"I think we found our audience by the end," said Josh Fox, director of the fiercely controversial feature "Memorial Day," which premiered last week at the CineVegas Film Festival. It was an apt summary of a prevailing sentiment for many filmmakers in town for the event, which showcased a variety of audacious films that would probably get buried at the country's larger festivals. For Fox, the statement merely reflected the small crowd left in the theater for the Q&A, which followed a screening plagued by a wave of walk-outs during its first hour.
It's not that their reactions came as a surprise: "Memorial Day" spends a long time in the company of a queasily explicit group of twentysomethings engaging in grossly hedonistic party behavior on a beach near an army base in Maryland -- their drunken, horny revelry captured in lo-fi home video with the sort of shaky-cam maneuvers that have grown into a code word telling viewers to read between the lines. After awhile, however, "Memorial Day" does that for you, as the scene gradually switches to Abu Ghraib, where the same reckless characters apply their brutish tendencies to Iraqi prisoners in ways that the American public now knows too well. Whether or not the transition works or reveals frustratingly obvious intentions is tough to determine, but there certainly were fewer walkouts during the topical second half. Fox leads a theater troupe in New York called the International Wow Company, and "Memorial Day" seems like a kind of brash performance art testing out how much one audience can take.
As it turned out, his initial assessment of the room was something of a misnomer, since many of the remaining viewers quickly took Fox to task for downgrading the Abu Ghraib scenario to a simplistic reading. (He claimed that the soldiers mistreated prisoners because they thought it was "fun," and left it at that.) Still, it's possible that Fox -- a native Manhattanite whose sheltered New York background was overly stressed in the Q&A -- doesn't comprehend the nature of his creation. "Memorial Day" has a mesmerizing hook that unavoidably provokes dialogue about the disingenuousness of the "bad apples" rubric set forth by the American government.
At the same time, it's difficult to recommend. While the film firmly situates Abu Ghraib within the larger context of humanity's destructive tendencies, you have to sift through a lot of unnecessary ugliness to find that conclusion. ("A cousin of 'Full Metal Jacket'," suggested Variety's Robert Koehler after the screening. "A digital verite indictment of the generational nihilism bred by "Girls Gone Wild," "The Real World" and popular culture's general evasion of moral consequence," concluded Spout's Karina Longworth. ) Either way, it's hard to deny the impact it has on viewers willing to stick around. Where Brian De Palma's "Redacted" was intellectually flaccid, "Memorial Day" has a raging boner for the motivations behind Abu Ghraib. "I think there's a searing energy running through the core of America that has no place to go," Fox said, but couldn't really explain it -- and neither could his cast ("We all think torture is bad," said one). If the "Memorial Day" gang doesn't try to understand their characters, it suggests that they reflect them -- and that makes the movie a symptom of the national disease it seeks to diagnose.
Whatever its fate beyond the festival circuit, "Memorial Day" surely fits with the other unlikely narratives screening in the middle of this strange neon desert, where you'll find nary a derivative concept (with few exceptions). With short films about underground cinema and the Weather Underground and movies with imperceptible or non-existent stories, CineVegas hosts a marriage of wacky sensibilities and out-of-wack formalism. "The Juche Idea," a hilarious exploration of North Korean perspectives on artistic expression -- specifically those about film -- manages to portray a national mindset far more effectively (and thoughtfully) than "Memorial Day." Upstate New York video artist Jim Finn pulls together an absurd collection of Korean media, spoofing propaganda by pretending to embrace it. Delightfully nonlinear, "The Juche Idea" has the kind of outsider perspective that avant-garde lovers will find delectable.
Although not the only cultural collage at CineVegas, it's definitely the only one to work so well on its on own terms; "Dark Streets," a sprawling look at 1930's-era New Orleans with a backdrop that suggests film noir heaven, operates on a visually scrumptious axis without ever fully becoming much of a movie. The plot follows a dashing young nightclub owner whose familial connection to local crime leads him down a hazardous path. You can read it as a parable for the unheralded destructiveness of Hurricane Katrina, but there's not enough density to the story for that metaphor to go very far.
