I feel it’s necessary to preface this review with the fact that I have never seen an episode of Dallas, nor know anything of the show past ‘Who shot J.R.?’ and the whole ‘it was all a dream’ debacle. Frankly, one doesn’t even need to know this much to become enraptured by the strangest of films, Hotel Dallas. The film is pitched as ‘[a] surreal docudrama about how Dallas influenced the lives of … ordinary Romanians’, with surreal being the word of the day here. Livia Ungur & Sherng-Lee Huang’s short feature (clocking in at only 75 minutes) is perhaps the most bizarre film you’ll have encountered for a long while, mixing documentary, fiction, interviews, narration, and recreation, with hints of German Expressionism, and even a lingering feeling of playing a video game throughout; and yes, Dallas still plays a core role in all of this.
The film opens on a tour of the Dallas set, which gets drowned out by an Eastern European song, setting up one of the film’s key themes – the impact this 80s soap opera had on the people of Romania. As this fades away, we are greeted at the Hotel Dallas by a fictionalised version of Livia Ungur in a style reminiscent of say, Zork Nemesis, a fairly old video game told from the first person in which your character’s voice always bizarrely came from behind you. We’re introduced to the ‘J.R. of Romania’ through song. An extreme close up of his face fills the screen, and just as he’s about to sing, the background noise cuts dead and is replaced with a cavernous silence. When the ballad does begin, it’s not being sung where we’re watching it, but sounds as though from a church, all of which while we see an elderly figure stand in various parts of the hotel serenading us. It’s all very weird stuff.
“It is hilarious at times, nihilistic at others, and charming more often than not”
One of the styles of cinema used throughout Hotel Dallas is recreation, which is done using children dressed in what I imagine was the youth uniform during Ceausescu’s reign. The director recreates various scenes from Dallas in black and white, with these children, and it somehow fits perfectly into the style of the feature. Weaving itself in with the main narrative of Mr. Here (played by Patrick Duffy, and sort of the audience), these recreations also deal with Romania’s history, and Ceausescu’s execution is one of several scenes reimagined with the young actors.
The film discusses philosophy, the cyclical nature of time and history, our perspectives on the world, but it never stretches so far into the realm of pretention as to put you off. The film is certainly pretentious, there’s no hiding that, but it is half the charm of the production. One scene of particular note is your trip to Bucharest in a cardboard box that contains a pastry. Somehow we all fit into it. A small hole is cut so the journey is not so bleak, but this creates a camera obscura effect, allowing us to see the world upside down as we travel. Lighting a cigarette, Livia watches a film of an artist in New York who works on a front desk; the story is typically arthouse, but intriguingly enjoyable. She later declares that ‘everyone is an artist in New York’.
Hotel Dallas is a film that requires a certain attention span to even attempt to understand it. I’m not going to sit here and say that I did understand it entirely, I feel it requires at least another four viewings before I get close, but I would happily entertain this possibility. The film grants you enough of an insight to grasp what it’s trying to say, but refuses to guide you there. It is hilarious at times, nihilistic at others, and charming more often than not; Hotel Dallas will likely not reach a large audience, or make any real money – this is certainly not it’s point – but for those who do manage to find it, fans of Dallas or not, it will leave a lasting impression.
Image: Livia Ungur, Sherng-Lee Huang