FESTIVALS: Southern Gentility and Northern Industry Mesh at 8th St.
by Ryan Mottesheard
Sometime between the first weekend and the second of this year's St.
Louis Film Festival, the beautiful autumnal weather gave way to signs of
winter. The leaves, all beautiful hues of orange and red, dropped to the
ground and a chill intruded the night air. The films changed too, as
the higher-profile works (Don McKellar's "Last Night," Glen Goei's
"That's the Way I Like It") that peppered the first weekend were
replaced with more obscure documentaries and lower-budget indies ("The
Road to Park City," "Snake Tales").
A theme at this year's festival, whether unconscious or not, finally
emerged by fest's end: false appearances. Films about one thing turned
out to be something else entirely. The festival did open, after all,
over Halloween weekend, so it should come as little surprise that many
films showed up in costume: Almodovar's "All About My Mother" (touching
tribute to maternity disguised as transvestite/lesbian comedy) or Werner
Herzog's "My Best Fiend" (friendship portrayed as a series of psychotic
arguments). And one need not describe how Kimberly Peirce's Audience
Award winner "Boys Don't Cry" figured into this mix.
Among the most pleasant unmaskings was Parris Patton's documentary,
"Creature." What I dreaded would be an exploitation piece about a
transvestite hooker unfolds into a touching treatise on modern
Christianity as "Creature" traces Stacy "Hollywood" Dean's four year
journey into womanhood from her "corner" in Hollywood to her trip back
home to rural North Carolina. Patton's trump card is Stacy's father, a
born-again Christian/ex-con who (in his Johnny Cash accent) admits that
he "don't agree with what Stacy's a doing, but she's ma son an' I ain't
gonna stop lovin her," even saying (despite his commitment to the Lord)
that he'd "probably kill anybody that'd hurt her." Shot on 16 mm with a
two man crew, Patton (like Chris Smith, with his latest "American
Movie") shuns the voguish trend in docs, making a film led on by the
story, rather than a story led on by the film. "Creature" was one of
Seventh Art Releasing's five fest docs and will be released theatrically
in January without -- Patton hopes -- the tag line "Boys DO Cry."
Meanwhile, on the fiction front, Andrew Shea's "The Corndog Man"
(Sundance '99 American Spectrum) took home the New Filmmaker's Forum
Emerging Filmmaker Award. Juror Mark Stolaroff of Next Wave Films
commented that "it was a great year to be on the jury because the films
chosen for the NFF were so strong, which made it really difficult to
choose, but nice to see the quality." The prize of $4,000 in cash and
film stock reminded me of something Charles Koppleman said, director of
"Dumbarton Bridge" (shown here in the African-American sidebar): winning
film stock is like giving a junkie heroin, proving Capra's old adage
And speaking of Capra, or perhaps Ben Hecht, Adam Abraham's swell "Man
of the Century" made a pit stop at this lily pad before Fine Line
shipped it out to your corner flicker house. Oh hell, I shouldn't
even try to compete with screenwriter/star Gibson Frazier's
motor-mouthed, lovable Johnny Twennies (though Johnny Thirties might be
more apt). "Man of the Century" works so well that it doesn't even
necessarily demand that you've seen the Harold Lloyd comedies, film
noir, or the RKO screwballs that it pays homage to.
Meanwhile, those expecting "Zacharia Farted" to be a low-brow comedy
should have read the festival's (somewhat pretentious) billboards --"100
Films. 0 Movies." Luckily, it has enough movie in it to keep you
invested as it follows two friends who go road tripping through Nevada
after stumbling across an unmarked grave. Leanly produced (reportedly for
$70,000 US and it looks great!), this US-Canadian co-production delivers
strong performances by Vancouver-ites Benjamin Ratner and Madison Graie
who help keep the quirk turned up even when "Zacharia" turns a little
sentimental down the home stretch. Besides, who can dislike a movie
with a lonely fat guy named Wayne Newton in search of buffalo nickels?
Foreign films held a nice presence as well, with the festival wisely
programming certified auteur pieces with U.S. distribution (Chen Kaige's
"The Emperor and the Assassin") alongside smaller gems that probably
won't show up outside of the fest circuit ("Buttoners" and "P. Tinto's
Miracle"). Petr Zelenka's well-traveled "Buttoners" was not the Czech
"Pulp Fiction" it appeared to be, but rather a Bunuelian comedy where
the six stories don't so much intertwine as reference each other.
Beginning in 1945 with a Japanese man in Kokura who longs to "damn this
fucking weather" but cannot find Japanese correlatives and ending in
1995 with a profane American pilot who dropped the A-bomb in nearby
Hiroshima, Zelenka's film spans fifty years and settles into a
modern-day Prague full of taxi drivers, cheating wives and a TV director
with an odd fetish (but not feet, apologies to Mr. Bunuel).
Javier Fesser's hilarious "P. Tinto's Miracle" is less easy to
pigeonhole: stubbornly Spanish, hopelessly optimistic, showily visual.
Fesser litters the first half with seemingly stray bits (foul-mouthed
Martians, an abusive priest/schoolteacher, an oversized astronaut) then
fits the pieces together into a coherent, though no less eccentric,
whole. The quiet nobility of old P. Tinto, who has prayed to St.
Nicholas for half a century for his own P. Tinto hijo, presides over the
madness which does, alas prove to have a method. Also showing up was
Carlos Bolado's multi-Ariel-ed (Mexico's Oscar) "Under California: The
Limit of Time" which won the Interfaith Award, an award "designed to
promote films that distinguish themselves with both artistic merit and
contribution to human progress."
So where exactly does St. Louis fit into the film festival mix? Well,
there was a special showing of the shot-in-St. Louis film, "The Big
Brass Ring," where native son/director George Hickenlooper said that St.
Louis is "a city caught between the brazen industrialism of the North
and the crazy genteelism of the 19th century South." It was the
Southern gentility that enshrouded the filmmakers, from the doting
organizers, to the festival's picaresque setting (similar to New
Orleans' Garden District) even if one got the impression that some of
that Northern industrialism money is thrown behind the fest.
Some showings did lack the crowds that the filmmakers, and organizers,
had hoped for. (When presenting "Creature," Patton joked "Well, I just
had dinner with about half of you.") Film festivals are, after all, a
tough sell anywhere and the previously undefeated St. Louis Rams
probably didn't help much on the two Sundays. In any event, the St.
Louis Film Festival has some room to grow but with the dedicated group
of individuals behind it, it will probably grow in the right direction.
Above all, they have a commitment to the filmmakers and the treatment
they receive is the epitome of Southern hospitality. One programmer
loaned a filmmaker her own car to drive around town and go to a Blues'
hockey game. And the festival van made who knows how many trips down to
"That's the Way I Like It" director Glen Goei put it bluntly, "Thank God
for festivals like SLIFF! Unlike others I have been to, and I've been to
many over the past year, this one is small and intimate and one really
gets to mix with the organizers and the other filmmakers." Johnny
Twennies might just say it was "the bee's knees."
[Writer/filmmaker Ryan Mottesheard covered the San Sebastian Film
Festival for indieWIRE last month.]