FESTIVAL: Siegfried, Roy, and Indie Films; CineVegas a Worthy Addition to the Strip
by Scott Foundas
(indieWIRE: 06.20.02) -- What if they gave a film festival and nobody came? It's every upstart festival director's nightmare, but no doubt a particularly prescient one for 28-year-old Mimosa Jones in her freshman year as the head of the CineVegas Film Festival, which ran June 7-15. This is Vegas after all, where the "entertainment" hits you as forcefully as the dry desert heat from the second you step off the plane. Charo's got a show on, don't you know, and you can catch The Amazing Kreskin if you like. Need I remind you that there's Siegfried and Roy and Cirque du Soleil too? But the distractions don't end there. There is legal gambling, and more toned, tucked, and otherwise enhanced flesh per square inch than perhaps even South Beach. Is there room or need for a film festival in a city that so proudly (or, rather, unabashedly) considers itself the "entertainment capital of the world"?
Vegas doesn't lack luster -- you could go blind from the neon alone -- but culture or anything vaguely resembling art is another matter. (The Guggenheim is here now, but is Vegas really ready for Matthew Barney?) Long ago, the venerable "Sin City" image was traded for something softer and more family-friendly, so that it is hardly uncommon to now see hordes of infant-and-toddler-tethered families parading up and down the strip. (This is "the new Las Vegas," a la "the new Times Square.") The city has become more Disney-ized than Disneyland itself and, perhaps not surprisingly, the Vegas suburbs have become one of the fastest growing residential communities in the country (so much so that there are now discussions about how to slow growth down).
Yet, these are hardly encouraging signs for those who would seek to develop a major film festival here; in some ways, the idea is as grand a folly as Vegas itself once seemed. Certainly, in its first three years, CineVegas barely registered as a blip on the film festival radar screen. So, with an entirely new management team in place and an aggressive marketing campaign -- there were more print ads in the L.A. papers than there are for most of the festivals that take place in L.A. -- CineVegas 2002 was all about new beginnings, well before the first film ever unspooled. And even though I was only able to experience the first three days of this nine-day affair, I'm happy to report that its makers might just be on to something.
"I just sort of wiped the slate clean and started fresh," CineVegas programming director (and Sundance vet) Trevor Groth told me by phone a few days before the festival's kickoff. Groth was downright giddy and, as he went described the festival program, sounded closer to a fashion maven introducing his spring line than he did Geoff Gilmore. "I wanted to make this a splashy, sexy, young festival that would feed off the energy of the town and the people here," he enthused.
Well, John Sayles' "Sunshine State," this year's opening night film, will fail to strike most as splashy or sexy or even particularly young; it's very subject is the ebbing tide of history, eroding memory like so much beach sand on a Florida shore. But for all its deliberate pacing and typically Sayles-ian disregard for finessed visual style, "Sunshine State" is a thrill -- one of the best written, best acted, smartest American films you're likely to see this year (the film is now in general release from Sony Classics) and, without doubt, the best Victor Nunez movie Victor Nunez never made.
So, CineVegas was off to a promising start and that momentum only gained force on day two, with the world premiere of Michael Almereyda's "Happy Here and Now." This chronicle of a disappearance, worthy of Antonioni, is the first movie I've seen that fully grasps the potential significance of the Internet era -- the way the online world feeds our insecurities, the way we might come to rely on cyberspace to define who we are. Watching Almereyda's brilliant, personalized take on "Hamlet" two years ago, it seemed perfectly conceivable that the director had found the ideal cinematic vessel to express his angst-ridden, anarchic worldview. The merging of form and content in that film was exhilarating to behold, and there was no reason to think that Almereyda could better it. Yet, in "Happy Here and Now," he does just that.
Not nearly enough festivalgoers saw "Happy Here and Now," likely because the film's first showing had to compete with the running of the Belmont Stakes and the early moments of the Tyson-Lewis fight card, which, this being Vegas, could be viewed and gambled on not 10 feet away from the festival's main screening venue. But by the time Don Coscarelli's "Bubba Ho-Tep" premiered the next night, with Coscarelli and star Bruce Campbell in person, CineVegas seemed to have pulled off something fairly significant: a sold-out screening of a low-budget horror-comedy from the impresario behind the "Phantasm" and "Beastmaster" franchises. No matter that the Lakers were playing the Nets in the penultimate game of the NBA Finals at that very moment.
