Film Reviews

Risk vs. Reward

Bart Weiss figures that the Dallas Video Festival, of which he's founder and director, has screened close to 3,000 offerings during the past 18 years, among them everything from giddy compendiums of global TV advertisements to conventional narratives to avant-garde animation to agit-prop docs. It is the veritable hodgepodge, a grab bag of whatever intrigues, engages and tickles Weiss, who programs this local institution (now in its 19th year) like some guy spinning records for his pals during a late-night soiree. The DVF has a decidedly check-this-out vibe.

Hence, a festival that includes an eight-minute mash-up in which Roy Rogers faces off against a villainous John Wayne (Ringo), amusing feature-length mockumentaries about Realtors (Closing Escrow) and high-school teachers (Chalk), documentaries about Hungarian Holocaust survivors (the tear-jerking Once They Were Neighbors) and Indians working in American companies' call centers (the revealing if a touch frustrating Nalini By Day, Nancy By Night), a bizarre 1964 cult classic about smack and the mob and gunshot wounds and Frank Sinatra (J.X. Williams' infamous Peep Show) and a straight-ahead narrative about a Houston woman with visions of a stark room in Manhattan (Room, duh). "There are never any guidelines," Weiss says. "It's what I respond to. It would be easier if I had an agenda. But I can't even see a theme."

Which makes it impossible for those of us who have to preview the festival; where, oh, where to begin? Let's just start, for the sake of honoring a filmmaker without whom doc-heavy fests wouldn't exist, with the return of Albert Maysles, who comes not only to present his emerging filmmaker award to San Francisco's Kristen Nutile, but also to teach a master class to other directors and to screen a never-before-seen version of Grey Gardens, which Al and brother David made in the 1970s about two women (Edith Bouvier Beale and daughter Edie, the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) living out their East Hampton daydreams in a nightmare mansion. That the DVF gets Maysles to come to Dallas each year is the equivalent of, oh, the USA Film Festival getting Martin Scorsese to schmooze with the masses; Maysles is a man without whom the fly-on-the-wall, heart-on-the-sleeve narrative documentary would not exist.

On the flip side is the late Emile de Antonio, whose 1964 film Point of Order about the 1954 Joe McCarthy-Army hearings ranks as both a work of advocacy journalism and anger-making activism. Using the original images from the televised hearings, de Antonio allows his subjects to hang themselves; give 'em enough footage and all that. (Without Point of Order, perhaps, Good Night, and Good Luck. might have never existed.) Also screening here are the wrenching 1968 Vietnam War damnation In the Year of the Pig and 1971's Richard Nixon screw-you Millhouse.

"Al and Emile are coming from a similar place but go a different way," Weiss says of his reasons for including the latter. "And having Emile is important given the criticism Michael Moore's gotten, when people say, 'This is not a documentary.' My point is, yeah, it is, and it comes from a specific place and tradition. And it's always fun to make fun of Nixon." Also being feted is video artist Nam June Paik, whose decades' worth of "electronic art" will be accompanied by John Hanhardt of the Guggenheim Museum.

The DVF is also screening docs that have made the recent film-fest rounds, among them Kirby Dick's prodding This Film Is Not Yet Rated, about how the motion picture ratings board acts more like a government censor than an audience surrogate, and Ron Mann's frantic Tales of the Rat Fink, in which the Canadian director pays homage to the 1950s hot rod and the man who led the kustomization kraze. They're among the most mainstream offerings in the history of the DVF; the former is even getting a relatively wide theatrical release in a few weeks.

Deserving of some art-house play are two narratives with Texas ties: Austin director Kyle Henry's Room, about a Houston woman whose nightmares are born of too much exposure to fear-mongering media, and Kat Candler's jumping off bridges, about high-school kids in 1992 trying to deal with life by pretending to cheat death. They're both unconventional and risky endeavors aching for your patience, but like much of what's in the Dallas Video Festival, they will reward your perseverance. As he'll admit himself, Weiss doesn't like easy. Anybody can do easy.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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