DURING THE FIRST TWO WEEKS of April I saw over 40 movies. Although I had always considered myself a dedicated moviegoer, those two weeks were less a labor of love than of endurance. Watching movies, after the 24th or 25th one, just isn’t fun anymore. My sleep became tense and fitful; my meals, sticky inconveniences; my stomach, argumentative. My self-image changed in the space of two short weeks from a sassy, temperamental magazine writer to a furtive creep. I am deeply grateful the whole thing is over.
I was originally motivated to see these films by simple curiosity. For the past two years Dallas had played host to a production called the USA Film Festival. Its purpose was to exhibit and honor the best of current American films; to bring to Dallas legions of stars, starlets, directors, producers, screen writers and any other celebrities who would come; and generally to promote an interest in American cinema. This year the USA Festival was to be held again, but it would follow the United States Film Festival, whose aims, purposes, and format were so similar as to be almost identical. What such a glut of American exposed celluloid would mean for Texas, for Dallas, or, indeed, for me, I had no idea.
I arrived in Dallas in time to get settled in a motel and change clothes before going to a party held at an expensive high-rise on Turtle Creek. The party was both a benefit for the United States Film Festival and a reception for Vincente Minelli whose work (An American in Paris, Lust For Life, Home From the Hill, Gigi) would be honored at the US Festival. Walking through the apartment’s well-lighted lot, I saw seated in a red MG a man in a brown leather coat talking with a young woman in white gloves.
As I came within earshot, she asked him, in amazement, “But how many keepers have you had?”
It was with great difficulty that I kept my steps from slowing noticeably down.
“Three,” the man said.
“Three today and you started at noon?”
I have no explanation for any of this. Nothing I heard in any of the 40 movies was as intriguing. Neither the woman nor the man came to the party.
It turned out to be a sedate affair attended mostly by the press (always eager for free food and more eager still for free drinks), by the organizers of the festival and their friends, and by a few people who had paid $25 to help support the festival and meet Minelli. There might have been more paying customers except, as I learned later, the rivalry between the two festivals was intense. The rivalry extended to the film capitals of New York and Los Angeles and deep within the labyrinth of money and power in Dallas. Most of the patrons of the arts in Dallas favored the USA Festival which would follow next week.
Minelli, though not completely the center of attention, became visible from time to time as he escaped from one encircling group only to be quickly surrounded by another. He is a short, dapper gentleman, very unassuming and softspoken, who looks a little like, of all people, Don Knotts. The comparison should not be carried too far, however. One of Minelli’s wives was, of course, Judy Garland; another, Denise, has remarried and is currently reigning queen of San Francisco society; and he is presently engaged to Mrs. Lee Anderson, an exceptionally elegant woman from Los Angeles. Whether from a hard life or from natural inclination that the years have done nothing to change, Minelli’s face is very sad with large eyes like dark pools and slack, drooping cheeks. He seldom spoke at length, never spoke personally. He met each new acquaintance, both at the reception and during the rest of the week, with the same partially extended hand, jerky nod and shy smile. The photograph in the festival program shows him with head bowed and eyes closed, monk-like.
The only incongruous element about Minelli was his tie, a silky pure yellow, whose significance would not be clear until later.
The rest of the partygoers were dressed in that peculiar combination of high fashion and faded, second-hand chic typical of people from the worlds of art and money. The editor of the Iconoclast, Dallas’ underground weekly, working against the trend, had hunted through the depths of a stuffed closet to drag out the one suit he owned. “Thought I’d surprise ’em,” he said while the rest paraded in everything from jeans and cracked, crusty leather jackets to jewel-studded gowns and rich, dark suits.
Shortly before midnight the festival’s organizers left to distribute handbills to the people waiting in line at the various Saturday night midnight movies around Dallas. These notices said that anyone who arrived at the Municipal Auditorium Theater before 10 a.m. the next morning could attend the festival’s first day for free.
