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The gloriously, infuriatingly eclectic Dallas Video festival continues to entertain--and bore

The nature of any festival, whether it's centered on food or film, is usually hodgepodge--an eclectic confluence of the sweet and the bitter, the fatty and the lean.

It's no surprise that the 9th Annual Dallas Video Festival possesses that sort of erratic appeal, but it can be annoying at times. Professional documentaries share the stage--or more precisely, the cathode ray tube--with the kind of trash you might expect now that the camcorder has become more common in households than the typewriter. Video isn't as much a medium of art as it is one of accessibility. Consequently, it is characterized by wildly unregulated craftsmanship.

Some of the Dallas Video Festival's entries are exciting, while some barely allow you to keep your eyes open--even though they're only nine minutes long. That's the blessing and the curse of video, and here it lives in all its glorious, infuriating kitschiness.

The following titles, all showing at the Festival, were selected for review mostly on the basis of advance availability. The list is far from comprehensive, although it approximates the same randomness of a trip to the festival itself.

The Dallas Video Festival runs from Thursday, January 4 through Sunday, January 7. All of the videos will be screened at the Dallas Museum of Art. Some of the DMA's rooms have been renamed for this event: the Video Box, the TV Diner, the TV Lounge, and the Interactive Zone.

In addition to the videos reviewed here, many other works will be screened, and the Festival will also sponsor special events, such as an appearance by Steve Allen, who will comment on the devolution of the late-night TV talk show. A complete program is available at the Dallas Museum of Art or through the Festival; call 823-8909, or send a fax to 821-9103. The Festival's Web site is located at http://www.videofest.org.

The list is alphabetical by program title. The reviewers are Arnold Wayne Jones, Jimmy Fowler, and Robert Wilonsky. A indicates a program or video that the Dallas Observer recommends.

Americans: The Battle Over Citizen Kane. (January 7, 1:45 p.m., Horchow Auditorium.) Americans is easily the centerpiece--both in craftsmanship and subject matter--of the entire Festival. Rather than offer a mere biography of Orson Welles or William Randolph Hearst, Americans starts by examining the film Citizen Kane, Welles' thinly veiled biography of Hearst, and assumes that the film says as much about the great director as it does about Hearst. Interviews with those who were there during the making of Kane, including film editor Robert Wise (who later directed The Sound of Music and many other films), shine a light on how Welles re-wrote Herman Mankiewicz's script with himself in mind. Hearst's mother didn't die when he was young, for example, but Welles' did.

The documentary generally lionizes Welles, and though it falls short of trashing Hearst, he hardly comes off better than in Kane. The public dissection of the private lives of two notoriously flamboyant Americans proves to be a great contrast to the life and work of Quentin Tarantino (also profiled at the Festival; see Quentin Tarantino: Hollywood's Boy Wonder), who simply can't hold a candle to Welles for sheer flashiness. (AWJ)

Ben Spock--Baby Doctor. (January 7, noon, Video Box.) While not necessarily the first title to jump out from the Festival's program, Ben Spock--Baby Doctor is actually a must-see for post-baby boomers. Journalist-filmmaker Robert Richter's profile places the controversial, Yale-educated pediatrician who began his practice in the 1930s within the context he deserves as a humane, rational voice in the often cold, clinical universe of pediatrics and child psychology. The turn of the century saw concepts about infant and child development from Jung and Freud filter down from the researchers to the caregivers, who, in turn, passed on some rather dubious advice to parents--don't demonstrate too much physical affection for your child, for example, and punish masturbation harshly, lest your offspring be riddled with neuroses. Spock came along with his dime-store paperbacks and told parents to relax, trust their own instincts, and above all, attune care to the personality of the child, not some abstract model of mental health.

