a playground to daytime trash talk shows echoing from the living room. By contrast, the loneliness of adolescence is nicely captured in those sounds of activity; Taylor spends so much time alone, lost in thought, that she's perpetually being reminded of other people's lives. (JF)

Classified X
Sunday, March 28; 1:30 p.m. in the Electronic Theater
Opening with a montage of early black film roles jarringly juxtaposed against photographs from the Civil Rights Movement, Classified X shows how actor-director Melvin Van Peebles helped create a new world of possibilities for black actors and actresses with 1971's Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song. Narrated by Van Peebles, Classified X offers a crash course in black cinema and Hollywood's stereotype of the extremely scared and stupid black man (e.g., Stepin Fetchit), examining all the various mammies, servants, and wide-eyed criminals black actors were forced to play for several decades. It also takes a look at the era of blaxploitation films spawned in the wake of Van Peebles' movie, which eventually became just as stereotypical as the cliches they were created to dismiss. Early on, Van Peebles says that when he decided to make Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song, he just "wanted to make a film about real black people," the kind of proud and beautiful people he saw growing up in Chicago. Classified X is just that kind of film. (ZC)  

Hitchcock, Selznick, and the End of Hollywood
Sunday, March 28; 2:00 p.m. in the Electronic Theater
A documentary that could have been made in A&E heaven, this is the kind of production that will have film lovers idling away a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in front of the boob tube--and everyone else quickly flipping over to the Wide World of Sports. Beginning with two hugely contrasting images, the grandiose burning of Civil War Atlanta in Gone With the Wind and a young, very plump Alfred Hitchcock wobbling on a bicycle, this film has set its premise. It uses the relationship of David O. Selznick, the legendary producer of Gone With the Wind, and his onetime employee, Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, to sketch out the fall of the old Hollywood studio system and the rise of the director as auteur. Along the way, it dishes out some insight--and a little bit of dirt--on both the men and their films, none of which will be too terribly surprising to students of film history. But still, as narrated by Gene Hackman, the film is a genial stroll down a select street of Hollywood history. And it's worth a few lackadaisical hours--as long as hockey isn't on. (SKJ)

Regret to Inform
Sunday, March 28; 2:00 p.m. in the Video Cabaret
The Oscar-nominated Regret to Inform is not your father's Vietnam War film. It's not your uncle's. It's not your brother's. It's not Coppola's, Kubrick's, or Stone's. No, Regret to Inform is a woman's Vietnam War film, perhaps the most feminine war film ever made. And not just because the documentary centers on a woman, first-time filmmaker Barbara Sonnenborn, as she travels to Vietnam 20 years after her first husband was killed in action, searching for closure. Nor is it simply a woman's war film because it intercuts interviews and testimonials from 15 American and Vietnamese women haunted by the disparate but common horrors of the war. This film is feminine because of its perspective and its voice and its style. It makes for a truly original and intriguing Vietnam tour of duty. From the opening scene of a Vietnamese woman laboring in the rice fields singing a forlorn lament to the abundant archival war footage that always seems to be swimming in slow motion, even when it's not, the film illuminates a quiet but deep and endless, almost lyrical pain that's far different from previous treatises. Sonnenborn's film still touches on the themes of horror, madness, confusion, dehumanization, and senselessness. But instead of wrestling with the heart of darkness, she's more concerned with the darkness of the heart. Regret is up there with the best films on the Vietnam War--or perhaps, as the Vietnamese more appropriately refer to it, the American War. (SKJ)

The Rocking Horse Winner
Sunday, March 28; 5:30 p.m. in the Electronic Theater
The haunting magic of Pixelvision casts the classic D.H. Lawrence short story into the intoxicating fever-dream fable that it is. Pixelvision, for those unversed in amateur DIY indie-film conventions, is an old Fisher-Price toy camera that captures high-contrast, pixelated, ghostlike images on a conventional audiotape. Though director Michael Almereyda is not what you'd call a film amateur, this weird and impressionistic telling of the story of a boy who can ride his rocking horse to predict the winners of horse races is the epitome of what indie films can offer. Starring Eric Stoltz and featuring what has to be some of the most hypnotic imagery ever shot by a toy, the film strips the narrative down to almost its subconscious elements, something that would probably meet with Lawrence's approval. Those unfamiliar with the original tale may have trouble digesting it all. But at 22 minutes, it's short enough--and worthy enough--to sit through again. (SKJ)

Digital Shorts: Faces of Austin
Sunday, March 28; 6:00 p.m. in the Video Box
Promising "freewheelin', genre-bendin', tale-spinnin', real life stories from the Lone Star State," Faces of Austin delivers (sort of), but it really could have been filmed anywhere. Apart from many of its subjects' pronounced twangs, there are very few geographical locators to let you know where you are, which would be fine if the filmmakers' intention were to show that every city has its fair share of eccentrics and interesting stories. Instead, the premise of this documentary seems to be that Austin has more than most cities, the place where the tales about Texas are the tallest. But if you blink during the opening credits, you would only be sure that Faces of Austin was shot somewhere in the South, and not necessarily in Texas. Still, there are enough idiosyncratic personalities shown to make up for the irrelevant title, like the Stevie Ray Vaughan-wannabe storage facility manager who has an office packed with lethal spiders and snakes, and a case of narcissism so bad it always looks as if he's about to make out with himself. Or the manners and etiquette instructor whose unimpeachable style and grace have done nothing for her social life, the impressive diction of her pet parakeet notwithstanding. And Faces of Austin is worth watching if only to see octogenarian poet Albert Huffstickler read his poem about bus-stop vandals and come off as a cross between William S. Burroughs and Floyd the barber. Brilliant. (  

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