It seemed doubtful, even at the time, that many late movie addicts would bounce out of bed early enough to make it downtown by ten. But the weather added its own discouragement by turning sour during the night. When I arrived, the grey auditorium buildings looked particularly dank. Inside, a few people, their arms folded and shoulders hunched against the chill, milled about in a dark, gymnasium-sized lobby. Minelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis began to play. When it ended, I counted 61 persons who had braved cold and rain and Sunday morning lethargy to watch free movies.
The discussion with Minelli after Meet Me in St. Louis proved as dispiriting as the weather. He had changed his yellow tie for a white turtleneck. He sat on the stage in front of the screen, legs crossed, smoking a cigarette, and responded to questions in a voice so soft and shy that it was difficult to hear even though he spoke into a microphone. Several people wanted to ask about Judy Garland (who had starred in the film), but Minelli’s sense of privacy and decorum, unaggressive as it was, managed to dominate the group. Instead there would be a question like “Who was your cameraman on this film?” and Minelli would offer a name in answer. The questioner would nod appreciatively. Then silence. The seconds ticked by before another question: “What was your budget on this film?”
In the lobby of the theater, the organizers of the festival, their eyes slightly glazed from the night before, gazed joylessly at the meager crowd that wandered back into the lobby after Minelli’s discussion was over. Robert Alexander, vice-president and secretary of The Moving Image Association, which sponsored this festival, shook his head sadly. “I would come to free movies,” he said. He reached for a package of Kools within the pocket of his plaid suit. He is a thin, dark-bearded, light-skinned, and rather ascetic looking man. Moments before, two of his three young children had been playing hide-and-seek between his legs; but now, sensing his preoccupation, they had run off somewhere into the dark stretches of the theater’s endless, chilly lobby.
“Of course, the USA Festival didn’t have any better attendance on the first afternoon three years ago. We’ll pick up as the week goes along.”
Some friends of the festival burst into the scene wanting to know if Alexander had the keys to the rented limousine. Minelli was waiting to be taken to his hotel. Jennifer Salt and Margot Kidder, two players in a film to be shown that afternoon, needed to be picked up somewhere; the person who knew exactly where couldn’t be found just then. Other notables were arriving at the airport and had to be met.
“We’ll use the limousine for Minelli,” someone said.
“Why does he need the limousine? He drives around Hollywood in a beat up VW.”
“No, Minelli gets the limousine. Use my car to pick up the people at the airport.”
“But I was supposed to be the one to get Margot.”
“Well then get her, dammit.”
“In your car?”
This confusion over logistics would last throughout the week. Celebrities were left stranded at the airport. Both the limousine and private vehicles disappeared for long periods of time. There never seemed to be enough drivers and automobiles even when only one or two guests of the festival needed shepherding.
After the confusion was straightened out, Alexander craned his neck to see if he could spot his vanished children. His bow tie, once carefully tied and straightened, had begun to droop slightly. He shrugged and smiled at Kit Carson who was climbing a broad flight of stairs toward the projection booth.
Carson was a figure of some controversy. For the past two years he had been, along with SMU professor G. William Jones, co-director of the USA Film Festival. This year that festival’s board of directors had refused to rehire Carson. Partly this was due to a personality clash with Jones, but there were deeper allegations made on both sides. Some claimed that Carson was ineffective as an organizer and inordinately strange in both his business dealings and his taste in movies. In 1972 certain eyebrows at SMU were set in motion by Carson’s selection of the X rated cartoon Fritz the Cat, Paul Morrissey’s explicit L’Amour, and People’s War, a film of radical political attitudes.
Voices friendlier to Carson credit him with the idea of having a festival for American films. They add that without his energy and contacts in the movie industry, the USA Festival would never have happened. The films he picked, however startling some may have been to patrons of SMU, reflected the breadth of his knowledge of American cinema. For the United States Festival he was working as a “special consultant.”