Make no mistake, Campbell (and not Coscarelli) was the star attraction here, mobbed by throngs of fans seeking autographs on various pieces of "Evil Dead" memorabilia and, in one case, a $100 bill. But the real, unexpected pleasure was "Bubba Ho-Tep" itself, which involves Elvis, JFK, and an ancient Egyptian mummy and somehow manages to be more entertaining than just about any movie that has ever dealt with any one or combination of the three.
So, in its "first" year (as Groth and Jones kept referring to it), CineVegas had produced two real discoveries, thereby servicing the ideal purpose of any festival: to showcase outside-the-box cinema that we might otherwise have a tough time seeing. "Happy Here and Now" and "Bubba Ho-Tep" could hardly be more different from one another, but there's something similar about the way they both straddle genre lines, falling between the cracks where marketable forms of "mainstream entertainment" are concerned.
CineVegas also provided a home for a number of worthy films that had already started their festival lives elsewhere: Christopher Scott Cherot's "G," with its free-form reinvention of "The Great Gatsby" that is in some ways as radical as Almereyda's "Hamlet"; John Hyams' exception documentary "The Specimen," which gives us a headlong rush into the world of no-holds-barred extreme championship fighting; and Sundance breakouts "Tadpole" and "The Cockettes." Then, direct from Cannes, there was Michael Winterbottom's "24 Hour Party People," which is not just further proof of the young writer-director's boundless versatility, but also -- with its handheld, digital-video intensity and smirking postmodern asides -- the most purely exhilarating movie Winterbottom has made since "Welcome to Sarajevo."
Among other, smaller pleasures permeating the CineVegas lineup: an eclectic midnight-movie series (even though the screenings actually started at 10:00) -- way-out-there even by the standards of other festivals' midnight programming. This included James Fotopoulos' harrowing "Back Against the Wall," which turns the seediness and grime of broken-down, back-alley lives into a kind of raison-d'etre, and Takashi Miike's "Visitor Q," which gives us a prolonged sex scene between a father and his teenage prostitute daughter, a bullied teenage boy who violently beats his mother with a wicker bat and what just might be the funniest necrophilia scene the movies have ever give us (admittedly, it's a small competitive field). "Visitor Q" is enough to make its maker's own "Audition," released here last year, seem hardly stomach-churning by comparison.
Not bad for three days' work. In fact, the only really middling films I happened upon at CineVegas were among the ones that went on to cop the festival's competitive awards: Peter CB Masterson's undernourished road movie "West of Here" (audience award for best feature) and Wendall Adams' amusing but very slight "Draftdodging" (honorable mention from a special "Critics' Jury" comprised of Anne Thompson, Emanuel Levy, and the ubiquitous Harry Knowles). And CineVegas would continue, after my own departure, with a bevy of special events and celebrity appearances, including an all-star blackjack tournament (Dustin Hoffman's wife was the winner) and a series of informal "coffee talks" moderated by critic Elvis Mitchell.
Placed alongside other new and/or reinvented festivals, such as the Tribeca and the IFP/West Los Angeles fests (opening today), CineVegas definitely stood on sturdier legs, holding out the promise of even better things to come. Could it be that the encompassing, defining film festival L.A. has long been looking for (and which was just the subject of a cover story in the Sunday Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times) will end up in not in L.A. at all, but in L.V.? Is it possible, in the post-Sundance era, for another American festival to capture the zeitgeist in quite that same way? "Undoubtedly, it's a tough act to follow, but I'm the eternal optimist," says Jones. "I certainly wouldn't have taken on the challenge of turning around this festival in 14 months if I didn't think that we could grow into a very well-respected national and international festival."
Formidable words indeed, but ones that the formidable Ms. Jones might just be able to live up to. For it would be wrong to close out without first saying a few words about Mimosa, who is so much more than just a great name paired with an ideal event.With her triple-threat combination of beauty, smarts and youth, Jones is the brains and brawn of CineVegas all rolled into one. Indeed, watching her sashay across the stage at the opening-night party, juggling all of the marvelous contradictions of a festival seeking to be down-home in that most transparent of American cities, may have been the weekend's most stunning displays of cinematic showmanship.