Lost in the Copycat Clusterf&%k: Embedded in the AFI Dallas International Film Festival

AFI Dallas Film Festival

It’s an hour and a half from McKinney to Dallas. It consists of a half hour straight shot towards the heart of the Big D followed by an hour of twisting concrete that go back and forth, over and under, on top and underneath each other in order to squeeze every square inch of land into driving space for the daily commuters.

I cross the county line in my pale cherry red 2003 Pontiac Sunbird, a cheap imitator of Raoul Duke’s great red shark but a feisty one with spirit and heart that beats harder than the manual says its four cylinder engine can. The road begins to slowly change color, turning from its uniform gray into a dark, sinister green becoming darker and darker with each passing mile. The road then starts splitting into small cracks until they meet at the corners and form a pattern of tiny soft pentagons. My head turns back on the road and a giant snake lunges at the car. I swerve to another lane to avoid its poisonous chomp. I try to find an exit that won’t throw me too far off course but the only way to get off this goddamn thing is to jump the grassy median and get back onto the surface road.

“If only this was a rental car,” a voice muttered.

Dallas is no city for someone to get lost in. The locals look for people who are lost so they can pounce on them like a wounded gazelle slowly bleeding to death on the plains of the Serengeti. Whip out a map and you might as well be wearing a sign that reads “Fresh Meat” hanging from your head on a necklace made from barbed wire.

I try to stay on the road that I’m battling by not putting up much of a fight. It’s not that hard. The road’s short staccato hisses tells me its more amused by my being lost than the fact that I’m probably denting its spine with the lousy shocks on my Sunfire.

“Calm down,” I tell myself. “Don’t show fear. That’s how it knows you’re there. The goddamn slime can sniff out a truffle of fear from two counties over.”

The assignment: the American Film Institute’s Dallas International Film Festival, a two week celebration of movies and celebrity in a city the traffic gods have abandoned because even they can’t fix it and they can transubstantiate. I have two days to cover as much as I can.

I turn off the highway and onto Mockingbird Avenue, a tiny suburban road that takes drivers through some of the most affluent parts of the city followed by the cheapest strings of motels, chicken joints and fast food places between Disneyland and Disneyworld. The road also takes more middle class drivers to Love Field Airport, the Greyhound bus of the American skies. A large portion of the road has been blocked off so construction crews can tear the skin off the concrete for what seemed like 100 blocks. I take a detour through neighborhoods with homes so big they blocked out the early morning sun.

The ride from my hotel wasn’t any easier. Not knowing directions is one thing, but asking for directions is another. I need to get to Victory Park, home of the Dallas Stars, the third greatest franchise in National Hockey League history behind the Detroit Redwings and the Wayne Gretzkys (also known as the Los Angeles Kings), and my press pass, the skeleton key that will get me into every nook and cranny of the city for the next two weeks. I only had two days. Not even the locals know how to navigate their own goddamn city. They either just drive to and from work or drive in the direction that gets them the farthest from the city the quickest. I head back out on the highway, U.S. 35E, trying to piece together the meager directions I could muster together on my own and hit the highway with tires squealing and barely holding up on the amount of air inside them.

I try to get directions on the phone from the press agent but it’s hard to keep your mind and hands on the wheel and the phone at the same time. In Dallas, it’s harder to do either if you have a wireless device. I barrel down McKinney Avenue and run face first into a red light with cars just barely eeking over the start line. They blow their horns at me letting me know my picture has been put on their mental fridges as their own personal asshole of the week.

Parking is an even bigger issue than driving. The roads are so sprawled out and allow for so many cars that there aren’t enough spaces left over to put your car. It’s always go-go-go in this city. Go to work. Go to the store. Go to this movie. Go to that party. Go to this bar. Go to that store. If they actually took some time to stop and look around, they might realize what a mess their city has become.