“Kit may have his faults,” Robert Alexander said fumbling through his pockets for another cigarette, “but he’s the best judge I’ve ever seen of what’s going to be important in the media. The first time I ever heard of Dylan was when Kit brought over that first record and played it for me. I told him I thought it was the worst crap I’d ever heard. Kit said, ‘Keep the record around and play it.’ After a while I began to see what he was talking about. But Kit understood what that record meant the first…”
He was interrupted by the sudden return of his tiny daughter who ran straight across my new shoes and took refuge behind her father’s knees.
“Ya, ya, ya, ya,” she said.
“Ya, ya, ya,” another feminine voice answered abruptly. “My God, I’m chasing the children again. This thing is already making me an absolute wreck.”
The voice was Theresa Alexander’s, the girl’s mother and manager of the United States Film Festival. She was as thin as her husband and as fashionably dressed, but there was something considerably more tense and erratic about her, especially when compared to her husband’s outer calm. On her left shoulder she wore a gold pin with an oval ring enclosing the word “Yes.”
Since there were still several minutes left before the next movie began, I asked them about The Moving Image Association. This festival was the Association’s first project, they told me. But the real purpose of the Association was to start a film center in Dallas, with equipment and workshop space for filmmakers as well as two small theaters. “But we put on this festival,” Theresa said, “because we wanted to show certain people that we could do it. We were incredibly short on time and incredibly short on money and we still did it.” Theresa, like Kit Carson, had been fired from SMU, and she was suing the university over her dismissal.
During most of this conversation, the lobby was spotted with small islands of people talking idly and staring secretively at the strangers around them. Slowly, though, they drifted back into the theater and shortly after 1 p.m., the movies started again.
This afternoon’s offerings were Idaho Transfer, a science fiction film directed by Peter Fonda, and Sisters, an American International horror flick directed by Brian DePalma. This latter film was a particularly odious number featuring the separation of Siamese twins by cleaver chops. It became, finally, too repellent to watch.
Kit Carson began the discussion after the film by saying that the Hollywood system was still the most pervasive force in American filmmaking. DePalma, a man with flushed cheeks and snapping black eyes, took up this theme immediately. He didn’t want to work in Hollywood. Directors like Francis Copolla (The Godfather) and Peter Bogdanovitch (The Last Picture Show) thought they could maintain their integrity while working there. “But I don’t think you can get in bed with the devil,” DePalma said, “without having some of it rub off.”
This statement seemed particularly hollow coming so quickly after a mindless and exploitative film like Sisters. But it sounded even worse after the USA festival, where his film Get to Know Your Rabbit starring Tommy Smothers was shown. DePalma himself refers to the film as Get to Know Your Turkey. Smothers made the film as his first project after his television show was cancelled. It was supposed to be the vehicle that would carry him to the next step of his career. For DePalma making Rabbit meant a new life too. After directing movies with budgets of $40,000 and $100,000, he was suddenly given several million from the Hollywood devil himself.
In the making, though, things went awry. There were arguments about the script, Smothers lost confidence in DePalma, and the overbearing presence of Orson Welles didn’t help matters. The film was never released. Smothers’ career went into a steady decline and DePalma, who spent the next year learning he was now on the outs in Hollywood, began badmouthing directors who had coped with situations he couldn’t.
Both Idaho Transfer and Sisters had impressed me as anti-life—Sisters for its blood and cruelty, Transfer for lines like “This perpetuation nonsense is a fraud.” I left the festival’s first day with a bad taste in my mouth.
Monday and Tuesday, the second and third days of the festival, were low points in terms of attendance and spirit. In the mornings Minelli’s The Pirate and The Band Wagon played to as few as ten people. The shorts and documentaries in the afternoons drew audiences only slightly less miniscule. In the evenings, when the same programs were repeated, more people attended, but not too many more; and by 10 p.m., when Minelli’s movie played again, the numbers had diminished considerably. The documentary best received, and for good reason, was Friday Night at the Coliseum by Houston’s Geoff Winningham.
