The USA Film Festival is only a media event but it gives you a chance to preview coming attractions.

On opening night of this year’s USA Film Festival everyone received a glass of André champagne and a baggie full of Milk Duds, Junior Mints, and salted peanuts. Amusing but not very substantial. The same could be said of the entire festival. Overall, it was a rather blah affair, with no brilliant sleepers like Hester Street or Harlan County, U.S.A., and only one glossy studio production. Blue Collar, that had real bite. Almost everything else fell between mediocre and just plain dreadful.

If the festival had a focus, it was the so-called family film. We were reminded daily, hourly, that such pictures are tough to finance and extremely tricky to distribute. After viewing some of the latest products, it’s easy to understand why. Either most directors are childless or the American family is in sorry shape. The underlying assumption of the genre seems to be that when Mom, Dad, and the Kids go to the movies they want to be anesthetized. Not amused, certainly not surprised, just humored and pacified until it’s time for “The Wonderful World of Disney.”

Throughout the week, Disney was fingered as the villain of the family entertainment industry, the guru of goo. But when you look closely, Pete’s Dragon is probably no more inane than Crossed Swords, Richard Fleischer’s adaptation of The Prince and the Pauper. Fleischer isn’t the least bit interested in the wit and iconoclasm of Twain’s novel, erratic though it is. He wants us to admire his elaborate sets and elegant period costumes. They’re spectacular but hardly reason enough to stay indoors on a Sunday afternoon, especially if you have something sensible to do, like fly kites.

The best of this lot is Casey’s Shadow. It has enough heart-tugging moments for several cardiac arrests, but director Martin Ritt (Hud, The Front) is such a slick old pro that things never become cloying. Walter Matthau plays a boozing, bull-headed Cajun horse trainer who accidentally comes across a prize colt and one last shot at the big one – The Ail-American Futurity. His three sons are rebellious rather than winning, any possibility of adolescent romance is snuffed out in the first reel, and every now and then Alexis Smith wanders by to give us a glimpse of cool, blue-blood sex. The rules of the genre are followed faithfully, of course: The scoundrels are outwitted, Casey’s Shadow wins the big race, and the family manages to stay together. All of this is carried out with great technical skill and a refreshing lack of pretense. Even people who wouldn’t know the $2 window from a Coke machine will probably find it appealing.

Not so Shenanigans, a tired, talky caper film that has about the same effect as a tumbler of Nytol. It’s somewhat ironic that this year’s festival honoree should be George Cukor. whose best films are distinguished by imaginative plots and plenty of fast, witty dialogue. Shenanigans aspires to be a dialogue film also, but such dialogue! A recitation of the Texas Penal Code would be livelier. The central event is an attempt by a trio of genial con men (Burgess Meredith, Ned Beatty, Richard Base-hart) to rob their own bank in order to cover up an embezzlement. As they’re on the brink of success, the embezzler, to their horror, decides to return his loot, thereby generating all sorts of predictable and unfunny complications. Director Joe Jacoby (Hurry Up or I’ll Be Thirty) claims to have found the inspiration for this little “fable” in the morality of Watergate. But these days what piece of rascality isn’t being traced back to the Oval Office? The analogy won’t hold, mainly because Nixon, Haldeman, and company, whatever their other vices, were not moribund villains.

Since I rather enjoy watching Gilbert Roland (I secretly believe that he’s the Don Juan of Castaneda’s books), The Black Pearl turned out better than 1 expected . Not that much better, but enough so that I didn’t have to worry about killing two hours, at the snack bar. Taken from Scott O’Dell’s Newbery Prize-winning novel, the film tells the story of an eager young diver (Mario Custodio) who finds a fabled black pearl and refuses to give it up, despite warnings from mentor Roland and everyone else that it will bring tragedy to his family and village. The scenery is lovely and the underwater photography exquisite. If only the moralizing weren’t so heavy-handed and obvious: Respect the laws of the sea, don’t violate ancient taboos and customs, consider others as well as yourself. Sound advice that might have been conveyed with fewer trumpets and drum rolls. Even ten-year-olds appreciate a bit of subtlety now and then.

