Festival Files: Dallas VideoFest30, Dispatch #1- ‘Hedy Lamarr’ and ‘Bad Ass Beauty Queen’

In a bit of radical re-programming, Dallas VideoFest, which remains the city’s longest running film event, is championing the idea that should be prevalent at all festivals: it’s the films that matter.

Splitting up the event over the course of two months — DocFest now, narrative films in November — this year’s 30th installment has carefully manicured 16 documentary features that will play back-to-back in the same theater. Not only does this schedule eliminate the hair-pulling task of having to choose one film over another, but, more importantly, it ingrains a strong sense of community within its festival goers, who can watch, digest, argue and bond over four days of shared cinematic contagion.

Developing themes within each day’s block of films, Friday night’s overlapping idea included “Films About Films, Filmmakers and Actors.” And even though Alexandra Dean’s film Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is ostensibly about the life and career of the gorgeous, taboo-breaking beauty Hedy Lamarr, its winding path of information reveals the actress was far more than her resplendent screen presence.

Genius. Maverick. Inventor. Feminist pioneer. All of these descriptors apply to Lamarr. From her days of “walking into a room and having the whole room stop and stare” to a dilapidated, hermit lifestyle (and the butt of jokes from the likes of Mel Brooks and Andy Warhol on film), Dean’s effort portrays the actress as a complicated and conflicted character.

Breezing through six marriages that would have Freud jealous of the possible implications of father-abandonment issues, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story goes far beyond salacious Hollywood biography. Yes, there are those tidbits too. But did you know she created the idea of “frequency hopping” that informs the basic principles of wi-fi, bluetooth and GPS manufacturing today? Probably not, since the United States Navy shoved it aside and never gave the proper acknowledgement of this technology borne from someone as untrained as a beautiful Viennese-to-Hollywood transplant actress.

Taking as her cue the kinetic, wandering documentary style of films like Asif Kapadia’s Amy (2015, about singer Amy Winehouse), director Dean told me that Lamarr’s story was never meant to be a simple history lesson. Fluidly crafted from a voracious cache of home movies, film clips, still photos, family interviews and four cassette-taped interviews conducted with Lamarr in the late 80’s that, once found stashed away in the garage of the magazine article’s writer, caused Dean to scrap six months worth of editing, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story fascinates the longer it runs in part because of so much archival information.

Watching Lamarr saunter around in White Cargo (1942) or attempt to explain away her celluloid burning charisma in Ecstasy (1933) as naivete on the part of her young age and directorial manipulation, Lamarr clearly was a woman who understood how to use her powers of beauty early on. But what’s fascinating about Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is the emerging paean to a screen goddess whose outer beauty was overshadowed only by her inner intelligence.

 

The second headstrong woman of the night, Anastasia Lin, gets anointed as BadAss Beauty Queen in Theresa Kowell-Shipp’s documentary about the Chinese-Canadian beauty queen, who has used her instant beauty/fame to speak out against the atrocities of the Chinese government since the mid-60’s and the Cultural Revolution purges.

In doing so, she not only challenges the regime back home where her father, unfortunately, still works and lives, but spotlights the knotty relationships that exist between world governments and the sponsorship of something as innocuous as a beauty pageant.

Lin is revealed to be a redoubtable woman of resolve who understands how to play to the camera (like Lamarr) but BadAss Beauty Queen is hampered by portions that tell us more through inter-titles rather than allowing Lin’s actions to speak for themselves. The film also builds towards a cathartic release of empowerment that doesn’t quite reverberate as the credits roll.

Billed as its world premiere, Shipp’s abbreviated film (running 60 minutes) feels more like a rough outline than a full-fledged expose.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story will open in New York and Los Angeles in December 2017. 

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