It’s not the most perfect city in the world for a film festival but then again, none are. As soon as the Hollywood machine sinks their talons into a town, it gets flooded with people, all chasing the same dream at 70 mph in a high powered Lexus that runs on blood and whose parts are lubricated with vodka and tonic water. It’s become Paris Hilton country, a place where people imitate each other in order to move up the status line, something I never thought I would see in a state that once tried to lead a fiery revolution against its current masters. People are dolled up in high priced clothes and hair that doesn’t look any color God intended hair to be. They wear flashy jewelry, avoid food at all costs and use old Neiman-Marcus bags to carry their documents and belongings. I stick out like a vegan at a pig roast. My fat frame, straight hair and substandard clothes do their best to keep me alienated from the rest of the clan. It’s no bother. I’m not here to watch them watch me anyway. Hunter S. Thompson always complained he had trouble covering a story because he would become the center of attention. The only way I could do that here was to set my hair on fire and run around naked screaming like a raving banshee on CIA grade narcotics. It pays to be invisible.

Coincidentally enough, the first film on my checklist is the Alex Gibney doc Gonzo. I have to race across the city to get to the theater at a decent time and curse my way through a parking lot infested with zombies in Gucci clothes just to get to the theater to find out I’m movie royalty. They love the press here. You don’t have to wait in lines. You don’t have to phone ahead to save a will call seat. You get to walk ahead of the line with a golden letter hanging from your chest that can get you in anywhere. No need to buy the ticket to take the ride. The ticket is free as long as you can prove you bleed ink.

The only seats available are at the very front, the kind of you have to snap your vertebrae in two places so you can look up and drink everything in. The theater is filled with posers, punks and other assorted art house riff-raff who, whether they are sitting in the front or their back, already have their noses turned up at the screen. There are also a noticeable number of Dr. Gonzo impersonators. They aren’t wearing the costume, just acting the part. An old mean looking mother fucker in a tweed jacket and a fedora hat asks if he can pass out of the aisle. I try to give him a reassuring “Oh sure” but before my lips can even utter the “h,” his face morphs into a crude pit bull turning his profile shot into a possessed McGruff. He barks back “Look, I’m not trying to attack you! I’m just trying to get through!” as angry dog spittle slaps against my cheek. He stomps past me into the aisle in search of fresh meat to gnaw on and drown with a blood chaser in bile filled stomach. I’ve seen his type a hundred times before. Some angry guy too bored and uninspired to come up with his own style and too lazy to do anything about it spits out someone else’s style but only does it with the anger and whiskey soaked mayhem and without remembering to add the insight that always comes before the insanity. These people are the kind of deluded freaks who make up this upper class downtown scene, people who copy and paste other people’s designs into their own spiritual inbox. They would act, sound and smell like the filthiest swine if he owned an overpriced sushi restaurant.

It’s even worse in the bars and restaurants. All I need is a quiet place to sit and write my reviews when the bar’s designated drunk saddles up next to me and wants to chat about the cosmos, the stars and the meaning of the universe. I sit down at the bar of a seafood restaurant in West End (every movie theater in the festival was located right smack dab in the middle of a yuppie shopping mall), plug in my computer and just want to work and watch the North Carolina-Louisville Final Four game in between sips of Shiner Boch and thoughts about the movies I’ve just seen. The designated drunk spots my computer and immediately wants to read what I’m writing. She sees the name “Hunter S. Thompson” and her id goes ape-shit on me.

“Oh Hunter S. Thompson, that’s so true,” she said while trying to order a naked tequila shot, whatever the hell that is. “He blew his brains out because he was too busy trying to live up to his image, but that’s the way he should have gone. You know he’s just like Johnny Knoxville. Did you know he broke his pee-hole? He probably lost his whole dick, if you ask me.”

The bartender keeps asking me if he wants me to throw her out and keeps trying to play defense for me because I’m too timid and tired to tell her to fuck off. She couldn’t take a hint if you beat her over the head with it. Eventually, she leaves and wanders out into the street, another poser in a town where imitation is flattery but hardly sincere.

The bartender gives me another Shiner. This one’s on the house for putting up with her.

“She’s the story,” I tell him.

“I hope she’s not driving,” I think to myself. “Not in this town.”

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