Reel challenge

L.M. Kit Carson founded the USA Film Festival in 1970 for one reason: He needed a place to show his movie. Two years earlier, Carson and director Jim McBride had made David Holzman's Diary, a dazzling mockumentary starring Carson as a moviemaker determined to discover The Big Truth by capturing his own small, mundane life on film. David Holzman's Diary won the Mannheim International Film Festival in Germany, then went on to play in France at the Cannes International Film Festival. And then...nothing.

Carson had expected at least to gain entrance into the prestigious New York Film Festival, which was then the premier fest for oddball underground films not likely to play the big screen. But Carson and McBride were turned away from New York and were forced to find another home for their unwanted child. When they couldn't find one, Carson decided to build his own in Dallas, the city of his birth.

In 1970, Carson and Bill Jones, the late Southern Methodist University professor and caretaker of all things cinematic, opened the Screen Generation Film Festival, which exposed local moviegoers to films not yet playing here, among them Woodstock and Robert Altman's M*A*S*H. The fest drew more than 500 people; back then, it must have felt like a hundred thousand. By the time the 1970s ended, Kit Carson had gone to California, but the rechristened USA Film Festival remained dedicated to his desire to celebrate the very best films made in the United States by American-born filmmakers.

"Back in 1971, the organism started in Dallas with people who were kind of interested in movies but didn't know much about movies," Carson says from Los Angeles, where he is in the middle of finishing his film Bullfighter, a self-proclaimed "millennium western" shot in Del Rio. "There were no film fests in this country devoted to the American independent film. I said, 'There's no film festival for Marty Scorsese or Brian De Palma, so let's start one, because this stuff is happening and no one is saying this is happening.'"

By the decade's end, such films as Altman's The Long Goodbye, Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men, Mel Frank's Prisoner of Second Avenue, Steven Spielberg's Sugarland Express, Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie, Ralph Bakshi's Fritz the Cat, Joan Micklin Silver's Hester Street, and Warren Beatty's Shampoo all had their regional premieres at the USA Film Festival, always with the filmmakers in attendance -- an original stipulation of the festival. And no less than such directorial legends as Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Cukor, King Vidor, George Stevens, and Raoul Walsh had come to Dallas to be honored with retrospectives of their immortal films.

If the USA Film Festival ranked below Cannes or Toronto or New York on the film-fest food chain, it appeared to be gobbling its way upward. Such were the heady days when even Richard Nixon took notice, sending Walsh a congratulatory telegram on his USA Film Festival tribute.

Fade out. Cut to 1989. Or 1993. Or 1999.

Cut to USA Film Festival schedules overflowing with low-rent, forgettable Hollywood product such as Shakes the Clown and Posse and Earth Girls Are Easy and Indian Summer. Cut to movies that are playing the festival days, or even hours, before they're released in theaters -- or, worse, are already on cable television, as was the case with this year's The Tic Code, a made-for-cable endeavor. Cut to screenings of the worst sort of Hollywood detritus -- say, Xanadu or Can't Stop the Music -- offered up under the apologetic heading of "Bad Movies We Love." Cut to a tribute to the likes of Dennis Quaid, with a screening of his direct-to-video latest. Cut to post-screening discussions with a very detached Christopher Walken mumbling on an AMC Glen Lakes stage. According to one source, the USAFF couldn't even land a Master Screen Artist last year.

If the USA Film Festival were a movie, someone might well be tempted to shout, "Focus! Focus!" from the theater seats. What was once such a proud and mighty film festival has, quite simply, become nothing more than just another wannabe player among several hundred other film festivals that have sprung up since the 1970s. At last count, there were more than 1,000 film fests worldwide -- from the biggest and best (Cannes, Toronto, Sundance, Telluride) to the celebrated regional fests (in Austin, Seattle, and San Francisco) to a gay-and-lesbian or African-American film fest coming to a town near you. The USA Film Festival ranks somewhere in the middle -- lost in the shuffle, adrift in more ways than one.

In fact, the USA Film Festival doesn't have an artistic director and hasn't since June, when Alonso Duralde left for another film-related job in Los Angeles. Yet the festival is a mere six months away. "I didn't know they didn't have an artistic director," Carson says, choking back an astonished laugh. "You've caught me off-guard on that one."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky