HOT DOCS 2016: “HOTEL DALLAS”
The long running nighttime melodrama DALLAS wasn’t just a cultural touchstone for Western audiences, who turned up in droves for much of its fourteen-season run. It was, strangely enough, also wildly popular and surprisingly influential during Romania’s dark communist years, when the country was under the rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu. At this time, only three shows were permitted to air; two were state-run, and the other was the highly stylized and over the top DALLAS. Ceaușescu and his government believed that DALLAS’ revelry in excess exposed the evils of capitalism, but instead it captured the hearts and minds of the country. It certainly had an effect on Romanian born filmmaker Livia Ungur who is drawn to the way DALLAS influenced, and sometimes paralleled, life in Romania.
Co-written and directed with Unger’s American born husband Sherng –Lee Huang, HOTEL DALLAS is an extremely quirky docudrama. Following some traditional beats with the typical talking head style of documentary presentation, the movie also gracefully interweaves children recreating scenes from DALLAS (Bobby Ewing’s “death” and “rebirth” play heavily into the film), as well as fictitious mind-melting (backwards) time traveling segments featuring Patrick Duffy, who may be reprising his role as Bobby Ewing, although he’s referred to as Mr. Here. With much of Duffy’s story shot from his POV, he is heard mostly in voice overs as he follows Ungur (playing a younger version of herself) to what is referred to as the Endless Column (it is really a sculptural ensemble created by Constantin Brancusi to honor the Romanian heroes of World War I, and which also bizarrely evokes images of DALLAS’ grand Ewing Oil building as it projects towards the heavens). It is at this column that Mr. Here can finally be reunited with his wife and resume life as it was.
But life for Bobby/Mr. Here can never return to normal because although the character continued on with his reel life after the notorious dream season of the series, DALLAS was never the same. This may also be said for Romania, which is still working through their own death and rebirth as they move towards a more Westernized way of living (for better or worse, which may be the lingering question posed by the filmmakers).
Sparked by the strange and haunting Hotel Dallas, which was built in the nineties after the fall of communism by ruthless businessman Ilie Alexandru (nicknamed the J.R. Ewing of Romania!), the filmmakers have created an odd, experimental movie that exists in a sort of fever-dream state, which is perhaps an overarching metaphor for the above referenced dream season of DALLAS, and its parallel to the “awakening” of Romania. The film is at once engrossing and aloof, offering no answers, but also not asking complete questions either. It is a sparkling oddity, and one that benefits greatly from Duffy’s mostly off-screen but looming presence, floating like a ghost of what once was and will (and perhaps should) never be again. A strange, trippy ride, HOTEL DALLAS is mystical and unique, and worth a look.
HOTEL DALLAS plays at Hot Docs on Friday May 6th at 8:45pm (TIFF Bell Lightbox). Tickets HERE.