It was an embarrassing time for the festival’s organizers. They wandered listlessly about the Auditorium Theater’s lobby, forcing down cups of vile coffee and looking longingly at the box office window for the line that never formed. The only one who seemed unaffected was Kit Carson. He hurried back and forth between a wall of pay phones and the projection room, always apparently on some important mission. He wore knee-high black boots, blue jeans, and a thick leather jacket. A ring of keys that hung on a chain from his belt rattled with every step. Carson, I had discovered at our first meeting, is as shameless a bummer of cigarettes as I am during the times I “quit.” Seeing me opening a pack, he stopped to ask for a smoke. I asked what he felt about the poor attendance.
“Sure I’d like to draw more people,” he said, stopping to wonder if I had a match. “But I think what’s going on here is important no matter how many people see it. You see, the other festival thinks that the most important movies are being made in Hollywood. We think they’re being made”—he shrugged his shoulders—”well, wherever they’re being made. They think making films relates to having a movie industry; we think that more and more it relates to having a script and a camera. Also it’s important because a lot of people didn’t think we could do it at all. SMU tried to keep us from getting films but we got films anyway. They’ve had their problems, too. They wanted a movie called Let the Good Times Roll. Well, I’m doing a little work for the Cannes Festival. They won’t accept any film that has shown at another festival so I snuck the rolling good times out from under SMU and sent it off to Cannes. Hell, SMU wrote Minelli and told him he should not come to Dallas.”
In an attempt to beef up the schedule Carson had gotten five screen writers to fly in from Los Angeles to participate in a panel on Monday evening. They all looked to be about thirty and had written movies like Judge Roy Bean, The Getaway and Shamus. They were not convinced that the occasion was in any way serious, which indeed it wasn’t. “Screen writing,” one said, “is like sex—you’re only as good as that last one.” At the same time the audience proved something of a befuddlement to them. One grandmotherly looking woman with a triangular green scarf wrapped tightly around her grey head asked if the panelists thought LSU would be a good school for someone who wanted to be a screenwriter. Frantic whispers passed back and forth across the stage until one of the five squinted back at the lady and asked incredulously, “Does that mean Louisiana State University?” Later that night, back at their hotel the writers were among a party of about a dozen sundry folks who testified aloud to preposterous personal accomplishments and were entertained by a young dancer from Dallas, herself interested in a career in show business, who has chosen the stage name Fonda Peters.
There were no movies on Wednesday, so I walked around downtown Dallas trying to keep myself from going to yet another movie out of sheer boredom. In the past three days I had seen seven full length features and so many shorts and excerpts that I could no longer separate them in my mind. I asked a few pedestrians if they knew about the United States Festival that was going on or the USA Festival coming next week. I got quick frightened “no’s” for answers.
On Thursday the festival resumed with a vengeance. At 10 a.m. came the first moments of what were to be all 12 episodes (at an hour an episode) of the PBS Television Series An American Family. The rationale for showing the series was that it represents a kind of filmmaking that will become more important in the future. I agree. I think it should have been shown. I could not bring myself to watch it all. As the tenth episode came to a close late in the afternoon (the remaining two were to be shown later that evening), I ducked into the theater to see how many long distance moviegoers had endured. I saw only one—a young, slight, oddly dressed person with dyed red hair. I had not noticed him at the festival before. The tenth episode ends with Lance Loud giving a big performance on top a piano. As the lights in the theater went up, the lone spectator leapt to his feet in wild applause. It was Lance himself.
In a panel that evening, Lance became the recipient of the bluntest question asked at either festival. Out of the audience of about 80, a gentleman arose and in semi-concealed scorn asked, “Just what are you anyway? A fag or what?”
“Well, I don’t know,” Lance answered into an uncomfortable silence. “I’ve become so confused about the whole thing I hardly have sex anymore.”