While the family films were playing it pretty safe in terms of subject matter, those with an R rating were going for broke. A couple of them may actually get there.

If Anita Bryant had written The Odd Couple, it might have turned out like A Different Story. A lesbian and a gay dress designer get married so that he won’t be deported to, of all places, Belgium. Gradually this marriage of convenience becomes a typical middle-class slugfest over careers, money, and lifestyles. The only thing that doesn’t seem to be a problem is the couple’s homosexuality; they simply and inexplicably turn heterosexual. Gay or straight, the two main characters (Perry King and Meg Foster) are little more than stereotypes. He’s meticulous, punctual, a whiz as a cook: she’s sloppy, aggressive, and a hockey fanatic. The supposedly daring film is really cheap and manipulative. In the end, A Different Story is the same old story. It’s called soap opera.

Clouds may become equally controversial, if only because it’s more difficult to say what it’s about. One item on the audience questionnaire was “What kind of film is this? Thriller? Love Story? Psychological Thriller? Horror?” To which I was tempted to reply, “All of the above.” The obvious comparison is to The Collector, except that Wyler’s film dealt primarily with universal fantasies of domination and control. It was a film about the pleasures of working one’s will. Clouds deals with incest and sexual repression and various other light matters. It is an impeccably made film, lush, opulent, crammed with haunting images. It is also quite static, more like theater (it was adapted from Eric Westphal’s play, Toiet Tes Nuages) than cinema. Frequently I found myself drawing back from the struggle between the two sisters, beautifully played by Lee Grant and Carol Kane, and looking at the film solely as a piece of art. I’m sure director Karen Arthur had something more visceral in mind, but to the question “How did the film make you feel?” I had nothing specific to say.

In a festival that had something for everyone, other minorities fared as badly as gays.

At the conclusion of Indian, a Cherokee stood up and said that for a film that claimed to be about “Indianness in America,” this one had dodged just about every critical issue: unemployment, alcoholism, urbanization, life on reservations. Director Kieth Merrill {The Great American Cowboy) replied that there were already enough films on those subjects and that he wanted to make a movie about the universal aspirations of Indian peoples. Well, he hasn’t, unless one of those aspirations is to drive cross country in a jeep. Indian is more travelogue than documentary, and such a discreet, upbeat one at that that one has to wonder whether the collaboration between Merrill and the National Heritage Foundation, which commissioned the film, was conceived as a public relations project. Well-intentioned though it is, the film says little that is new about American Indians while reducing some of their most ancient and sacred traditions to twenty-second cliches. Considering how far Merrill and his crew traveled in search of material, some 27,000 miles, they should have come back with more.

If we’re to believe the newspaper and TV ads, Blue Collar is just another hip Richard Pryor comedy. In fact. Universal is booking it into drive-ins and black exploitation houses in hopes of cashing in on the success of Silver Streak and Car Wash. Well, there are going to be plenty of angry audiences because even when Blue Collar is funny, it has a very sharp edge. Director Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplays for Taxi Driver and Obsession, has captured the gritty, volatile ambience of Detroit as authentically as one could wish. At times his sociology is a bit neat and predictable, but everything else, from the shots of the assembly line to the grinding score and the torrent of expletives, none deleted, is exactly right. As a story of greed, corruption, and betrayal. Blue Collar reminds us of many socialist films of the Thirties. Except that back then, there was always a solution to the workers’ problem: the union. Here, the union is more of a threat than the company – violent, corrupt, brutalizing. The only defense is a sense of personal integrity and the camaraderie of other workers. Schrader has no illusions about the strength of such alliances, however: Personal loyalty is no match for violence or a pink slip. We’ve heard all of this before, of course, but Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto give such knockout performances that the material seems fresh.

