The 6th annual Austin Film Festival Heart of Film Screenwriters Conference kicked off October 7, 1999. This festival is the first devoted to what truely makes a film: the screenplay; and celebrates the screenwriter's contribution to the motion pictures and television. Although the festival runs from October 7 - 15, I live 175 miles away in Houston and was only able to attend the weekend session.

The festival included a competition of independent films and short films, advance screenings, midnight movies, retrospectives of films by the festival's guest panelists, a presentation of television programs from the early career of director Robert Altman by the Museum of Television and Radio and a selection of asian films. I managed to see a grand total of five films and other aspects of the festival(mainly because they only screened films in the evenings), however, I did manage to meet Robert Altman and crash a few of the panel discussion (the trick is to come in 10 minutes late).


Afraid Of Everything
(USA - 78 min.)
Writer/ Director: David Barker
Cast: Nathalie Richard, Daniel Aukin, Sarah Adler

Afraid of Everything is a character study of urban neurosis set soley in a small New York loft apartment. Anne, the principal character, is a French dancer transplanted to the US who suffers a below-the-knee amputation as a result of an auto accident. She has not gone outside of the apartment n the year since she returned from the hospital, and instead fanatically devotes herself to finishing the loft that she and her architect husband Donnie live in. Donnie has become repelled by her since the amputation, and they have had no physical contact during the past year. Into this charged environment comes Sarah, Anne's half-sister from Israel, a troubled but free spirit who sends the household into a crisis from which Anne and Donnie emerge transformed.

Shot in black and white on a budget of $90,000, director and writer David Barker attempts to emunlate Bergman's style of stark and austere sets and dialog. Bergman is often imitated, even by the big time directors such as Woody Allen's Interiors. He suceeds in the fact that I find Bergman to be utterly boring, so was Interiors and so is this film. After 20 minutes I began looking at my watch to see how much longer the film would last.

Grade = C-

American Detective
(USA - 85 min.)
Writers: Dan Brown, David Von Hatten
Director: Dan Brown
Cast: Jonny Mars, Juliana Sheffield, Bill Wise

This film has been called Repo Man meets The Conversation. The plot is simple, an unstable slaker (Jonny Mars) without direction in his life gets a mail order detective school diploma and a state license. At his rich and well connected mother's party, he happens to meet a detective from the same school who is on the mayor's security detail. Striking up a friendship, the detective coaches the young man on how to dress, act and to practice bugging people for the experience. He bugs a napkin holder in a booth at the cafe he haunts and begins to listen to the conversations taking place. Through a chance siting, he begins stalking a woman who was his first girlfriend (Juliana Sheffield). Secretly following her, taking her picture and bugging her phone, he becomes totally obsessed. The film culminates in a suprise ending straight out of Taxi Driver.

Shot for a grand total of $30,000 in Austin, this film shows professional quality cinematography, sound, editing and most of all a very witty script. Although some of the cast performances tended to go over the top on occasion, this is more a sign of the local acting talent rather than any flaws of the film makers. Overall this was a very funny film that should be marketable on cable, such as USA of Lifetime. It certainly superior to most of the third rate drek that consumes the majority of the time slots on HBO or Showtime.

Grade = B+

Attack of the Bat Monsters
(USA - 91 min.)
Writer: Kelly Green
Director: Kelly Green
Cast: Michael Dalmon, Fred Ballard, Casie Waller

Shot in 16mm rather than the traditional 35mm, this film is a hilarious spoof of 1950's low-budget sci-fi monster critter flicks such as Them! and The Black Scorpion. Filmed in Austin.

The plot of the movie is very simple, a third-rate film company has payed for a week's filming at a quary location. The producer (Fred Ballard), going by his monster film maxim "when the monster's dead, the movie is over," decides that since they just killed the monster the rest of the movie can be put together using film stock. But since this is only the fourth day of filming, there are still three more location days already paid for. The answer: film another monster movie in the remaining three days. The assistant producer (Michael Dalmon) is forced to scramble to find a script, an actor to star and of course a monster. He finds a third rate scriptwriter to hack out a script in three parts for each day's shot, hires a has-been drunk to star and manages to find film designer who has a spare monster in his back room. The film also has a professional scream queen (Casie Waller) who hilariously explains to another actress the monster movie cliches of the three-pitch-scream-with-your-wrists-on-the-sides-of-your-head and the female-hurts-ankle-while-being-chased-by-monster-and-falls-down bit. "First show twisting your ankle, look back in horror, hobble two steps, fall and scream."

The midnight screening of this film apparently consisted of an audience of me and the film makers, actors, their friends and families. That would explain the thunderous applause and cheers when each credit popped up on the screen. This parody was generally funny and occasionally hysterical, causing me to laugh out loud throughout the film. The main problem was the sound production. This film still needs serious post-production sound engineering and foley work. In fact, the sound was so bad the wind was whistling over the microphone on half the outdoor shots. However, the entire experience of the film was enjoyable and a fun time was had.

Grade = B+

Tiara Tango
(USA - 90 min)
Writer: Werner Molinsky
Director: Werner Molinsky
Cast: Jean Smart, Robert Wagner

Jean Smart (Designing Women, The Brady Bunch Movie) stars with Robert Wagner (Austin Powers 1 & 2 , What Price Glory, Crazy in Alabama) in this professionally made satire of beauty pagents. Smart is former and ageing Miss Texas Gal 1968 who was also a formerly successful pagent manager until a notorious scandle caused her to flee Texas for Mississippi. Her beauty queen daughter is graduating from beautician college and dreams of going to Hollywood to be a makeup artist to the stars. Smart receives an offer to coach a beauty pagent in Paris, Texas and her boyfriend Lyle (Wagner) persuades her to go. They head out in a motor home only to have Lyle choke to death on a artifical eyelash. Undaunted and unwilling to chance a delay, they keep Lyle with them in the motor home and disguise him with makeup, wigs and a dress.

The film makers present a twisted world of beauty pagents with the book Valley of the Dolls as their bible, an addiction to the cola drink Tab and the suprise ending of the beauty pagent in Texas being for drag queens. Hilarious satire coupled with an outstanding performance by Smart produce a likable film that also explores the shallowness of the peagent sceen and its impact on its participants. After the film, the director explained that the script was based on his idea of what would have happen if Jon Bennet had lived. This produced quite a few groans from the audience. This was by far the best film I screened and has the greatest potental for general theatrical release.

Grade = A-

Robert Altman

Robert Altman is one of the respected and mecurial directors in Hollywood. His films include MASH, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts, and this year's Cookie's Fortune. The respect for his talent is shown by the number of big name talents that are willing to perform in his films for a fraction of the salary they would otherwise receive.

Altman attended Museum of Television and Radio presentation of several of his early television works. The first was a 1961 drama for the series Bus Stop entitled A Lion Walks Among Us. It is the story of a psycopath (Fabian) who hitchhikes into town and promptly, and very violently for the time period, kills a shopkeeper, is found out, tried and so forth. This show was significant in the fact that it was shown without commercial interruption due to the fact that all the sponsers refused to buy time on it and it eventually became the subject of a congressional inquiry into violence on television. Remember this was 1961. By our modern standards you can see more violence on an episode of Fraiser. Additionally, the 50s 'hep cat' dialog was extremely dated and at times hilarious in what was supposed to be a very 'serious' work.

Cat and Mouse, a 1962 episode of the World War II action series Combat was also screened. The story of a sergeant who returns as the only survivor of a patrol near German lines. He is immediately set out with another patrol under another sergeant to obtain critical intelligence on the German positions. On the patrol, the sergeants lose all their men and are trapped in a dilapadated farm house with the Germans, who promptly make it their field headquarters. The German commander immediately makes friends with a cat living there and the creature plays a prominate role. The sergeants are able to listen in and obtain the needed information and one of them manages to escape back to the American lines. There he is told that they already obtained the needed information from code breakers and that all the members of the patrol has essentially died for nothing. This program is one of the best examples of how good television can be with good screenplays and good direction. It was intelligent, grippingly intense and contained excellent performances and an ironical ending.

Altman spoke both before and after the presentations. He talked about his career and how he had started out making industrial films (how to run a service station, how to sell a pontiac, etc.)and how this lead him into television work. He remaked that Fabian had been the teen idol of the time, that this program was his first acting job and after Fabian had been to his house to go over the script, his 13 and 14 year old daughters grabbed the crust of his sandwich and built a shrine to it. Musician/actor Lyle Lovett who has appeared in Altman's Cookie's Fortune, Short Cuts and The Player was also in attendance and asked Altman a question realtive to the ambigous ending of Cat and Mouse. Altman explained that he had originally wanted to do the story earlier in the series but the executive producer didn't like the ending because the public expected black and white answers at the end of programs. So he waited until the producer was out of the country and then directed the episode. When the producer returned, he promptly fired Altman.

Altman remarked that it was the first time he had seen these shows since they were aired and that he got to see many of his old friends, most of which are now dead. He added that he noticed shots and situations he developed that he continued to use in later works and to today. He especially recalls repeatedly using the cat. On the surface, Altman looks his age of 74. Lyle Lovett on the other hand is 42, but looks 55. Apparantly he has been over some very rough roads.

Short Films

Kidnapping (15 min.)opens in 1972 where a performance artist is shot by a rifle in the arm as an artistic statement. Fast forward to today where three twenty-something artists are blathering about the state of artistic expression today. They decide to kidnap the ageing artist (Robert Wagner) as an work of art. They then get into a discussion with the artist of what is art and where it will end in this situation. Quite frankly, I was bored by this film and found the intellectual posturing annoying. Technically the film has serious flaws, not the least of which is lack of continuety with the ropes used to bind Wagner to the chair. Grade = C-

Slappy the Clown (5 min.) opens with a sad circus clown opening a rejection letter from Seltzer University and looking at a picture of his girlfriend with "leave me alone" written across it. The clown drags himself out to a pleasant looking home and beings to set up for a birthday party in the backyard. Cut to an interior shot of a station wagon filled with young children and ballons. The station wagon pulls up to the house and the children run out to the backyard only to find the clown has hanged himself from a tree. The birthday boy reaches for a wooden stick laying next to a penata and heaves back to take a wack at the clown. The credits begin to roll and you continue to hear meaty thunks. Finally there is a watery bursting sound and you hear the children going "Euuuuuu." Needless to say this was a very humorous film. Grade = B+

Overall, the most significant aspect of the film competition was the overall quality of the sceenplays. Although these were the first films for the screenwriter/directors, certainly the screenplays are the equal of high cost Hollywood movies and foreign film productions. The main limitation of these films was of course in their budgets, which restricts the use of sets, outdoor filming as well as editing and sound production values. Give these writers and directors some cash and they are fully capable of producing well written professional quality films.

Room for Improvement

The main problem with the festival is that they did not screen films during the day, instead only during the evenings and only two at a time per theater. This limits the ability of those arriving from out of town and for only a few days to view many of the films offered by the festival. At least they should do day long screenings on the weekend. Secondly, there were no maps to two of the theaters in their brochure. If you were from out of town, you had to have a city map to find them and even then the Arbors theater was hard to find. Third, after the Friday screening of Tiara Tango we were forced to leave the theater so they could clean it and we entered the lobby and into total choas. I was then unable to get back in the theater to see screening of Natural Selection.

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