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FESTIVALS: LAIFF — Los Angeles’ Hardly Risky, Not So Diverse, But Consistent “Community” Festival

FESTIVALS: LAIFF -- Los Angeles' Hardly Risky, Not So Diverse, But Consistent "Community" Festival

LAIFF -- Los Angeles' Hardly Risky, Not So Diverse, But Consistent "Community" Festival

by Rebecca Sonnenshine

[EDITORS NOTE: Today’s wrap-up from Rebecca Sonnenshine marks the conclusion
of indieWIRE’s coverage of the 1999 Los Angeles Independent Film Festival. Links
to other LAIFF articles are included at the end of this article.]

A friend insisted that a (little-known) sign of the apocalypse had
manifested itself in the astonishing sight of snow covered mountains
ringing the Los Angeles basin a week before the Los Angeles Independent
Film Festival
(LAIFF). Alas, it was only a freak storm, and the temperature
obligingly soared into the 90’s just in time for the fifth annual LAIFF
to get underway.

First things first: The LAIFF is a sprint, not a marathon. It is a
festival of fierce intensity, where acquisitions folks, d-girls,
filmmakers, producers, press people, and a few genuine film aficionados
power-view films and devour a series of seminars on topics ranging from
digital production to film distribution to the “craft series” on
writing, directing, acting, producing. It’s not a festival that
attracts many out-of-towners — and it doesn’t need to. Every screening
was packed to capacity, with disappointed patrons turned away every
film. Filmmakers and audiences alike are the real winners in this
festival, an increasingly viable launching ground for new independent
cinema. The LAIFF may not get the same kind of international attention
that other festivals get, but in the end, that really isn’t that point.

“The LAIFF is a community event,” said Fest Founder and Director Robert Faust. “The
community just happens to be the [film] industry.” It’s set up to be a
discovery festival, Faust goes on to say, not just for directors, but
for writers, producers, actors. It makes sense: as long as the right
people see your work — and rest assured, the right people are here —
who cares if E! Entertainment Television isn’t dragging its cameras
through the lobby of the DGA?

Furthermore, the majority of the films at LAIFF are imminently
watchable. It is a festival of exceptional consistency, if not
diversity or experimentation. None of the films have obvious break-out
commercial potential, yet none of the films are particularly
non-commercial. There are, of course, the perennial rumblings from
various attendees: the festival lacks content, there are no sure-fire
hits. But there is something to be said for a festival with the simple
agenda to showcase emerging filmmakers. Featuring several returning
directors with shorts and features this year, the LAIFF is obviously
committed not only to launching, but fostering young filmmakers.

And as for the grumbling acquisitions execs, who complain there isn’t
much here for them to pick up? That’s a symptom of the state of
distribution, Robert Faust says. “Festivals simply don’t lend
themselves as a marketplace as well as they used to.” Festival films —
ANY festival films — have very little chance of being a hit without
having time to build an audience. Everyone points to “sex, lies, and
videotapes” as the seminal success story in independent film, but would
it really have been a hit in today’s slash and burn marketplace?

Let’s face it, the LA festival is never going to be confused with
Sundance. Is that such a problem? A film like “Pi” will probably never
emerge from this festival. But if the material here is less
challenging, it’s also less pretentious and annoying. Far from finding
the 1999 LAIFF lackluster, I was impressed with the sheer competency of
the films. Were they a formulaic bunch? Sure, some of them. But at
least they’re getting the formula right. There is also a heartening
trend away from bank-robbery-gone-awry, Tarantino-rip-off films that
stubbornly dominated the independent for so many years. Most of the
films I saw were tinged with an unusual thoughtfulness, concerned less
with camera moves and more with performance and story. While it may be
a little harder to uncover the real gems in a field laden with very
pretty imitations, I found my picks-to-click (an obnoxious term batted
about by acquisition friends) by rounding up a group of unusual

In the narrative selections, Robert Schmidt‘s “Saturn,” was undoubtedly
one of the most sophisticated, moving pieces at the festival. The
backdrop — young man struggles to prevent his life from spiraling into
an abyss of drugs and crime — may sound familiar, but the film is
anything but ordinary. At the heart of “Saturn” is a tender,
unsentimental, visceral relationship between a young man and his father,
an unusual topic in a indie universe filled with disaffected,
parent-hating youths. Another highlight was Katherine Dieckmann‘s, “A
Good Baby
.” Marginally billed as a murder-mystery, it is the unusual
tale of a socially inept young man who stumbles across a baby in the
woods. A thoughtful, deliberately paced, quietly poetic film, “A Good
Baby” made a strong impression on its audiences. Outstanding
performances by Henry Thomas and David Strathairn certainly help the
film’s commercial viability; perhaps some plucky distributor will help
get this oddly life-affirming film out to a wider audience.

And then, there’s “The Lifestyle,” the documentary on the tip of
everyone’s tongue. If people hadn’t seen it, you can be sure they’d
heard about it. Brought to you by filmmaker David Schisgall and Good
, “The Lifestyle” is the unsexiest film about sex you will ever
see. Chronicling a year in the life of a group of “swingers,” the film
is by turns shocking, hilarious, disturbing, mundane. One thing the film
makes quite clear: swinging — “sport fucking,” as one of the characters
refers to it — should not be confused with love. It is the most
unexpected, non-judgmental, startlingly original documentary to hit the
film scene in a long time.

