Serious Cinema in Sin City: CineVegas Raises Its Profile
by Wendy Mitchell
What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas? Not for long, judging from the increasing stature of the CineVegas Film Festival. The event, now in its sixth year, is poised to become a major player in the U.S. film festival scene. There are several reasons for its success: a seemingly healthy budget, a city and venues that are accustomed to pulling off top-notch events, and a passionate group of organizers, staffers, and board members. Oh yes, and it's also based in Sin City -- what starving filmmaker doesn't want to act like a high roller for a few days?
[I should note that my experience at CineVegas 2004 wasn't as an average-joe filmgoer but as an invited jury member, but I'll try to not focus on the jury experience and instead look at the event as a whole.] The festival, programmed by Sundance senior programmer Trevor Groth with the help of another Sundancer, Mike Plante, presents much edgier fare than you might expect in this showgirls-and-Celine-soaked town. The 2004 festival presented a slew of world premieres of new American indies, most of them challenging, provocative films -- more so than you see on the usual festival circuit. It was nice not to see the same 10-15 films at every other summer festival become the main attractions here. "With CineVegas, I think you have to have a balance," Groth explains. "I really want to present some films to the Vegas locals that they would never see because there aren't many arthouses here... and I also hope that maybe we can influence distributors who are on the fence about a film. They can see a film get a great response here and hopefully take a chance on these more difficult films."
"How much art can you take?" was the slogan on several festival posters, and it seems like audiences here can take quite a lot -- there were several films so challenging that I would have probably walked out if professional obligations (or guilt) hadn't kept me in my seat, but audiences here impressively stuck with even the most trying fare. James Bolton, who brought his latest film "The Graffiti Artist" -- a restrained look at the bond between two teenage graffiti enthusiasts -- to Vegas after its premiere at the Berlinale, was impressed with the programming and the strong response from audiences. Bolton told indieWIRE, "Simply put, CineVegas is much more about originality and pushing the envelope than clichés and big budgets."
The festival can get away with some of this edgier, less star-driven fare because they balance these screenings with some A-list appearances. In town for CineVegas 2004 honors were Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, Robin Wright Penn, Holly Hunter, David Lynch, Julian Schnabel, Dean Stockwell, writer James Ellroy, and experimental legend Bruce Conner. Attracting top names to town has become easier since Dennis Hopper signed on the chair the festival's advisory board this year; he received CineVegas' Marquee award in 2003 and was so impressed with the festival that he got more involved. His fellow board members also have plenty of pull: they include former New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell, Sony Pictures Classics co-head Tom Bernard, ex-United Artists head Bingham Ray, Cinetic's John Sloss, and Miramax's Arianna Bocco. Festival attendance "greatly increased this year," Groth said. "We had more industry attendees -- most of the companies were represented with heads of acquisitions. And the locals themselves came out in full force."
The competition featured 13 U.S. narrative films without theatrical distribution. From that pool, the jury (filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, actress Sarah Polley, and myself) selected two winners: the jury prize went to Andrew Wagner's "The Talent Given Us" and the honorable mention to John Harkrider's "Mitchellville." I can't speak for my fellow jurors but here's my take on each: Wagner's "The Talent Given Us" could qualify as the bravest film I've ever seen. With his debut feature, Wagner casts his eccentric family members to play themselves in this tale of a family road trip for parents Judy and Allen and sisters Maggie and Emily (and memorable guests Judy Dixon and Billy Wirth) to drive cross country to connect with their somewhat estranged filmmaker son/brother Andrew.
Wagner wrote the script for his family, based partly on their real lives, but he also let them improvise a bit, so the dialogue feels incredibly realistic. Wagner shot the film digitally for only about $30,000, usually with a crew consisting of just him and a soundman (top-notch editor Terri Breed culled 100 hours of footage down to 98 minutes). During their journey, his parents talk openly about their infidelities, his sister masturbates with a friend, and his mom worries about being a mean mother. Very much a "warts and all" look at the dysfunction found in most families, this film is touching and hilarious, and more truthful than some documentaries. Wagner is definitely a talent to reckon with; keep an eye out for his next film, the InDigEnt feature "Starting Out in the Evening."
Harkrider's "Mitchellville" is the kind of astonishing debut film that seems to announce a new fully formed filmmaking talent out of nowhere. Harkrider wrote, directed, and stars in (with a kind of James Spader-like troubled charisma) this genre-blending story of a Wall Street lawyer with a secret past and an active imagination. This film taps into a slew of issues: corporate greed, race relations, suicide, childhood abandonment. It's also not just an ego stroke for Harkrider: he gives Herb Lovelle room to nearly steal the show as an elderly music teacher. The set design and cinematography were amazingly accomplished as well.