Dr. Spock's public stance against the Vietnam War was received less warmly, but he articulates it here with the same commonsensical philosophy that made his books so popular: "As a doctor of children, aren't I supposed to be against everything that harms them?" (JF)

Carmen. (January 6, 9:30 p.m., Horchow Auditorium.) Laurie Anderson's short take on Bizet's opera, set in a cigarette factory, tracks the prosaic life of a modern-day heroine from Seville, where television has replaced the bullfight as the central entertainment medium. Although musical highlights from the opera play over Anderson's images, the whole project comes off as simply campy and hip, not to mention dull, with none of the passion of the real Carmen, nor enough wit to be anything more than a lame exercise. (AWJ)

 

Death and a Salesman. (January 7, 6:15 p.m., Video Box.) Brief and often funny in a base, guilty-pleasure way, this comedy--about a used car salesman trying to sell an automobile to the Grim Reaper--serves merely as a forum for an endless succession of jokes about death. What's really remarkable is how effortlessly it illustrates that references to dying permeate our daily conversation. "Don't buy that car, it's a death trap," the salesman says, and on and on. Salesman is a slight, fun video, with no greater goal than to entertain for a few minutes. It succeeds. (AWJ)

Dserts. (January 4, 7 p.m., TV Diner.) The kind of pointless mistake that gives experimental video a bad name, this opening-night offering is more likely to scare away first-time patrons than intrigue them. Oblique, meaningless images and ideas take the stead of innovation in a boring, eminently avoidable short that simply isn't short enough. (AWJ)

Eyeing the Process. (January 7, 4 p.m., Video Box.) Two of the "visions of democracy" that make up this compilation are wretched, but it's almost worth sitting through them for the third video.

Mr. President, the first short work, offers a collection of black men, including Johnnie Cochran and Ice-T, talking about democracy and race. It is a fuzzy, unfocused, and mostly uninsightful video.

Mr. President, though, has less pretension than the unwatchable Bearer of the Wound. voiceovers about psychics and past lives set to abstract images of nature form the basis of this video, perhaps the least cinematic in the Festival. Nothing ties the visuals into the annoying, pointless narration.

Barbara Kruger's Talk Show, brimming with thought-provoking ideas, is a refreshing contrast. In it, a white woman and a black man discuss over lunch everything from race to the universe in general. Capturing in a compelling way the righteous vigor of a typical college cafe conversation requires a rare degree of observational skill. The grace of Kruger's 10-minute video is that it never overstays its welcome, leaving just before it becomes tiresome, yet lingering long enough to get thought processes pulsing. (AWJ)

Fat of the Land. (January 7, 7 p.m., TV Diner.) Five environmentally conscious women with a camcorder set out on a cross-country journey to prove that an unmodified diesel van could be fueled with nothing more than vegetable oil. They do it. The science of making diesel fuel out of discarded french fry grease is fascinating, but the distorted audio track is terrible, and the video is sometimes unwatchable as a result. It's too bad the directors didn't know as much about filmmaking as they seem to know of organic chemistry. (AWJ)

The Gay Agenda. (January 6, 5:45 p.m., Video Box.) The Gay Agenda, a video produced by an ultra-right political lobbying organization ominously named "The Report," was made expressly for viewing by members of Congress. This 18-minute propaganda piece--a diatribe against the "disgusting" habits of homosexuals and their efforts to hijack American culture and turn the United States into one big bathhouse--might be humorous if it weren't so frighteningly reactionary in its medieval, Pandora's Box view of homosexuality. The video is almost campy until its seriousness becomes evident.

Thankfully, a satiric version of it that follows, The Straight Agenda, hits home by pointing out the hateful bigotry of The Gay Agenda, and is wonderfully entertaining in its own right. Every fact and statistic in the right-wing video gets mocked and slyly criticized by this tongue-in-cheek short, made in the same quasi-news format. "I entered the straight lifestyle right out of high school," one reformed heterosexual confesses. "I was known as a ladies' man, but actually I was just a womanizer." It's outrageously funny stuff, the kind of comedy the original "Saturday Night Live" cast used to do regularly. Elements like the character named Dr. Roberta Yeast (played by drag queen Jackie Beat) and a recitation of the "alarming dangers" of heterosexuality--straight people are 40,000 times more likely to commit incest than gays, for example--in this wickedly clever parody destroys the credibility of The Gay Agenda by beating it at its own game. The only problem with these companion pieces is that Festival organizers are screening The Gay Agenda first, lending an unwelcome credence to its message. (AWJ)

