The idea of Las Vegas does not normally scream culture. Not in any conventional sense, anyway, apart from a twisted, funhouse-mirror distortion of American notions on class, status, beauty and good taste. Taking the tagline "The World's Most Dangerous Film Festival" as its official slogan for the first time - the phrase has been unofficially kicked around by staffers for a few years now - the CineVegas' programming did what it could to live up to the title, and pushed the boundaries of what a film festival in Las Vegas can and should be about.
Perhaps the biggest buzz title this year was the U.S. premiere of John Maringouin's "Running Stumbled." Even those who didn't care for the film couldn't seem to stop talking about it, and the film also appeared to be the one which the most other visiting filmmakers made sure to check out. A dizzying, disturbing portrait of addiction, madness and the ties that bind, the film is a mostly documentary, partly staged portrait of Maringouin's father Johnny Roe and Roe's long-time lover Virgie Marie. A once-promising painter who has over the years devolved into a ramshackle existence as a hustler and drug addict, Roe is also said to have attempted to kill Maringouin and his mother when the filmmaker was just a baby. Estranged for many years, Maringouin more or less just arrived on Roe's Louisiana doorstep one day and started shooting.
With deft editing and strategically deployed color effects, the film takes on the feel of a hallucination and an exorcism, as Roe's rambling, non-stop patter and vicious arguments with the no less troubled Virgie seem to endlessly loop back to the same topics, mirroring their cycle of addiction. Maringouin unexpectedly removes his own presence as filmmaker from most of the scenes, and never does fully explain many of the circumstances surrounding his relationship to his father, tactics which only add to the film's free-floating anxiety and disconnected sense of lives cast adrift. With something of a down-South Peter Falk-Gena Rowlands dynamic gone seriously off the rails, the subjects of "Running Stumbled," are fascinating, frightening and never less than compelling. During a post-screening Q&A, Maringouin got Roe on the phone to field questions from the audience, where he again proved himself to be an outlaw charmer.
Another film dealing with cycles of madness was "The 4th Dimension," the debut feature from writer-directors Tom Mattera and Dave Mazzoni. With dazzling photography in Super-16 by cinematographer Daniel Watchulonis, if nothing else the film is simply wonderful to look at. In a perhaps unintentional declaration of the beauties of film itself, the filmmakers play with the grain and crispness of the image, and even make a breathtakingly subtle shift from black-and-white to color.
In telling the story of a man (Louis Morabito) obsessed with the idea of time and convinced he can somehow master its ways, "The 4th Dimension" repeatedly resets itself, retracing the connections between characters to become a swirling head-trip. It speaks to the skill and craft of the filmmakers and their careful construction that even when a viewer is uncertain of where things are headed, and even who is who, one never feels lost. A series of cards before the end credits shifts the entire story into yet another light, and puts on a mournful spin on all the preceding events.
The most pleasantly oddball film screened was Chicago filmmaker Jim Finn's "InterKosmos," a faux-found document which places a romance against the backdrop of a 1970s East German space program. Finn seamlessly blends actual space footage with his own lovingly handcrafted and carefully art directed scenes of Eastern Block cocktail parties, field hockey teams and space capsules. With a propulsive, playful score by Jim Becker and Colleen Burke, as well as likely the strangest version of "The Trolley Song" ever recorded, the film is an endearing delight.
A few films were meant to explore the nature of Las Vegas itself. "Skin City," Gregory Berkin's unexpectedly conservative-minded documentary on the "what happens here, stays here" mindset which has come to fuel the local tourism trade, was screened as a work-in-progress and was disappointingly underdeveloped, adding little understanding to what makes Sin City tick. Steve Willis' "Wet Dreams" on the other hand was a left-field hoot, an exploration not only of the Bellagio's famous water fountains, very much a symbol of contemporary Las Vegas, but also a portrait of the director's friendship with the actress Rebecca Romijn. The two set out on a lark to program the fountain show to Ennio Morricone's "The Ecstasy of Gold," and it becomes more involving and rewarding then they expected. While the film blatantly stretches its running time - in one sequence Willis and Romijn telling a story about sneaking dogs onto an airplane cuts to their editing room discussion of whether to include the anecdote - it is done with such wit and panache that it's difficult to complain about it.
Among the strongest dramas in the lineup this year was the world premiere of "The Favor," the fiction feature debut of writer-director Eva Aridjis. Where another of the festival's premieres, "Danika," lost the central core of its story by overloading itself with the unnecessary trappings of J-horror, Aridjis exhibits the keen ability to truly understand and highlight the central essence of her story, about a single, middle-aged man who through a series of left turns finds himself the foster father of a troubled teenage boy, the son of his old high school sweetheart. Powered by the extremely convincing performances of Ryan Donowho and Frank Wood, Aridjis' film exudes a quiet, powerful pull.
On the festival's final day, the jury prize was awarded to "G.I. Jesus," a world premiere directed by Carl Colpaert and written by Colpaert, Deon Wilks and Deborah Setele. Honorable mentions were awarded to "The Favor" and "The 4th Dimension," and a special award for cinematography was given to "5 Up 2 Down," directed by Steven Kessler, written by Steve Soto, Brady Hart and Kessler, and featuring cinematography by Till N. Neumann.
The audience award went to writer-director Kurt Voelker's "Park," and the shorts jury recognized "Holidays With Heather," "Voicemail," "Transaction," "One Rat Short," "Bugcrush," "The Pretty Boy Project," and winner "K-7." Regardless of the strength of the festival's programming and events, it perhaps goes without saying that one of the biggest draws to CineVegas is the city of Las Vegas itself. By sponsoring an official party every night, usually at the type of place whose velvet rope policy would normally exclude many festival attendees, CineVegas works hard to acknowledge the go-go rhythms of the city itself, and politely encourages a certain amount of debauchery and carousing. (Notably, screenings don't begin until early afternoon, under the assumption that most everyone has made a late night of it.)
"We've got the weapons to really do some damage to people in a fun way," explained director of programming Trevor Groth. "With the clubs they have here and the parties we throw, it allows people to celebrate these films and destroy their bodies. "The greatest challenge of doing a film festival in Las Vegas has not been getting people here, that's the easy part. But once they're here the real challenge is getting them off the tables and sobered up enough to come see the movies."
In many ways, CineVegas is something of a West Coast analogue to SXSW, in that it shows taste and individual identity in its programming and finds smart ways to integrate itself into the fabric of its home city. As well run, funded and put-together as any film festival could hope to be, it may be debatable how truly dangerous the 8th edition of CineVegas might have been, but that it was extremely enjoyable seems inarguable.