Rainn Wilson isn’t high on the list of spokespeople for the independent film community, but his comments on the red carpet for “The Rocker,” a forgettable heavy metal spoof in which he stars that opened the CineVegas Film Festival on Thursday, laid the groundwork for the specific nature of the gathering. “I’ve got a couple of indie projects brewing,” he said, shortly after fielding questions about “Transformers 2” and his central role on a certain NBC program. “What I like to do is go to the studio film to make a big splash, have a lot of fun on a big budget movie, and then do more personal work for the love independent film.”
If there’s something perplexing about a mainstream performer of Wilson’s stature professing his small scale interests, it fits the setting: CineVegas, celebrating its tenth year with a steady turnout and lively festivities to accompany the program, hosts one of the strangest big budget showcases of American independent filmmaking this side of Sundance.
It’s less a matter of quality than ingenuity, and ultimately an object of wonder and excitement precisely because of that. Screening at a multiplex theater in the heart of a 24-hour casino, the Jackpot Premieres section contains seven utterly distinct applications of film form, creating a slapdash portrait of cinematic ambitions with the furious bold strokes of a Ralph Steadman portrait. The potent mixture mainly owes its existence to the shrewd outlook of CineVegas’ Artistic Director, Trevor Groth. A veteran programmer for the Sundance Film Festival, Groth took on a second job when CineVegas hired him in 2001, following the festival’s two year lapse on the calendar. As Groth and his team made plans to move CineVegas to its current home at the Palms Casino Resort, the season suddenly got crowded. The Tribeca Film Festival was born, announcing its April slot, while the Los Angeles Film Festival moved to June. As a result, Groth had to get creative with his premiere choices.
“We’re all competing for films,” he said in a recent interview. “That premiere game we all play, it’s not something I enjoy. I would love to show every film we want to show…but the reality is, to get press to come cover the festival and get industry to pay attention, you do have to have a few premieres.” Due to the narrow options caused by the density of the festival circuit, Groth chooses a mixture of weird, challenging titles for a curious local audience. “They’re not these hardcore cinephiles who come to festivals, but they’re open to anything,” he explained. “They’ve seen it all, so the crazier the better. That works well for my programming agenda. I like to program films that shake things up a bit, and push the boundaries of storytelling in ways they haven’t seen before.”
On that level, consider the mission accomplished. The off-beat program basically breaks down into two extremes, represented on one end by “Your Name Here,” the outlandishly nonsensical interpretation of science fiction writer Phillip K. Dick‘s loony mindset, and, on the other, “She Unfolds by Day,” Rolf Belgum‘s expressionistic look at his mother’s encroaching senility. Neither film is a perfect work of art, but their unconventional hooks leave memorably unique impressions.
Directed by Matthew Wilder, “Your Name Here” stars Bill Pullman as William J. Fricke (loosely based on Dick), a drug-addled scribe wandering through his abstract creations on an incessantly beguiling mindtrip. Never the sum of its parts, the movie — which you could retitle “Naked Lunch Lite” — moves along with goofy eccentricity, providing such an alluring aesthetic of strangeness that its potential for a cult following belongs in its contract. “She Unfolds by Day,” meanwhile, takes a softly lyrical approach to the cycles of life. Belgum initially began making a documentary about his dog and the interesting variety of insect life living in his backyard, but he eventually built it into the story of an elderly woman whose vain attempts to maintain her independence when the faced with the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s constantly plague her lonely middle aged son (Christopher Wells).
The flat video format works against Belgum’s poetic aspirations, but his editing strategy is a marvel to behold: Imitating the redundancy of a downtrodden existence — and juxtaposing it with cutaways to beautiful creatures — he adopts a compelling cyclical structure, repeating events to create an enticing portrait of unrest. “The film tries to pay homage to this grey area of getting older,” Belgum said after the film premiered to an appreciative audience. “I wanted to induce this sense of being caught in a loop.”
Outside of the opposing styles of “Name” and “Day,” a real mindfuck of a movie called “South of Heaven” endeavors to adopt the pulp noir techniques of David Lynch, or the Coen brothers, or whatever self-reflexive auteur is most convenient for this eruption of southern-fried pastiche — a road trip crime drama about kidnapping, disfiguration and gloriously colorful set designs. For all the oddities of its construction, “Heaven” has a fairly basic plot, but it’s still a bizarre object of filmic glee with limited appeal. In other words, a bonafide CineVegas movie. “It’s really encouraging to see these films play well here,” Groth said, which is an accurate statement when you consider that many of them won’t play well anywhere else. Not that it matters; at CineVegas, audiences place all their bets on adventurous cinema, and the results are appropriately far-out.
[Eric Kohn will have a second dispatch from CineVegas on indieWIRE later this week.]