Lessons in Modesty. (January 6, 9:30 p.m., TV Diner.) This stream-of-consciousness video essay by Belgian experimental filmmaker Stefaan DeCostere lasts for nearly 90 minutes, yet manages to captivate the senses for most of its length. Lessons in Modesty juxtaposes scenes of American and European telecommunications trivia--home shopping, sex on the Internet, cooking shows--with news clips of warfare, starvation, and plague. Lessons starts off as a rather banal demonstration of the vast chasm between Western haves and Third World have-nots. Then a blackly comic mood sets in, uncovering the fact that the filmmaker has packed his work with extreme depictions of the human body: all buff and ready for a lite-beer ad, or lingering as a bony frame in the last stages of AIDS. DeCostere shows how computerized, mass-marketed body images have distanced us from our own material frailty. (JF)

 

London International Advertising Awards (January 7, noon, Horchow Auditorium) and SIGGRAPH 1995 ("Art & Design," January 4, 8:20 p.m., Video Box; "Computer Graphics Showcase," January 7, 1 p.m., Horchow Auditorium). It is virtually impossible to review these three programs separately, since they all traffic in similar ideas: the best of the shortest short-form video.

The London International Advertising Awards have essentially replaced the American Clios, ever since a debacle several years ago in which the Clios simply closed up shop because of mismanagement. The London awards are equally comprehensive, and include winning television commercials from around the world, selected for both content and style. Highlights include a Volvo ad set in a tornado, a Carl Lewis segment in which the sprinter literally walks on water, a well-deserved cinematography winner from Hong Kong, the Little Caesars pizza campaign, and perhaps the most notoriously over-the-top ad of 1995, a winner for best performance: Dennis Hopper's two-minute sermon about the glories of football for Nike, shown only once during the Super Bowl.

The SIGGRAPH program is more hit-and-miss because its emphasis purely is on visual effects. The kaleidoscopic images from a Fruitopia commercial may seem familiar, but the real winner is the Visible Human Project: a fascinating exploration into the human body executed by freezing a cadaver, slicing it apart laterally at one-half millimeter intervals, and filming the results with extremely sensitive equipment. It's great science, and compelling cinema, too. (AWJ)

Love and Stuff Compilation. (January 5, 8 p.m., Video Box.) All the Happiness, one of the entries in this program, is a failed attempt to ridicule the cliches about love and marriage that people like to share with prospective brides. This fast-paced intercutting of director Kathy Levitt's friends and family giving her advice about relationships on the day of her wedding is dull and formulaic. Everyone, of course, offers similar comments, and she strings them together for 15 minutes for what must be the most incessantly trite work in the Festival. How ironic that Levitt, in poking fun at the lack of creativity among her friends, only highlights her own limitations.

The Festival is fairly light on fictional narrative films (documentaries and experimental exercises predominate), so the few that attempt in a novel way to say something about the human condition in general deserve special recognition. That's true of Hooking Up, a video about five unrelated gay couples in Boston out on five separate dates. All of the dates are full of similarly awkward conversations and hesitant interrelating, and all end up in sexual contact. In contrast to All the Happiness, which is boring in its repetitiveness, the recurring scenes in Hooking Up convey a sad, hard, and wise view of the private lives of all singles, gay or no. Rough around the edges but full of subtle ironies, this is an adult, intelligent movie. (AWJ)

Media Jam Compilation. (January 5, 7 p.m., TV Lounge.) Probably the most consistently entertaining of the compilations, this program contains one of the wittiest, most intelligent videos of the Festival. The Iraq Campaign 1991 is a 20-minute wonder of silent commentary on the Persian Gulf War. Without a line of dialogue, director Phil Petris says all he needs to about the media's coverage of Desert Storm, mixing Disney footage and mock TV broadcasts. The Iraq Campaign is pithy and wicked and contains some stunning juxtapositions.