Also, Milton Moses Ginsburg’s 1969 film “Coming Apart,” which screened
as part of a new, well-conceived retrospective series, American
Independent Film: Four Decades Revisited, is without a doubt one of the
most challenging, visionary, important films in the history of
independent cinema. Starring Rip Torn and Sally Kirkland, the film
chronicles the exploits of a cold, unethical psychiatrist who places a
hidden camera inside his apartment to record his sexual escapades. It is
a film far ahead of its time, not only an obvious precursor to “sex,
lies, and videotapes,” but an entire generation of cutting-edge
filmmakers. Hats off to the festival programmers not only for choosing
to celebrate independent cinema with these wonderfully literate works,
but for bringing in the filmmakers and stars for Q&A sessions after the

The rest of the festival featured a host of competent and enjoyable
films and none of the films compelled me to walk straight out the door
after the first twenty minutes, (except for the closing night film).
Cherry,” by directors Jon Glascoe and Joseph Pierson, a whimsical,
light-hearted, absurd comedy about love, fate, and stale muffins,
benefits from a sharp script by writer Terry Reed. The unlikely tale of
a 29 year-old virgin, played by model-turned-actress Shalom Harlow, who
decides to have a baby, the film is just strange enough to strike a
chord with those with an appreciation of everything odd in the
universe. “Coming Soon,” from director Colette Burson, is an equally
cute but decidedly conventional comedy about three New York prep-school
girls in search of an orgasm. With a talented cast and confident
direction, this slightly edgy romp is much preferable to the bland spate
of teen comedies that Hollywood insists on turning out.

Chutney Popcorn,” by triple-threat writer/director/actress Nisha
Ganatra, was one of the few contributions to diversity that LAIFF could
muster this year. A genuinely heart-felt film, it is a charming tale
of a clash of cultures between an Indian mother and her strong-willed,
Americanized, lesbian daughter. A short film from Byron Shah, “The
Mischievous Ravi
,” is also worth mentioning, a hilarious, crowd-pleasing
tale of a defiant young man determined to drive his Indian parents
crazy. The festival programmers at the LAIFF take great pains to select
short films that compliment the feature presentation. Kudos to their
outstanding selections, from the wondrous Oscar-winning “Bunny,” to two
films funded by the new patron saint of short filmmakers, FXM, to the
audience award-winning computer-animated short, “Bingo.”

Nickolas Perry‘s “Speedway Junky,” treads familiar ground, but still
manages to be an effective film with excellent performances by Jesse
and Jordan Brower. Jesse Feigelman‘s “Snapped,” another
melancholy, off-beat little film, was perfectly enjoyable, notable
mainly for Gaby Hoffman‘s (the new rising indie “it” girl) subtle
performance. A screening of Nick Stagliano‘s “The Florentine” on Monday
night managed to attract a rowdy crowd of celebs, notably Sean Penn, who
came out to support brother Chris, who took a producing and acting
credit on the film. Unfortunately, the presence of cast and crew was
the most interesting thing about the screening.

On Tuesday night, the festival came to a conclusion with the
presentation of the audience awards — all of the brief acceptance
speeches were highly amusing. From Richard Roe, the father of director
Chris Roe (who won Best Feature Film for “Pop & Me“): “We still don’t
know what we’re doing!” From Ed Radtke, Best Director (for “The Dream
“): “Gee, I’m really nervous.” From Jaffe Cohen, winner of Best
Writer (along with Christopher Livingston for “Hit and Runway”): “I’d
like to thank my agent, but I don’t have one yet!” Following the awards
was a screening of George Hickenlooper‘s take on Orson Wells’ musty old
script, “The Big Brass Ring.” Suffice it to say, the audience didn’t
seem like it any better than I did. Luckily, the after-party had plenty
of food and Absolut vodka helping us forget all about it.

Of course, the festival isn’t without its glitches. As the LAIFF
continues to expand its line up, it needs to keep this mind: ALL films
should screen twice. And, as hard as they try, screenings NEVER start
on time. Not a huge problem, except for the people who are holding
tickets to another film in another theater. What looks like
a perfectly reasonable schedule on paper may leave you racing out of one
film early, charging over to the next theater, and being turned away at
the door for showing up late.

To wrap it all up, let’s take a moment to reflect on one of the most
colorful characters inhabiting the LAIFF. Thomas Harris, the
programming director, is an effusive, highly entertaining presence at
nearly every screening. His affection and enthusiasm is positively
infectious; it’s almost enough to make Los Angeles seem quite unlike the
jaded, often cynical place it can be. It’s exactly the kind of attitude
that will continue to push the festival forward — not to mention
inspire the real backbone of the independent films world: the audience.

indieWIRE Coverage of the 1999 Los Angeles Independent Film Festival:

(Apr 23, 1999) LAIFF Does Digital: The Revolution Continues…


(Apr 23, 1999) FESTIVAL REVIEWS: Stars Don’t Redeem “Settlement” and “Florentine”


(Apr 22, 1999) “Pop” Go the Docs: Non-Fiction Films Shine At LAIFF ’99


(Apr 22, 1999) FESTIVAL REVIEW: Hickenlooper’s “The Big Brass Ring” Glosses Over
Indie Politics


(Apr 21, 1999) FESTIVAL REVIEW: Dieckmann’s “A Good Baby,” Slow Thriller with a Tender Heart


(Apr 21, 1999) LAIFF INTERVIEW: The Powerful Rings of Rob Schmidt’s “Saturn” int_Schmidt_Rob_99LAIFF_990421.html>

(Apr 21, 1999) DAILY BRIEFS: Doc Takes Top LAIFF Award>

(Apr 20, 1999) Joanou’s “Entropy,” Love Lost Amid A Jet-Set Life


(Apr 16, 1999) LAIFF INTERVIEW: Swinging Verite, David Schisgall Enters “The

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