Other sections at CineVegas included the Sure Bets, films that have already secured theatrical runs in the U.S., including Stephen Fry's tale of London's upper crust, "Bright Young Things," Irwin Winkler's Cole Porter biopic "De-Lovely," Ondi Timoner's Sundance winning doc "Dig!," Sundance hits "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Primer," the Italian family drama "Remember Me, My Love," and Stacy Peralta's surfing doc "Riding Giants." Angela Robinson's delightful lesbian teenager secret agent flick "D.E.B.S." opened the festival, while Nick Cassavetes' mainstream romance "The Notebook" closed it.
In the Diamond Discoveries section, of films without distribution, the selections included Paul Goldman's Sinatra-in-Vegas feature "All the Way," the doc "Dennis Hopper: The Decisive Moments," bowling doc "A League of Ordinary Gentlemen," Dutch romantic comedy "Phileine Says Sorry," and "The Portrait of Billy Joe," about songwriter Billy Joe Shaver (who performed at CineVegas). The Area 52 section included experimental works, such as James Fotopoulos' "The Nest," and there was also a Nevada filmmaking program including shorts (some by students) and features. More than a dozen varied shorts (mostly domestic) played in two shorts programs. Among all the features playing, the audience gave top honors to Larry Golin's "Cross Bronx," a well-shot digital feature about four friends whose relationships change when they move to an inner-city neighborhood.
I was worried that the lavish treatment I received was only because I was on the jury, so I talked to a few filmmakers after CineVegas ended to get their reactions. Unfortunately for the muckraking journalist in me, I couldn't find anyone who wanted to complain about their experience at the festival. Some minor suggestions that filmmakers had were to add more in-depth filmmaker Q&As or panels and maybe expanding the program to include more genre films. But on the whole, filmmakers had nothing but praise for CineVegas and Groth in particular. Several filmmakers also told me that they had some distributor interest during or after CineVegas, and were happy to see so many influential indie film buyers in attendance.
Director Chris Fisher ("The Night Stalker") chose CineVegas to host the world premiere of his "Hillside Strangler," a serial killer story about the late '70s killings in Los Angeles. He told indieWIRE, "I think CineVegas was a good fit for my film because CineVegas tries to attract a younger, more mainstream audience than most arthouse festivals and my film was not, by any means, a typical festival or critics film." As it turns out, he found that the audience was a bit older and more industry-heavy than he would have expected, but still got good responses from his two sold-out screenings.
The closest thing I have to a complaint is that the festival seemed to be very West Coast-centric -- most of the filmmakers in attendance during my few days there were from L.A. or other West Coast locales. That's understandable because of, well, geography. But it would be nice to see more East Coasters (or Midwesterners) in attendance. Also, the program was heavily English-language; if they expand in coming years, more international fare could be an easy addition. Two Japanese films here, "Gozu" and "Zatoichi" both sold out, so there's clearly an appetite for some foreign fare.
The only other "drawback" may be that there are too many distractions in Vegas to really feel like the festival is making a big impact in town (true at other festivals in big cities like L.A. and New York, too). When a hooker is only a phone call away, endless buffet food is beckoning, and casinos are enticing you with free drinks and the lure of winning big at craps, it can be hard to concentrate on films. Still, there seemed to be plenty of free time to get everything in -- festival parties, films, and a bit of Vegas sightseeing. Chris Hickey, in town with his short film "Blue Horses" said that in addition to seeing "inspiring" films, he was able to get in plenty of other activities. "There were wild parties, crowded limo trips across town, bloody marys poolside, and very little sleep. It was a film festival vacation," he said.
The festival events were spread out nicely, allowing visitors to see more than the Palms; activities during the week included a lunch at Spago, a huge (and surreal) opening-night party (with Vegas magazine) at Caesars' Garden of the Gods, a cruise on Lake Las Vegas, a very impressive Premiere magazine party at Whiskey Beach at the nearby Green Valley Ranch, and parties at Mandalay Bay, Bellagio, and MGM. Filmmaker Greg Hatanaka, here with the world premiere of "Until the Night," said the party scene here was "absolutely insane... like Cannes on Viagra."
Logistically, the festival was top-notch. Program information was well-assembled, screenings started mostly on time, crowd control was effective, and it was great to have the festival offices, comfy Brenden Theatres, several party spots, and most festival guests under one roof at the Palms Casino & Resort. (Convenient shuttle buses took festivalgoers from the Palms to other party venues around town). Groth said that this third year working with the Palms and Brenden made operations especially smooth, as did hiring festival veterans. The small staff was dedicated, enthusiastic, and unfailingly polite (even when they'd stayed out far too late the night before). One staffer even bought me a lapdance -- can't imagine that happening in Sundance or Toronto.
"Graffiti Artist" director Bolton has plenty of experience on the festival circuit with this film and his earlier feature "Eban & Charley." He was impressed with what he found at a relatively young festival like CineVegas, from the VIP treatment to an engaged audience to the bonding time with other filmmakers. "I suspect in the coming years, CineVegas will certainly become one of the top three film festivals in the U.S.," Bolton raved. "Certainly, because of its proximity to L.A., the fun to be had, and the vision of Trevor Groth, CineVegas has unlimited potential."