The Gringo in Maanaland, in its critique of the way Hollywood portrays South America, also uses existing footage, mostly from old films. The filmmakers appear to be somewhat humorless, looking for confrontations where they do not seem to exist. In some of the clips shown, the films themselves mock how people underestimate Latin Americans; in others, comparisons are pointless--a Fred Astaire-Carmen Miranda musical hardly seems a productive example of how the movies' racism perverts views of foreign culture. The clips, though, are interesting, including a comment from Will Hays, who was once the official Hollywood censor. (AWJ)

Noon Wine. (January 6, 6 p.m., Horchow Auditorium.) Perhaps the most painful failure of the Festival is this 1965 made-for-television effort from acclaimed film director Sam Peckinpah, produced several years before his classic film, The Wild Bunch. Set some years after the Civil War, Noon Wine concerns a dairy farmer (Jason Robards) who hires a peculiar farm hand, only to find out years later that the worker spent time in a mental institution for killing a man. The cast includes Olivia deHavilland, Ben Johnson, and Theodore Bikel, but the presence of gifted people amid such clumsiness only makes matters worse. Screenwriter Peckinpah never overcomes the short-story origins of the piece, which projects its literary lineage in every stilted line of dialogue. Furthermore, the video format gives it an artificial, unintentionally surreal feeling. (AWJ)

 

O.J. Can You See? (January 7, 3:15 p.m., TV Lounge.) Even if you're sick of Simpsomania, this irreverent, sadly accurate account of the trial has much to offer. Creator Steve Price has produced two other videos about the Simpson trial, but this cynical, surreal document has the most energy. He has recast the main figures in the trial as characters from a "Gilligan's Island" episode and interspersed tons of discomforting archive footage of The Juice with interviews and now-familiar scenes from the news. The video provides a sense of closure to the whole sordid mess--at least until the civil suit hits the airwaves this spring. (AWJ)

The Petey and Gretna Show. (January 5, 7:45 p.m., Video Box.) Nothing distinguishes American culture quite so dubiously as the anthropomorphizing of dogs, whether they be shown playing poker or smoking cigarettes. The premise of The Petey and Gretna Show is dogs reviewing movies à la Siskel and Ebert. The effects are no better than Mr. Ed on a bad day--the voiceovers are shrill and annoying, the mouth movements embarrassing--but there's a silly energy to it all, and a knowing sarcasm about the four "movies" reviewed: Going for a Ride, Fetch It Again (a sequel, we are told, to last year's Fetch), Hydrant (a Warhol-style, six-hour single take of a dog's bathroom), and Bathtime on Elm Street. (AWJ)

Price Chopper. (January 6, 9:15 p.m., Video Box.) The principle appeal to local viewers of this Shallow Grave wannabe is probably its Dallas setting and use of area talent. A tale of corporate underhandedness--two executives competing for a promotion accidentally commit murder and are forced to join sides--it's not too inventive, but contains some refreshing humor and is nicely edited. It's also one of the few works in the Festival that showcases an original script. (AWJ)

Quentin Tarantino: Hollywood's Boy Wonder. (January 7, 3:30 p.m., Horchow Auditorium.) This made-for-British-television documentary about Tarantino might seem a bit premature, but like A&E's "Biography," it takes what information is available and crafts an entertaining segment--this one 90 minutes--about its subject. For those at all familiar with Tarantino, much of this will not come as news--his job in a video store, his total immersion in all movies, his liberal theft of work from obscure off-shore productions, etc. Tarantino's meteoric rise to success risks being overblown, and at first this documentary's attempts at making a case for his brilliance based on two films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, seems misguided, but if it overstates its case it does so forgivably. Tarantino may be the first non-film school product of the pop culture age to show true artistic abilities in cinema. He's a film festival junkie who plays the game not for business' sake, but because he loves movies. That enthusiasm can be infectious. (AWJ)

SIGGRAPH 1995. See London International Advertising Awards.
Signal to Noise: Life With Television. ("Remote Control," January 4, 7 p.m., Video Box; "Watching TV Watch Us," January 5, 8:45 p.m., Video Box; "TV Reality," January 6, 3:30 p.m., Video Box.) This three-show video series--produced, written, and directed by Cara Mertes for the Independent Television Service--is an ambitious, even brave attempt to put TV in contemporary American life into perspective.

Media critics have long argued that American culture is largely the product of corporations packaging imagery to attract consumers. "Remote Control" focuses on the increasingly permissive climate for corporate media mergers in the last two decades. "Watching TV Watch Us" questions the relationship between advertisers and programming. "TV Reality" examines TV news and how it's shaped--from the questions reporters ask to the amount of hair spray on anchors' scalps--by "news consulting" firms hired to please the audiences advertisers want to reach.

