Sometimes I Direct: A Talk With Blaine Dunlap, Who Once Captured Dallas Better Than Anyone
In March we screened one of the greatest films made in or about Dallas, director Blaine Dunlap's 1973 Sometimes I Run, about Stanley Maupin, who worked for the city's Public Works Department flushing downtown's streets in the wee small hours of the morning. Some Friends of Unfair Park said they'd seen it before, in high school long ago or in a sociology class at SMU. For most, though, the blue-tinted black-and-white short was brand new, a riveting revelation -- 21 minutes' worth of downbeat cinéma vérité, Pennebaker rolling with the Public Works Department as his leading man played country Kerouac.
We'd seen some of Dunlap's work before, but certainly not all; he'd also made Big D, about a trashman who leads the Sunset Bison Band through the streets of the city -- a charmingly surreal piece of what-the-hell. Which is why, a few days ago, I received a note from Dunlap, out of the blue. It said, simply: "I can't tell you how pleased I am that BIG D and SOMETIMES I RUN both survive." Dunlap said to call any time, so I did.
We spoke for a long time, and he explained the genesis of both films, two among many he's made. He said he'd grown up on Reiger and then in Oak Cliff. His mother, he explained, was the children's librarian at the Lakewood library before she went to work in the old downtown library. He insists that Dallas in the late 1960s "was a very hip town in a lot of ways, maybe as a reaction to the Clint Murchisons and H.L. Hunts. "
Like most of Dallas's filmmakers at the time, Dunlap trained at SMU, but that was an accident, through a neighbor who'd just moved to Oak Cliff. His name was Stephen Schmidt, who'd worked as an editor for such revered vérité documentarians as Richard Leacock (Yanqui, No!) and Robert Drew and had come to teach at SMU, lured by the promise of Dallas's Big Money and a freewheeling film department.
"Some kids down the street ran into Steve one day and and said, 'This guy Blaine makes movies,'" Dunlap recalled. "And Steve, true to that spirit of 'Let's see what's up,' organized a Sunday lunch, and I showed some Super 8 films. And he said, 'You got it, kid.' And he talked the dean at Meadows into admitting me.' At the time, I was rotting away at UTA and working at night as a respiratory therapist at Methodist. I had terrible grades at UTA. Abysmal. Steve got me a work-study scholarship, and my gig was to run the equipment check-out room, which is like giving someone the keys to the kingdom."
From East Dallas, a 1974 short film made in conjunction with the Action Center
After a year at SMU, Dunlap was tasked with making his Big Project, his first film. He thought about rolling out a fictional narrative, but he didn't want to work with college actors. "They always just sucked," he said. But Dunlap was "a child of the city buses," which he took from Oak Cliff to downtown to see his mom. "And I loved the way the streets looked at night." He decided to make a movie about ... well, he wasn't sure. "I just remember thinking, 'If I could find the right guy, someone with something to say, that would be it.'"
So he wrote a letter to Mayor West Wise, who'd been elected in '71, and asked for help. Wise made good.
"SMU students had a charmed life in some ways," Dunlap said. "So I got a call from somebody at Public Works who said, 'Meet these guys at this Gaston coffee shop,' and they put me on a truck. I had a tape recorder, a Nagra, a single-channel recorder, so I rode around with them, and I ran into this guy I made the movie about.
"I shot a lot of footage, and before I did that I hung out with Stanley and recorded him telling me about things over a couple of weeks. Then I went back and organized the tapes, transferred them and organized them into stories. I'm 58 now, but that movie was the finest experience I ever had making movies, because when it was done it showed I knew what I was doing.
"I was very lucky in that, back in the day, all the arts were in the one Meadows building. The film cutting rooms were down the hall from the music department, and one night we were there working late and some guy was playing Looney Tunes on the oboe, and it was Ken Watson. The first thing I said was, 'Do you know Copeland? Gershwin?' I pushed an editing machine into the practice room, and, by God, he scored the movie on a Moviola. And it's a beautiful score."
Dunlap wound up at KERA, wanting to continue making films like Sometimes I Run -- movies, he said, that proffered "a sense of community," that showed "what Dallas is really like." He scrounged up a thousand bucks from The Action Center and used the money to finance two films: Big D and East Dallas, the latter shot in the summer of '74 and available on the Texas Archive of the Moving Image site. The woman narrating the short is Dunlap's mother.
He collaborated with others, chiefly Ken Harrison, who made the '74 short Prince Albert Hunt, about a singer and fiddler from Terrell killed outside a Dallas nightclub in 1931. (Council member Angela Hunt revealed back in '09 that he so happened to be her great-uncle.) But Dunlap wound up leaving Dallas, finding another filmmaker with whom he worked for a long while -- Sol Korine, a doc-maker and father of Harmony (or "Harm," as Dunlap calls him). Among their films: 1983's Sometimes It's Gonna Hurt, about rodeo-riders in Oklahoma, and Mouth Music, which, they wrote, "demonstrates the distinctive modes of the human voice, the most influential of all musical instruments, takes on in southern folk music and folk culture." They also exec-produced Harrison's 1980 doc on the great Western Swing fiddle-player Johnny Gimble.
Dunlap eventually made his way to New Orleans, where, when Katrina hit, he thought he'd lost all the original film elements to so many of his estimable works. Much of his work with Korine had been kept in a collection at Middle Tennessee; but the Dallas movies were just ... here and there. But over time, things began surfacing: South Carolina Arts Commission had two 16mm prints of Sometimes I Run, for instance, which Dunlap said "dazzled my brain." And so Dunlap is now hard at work restoring his docs, and those of others, as the Southeast Media Preservation Lab.
"When I saw New Orleans vanish in a day," he told me the other day, "the whole thing gelled: If the city can go away, and your friends and the buildings too, then films and videos sure as hell will too."
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