Minelli’s Lust for Life, in which Kirk Douglas performs remarkably well as Van Gogh, played that same evening. The ear-cutting sequence taught me something I had never understood about movies. The scene begins when Van Gogh, already emotionally frenzied, his face twisted and mouth agape, stares in horror into a mirror. We are looking at him from behind and see his frightening reflection framed by the oval mirror on a blank wall. He leans his forehead against the glass for a moment, then seized by new fury he jerks away from the mirror and disappears from the screen. Silence. The camera remains fixed on the mirror. We see a circle of sweat where his forehead has been. Then, from off-screen comes a gruesome, wrenching sound followed by an awful moan. The camera does not move. In the mirror we see Van Gogh stagger across the screen with his hand held to the side of his head, blood forcing its way through his fingers.
What I learned was why certain violent scenes, like this one, made me actually feel the violence. Minelli, having fixed my eye on the screen by the spot of sweat on the mirror, forced me to imagine what was happening off screen. The wrenching noise stopped those imaginings on a dime—I knew what was happening then—and the jolt was physical.
Many other films, both at this festival and the one that would follow, contained scenes of bloody violence complete with jets of spurting blood and stop-frame photography of limbs wrenched from sockets. The mistake was forcing us to look so closely at the physical details. Either we cannot look, turn away in disgust, and the director has lost us completely; or we continue to look, wondering what new horror will be exposed and the watching becomes everything. Instead of being made to feel; we are made to look; and that is really the distinction between a great movie and whatever other kinds there are.
Minelli arrived at the discussion wearing his yellow tie, the one bright spot in his otherwise somber festival wardrobe. He sat on stage looking a little uncomfortable, answering questions shyly. His hand trembled as it carried a cigarette to his mouth. It was quite late. He was tired and we, a dogeared collection of 25 or 30 moviegoers, were tired too.
On Friday the best new film in either festival, Savages, played to 65 people. The United States Festival was plagued from the start with poor promotion, sudden program changes, and a theater downtown. Friends of mine turned down free passes because it was too much trouble after a day at work to drive back downtown just to watch movies. The event was also hamstrung by a dearth of movies with ready-made popular appeal and not enough celebrities to draw crowds. At the end of the festival, its sponsors, The Moving Image Association, found themselves about $30,000 in debt.
On that dour note I would like to skip ahead to Sunday evening for the last moments of the festival and for a party that served as an overture to SMU’s USA Film Festival. It is not that Friday evening and Saturday were without interest. In fact Saturday night there was a director’s panel which included Jack Nicholson and Les Blanc, a young filmmaker from Louisiana whose brilliant documentary, Dry Wood and Hot Peppers, was screened that morning. I shall also skip over the elevator meeting between Nicholson and Minelli after which Minelli, smiling amiably, uttered a totally uncharacteristic comment: “Boy, is he stoned.” And excluded too shall be an account of the showing of Neil Young’s film Journey through the Past, which drew by far the largest crowds of the festival. And both excluded and unmentioned are several movies, directors, actors, etc., who might or might not make interesting copy—we shall never know. Last, and in many ways the saddest omission, is the tale of my own film-weary and fog-bound wanderings which led me to a brightly lit and crowded public house where I won 12 straight drinks by vanquishing all comers at air hockey and, in the manner of celluloid cowboys everywhere, strode off into the night leaving behind neither silver bullets nor any other clues to my concealed identity.
Though I may have been a terror in that bar, the party to kick off the USA festival was one of those crowded, showy, elegant affairs that always make me feel that wallpaper has the best shake in life; it’s so effortlessly inconspicuous. Held in an immense red brick and white-pillared mansion, with a front walk wide as a city street and seemingly as endless, the party was supposed to have been on the lawn; but wind and rain, the scourges of the previous Sunday, returned with a vengeance. Consequently, the four or five hundred guests squeezed themselves one by one into the house where they were forced to ooze past one another in hallways and on stairs as they balanced small plates of catered ham and turkey served on little round rolls.
The only guest above these difficulties was Raoul Walsh, the 86-year-old director of, among others, White Heat, High Sierra and Battle Cry, whose work was to be honored at this festival as Minelli’s had been at the other. He sat in state in a large leather chair at one end of a library which had books from floor to ceiling. Mr. Walsh is a Texan, although he left here nearly 70 years ago. He still dresses, however, like a prosperous rancher in brown western pants, beautiful tooled leather boots, and a white stetson. A black patch covering his right eye sets all this off. Surrounded by books, leather, mahogany and admirers in party plumery, he looked grand.
