Video Binge

Bart Weiss, artistic director of the Dallas Video Festival, loves every single entry in his international video showcase's 12th year, again hosted by the Dallas Theater Center in its Kalita Humphreys Theater. He has watched each of them from beginning to end, and a helluva lot more that didn't make the cut. Being a good McGovern liberal (they're harder to spot than Sasquatch these days), he is guided by the egalitarian impulse: He understands--nay, he expects--a diversity of reaction to his three-day program of documentary, drama, docudrama, experimental, interactive, and live multimedia fare from video artists and technicians around the world. In other words, he won't be offended if you think some of this stuff sucks. The Ernie Kovacs Award for television achievement is the event that comes closest to having broad appeal, but even this year's recipient, Paul "Pee-wee Herman" Reubens, is a love-him-or-loathe-him prospect.

Of course, a $15 admission is still $15. So Weiss has introduced a new Internet service this year called "Ask Bart" that can be accessed at the Dallas Video Festival's Web site (www.videofest.org). Send Weiss an e-mail and tell him what you liked (or what you hated) at last year's Dallas Video Festival, and he'll reply, telling you what to see (or what to avoid) at this year's festival. Or if you didn't attend last year, send him a little bit of info about yourself, a "Playmate"-style chart of turn-ons and -offs, and he'll be happy to offer recommendations. Weiss answers all his online queries at night before he goes to bed--and those fearing unearned intimacy with a festival director they haven't met should note that, contrary to rumor, he does not answer them in bed. So give him a day to answer back.

At a time when unrequested video images assault us like the saliva spray of a lisping stranger who refuses to respect our personal space, Weiss cares. He expects you to be a discerning, persnickety, niggling fusspot of a video viewer. It is one of his expressed hopes that the Dallas Video Festival will help you define in your mind what you like and what you don't like, and nudge you to program your own nightly TV viewing with this new discrimination and taste. If television is the easiest entertainment medium in America to sneer at, it's not because of limits in the technology itself but because of the tendency of viewers to settle, to accept--and, in advanced stages of the addiction, actively court--mediocrity. How many times have you turned off the TV when nothing good was on rather than slide into the hypnotic binge of Nick at Nite's TV Land (on the self-confessed trash end) or 60 Minutes II (on the trash-in-denial end)? Us neither. The 1999 Dallas Video Festival is about having all of the flavor with none of the fat of intensive television consumption. Well, less of the fat, anyway (there is that documentary about the French guy who can fart musically).

And it's also about film, with in-depth documentaries discussing the careers and images of Alfred Hitchcock, Hal Hartley, Lars von Trier, and Melvin Van Peebles. This is not sneakiness on Weiss' part, pushing classy film to fraternize with its vulgar, dim-witted, illegitimate cousin video and thereby creating a cachet for the latter. A while back, the economic model for the American film industry changed so that post-theatrical video rentals and sales are now the cart driving the movie horse. U.S. film corporations make most of their profits from two sources: overseas theatrical release and worldwide video release. To this extent, it's not brazen hyperbole to describe theatrical movies as feature-length trailers for the upcoming video version. And while few expect video ever to eclipse film as a medium, it's likely that digital video will make major inroads into moviehouses. Corporations can transmit copies of their new films via satellite to theaters.

Peering into a future jungle of rabid market surveying, you can see a nightmarish world where films that fare badly on opening weekend are easily and cheaply re-edited, or their endings completely changed, and sent back out in consumer-friendlier form for the second weekend. This would mean the increased homogenization of the commercial filmmaking muse, and video really would be a spoiling sonuvabitch. In a brighter (but potentially just as litigious) scenario, you could have a studio cut, a director's cut, a cinematographer's cut, even an actor's cut playing in the same city simultaneously. And, in theory, indie projects would get a chance at wider national distribution, since it's considerably less expensive to send 300 satellite copies than to dupe and ship 300 film reels.

The contemporary U.S. mass media is all about niche marketing, selling more entertainment and information to smaller, specialized markets, and the 1999 Dallas Video Festival is the quintessence of that mentality. You say you're an award-winning but closeted national rodeo rider who's itching to come out to family and cowboy peers? Or maybe you dated a cowboy against the advice of your friends, and now you're itching because the jerk gave you herpes? These people recorded their stories with a video camera and sent them to Weiss so he could showcase them to gay cowboys, infected ex-lovers of cowboys, and various and sundry interested voyeurs. Every subject, no matter how unpleasant its circumstances, emerges a star at the 12th Annual Dallas Video Festival. This is because the festival celebrates the kind of micro-presentation that happens every day on city buses, in hair salons, and during long-distance phone calls between best friends: Every story is worth telling, even if only one guy wants to hear it.

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Jimmy Fowler
Christina Rees