The annoying proliferation of MTV-inspired production gimmicks--self-conscious references, mixtures of video clips from different eras, a camera that moves like a moth--might seem ironic for a program that deconstructs the smoke and mirrors of TV. It is, however, an apt testament to how public TV must transform itself just to be heard amid the commercial cacophony. (JF)

Some Questions for 28 Kisses. (January 7, 5 p.m., Video Box.) Director Kip Fulbeck's challenging but wholly satisfying video dealing with American stereotypes about Asians rushes through male and female voiceovers, scenes from films set in or about the Orient--Rambo, Dr. No, Full Metal Jacket--and a screen-crawl of questions about Asians. All compete for attention, and all prove captivating in the insidiously simple, very personal way Fulbeck exposes the modern idioms of racism. The kookiness of the questions is sometimes seemingly laughable but, like Spike Lee, Fulbeck dares his audience to discount these subtle attacks on culture as proof of racial insensitivity. Seldom does political correctness come across less didactically, or more persuasively. (AWJ)

 

Stories of Women Compilation. (January 6, 4:45 p.m., TV Lounge.) Compilations are practically mini-festivals, and just as eclectic. I had to watch The Gift, for example, a video about breast self-examination, twice--not because it was so good or titillating (it was neither), but because I was afraid I had missed something. I didn't. This medical infomercial may have a place in the panorama of videography, but the Festival is not it.

The piece begins with cross-dressing local actors Jason Williams and Joe Sears of Greater Tuna fame pretending to watch the same video the audience is, but they don't make sarcastic or even remotely funny comments about it. When I was done watching the video, I felt like I'd been tricked by the old bait-and-switch marketing scheme, so don't say I didn't warn you.

The Underground--a video journal of a domestic violence exhibit in Pennsylvania--is better. The exhibit is a series of train tracks in a field with a verse about the horrors of rape written on the railroad ties like wooden stanzas of some sad poem. At the end of the tracks is a telephone booth for visitors to call and leave messages on an answering machine--their opinions of the piece, stories from their own lives, whatever they choose. The exhibit also features trashed cars covered in short sayings, from statistics about domestic violence to the excuses women give themselves while enduring abusive relationships. The concept of the exhibit surpasses the accomplishments of the video, but at least The Underground has preserved for future viewers a reminder of an urgent social crisis. (AWJ)

The Texas Show. (January 7, 8 p.m., Horchow Auditorium.) This collection of made-in-Texas-by-Texans videos is proof that, in the wrong hands, a video camera is a dangerous weapon. Most of these shorts most likely started with the premise, Hey, ya'll, I got me an idea. Then the filmmakers went looking for one. What they came up with is this: an unwatchable mockumentary about sex education; an unintentionally laughable piece about male leather-fetishists; a video in which the punch line involves a vibrator stuck in a man's ass (genius); other shorts that are too long. There are the random highlights--the Sam Hurt (Eyebeam) video for Brave Combo's version of "Hokey Pokey" and small pieces of Bobby Jack Pack's cable-access variety show--but what does The Texas Show say about Texas when the most engrossing thing in it is a disturbing Ed Hall music video that turns an apparently bootlegged French kids' beauty pageant into something resembling kiddie porn without changing a thing? It makes you want to move to another state. (RW)

Topless Cellist. (January 4, 8:30 p.m., TV Lounge.) The Little Rock-born Charlotte Moorman received her master's degree in cello from the Juilliard School of Music, but she didn't become a legend by playing the music of the classical masters. Rather, Moorman was the leading avant-garde cellist of the 1960s--a partner-in-crime with Yoko Ono and composer Nam June Paik, a disciple of John Cage's, a punk in classicist's clothing. This mishmash documentary traces her life from Little Rock beauty queen to Johnny Carson guest--in the '60s, she both shocked and bored "The Tonight Show" audiences with her white-noise performances--to her status as so-called "princess of the avant-garde." Moorman was misunderstood and maligned, full of genius to her peers and full of shit to those who thought she was wasting her gift. Either way, Moorman is more interesting to watch than to hear. (RW)

The Tourist. (January 5, 8:30 p.m., TV Diner.) Free-lance documentarian Rob Moss has carved out for himself a hardy, scrappy reputation. Much like Ernest Hemingway in his self-mythologizing dreck of autobiographical musings, Moss forgets that his own personality isn't nearly as interesting as the assignments his talent has earned him. The Tourist documents the worldwide trek of an award-winning "camera mercenary" as well as the attempts by him and his wife Jenn to conceive a child. Moss goes from the welfare offices of poorest South Texas to civil wars in Nicaragua and astrophysics in Japan. Each time we want to hear more about the stunning array of subjects he's examined in his career, we get scenes of Rob and Jenn and Rob's mother vacationing on Christmas Eve in Death Valley, or hand-held shots of the couple in fertility clinics. All the while the somber, vaguely self-pitying voiceovers by Moss recount the tragedy of an infertile globetrotter. The Tourist would doubtlessly make a compelling view for Moss' friends and family, but for the rest of us, the personal stuff only intrudes on the man's much more fascinating profession. (JF)

 

The Unknown Marx Brothers. (January 6, 1 p.m., Horchow Auditorium.) If ever there were a no-lose proposition for a video, a documentary about the Marx Brothers stands as a shining example of one. Anyone attempting one would, at the worst, not include enough clips, but these documentarians, having more than a lick of sense, know that it is precisely the inimitable comic timing of Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo that holds such giddy allure. The Unknown Marx Brothers is anything but parsimonious in its comic content, and doles out ample scenes from the Marx Brothers' movies. It also includes television appearances, old interviews with the Brothers, their children, and biographers, stills from their vaudeville days, and even a film clip of one scene from their first Broadway play. It's tremendous fun, and an excellent Marx Brothers primer. (AWJ)

Spencer Williams: Remembrance of an Early Black Film Pioneer. (January 5, 9 p.m., Horchow Auditorium.) Spencer Williams' most famous film--1941's The Blood of Jesus, in which the Lord and the Devil compete for a woman's soul--has been placed in the National Film Registry alongside the likes of Citizen Kane and Casablanca. Williams was among the first independent filmmakers in America--a black man who knew the racist movie-making system well enough to manipulate it and use it to his advantage.

Though Williams was revered as an idol and goundbreaker by a black community that flocked to his films, his footnote in film history books is a small one printed in disappearing ink. The man who began his career in the 1920s as a technical assistant and actor, then graduated to writing, directing, and producing some of the most influential black films of the 1940s, has been banished to the ghetto reserved for the forgotten pioneers--where black men like director Oscar Micheaux and singing cowboy Herb Jeffries will wait forever to receive their due.

Though this 55-minute film barely touches the surface of Williams' life and concentrates primarily on his filmography, local filmmaker Walid Khaldi's documentary briefly rescues the black filmmaking great from obscurity. Remembrance presents, for the first time, a comprehensive view of Williams' films, many of which were shot in and around Dallas. Using substantial film clips and narration, Khaldi provides us with a glimpse of Williams' genius--crack comic timing in such black Westerns as Harlem on the Prairie and The Bronze Buckaroo (made with Herb Jeffries), the religious allegory in Blood of Jesus and Go Down Death, and the craftsmanship of melodramas such as Marching On (about black soldiers serving in World War II).

If the documentary lacks anything, it's context; it mentions racism and segregated theaters such as the Palace and Rex in Dallas, but never reveals much about the black film industry itself--much of which was run by white men like Dallas' Alfred Sack, for whom Williams made most of his films. Also, it never mentions how much Williams spent on his shoestring-budget films, or from where the money came. Nor does Khaldi even hint at the impact Williams' films had on the community and ensuing generations of black filmmakers; he seems here to have existed within a vacuum.

Williams' legacy as one of the first, and best, black filmmakers has been tainted over the years by the presence of another man, a shuffling ne'er-do-well named Andy Brown--better known as one half of "Amos 'n Andy." Williams never lived down the stigma of being known as television's Andy, a character so despised by the NAACP and important black newspapers like The Chicago Defender that CBS was forced to cancel the show in 1953 after a two-year run.