Theresa Alexander, the United States Festival manager, for reasons known only to herself, arrived at the party with Brian DePalma, who was an invited guest since his film was showing at the festival. Nevertheless, the party for the rival festival was, to say the least, an odd place for Theresa to be. The host, who didn’t realize that she had come with DePalma, asked her to leave. Jack Nicholson and Lou Adler had arrived in the same group and immediately began putting on their coats.
“You don’t have to leave, Mr. Nicholson,” the host said.
“Yes, I do,” he snapped. “A member of my party has been asked to leave and I’m leaving with them.”
The most embarrassing part was that Brian DePalma was made to leave the opening party for a festival honoring one of his own films. It was the only event during the two weeks that seemed to be happening in a novel rather than a movie.
I left in time to make it back to the Municipal Auditorium Theater for the last moments of the other festival. The monolithic grey building, dimly lit on the outside in the darkness and chilly drizzle, looked especially bleak after a house so brightly lit and crowded. Home From the Hill was the final movie, a fitting end to a festival held in Texas. The movie was supposed to start at 10 but actually started much later, and Home is not the shortest movie ever made. It was after one o’clock when Minelli walked down the aisle of the theater to the front of the stage. The 20 of us who were still there moved to the first few rows and listened to him talk about the making of the picture. Several people commented that George Peppard and George Hamilton had never acted better. Here and in other films, Minelli had somehow gotten fresh and convincing performances from players not known for their range. “Yes,” he said, “they were very good.” There was no indication of what he had done—surely something—to make them good. No indication except, perhaps, that yellow tie he was wearing again tonight. It represented something strong, obstinate, demanding, confident: a broad streak of brilliant, eccentric color in a setting of taste, propriety, and logic.
Kit Carson came forward to present Minelli with a commemoration of the festival. Whatever Kit’s faults may or may not be, on this occasion he was eloquent: “Mr. Minelli, you’ve said that the goal of your films is to bring people ‘a little magic.’ You’ve certainly done that this week both through your films and by your presence. I wish we could have given you larger audiences. But those who did come to see your magic have, I think, given you some thing in return—their hearts.”
Spontaneously we rose to our feet and applauded warmly in that cold theater built to hold more than 50 times our number. “Thank you,” MineIli murmured. He looked at us. He seemed both bemused by our meagerness and touched by our sincerity. The applause built and continued. Faces flushed. Hands were emotionally shaken. “Thank you,” he said again. “Thank you. Thank you.”
This seems as good a time as any to explain how each festival selected the films it showed. The United States Festival program was chosen by a board of critics whose members included Rex Reed, Dwight MacDonald, Jay Cocks and several others. They chose what they thought were the best among the group of films the festival organizers were able to gather together. The USA festival selected critics and paid them to bring to Dallas a designated number of films of their own choosing.
Certain advantages accrue to each method, but it should be pointed out that critics, who are in positions of tremendous power, might not always be comfortable asking the various studios for permission to show films since they may no longer be free of obligation in their critical judgments. Some films brought to the USA festival the selection critics had not even seen, a situation that produced some embarrassing results. Hollis Alpert, who writes for Playboy and World, brought a film called Mother’s Day which he had not seen. The movie was produced and directed by Darren McGavin.
In explaining his choice Alpert said, “I know Darren from a while back. I heard about his film and bringing it here seemed like a good way for us to see one another again.” The movie turned out to be a tedious, mindless, commercial little melodrama about a boy’s search for his parents. The “mystery” is maintained by tired and phony dialog like this: “I wouldn’t do that, son, your moth…uhh, the people of the town, that is, don’t need you around here.” In the discussion that followed McGavin explained that this was the first movie made by a production company he had formed which had searched out “scripts on subjects we knew would sell.” It was embarrassing to watch Alpert, who had at last seen the film, do critical somersaults to defend its minimal merit.
