Tuesday, April 12, 2016

DIFF ’16: Hotel Dallas

When it came to venal, scheming families, the Ewings had nothing on the Ceauşescus. In the 1980s, Dallas was the only Western television show allowed on Romania’s state-run media. Depending who you ask, it was either programmed to instruct viewers on the evils of robber baron capitalism or to keep them distracted from the failings of the Communist regime. Clearly, it failed on the former score, but worked to an extent with respects to the latter. Romanian expat Livia Ungur and her husband-artistic collaborator Sherng-lee Huang delve into the Eastern European country’s nostalgia for the prime-time soap in the experimental docu-hybrid Hotel Dallas (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Dallas International Film Festival.

Evidently, a dodgy Romanian oligarch actually recreated the South Fork Ranch for his Romanian resort, throwing in a scale Eiffel Tower to make it even more surreal. It is there that the weary “Mr. Here” awakens, feeling strangely at home, yet not. That is indeed Patrick Duffy, playing an uber-meta version of Bobby Ewing.

With the help of Livia, the ten-gallon hat-wearing semi-estranged daughter of the owner (Ilie, the sunflower oil king of Romania), Mr. Here will take a hero’s pilgrimage to the “Endless Column,” a public sculpture created by Constantin Brancusi. Their journey across Romania and backwards through time is interspersed with vignettes from Ilie’s past and recreations of the Ceauşescus’ fall, re-enacted by a cast of grade-schoolers draped in vintage Pioneer dress. As an added bonus, we also see the commercial Larry Hagman cut in character for a Romanian motor oil company.

Hotel Dallas is sort of the hipster loft scene version of Chuck Norris vs. Communism (frankly, those 1980s action movies hold up quite a bit better than Dallas, with Duffy’s justly mocked “only-a-dream” resurrection) While Huang and Ungur are impressive visual stylists, the implications of the film are often obscured by its postmodern gamesmanship. It is the sort of docu-essay that needs to be broken down scene-by-scene. Some work, others don’t.

One thing is clear, Patrick Duffy is a heck of a good sport. Bobby Ewing is by far his signature, bread-and-butter, claim-to-fame role, yet he gracefully sort of-kind of reprises it under the oddest of circumstances. Often heard but rarely seen, he provides the apostolic link that anchors all the dreamlike flights of fancy.

Frankly, the strangest thing about Hotel Dallas is how little Huang & Ungur have made up. Their episodic narrative is hit-or-miss, but there is something appealing about their eccentric, aesthetically eclectic approach. Recommended for patrons of experimental cinema, Hotel Dallas screens Friday (4/15) and Saturday (4/16), as part of this year’s Dallas International Film Festival.