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DIFF Opening Night: Art and Commerce
by Stephen Becker 13 Apr 2012

Before the first film rolled, it was time to get down to business.

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It only makes sense that festivals take on the character of their cities. South by Southwest is about as laid back as it gets. Folks at the Toronto International Film Festival are as friendly as can be (they’re Canadians – they can’t help it). And here in Dallas, we’ve got our mind on our money and our money on our mind. This town was built on big business, and that industrial and entrepreneurial spirit runs in our veins.

I mention all of this because it was on display in a big way at the Majestic Theater on opening night of the sixth edition of the Dallas International Film Festival.

Lee Papert, the President and CEO of the Dallas Film Society, was first to the podium and set the tone for the night.

“It’s important to be able to see film not only as art but as business for this great city,” he said. And the link between the two was clearly laid out. Any festival with half a brain is wise to keep its sponsors happy, and DIFF certainly excels in that department. Presenting sponsor Boardwalk Auto Group received plenty of love in the bumper that ran before the film as well as from the podium. So much so that when Boardwalk owner Scott Ginsburg came to the podium, he wisely kept it brief, asking, “What do you want to listen to a car dealer for?”

This year’s festival is dedicated to Lee Roy and Tandy Mitchell, the founders of the Cinemark theater chain. These are clearly folks with skins on the wall in the movie biz, and it was cute to hear about how early on Mr. Mitchell planned his Christmas spending on the kiddos based on how James Dean and Elvis Presley did that year at the box office. But I think we could have done without the Cinemark informercial masquerading as a tribute.

Leave it to the mayor to pull it all together. Mike Rawlings gamely – and somewhat shockingly – admitted to the crowd that the first movie he saw was Romeo and Juliet – when he was a senior in high school. “I learned about Shakespeare and topless women in one night,” he said.

He illicited hardy cheers when he talked about the importance of making Dallas a center of film production.

“I’m a business man by heart, and we can make money by doing film in Dallas,” he said (applause). “We must lobby in Texas to make sure we’re competitive with these second-tier states around us,” (big applause, with hoots and hollering).

After about half an hour or so of the business of film, it was on to the actual film. And it was worth the wait. Liberal Arts served as the opening night offering and proved to be a perfect selection. If there’s one thing you want in an opening night film, it’s a crowd-pleaser. Nothing to heavy and something to get the event off to a hopeful start.

Liberal Arts is the rare romantic comedy with big things on its mind. It stars (and was written and directed by) Josh Radnor, who plays a 35-year-old man invited back to his college campus to help send off a beloved professor. His age is important because during his visit he meets Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a sophomore who’s mature for her age and intrigued by her older friend.

What follows is a medidation (with laughs!) about how matching ages might not be important in a relationship, but matching maturities are. As Radnor schools his college newby, he’s in turn schooled by a couple of former professors (the great Richard Jenkins and Allison Janney), bringing the idea of the teacher-as-student (as teacher) full circle. Along the way, literature and music provide a backdrop for big life discussions.

Judging by the many laughs and applause at the end, the crowd seemed to dig it. And since the film was just 97 minutes long, it was done just before 10 p.m. – a.k.a. party time. Everyone headed over to The Pads a few blocks away for eats, drinks and beats.

All in all, it was a promising start to the festival’s 11-day run.

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