At the same time there is no doubt that the USA festival was better organized and planned, much better attended, and showed overall a somewhat more prestigious selection of movies. It had precisely the same format as the United States Festival, with a Raoul Walsh film at 10 a.m. and p.m. and two showings of the new critic-chosen films, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. But there the similarity ends. Held in the 300-seat Bob Hope Theater at SMU, the USA festival was a glittering spectacular whose honored guest, Walsh, proved as straightforward and boisterous as Minelli had been quiet and provocative.
The first time I saw Walsh after the party was Monday morning when I came into the theater as he was holding forth on The Roaring Twenties with critic Judith Crist. They were on a small stage that extends in front of the movie screen, before a 20-foot replica of a Texas license plate that was raised and lowered throughout the festival for these discussions. Its significance remained a mystery to everyone who saw it.
Walsh sat leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and expounded in a rough, old, wind-tempered voice.
His sense for anecdote was superb. I have, since then, tried repeating some of his stories only to watch them fall flat without the benefit of Walsh’s voice, boots, Stetson, waving arms and tremendous chest that swayed forward and back, side to side with the beat of his tales. It was Bogie this and Cagney that and Charlie Chaplin showed up with a girl one day and Flynn didn’t want me to know he’d pulled that stunt so…Ms. Crist simply asked him a question or two, then rested her cheek in her palm and watched him go. So energetic was his presence that it came as a shock when the discussion was over to see that age really had taken its toll. He held arms on both sides as he walked, his legs quivered unsteadily beneath him, and he could barely see. “A step,” Ms. Crist warned him coming down from the stage. “Another step.”
Through the week the festival proceeded in its tightly organized, up-tempo way. It started off strongly on Monday with two of Judith Crist’s selections, Images and The Long Goodbye, both directed by Robert Altman. Wednesday brought Ten From Your Show of Shows, selected by Hollis Alpert, a movie of skits from the original television show starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. It earned Caesar, who was present at the festival, tremendous ovations. On Thursday came Love and Pain, and the whole, damn thing, also selected by Hollis Alpert, which stars Timothy Bottoms and Maggie Smith in a story about a love affair between an adolescent and an older woman. For Friday critic Esme Dick had selected, among others, Frederick Wiseman’s documentary The Essenes, one of the few movies able to show an analytical intelligence behind it. Kid Blue, brought to the festival by critic Arthur Knight, Jr., played Sunday. It stars Dennis Hopper, was written by Texas’ Edwin Shrake and had the audience cheering.
The rest of the new films at the festival, seven full length features, seemed to me indistinguishable in their ordinariness. Whether this was due to the general state of movies in America, the competition between the two festivals, the critics’ judgments, or the eccentricity of my tastes, I do not wish to speculate.
I left Dallas Sunday afternoon in the midst of heavy thunderstorms and a tornado alert. Somewhere around Waco the storm became so violent that I stopped my car under an overpass to wait things out. One thing came to me just then—I knew I wasn’t going to be able to fill much space with my account of the USA Festival. I had no feel for what had happened there, anymore than you’re able to get a feel for what goes on, really, at a movie theater you’ve visited for an evening’s entertainment. The whole thing went off like clockwork and that was pretty much the story; next year, (since it is doubtful that the Moving Image Association will repeat its festival) the USA will be an even bigger success.
Bill Jones, USA festival director, seemed exactly the man to put on such an event. In the space of a week, he had exhibited not one rough edge. Energetic probing, I was sure, would have found some; but when it came right down to it I wondered who such probing would benefit. Neither did I care, really, whether he or Kit Carson was at fault in their feuding. The basic difference between the festivals was this: At the USA festival you watched movies; the United States festival let you hang out around movies.
The storm had let up some but I sat watching the sky clear and become large again. Far, far in the distance I could see thin streaks of lightning explode into tiny electric rivulets. Forty movies, I thought. Two weeks of my short life. It wasn’t worth it at all.