Williams, however, always took pride in his work on the show. He forced the producers to give Amos and Andy decent homes and fine clothes, affording them respect and dignity; Williams' family even took to calling him "Andy," so proud were they of his accomplishments.

It was unfortunate that "Amos 'n Andy" was the last thing Williams did: He died in 1969 in Los Angeles of "heartbreak," says one family member in the film, never able to live up to his potential--or live down Andy. (RW)

Amos 'n Andy. (January 5, 10 p.m., Horchow Auditorium.) Undoubtedly one of the hot tickets on this year's Festival program, this cultural dissection of one of the most controversial American comedies ever to play network TV is led by one of the most controversial personalities in Dallas city politics: John Wiley Price oversees a discussion of an "Amos 'n Andy" episode from the TV version. (The saga of wise Amos, gullible Andy, and manipulative Kingfish started off as a radio serial, with "Negro" dialects delivered by white men.)

 

This particular story, titled "Andy Buys a House," follows the exploitation of fat, bowler-hatted Andy (Spencer Williams) by the preacherish Kingfish (Tim Moore), who has finally landed a job as a real-estate agent but is fired after just a few days for sleeping in his roll-top desk. Stuck with a series of houses to sell on property that has already been leased to other owners, Kingfish has to figure out how to unload a house that must be moved--until Andy and his $500 come along.

"Amos 'n Andy" was excoriated three decades ago by scholars and critics for perpetuating certain black stereotypes--the leering lay-about, the jolly moron, the contented worker who has accepted his place and is the wiser for it. It didn't help that Spencer Williams, one of the most important black filmmakers of the century (see Spencer Williams: Remembrance of an Early Black Film Pioneer), was "reduced" to playing the fool. "Amos 'n Andy" nevertheless resisted crumbling under the same bitter cultural analysis that, say, D.W. Griffith's vicious Birth of a Nation deserved. For one thing, "Amos 'n Andy" is startlingly well-written, even (or especially) by today's sitcom standards. And Williams and Moore are comic pros whose bumper-car banter easily ranks with that of Martin and Lewis, Abbott and Costello, and every other memorable Golden Age duo. (JF)

September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill. (January 4, 7:30 p.m., TV Diner and January 6, 2 p.m., Video Box.) This made-for-German-TV production presents Kurt Weill's music in the form of an elaborate rotating revue in which various singers perform Weill's songs--acting them out, often with props and scenery and all. Stan Ridgway snarls the "Cannon Song" surrounded by dancers dressed in World War I German outfits who die ghastly and bloody deaths. A haggard-looking, chain-smoking Teresa Stratas laments the cruelty of her "Surabaya Johnny." PJ Harvey covers herself in thrift-store clothes as she recounts the "Ballad of the Soldier's Wife." In one particularly spooky segment, Charlie Haden mourns over his bass as Kurt Weill sings "Speak Low" in the background; at the same time, dead-ringer look-alikes of Weill and wife Lotta Lenya dance in front of Haden and a giant photo of a glaring Weill.

September Songs is as provocative and engrossing as any full-length feature, each vignette-song working almost as a short film within a larger work. These vignettes flesh out the compositions--"September Song" with David Johansen is especially captivating and rich in detail, and the Elvis Costello-Brodsky Quartet rendition of "Lost in the Stars" is lush and heartbreaking--even subverting them in some cases; William S. Burroughs' deadpan rendering of "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" renders the question moot, and Lou Reed's laconic and dark "Septem-ber Song" replaces poignancy with anger.

The setting never changes--it's industrial and often aflame, a warehouse that appears to be left over from the set of 1984--but sometimes the performances are interrupted by archival footage and photos of a Germany torn apart by the Nazis. At other times, off-screen narrators, their voices distorted by old speakers mounted to posts, recount Weill's life and the environment in which he worked.

Weill's music was commercial but never pandered, and was deemed "anti-national" by the Nazi government because it was intended to inform as it entertained--and because it infused jazz (that is, black music) into German music. It was revolutionary, timeless, thoughtful, a voice of clarity and sanity in a time of madness--all of which is perfectly captured in this remarkable film. (


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