The film features a great cast of singers (including Bijou Phillips) and a bangin' blues score by BB King, among others, but it could've used some Busby Berkeley inspiration to spice up the uninteresting dance sequences. The musical numbers don't figure into the rest of the film or inform the characters, but "Dark Streets" remains a wonder to behold, much like the outdoor concert that followed its premiere. (Fancy packaging helps a lot at CineVegas: The first episode of "Planting the Seeds," an animated series by veteran Japanese artist Takashi Murikami, must be seen as one of his lesser accomplishments, but projected onto a gigantic waterfall at the Wyn Casino during one of the festival's special events, it took on greater significance.)
Of course, a superior experience to hearing artists outside is the company of outsider artists. You can find that lovingly portrayed throughout "Beautiful Losers," Aaron Rose's solid collection of interviews with independent creators like Harmony Korine and Mike Mills talking about the relationship between social displacement and their trade. Hardly of the same filmmaking caliber, Abel Ferrara's amusing documentary "Chelsea on the Rocks" (making its U.S. premiere after showing up at Cannes) explores the eccentric personalities -- including Ferrara himself -- living in New York's Chelsea Hotel. Ferrara can't interview his subjects without injecting an expletive or two after every other word, and the film is so shoddily constructed that it reflects his infamously crazy personality. All of that makes it essential viewing for Ferrara fans, not to mention anyone interested in the idea that old school New York bohemia is currently enduring its desperate final gasp.
"Hi, My Name is Ryan" also deals with a struggling pariah, but it's far more streamlined than the two previously mentioned docs. Telling the story of young Ryan Avery, an oversized teenager whose personal struggles lead him to become a strange sort of star in Phoenix's underground art scene, directors Paul Eagelston and Stephen Rose recognize that the real miracle of Avery's story isn't his questionable talents, but the way his community embraces him. Avery makes for a great subject (A young Andy Kaufman? A vile Daniel Johnston? Both?), but the climax -- which takes a page from the "New York Doll" playbook -- isn't properly established. However, "Ryan" maintains an enjoyably off-kilter rhythm that leads to a competent chunk of entertainment.
A running gag in "Ryan" finds the owner of club where Avery performs constantly at odds with the rising star, pointlessly complaining about a rivalry that doesn't quite exist. The owner recalls the villain in "King of Kong," but it's not the only movie here that begs such a comparison. If "King of Kong" helped establish a new genre of fringe sport documentaries, "The Last Cup: Road to the World Series of Beer Pong" falls into that category with ease -- which is to say, nothing but foam. An overview of the biggest beer pong tournament in the country, the film taps into a surprisingly touching aspect of America's ugly frat boy stereotype, finding that even the unmotivated college student can become passionate about something (notwithstanding that booze guzzling doesn't suggest a particularly meritorious drive). "Last Cup" needs no complicated argument in its favor, but the film is disarmingly smart without becoming intellectual, and the breezy feel works to its advantage.
Early in the festival, a colleague suggested that any film with gambling in it automatically makes it into CineVegas' line-up (and the competition for the grand prize money in "Last Cup" relates a similar impulse). If that's true, a movie like "Lost in the Fog," which recalls the story of the titular race horse and its shocking bout with cancer, might be the best the result of this alleged criteria for acceptance. Building on his television background, first time director John Corey uses a simple verite approach, so that even when the film moves slowly, it maintains a gradually compelling pace that horse race fanatics surely understand better than the rest of us. Corey combines his knowledge of the setting with a patient eye and, of course, a lot of horse racing.
More than "Lost in the Fog," the documentary "Where I Stand," a comprehensive recap of historically influential Las Vegas newspaper publisher Hank Greenspun, not only fits the locale -- it's one of the best films at the festival, period. Narrated by Anthony Hopkins, the movie tracks the late Greenspun's early days on the strip, when he outed gangsters like Bugsy Siegel (who later hired him as a publicist) in his local column; his ability to smuggle weapons to the Haganah and thus help establish the state of Israel; the way his own possessions became a target of the government forces involved in the Watergate scandal; and his amazing face-off with Joseph McCarthy.
We learn about all of this in the movie's first hour; I won't spoil the second for newcomers to Greenspun's life, because this one truly deserves an audience (and makes a perfect case for a big budget Hollywood biopic). Director Scott Goldstein uses atmospheric music and a wide collection of interviews to revisit Greenspun's accomplishments, proving that, when interviewee calls him "the published conscience of Las Vegas," it doesn't qualify as hyperbole. Greenspun took a corrective stance to a town dominated by vapid commodities. Likewise, with its collection of small films usually inaccessible to public audiences, CineVegas fits that description as well.