“Hotel Dallas,” a fantasy-laden documentary by Livia Ungur and Sherng-Lee Huang, is made for that strange intersection of Cold War buffs and fans of “Dallas,” an American soap opera about a wealthy Texan oil family that ran throughout the ’80s. The show had been broadcast in state socialist-era Romania because its autocratic ruler, Nicolae Ceaușescu, had hoped to use its melodrama to propagandize the harms of capitalism. The plot backfired, as Romanians grew to watch the show in admiration; the wealth of the fictional Ewing family proved too tantalizing for state socialism’s restrictions and the wide viewership hastened the regime’s collapse.
Ungur and Huang’s documentary revisits Romania to explore how the TV series shaped the country’s fabric. Narrating and participating in much of the film is Ungur, a Romanian, alongside Patrick Duffy, who played Bobby Ewing (the righteous, handsome brother to ruthless baron J.R.) in the television show, though for a non-viewer of the show like myself, that fact isn’t entirely clear. As Duffy meanders through Romania, Ungur longs for an artists’ life in New York, while sporting the denim clothes and cowboy hat her viewership of “Dallas” has precipitated.
“Hotel Dallas” begins with a set tour of the show, noting that the rodeo ring built for the hundredth episode is only a third of the size of a standard one, but with wide anamorphic lenses, the space appears larger. This may be a determinative metaphor for the film — “Dallas” had an outsized impact on Romanian society in a way none of its producers or its American consumers could have ever imagined. After Ceaușescu was deposed in 1989, Romanian private enterprise exploded; many of its leaders adopted J.R. Ewing’s cowboy aesthetic to build credibility in the eyes of Romanian customers. One such baron is a Mr. Ilie, “the Sunflower King of Slobozia,” who built a replica of the Ewing estate, Southfork, as well as a replica of the Eiffel Tower. It’s all a bit ridiculous, especially as Ilie, in his Kool-Aid red-colored aviator sunglasses, sings an extended folk song to explain his riches.
Ungur and Huang also take care to recreate scenes from fictional and actual history (with children) — the television show’s famous sequences and Ceaușescu’s execution — to continue a trend that has been proliferating among recent documentaries. The reenactments join “The Look of Silence” and “The Wolfpack.” I’m not as convinced by the appeal of this brand of filmmaking. The reenactments are sometimes cute and sometimes strange, but never quite leave an impact that this TV show meant something to all Romanians, past and present, in a way a talking head interview would. That being said, some sequences are delightful to watch, including a reenacted scene in which Bobby dies and calls out, “Don’t move to the countryside. The future is rapid urbanization,” over a sorrowful requiem.
After about 30 minutes, the film begins to trail with a full-throated discussion of space and time. The importance is clear: that “Dallas,” a uniquely American soap opera could have such meaning in a country like Romania and would foreshadow its transformation, is a clear example of this collapsing of space and time. But must it be literally debated and explained by dining Romanian philosophers? Or must we witness Ungur be placed inside a box by her mother, transporting a bread to her cousin? These sequences seem pointless, and at the very least over the top. Still, an extended sequence as Ungur sits in the box, illuminated by a camera obscura telling the story of a New York artist remains one of the most stunning natural cinematic effects I’ve ever seen; Ungur looks to physically exist in the theater, her curled body seemingly popping off the screen.
Immediately preceding the film was a six-minute short film, “La Madra Buena,” directed by Sarah Clift. It was bright and fun, a brief tale of a mother searching far and wide to fulfill her son’s birthday wish: a Trump piñata. The film is incredibly timely, given the President’s calls for strict border security, especially with our southern neighbor, and contains a plethora of wonderful visual gags. It may not be a treat to everyone (though in an Ann Arbor theater crowd it received an overwhelmingly warm welcome), but the dreariness imparted by the pouring rain outside has no cure like good ‘ole political bashing.