Dallas — Well, it has been a while since the last one. I am still alive and well. This month I will give you a smattering of tidbits to get you caught up cinematically.
First up a bit of self-promotion, the Dallas VideoFest has its Ernie Kovacs Award presentation on Dec. 8 at the Alamo Drafthouse in Richardson, and for the first time in the award’s history, it goes to a woman: Amy Sedaris.
Kovacs was an early TV comedian who used the medium of TV to tell his jokes. Generally, when you have a new medium, like television was at the time, people use the old techniques until the new language emerges. So, the Jack Bennies of the world got up and told jokes and performed bits in front of the camera. Kovacs, like what D. W. Griffith did for cinema, created a language of comedy that is still being used in late night comedy. I believe that Kovacs was the first comic to work in television.
In this clip we see how he used an oscilloscope to visually translate the idea of music, then in the car bit he tells an a completely visual joke, one that could not be done in radio.
Here is one of his most famous shows where he did a TV half-hour without dialogue
It is called Eugene. Make sure you watch the end—it is classic bit.
When we started the VideoFest in 1987, the very first program we did was showing the work of Ernie Kovacs, and when we decided to have an award event, doing it in his name and looking for someone to honor the kind of work he loved seemed clear. This year we are bringing in and honoring Amy Sedaris. She has done some great work and expanded the kinds of roles women can do in comedy. It should be a great night.
We had a few deaths of important cinema greats recently, starting with Bernardo Bertolucci. He was of course a giant and influential director. Most of the writing about his life has been around Last Tango in Paris, his film full of sex, starring Marlon Brando, and while that film was shocking and much-talked about, I think The Conformist is a stronger, more poetic and nuanced film. I would prefer people remember him from some of those images that are in my head from the 1970s.
I would recommend that you check out FilmStruck, the wonderful film streaming service that combines TCM’s great collection with the Criterion Collection. But unfortunately, FilmStuck is dead. Killed by corporate greed. The Criterion people are trying to get a new service going.
Also last week we lost Nicolas Roeg, another great poet of cinema. He came to directing from cinematography—a path not often taken, and his films are always visually stunning. His first two films, Performance (with Mick Jagger) and Walkabout, where shot by him. My two fav films of his are Don’t Look Now, and one of my all-time favs, The Man Who Fell to Earth. In looking back, he had some great actors, like David Bowie, Julie Christie, and Donald Sutherland to work with, and each of them do an amazing job. But it is the stories and the way they are told, the brilliant sequences, that remain in my head. I have seen The Man Who Fell to Earth probably about 20 times and I love it differently each time.
Speaking of the greats who have passed on, the last film of Orson Welles (who died in 1985) was a legendary project thought to be one of those Wellesian myths. On Netflix right now you can see The Other Side of the Wind. It is worth watching, but be warned it is not Citizen Kane. While it has its moments of brilliance and touches of what made Welles great, it is all over the place; indeed, it is reflective of a man trying to be as great as his audience believes him to be while hating everything about that. Like Stanley Kubrick, Welles was a complex genius; there are more books about Welles than there are Welles films. If you choose to watch The Other Side of the Wind, you would be very well served by watching They Will Love Me When I’m Dead, Morgan Neville’s film about the making of Welles’ film. It has some of the structure and pacing that you wish The Other Side of the Wind had. Neville, who made 20 Feet from Stardom and Won’t You be My Neighbor, fleeces out what this was and why it matters. And because it is Orson Welles, there is another documentary on Netflix about the film, called A Final Cut for Orson: 40 Years in the Making.
Enough about death, let’s talk about something new. Early in the new year (the second weekend in January), 21 North Texas film festivals are doing something that I have not heard of any city doing: A film festival produced by all the area’s films festivals. It is called Best of Fests. It includes fests from Waco, Fort Worth and Denton, as well as the fests based in Dallas. Just about all the festivals will be showing one film that represents who they are and what they are about, including Women Texas Film Festival, Dallas VideoFest, Dallas International Film Festival, South Asian Film Festival, Jewish Film Festival, Q Cinema, Oak Cliff Film Festival, Lone Star Film Festival, Thin Line Fest, Czech That Film and others. They will be in movie theaters across the Metroplex. This could not happen in NYC Austin, San Francisco, Los Angeles or any other place I can think of. Here the festivals really do appreciate each other and help out each other. More info can be seen here.
If you have been around me for a while, you know that I love classic film. I got into film by seeing classics in Beloit College where there was not much else to do but see films, and a great film society taught me film history. A few weeks ago Chris Vognar wrote a great story in the Dallas Morning News about finally seeing Lawrence of Arabia. Chris is a great writer and I am glad he talks about seeing films he has somehow missed. There are so many I have missed; the list is long, and I continue to work through it. We are so grateful to have the Texas Theatre that gives us a chance to see many of these on a large screen. There was a time when universities had classic film societies, but now they mostly show films that just left the theaters. If you have Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, you can see some, but with FilmStruck closing down it will be tougher until something replaces it. I recommend getting Kanopy, which you can use via your library card and watch classics at home.
What films would you see if you were to make a list? Good question. I would not pay any attention to any of films the AFI 100 lists. If you email me (email@example.com) I will send you a list that we stared at film schools that film students should see. You might try reading Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema as a great starting point.
That’s it for this month, I will be back in a few weeks with my best of the year lists. And don’t forget Amy Sedaris/Kovacs on Saturday, Dec 8.
» Bart Weiss is an award-winning independent film and video producer, director, editor, and educator who has lived in Dallas since 1981. Mr. Weiss has taught film and video production at Texas A&M’s Visualization Lab, Southern Methodist University, the University of Texas at Austin and Arlington, Dallas Community College District and West Virginia State College. He currently serves as President of the Board of Directors of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, serves on the Board of Directors of the University Film and Video Association, is a past Vice President of the Texas Association of Film and Tape Professionals, founder and past president of the West Virginia Filmmakers’ Guild, and co-founder of VideoFest and the Video Association of Dallas. He has been a video columnist for The Dallas Morning News, The Dallas Times Herald, United Features Syndicate and KERA 90.1 FM Radio in Dallas. Mr. Weiss received an MFA in Film Directing from Columbia University in 1978 and a B.A. from Temple University in 1975. Bart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
» Film Notes with Bart Weiss now runs on the first Monday of the month.
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