Remember television? No, not the screen where you watch all your Hulu streams and Amazon rentals. Broadcast television: the thing you turned on and watched no matter what was on. It had channels, they aired shows, and you were completely at the mercy of some mysterious station manager who decided what you were going to watch at any given time.
I know, it sounds horrible. Now we have dozens of streaming options, monthly subscriptions, video on demand, plenty of content to binge and serials to suck up hours—heck, we can even decide to spend the evening watching kids play video games live on Twitch. What wonderful times we live in, right?
Well, I’m not so sure. Yes, we now have dozens of specialty streaming services to satisfy any movie nerd’s quirky cinematic appetite. And yet, all it takes is one corporation to change its distribution strategy—as with what happened with Filmstruck last year—and a heap of classic cinema disappears from the streaming universe overnight. Where can you watch Ozu films these days? The video stores are all closed. Where do you go?
Now you’re wondering: what does this all have to do with anything? Well, oddly enough, the proliferation of competing streaming services have left us in a position where television—and local television in particular—may become relevant again. Case in point: a program called Frame of Mind on KERA that has been around for nearly three decades and will kick off its fall season at 10 p.m. this evening on channel 13.
Frame of Mind is precisely the kind of television program that was vital in days before streaming stars killed the video store. The program’s founders, Suzanne Dooley and Marlis Schmidt, were employed at KERA in 1992 when they asked the station manager if they could secure a slot on the public television station’s second signal, channel 2, and program a slate of video art, documentary films, music videos, animation, and drama. A lot of it was out-there stuff, but since it wasn’t on KERA’s flagship channel 13, station brass let it roll. At a time when public television was one of the few places where you could watch independent films, adventurous documentaries, and films by local filmmakers, Frame of Mind filled an important niche.
Seven or so years after it launched, Dooley and Schmidt handed Frame of Mind‘s reins to Bart Weiss, head of the Dallas Video Association and co-founder of the Dallas Video Festival. As Weiss tells the history, programming over the years became a little haphazard. When it launched, Frame of Mind aired once a month. It evolved into a kind of umbrella brand for occasional airings of interesting local independent film. About five years ago, however, KERA and Weiss started to rethink the show and its role in the local media market. They decided to relaunch it as a season of 14 weekly episodes airing each fall. Weiss says that structure allowed him to rethink how the show could work as a coherent whole—a series of films, shorts, or documentaries that orbited around a loose seasonal theme.
“One of the things we’re trying to do is do more than simply aggregate material,” Weiss says. “Each film is like a shot in a film as if you were editing a sequence. How can I thematically put it together, and what would work as a television show?”
In other words, Frame of Mind isn’t programmed by an algorithm.
This season kicks off tonight at 10 p.m. with an airing of Cheryl Allison’s documentary Shatter the Silence, which focuses on the #MeToo movement in Dallas and seeks to place the contemporary fight for gender equality within the broader historical context of the suffrage movement and the lives of other pioneering women. The film introduces a season that presents a multiplicity of Texan figures who defy or upend the usual stereotypes around Texan personalities and culture.
Other documentaries this season will tell the stories of a Texas fashion designer who dropped out of the fashion world to live in solitude in the Oklahoma woods; an artist named Roosevelt Wilkerson, who was homeless in Dallas before he emerged as a sought-after woodcarver; and the kolache bakers of West, TX. A new documentary about 9/11 focuses sharply on the experience of DFW- and Chicago-based flight dispatchers that day.
There are films that peer into the lives of larger-than-life Texas personalities like Molly Ivans and Ann Richards, as well as episodes that highlight selections from area film festivals. One of Weiss’ favorite films, he says, was first screened at a local film festival for high school students. The documentary is about a group of students from San Antonio who became enthralled by the figure of Santa Anna while studying Texas history. When they discover that Santa Anna’s prosthetic leg is in a museum in Illinois, they get in a bus and drive across the country in hopes of stealing the leg and returning it to Texas.
“We tend to think about the image of Texans—people with big hats and boots and the myth of the Dallas TV show,” Weiss says of the slate of films in this season’s Frame of Mind. “But we have Molly Ivans and Ann Richards and Critter Man and Wendy Davis, and we have these people who are dispatchers during 9/11 trying to get these planes down, and we have Ingrid, who is this designer in the 1980s who had enough of living in Dallas and went on to live in the woods, and we have Roosevelt Wilkerson, this stick man who ends up carving walking sticks for George W Bush and the pope. We just have so many interesting people who are not necessarily the people you think of when you think of Texas.”
As with last season’s Frame of Mind, Weiss has once again collaborated with local filmmakers to dive into Southern Methodist University’s WFAA film archive to create a new film especially for the season. Norm Hitzges: An Opinionated History of Dallas Sports tells the story of the Texas Radio Hall of Fame broadcaster and his take on this city’s relationship with sports through interviews, illustrations, and archive footage pulled from SMU’s WFAA archive. It will air on November 21.
In many ways, what makes Frame of Mind work so well is that it is driven by the same vision and attention to detail that Weiss employs when programming film festivals. Only unlike a film festival, the TV show holds the promise of reaching a wider audience, with unexpected viewers flipping on the tube on a Thursday night and stumbling on the kind of show that would never show up in their Netflix queue. The hope is that surprised viewers will discover new perspectives that possess the power to shift or disrupt perceptions of their city, their world, and themselves.
“Way more people will have an opportunity to see these on television,” Weiss says. “This doesn’t happen very often. There aren’t places that are allowed to put this material on in this kind of way.”
Frame of Mind is community programming at its best: smart and innovative, with an eye on current trends in media and documentary arts and a finger on the pulse of the city. For 27 years, KERA has let the film lovers run wild with Frame of Mind. It is programming that has never been more valuable.