There’s something off about the Dallas International Film Festival. That was the feeling I came away with opening night. The party wasn’t as well-attended or as well-stocked as in recent years. Attendance at the movie screening seemed low (whole rows towards the back of the City Performance Hall were empty), and those who were there skewed a demographic that was old and white. I had trouble picking out people at the party or the screening that were under 40. There were few young filmmakers or enthusiastic young film buffs, and that’s surprising. There was a time when opening night at DIFF was one of the city’s most energetic and eclectic affairs, but every year it feels a little more like a Highland Park cocktail party.
My evening started oddly. I got a phone call at home from Michael Cain, the former festival head honcho who is also the director of The Stark Club documentary. It turns out the screener of the film I reviewed in our preview was a rough cut. Many years in the making, The Stark Club is still not finished and Cain said they are still going to produce another version. I told him I would note that in my review. But later on I was surprised when Dallas IFF President and CEO Lee Papert referred to festival’s screening of The Stark Club as the film’s “premiere.” It was an awkward little moment, but one that felt indicative of a festival grasping for highlights, one whose right hand may not know what its left hand is doing.
The oddities persisted throughout the night. Mayor Mike Rawlings talked about his days as an aspiring filmmaker at Boston College, when he entered his short film “Wasteland” in the 1976 student film festival. “It was an existential look at art and poverty and other bullshit like that,” Rawlings said. Then a man came on stage with a small dog, which he slumped over the top of the podium and proceeded to blabber on about how the Dallas film festival reconnected him with film. He was never introduced (maybe we were supposed to just know who he was), and his remarks didn’t make up much sense. Finally, he asked us to visit VoteForBandit.com. Bandit was the dog. The man could only be a festival sponsor. Dallas IFF bends over backwards for its sponsors, sometimes to the detriment of its audience. Bandit was at least cute. Before the screening there were a couple of commercials, and then this year’s intro reel, the segment that plays before each movie. It is a long drool – some guy running around with a suitcase — that stretches on and on, it seems, so sponsors’ logos can have maximum screen time.
Before we settled in for Words and Pictures, the film’s director, Fred Schepisi, was invited on stage. While Words and Pictures stars Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche, locally it plays as a star vehicle for Dallas’ growing number cinema financiers. Words and Pictures was financed almost entirely from Dallas. “Dallas,”Schepisi suggested. “Is becoming the anti-Hollywood.”
But Words and Pictures doesn’t feel “anti” anything. It’s a saccharine, pandering romantic comedy about a cocky, alcoholic English teacher (Clive Owen) at a New England prep school who falls for the new art teacher (Juliette Binoche), a famous artist with rheumatoid arthritis. Their debilitations fit neatly into the character sketch: two middle-aged, unrealized artistic souls; running out of time; falling into despair and self-destruction. It’s obvious rom-com gravity will pull them together, but Words and Pictures pretends it will take some work, pitting Owen’s Jack against Binoche’s Dina in a contrived debate about the value of words (literature) verses pictures (visual art).
It’s difficult to think of another movie that mentions some version of its title as often as this one. Jack gets all Dead Poet’s Society on Dina, delivering spirited orations about the wonders of literature (words!), while Dina digs deep to inspire her students to create better art (pictures!). The two continue to bicker and verbally spar – sustaining a syllabic word game – before they suddenly flop into bed. But there’s tension: Jack’s drinking may cause him to lose his job, and Dina’s handicap is making it increasingly difficult to paint. Screenwriter Gerald Di Pego tosses in a few side plots – Jack’s estranged son, a bullied student – but neither feel like they add dimension to a world frame by Schepisi’ insistent short focus and ever-slowly panning camera.
Alcoholism can be a lazy way to lend a character demons, just as art and writing can be lazy ways to rope meaning into a story. These characters have little depth, and they are placed in a world that is insufficiently sketched, with plot points falling off the narrative like loose hub caps and a timeline that gets chewed and garbled towards the film’s end. There are some flashes of real warmth and an appealing off-kilter sense of humor, but neither sustain through the film. Most of the laughs, actually, are unintentional. It’s unclear whether or not Owen (English) and Binoche (French) are supposed to playing Americans, but both battle their accents. Tender scenes, like the film’s singularly effective romantic moment between in Dina’s studio, are ruined when, moments later, Owen’s Jack turns into a hyperbolic caricature of a drunk, guzzling vodka and stumbling into Dina’s wet painting.
The script is also rife with platitudes and clichés. And the rather ridiculous premise – this whole words vs. pictures debate – is not only innocuous, it seems there just to offer characters a soapbox for sophomoric ideas about life and art. It would all be insufferable if the film wasn’t so corny and overwrought that it ends up being unintentionally hilarious — like the weird soundtrack that feels pulled from a 70s sit com, and the finale, a school-wide debate about the merits of words and pictures, that feels like an idea for a Saved By the Bell episode.
Most of the audience fled during the credits, rather than sticking around for the Q&A between Schepisi, De Pego, and producer Curtis Burch. Channel 11’s Brandon Higgins was supposed to moderate, but the TV station called him in to report on the tornados north of Denton. Instead, old WFAA hand and Words and Pictures co-producer Gary Cogill stepped in. “I think I can handle this,” he said with a wink and grin to those who remained in the audience, mostly the financiers and their friends and family. It was a little awkward to watch the conversation in the nearly empty theater, although in its own way, it felt fitting. The Dallas IFF is starting to feel like its own private party.
Time to move on. Today’s highlight include Joe, David Gordon Green’s latest film, which stars Nicolas Cage and the wonderful young actor Tye Sheridan (both Green and Sheridan will be in attendance). It’s a slow burning, tightly-knit drama about a boy who struggles to break the cycle of poverty and abuse in his family, and his boss who tries to kick his own demons. After his foray into stoner comedies, Green’s ability to sketch gritty dramas populated with rich, complicated characters is back on display.
Also of note, John Wildman debuts his The Ladies of the House, a Dallas-shot movie that is described as a “sexy thriller” about three men who fall in with four women in a “modern-day house of horrors.” And in Shorts Program 1, Andrew and Luke Wilson will show their new film, “Satellite Beach.”
For reviews of Child’s Pose, Flutter, and R100, which all show today, check out our festival preview.