The Whole Shootin’ Match is a working-class film, Texas style. Which means that it’s full of pickup trucks, ol’ time religion, and rural Angst acted out in roadside taverns. Austinite Eagle Pen-nell shot the film on weekends for under $20,000. It doesn’t have a whole lot going for it other than earnestness and a certain folksy charm reminiscent of the “Andy Griffith Show.” It’s an hour too long, rather predictable, and technically erratic, though with that kind of budget what film wouldn’t be? Still, I’m glad to have seen it, as much for the questions it raises about regional films as for what it actually achieves. It’s obviously important that films be made somewhere besides Hollywood and New York, that new subjects be seen with a fresh eye. As studios succumb more and more to the Star Wars blockbuster syndrome, a vacuum will be created into which independents like Pennell can move. It isn’t going to be easy because, whatever else Hollywood has done, it has made audiences conscious of what films are supposed to look like. Pennell would probably agree that The Whole Shootin’ Match is not a polished piece of work, but it may have enough off-beat appeal to enable him to make another film. That would be just fine.

Those who grew up listening to Chuck Berry and the Coasters will probably find American Hot Wax a perfect nostalgia fix. Those who didn’t, or else don’t believe that rock’n’roll is worth two hours and $4 million, may find it a loud, gyrating bore. After opening the airwaves to black music, Freed succumbed to payola, megalomania, and the wrath of the New York City vice squad, spending his last years in California, penniless and largely forgotten. It’s a sad, complex story which Floyd Mutrux wants no part of here. So it’s bring on the stars and turn up the sound. American Hot Wax is more concert than movie, a Saturday night blockbuster. It contains flashes of wit, mainly between Freed’s secretary (Fran Drescher) and his chauffeur (Jay Leno), and a good performance by Tim Mclntire as Freed, but most of the time it’s slaphappy. If it captures the so-called “spirit” of rock, it doesn’t convince us that the job is worth doing.

No one could be farther outside the American cultural mainstream than the artist Christo, whose bold, fumbling, and ultimately successful attempt to build a 24-mile nylon curtain over parts of Marin and Sonoma counties in California is the subject of Running Fence. This is a documentary about unpredictable human attitudes as well as art. Environmentalists, bureaucrats, and self-proclaimed art experts vigorously opposed the project, whereas the ranchers and sheep herders whose land the fence had to cross thought it was marvelous. A bit far out, perhaps, but much more intriguing than those old Saturday Evening Post covers.

The Maysles brothers (Salesman, Grey Gardens) are clearly on Christo’s side in the controversy, although their bias isn’t so strong as to undercut the marvelous alliance between ordinary folk and avant-garde artists. One of the virtues of Christo’s work (he’s the same fellow who packaged the Museum of Modern Art in plastic) is that it forces us to re-examine our conventional notions about what art is and what it’s for. To finance this $3-million project, Christo sold all of his drawings and collages. His critics insist that he’s mad, especially since the fence was dismantled after two weeks; his supporters argue that art is as much a matter of attitude and idea as product. It doesn’t have to be physically present in order to be real. Fortunately for us, the Maysles were around to record the whole event, so that we can now think about Christo’s art and see it too.

A final, captious note about the week’s activities. The USA Film Festival is a critic’s festival. Critics select the films and together with the visiting directors and stars give the public a reason to shell out $35 all at once instead of waiting for the individual films to open at local theaters. The festival is more than a series of screenings, in other words; it is a media event in which the audience is invited to participate.

Most of the post-screening discussions were disappointing, some were positively embarrassing. Now there’s probably no simple way to make audiences more critically responsive, but surely other improvements can be made. The visiting critics might be given a crash course in group dynamics, or at least a list of prepared questions that would get discussion beyond matters of budget, shooting schedules, and distribution deals. All such inquiries should be referred to a computer in the lobby. It would also help if the panels of critics changed more frequently so that audiences could be exposed to a greater variety of films and perspectives.

This is not an appeal for a series of filmseminars. One of the reasons the USAFilm Festival continues to be popularand interesting is that it has eschewed alot of high-brow nonsense. But if meetingthe stars and the directors is a legitimateselling point of the festival, then sayingsomething intelligent about their workshould be too.


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