FESTIVALS: It Only Hurts When You LAFF; L.A. Fest's Dramatic Films Pain Critic
by Scott Foundas
(indieWIRE/ 05.03.01) -- As I am writing this, there have already been more than a half-dozen film festivals held in the Los Angeles area since January and, just off the top of my head, there are at least a dozen more scheduled between now and year's end. There were the Santa Monica and Malibu festivals in February, Newport Beach in March, and the one-two punch of Dances with Films and The Method Fest on tap for June. All of which is to say nothing of the plethora of annual, ethnic film weeks -- Latino, Jewish, Swedish, Italian, Asian-American and French -- that will soon, or have already, come to town.
The predicament is hardly unique. Just about every major, ethnically diverse, culturally literate city has found itself giving birth to similarly proprietary, narrowly focused film events with the hopped-up vigor of rabbits on amphetamines. But unlike all of those cities, L.A. has yet to produce, in the wake of the long-defunct Filmex, a single film festival that can act as a suitably unifying core for these myriad fruits.
Not one of the above-mentioned fests -- despite their loyal, self-validating crowds of attendees -- registers as anything but a blip on the international film festival radar. (This is especially true of the one event -- AFI's Los Angeles International Film Festival -- that most aggressively claims these exact virtues.) So can it really come as a surprise that two of the most challenging and thought-provoking films I've seen this year -- Roy Andersson's "Songs From the Second Floor" and Bela Tarr's "Werckmeister Harmonies" -- have yet to play within 100 miles of the world's filmmaking capital?
Just last week, as the seventh edition of the IFP/West Los Angeles Film Festival (nee the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival) unspooled at the Director's Guild of America and adjacent Hollywood venues, another upstart -- the Beverly Hills Film Festival --showcased a strikingly similar program of low-budget American indies not 10 miles away. And while I only managed to make it to the former of these dueling fests, it hardly seemed a stretch to say that all this surreptitious name changing was more interesting than anything on any screen in town.
In fact, much as it did before it dropped the "Independent" from its title, the Los Angeles Film Festival impresses less as a vital assemblage of new cinematic voices and visions and more as a prefabricated networking opportunity for recent film-school grads and other self-appointed filmmaker types. The films themselves almost seem an afterthought. How else can you account for the ragged grouping of John Greyson's year-old festival workhorse "The Law of Enclosures," Sundance holdover "The Sleepy Time Gal" and a dozen or so zero-budget world premieres, all under the same, nondescript "dramatic features" umbrella?
And if the festival was notable for anything, it was for its flat refusal to produce a single film that might be considered a real "discovery." Unless, that is, you count Larry Fessenden's ingenious "Wendigo," which was advertised as a world premiere, despite having shown in a slightly different cut at Slamdance in January. (The primary difference: a few penultimate visual effects shots, tweaked by Fessenden.) No matter -- in any version, "Wendigo" is a sublime evocation of modern man at a three-way intersection of primal instinct, superstition and spirituality It's alternately tender and menacing in a way that turns most "horror" films inside-out, and it's smart enough about families to make "American Beauty" look like "The Family Circus."
A couple of other films put a mildly attractive varnish on moth-eaten, B-movie subgenres. The first, Tim McCann's "Revolution #9," is a sort-of Kafka/Cronenberg/"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" hybrid for the information age, taking the stock techno-paranoia of movies like "The Net" and "Enemy of the State" and deepening and personalizing it through a pair of superlative lead performances (by newcomer Michael Risley and the inimitable Adrienne Shelly) and a deep-felt concern over the intense media saturation of our times. The second, Calum Grant and Joshua Atesh Litle's frequently disarming "Ever Since the World Ended," transposes the nuclear-war hysteria of the early 1980s to a scenario in which a virus has left a mere 186 people living in the San Francisco area.
And even though Derek Simonds' "Seven and a Match," in which a catty group of Yale alumni gather together for a tense weekend together in Maine, owes most of its meager structure to influences like "The Big Chill" and Henry Jaglom's "Last Summer in the Hamptons," it's also a full-on charmer that creeps past your most stalwart defenses against this sort of thing. What gives it color is not only Simonds' witty (and frequently poignant) dialogue, but the series of delicate, unhurried encounters he organizes between his characters -- two at a time. Plus, a bonus 10 points for the genius bit of music supervision that sees Van Morrison's "Sweet Thing" and it's wailing refrain that "I shall never ever grow so old again" play out over the end credits.
From there, the rest of the festival's narrative features start to run together in a syrupy melee of routine and repetitious elements. Jesse Peretz's "The Chateau," for example, is hardly dissimilar from "Seven and a Match," though it does it one worse in the pantheon of emotional-catharsis-in-a-house movies. Gregory Mosher's "The Prime Gig" marries together "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "Boiler Room" so efficiently, and with no clear advance, that you don't doubt for a moment you've seen it all before. And the festival's starry opening-night film, Edward Burns' "Sidewalks of New York" manages to evoke Woody Allen at his most tepid, at the same time that it recycles huge chunks from all of Burns' three previous features.
There were films that displayed promising elements -- like the Jerusalem setting of "The Holy Land" and the performance of Lara Phillips in "Kwik Stop" -- buried, diamond-like, beneath a rough of too much quirky event and misdirection. And frequently, the very stubbornness with which movies like "Kwik Stop" and "Dirt" adhered to incredulous scenarios and burdensome affectations were more engaging than anything in the bodies of the films themselves. (That "independent" filmmaking equates to everything on screen deviating from expectation at every given opportunity is surely the great plague of contemporary indie filmmaking.)
There were also a couple of films that won awards (though don't ask me why) -- the stereotypical lesbian romantic comedy "Kissing Jessica Stein" (Audience Award for Best Feature) and the improvised road-movie/thriller "Kaaterskill Falls" (Critics Jury Prize), which plays like "The Vanishing" on depressants. And there was one film -- Dan Mintz's "Cookers" -- that ranks among the most displeasurable and unredeeming movies I have ever seen.
Of the 15 movies I caught over the week-long IFP/West Los Angeles Film Festival, the take-away impression was that if a giant hole in the earth swallowed up this entire celebration, L.A. moviegoers would not be the worse for it. And if anyone tells you differently, it's only because, after camping out at any film festival for this duration of time, reality starts to lose its hold on you, and yesterday's dreck no longer seems so execrable compared to today's. (I was myself tempted, more than once, to run up the street to the commercial theater showing "Freddy Got Fingered" just to get grounded again.)
Would all this be quite as upsetting if L.A. had a broader, more inclusive film event to fall back on? Probably not. But we don't, and the only foreseeable solution is for the AFI, IFP/West, et al. to stop what amounts to a pissing contest and pool their resources to put on a film festival that might actually mean something to someone other than the filmmakers and festival staff. Perhaps they could call it Dances with Independent International Method Films.
[Scott Foundas is an LA-based critic.]