Tuesday, February 05, 2008

INDIEFEST08—Michael Hawley's Preview

It's hard to believe that 10 years have passed since the San Francisco Independent Film Festival (aka SF Indiefest) began serving up its annual spread of American independents, genre films and documentaries to Bay Area filmgoers. I first took the bait in 2002, sitting in a cavernous SOMA warehouse folding chair for a screening of Shut Yer Dirty Little Mouth, Robert Taicher's adaptation of the infamous Shut Up, Little Man! Raymond and Peter audio tapes. In the years since, the festival has afforded me the opportunity to see high-profile films many months before their theatrical release (Irreversible, The Devil and Daniel Johnston), and caused me permanent brain damage with the likes of 2LDK, Ricky-Oh: The Story of Ricky and Casuistry: The Art of Killing Cats. This year's SF Indiefest, which takes place from February 7 to 20 at the Castro, Roxie and Victoria Theaters, continues a tradition of presenting films that should fit anyone's definition of being truly "indie."

The festival kicks off at the Castro Theater on Thursday, February 7 with Jeff Nichols' Shotgun Stories. Set in a contemporary American South of cotton fields and strip malls, Shotgun Stories is a revenge tale between seven half-brothers who share a common father. The three oldest (named Son, Boy and Kid) are adrift in their lives and knew Dad as the no-good drunk who abandoned them. The other brothers had the benefit of being raised by Dad after he re-married, got religion, and became an upstanding citizen. When Dad dies and they all turn up at the funeral, Son (effectively played by Michael Shannon, the creepy guy who shared a motel room with Ashley Judd in Bug) spits on the coffin and well, like the title says… Director Nichols demonstrates a knowing familiarity with both his characters and setting, and he lets the drama unfold in an assured, low-key manner. This is no amped-up yarn about Southern lunkheads getting' even. The film was produced by David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow), another Southern director whose films Shotgun Stories shares an affinity with).

The festival's opening night co-feature was supposed to be a "Super Secret Surprise Screening", but the secret appears to be out. The film is Nic Balthzar's Ben X, which was Belgium's entry for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It's the story of an on-line gaming geek who's ruthlessly bullied at school, until the day he arrives at the perfect way to avenge himself. Ben X has been winning awards at festivals all over the world, including the Palm Springs International Film Festival, where I saw it last month. My contrary write-up can be found here.

Of the dozen films I've previewed for this year's festival, my unequivocal favorite is Chris Smith's The Pool (another film I saw in Palm Springs). Smith, who directed two of the finest documentaries of the past 10 years, American Movie and The Yes Men, shows he's equally adept at narrative filmmaking—and has given himself the added challenge of directing in a foreign locale (the Indian island/former Portuguese colony of Goa), and in a foreign language (Hindi). Our hero Venkatesh is an amiable young man who scrapes by cleaning hotel rooms and selling plastic bags on the street. Each day he escapes the world by climbing a tree that overlooks a luminous residential swimming pool. We're introduced to the wealthy man who lives in the adjoining mansion (played by Bollywood actor Nana Patekar, the only professional in the cast) and his rebellious grown daughter. The film's principal pleasure is in watching how Venkatesh slyly inserts himself into their lives, forming bonds that cross lines of class, age and gender. Smith directs in a light, neo-realist style befitting his documentary roots and never sentimentalizes his characters. Curiously, the short story on which the film is based (written by co-screenwriter Randy Russell), was set in Iowa. The Pool is scheduled to open in NYC in September and depending on its success there, may or may not make it to other cities. In other words, SF Indiefest may be your only chance to see this gem of a film, so try not to miss it. In Palm Springs, Smith regaled his audience with some pretty fascinating "making-of" tales during the Q&A, and I would expect no less when he accompanies The Pool to SF Indiefest.

One of the most anticipated films at this year's Indiefest is Ronald Bronstein's Frownland, which appears on IndieWIRE's Ten Best Undistributed Films of 2007 list and is nominated for an Independent Spirit "Someone to Watch" Award. The film is a relentless paean to miserablism in which insufferable losers careen their way through a world that hates them. We're introduced to main character Keith as he watches a TV monster movie from his bed in the kitchen. An open oven door doubles as a bedside table from which he dines on scrambled eggs and popcorn. When his depressed girlfriend comes over, she masochistically rubs her face all over his down pillow, to which she's hyper-allergic. She asks for a mirror in which to see her blotchy face, and cries when he hands her a metal spatula. He tries to cheer her up by using his dirty white tube socks as hand puppets, and she responds by jabbing him in the arm with a push pin. The balance of the film follows Keith as he screws up his job selling coupon books door-to-door, deals with his obnoxious Yanni-wannabe musician roommate, and pesters to death the one normal person he considers a friend (who of course, wishes Keith would disappear off the face of the earth). Although tiresome in the extreme, I had to admire Frownland for the singularity and consistency of director Bronstein's (impaired) vision. A special mention should to be made of Dore Mann, whose unhinged film debut as the sniveling, sputtering, inarticulate Keith is every bit up to the task.

SF Indiefest has always featured a choice assortment of documentaries and this year is no exception. Although none of the four I previewed are what I'd consider exemplars of the form, all are skilled and effective looks at their subject matter and will certainly appeal to those with a predisposed interest. I chose these four because of my own preoccupations with 60's Cambodian garage rock, women truck drivers, drug rituals of Afghani nomads and pop culture memorabilia.

Fans of the band Dengue Fever (and there are many in the Bay Area) will definitely not want to miss John Pirozzi's Sleepwalking through the Mekong, which documents their 2005 tour of Cambodia. In addition to showcasing the band performing live in the country that inspired their sound, the film touches on Cambodia's efforts to recover from the Khmer Rouge years, during which time several generations of artists and musicians were nearly exterminated. The films also works nicely as a travelogue, and the 60's archival footage of bell-bottomed Cambodians grooving to the sounds of popstars Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea is the kind of thing I live for.

Alligator on the Zipper is Ivo Stainoff's nifty look at the world of women truck drivers (the title is slang for those strips of blown-out tire lurking in the middle of a highway). The film profiles seven very different women who have all chosen this profession for similar reasons: money, freedom and autonomy. Or as one of them matter-of-factly states, "I need a drug. And my drug is this road." They also share the same basic problems, such as the rising cost of gas (six miles per gallon is average for these rigs), long periods away from family and friends, as well as a general lack of respect for women who dare to do a "man's job." "You can be a trucker and still be a lady," opines one, and this film leaves no doubt as to the truth of that statement.

Chris Turner is a man who spent roughly 40 on-and-off years living in, and making films about Afghanistan. Tonya Dreher's A Life in Hashistan tells his amazing story, which begins in 1967 when he started making 16mm ethnographic films of the country's nomadic tribesmen. The most fascinating of these films documents the Hashshashins, fundamentalists who commit murder while under the influence of hashish, and whose very name has given us the word assassin. Turner's time in the country also included 10 years spent traveling with the Mujahadeen as they battled the Russians, nine months in a Soviet prison and a 1984 meeting with Osama bin Laden. The documentary effectively mixes this original footage with present-day interviews of Turner, the soundmen who accompanied him on these trips, and most movingly, the family members who were always left to wonder when and if he'd be coming home.

My favorite of the docs I previewed is Richard Kraft and Adam Shell's Finding Kraftland, a very entertaining vanity piece about one man's obsession with collecting American pop culture memorabilia. Kraft is an agent for movie composers like Jerry Goldsmith and Danny Elfman, a lucrative job which allows him to buy everything from the original bicycle from Pee Wee's Big Adventure to vintage bubble bath bottles and Tampax boxes. This is a man who confesses that he had "a more intimate relationship with Captain Crunch than I did with my own family," and would one day like to see his own skull used as a prop on Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean ride. The film is partly structured as a tour through Kraftland, the overstuffed house he shares with his amassment of miscellany. The other, more inspiring part of the film documents the loving, buddy-buddy relationship Kraft has with his teenage son Nicky, who appears to whole-heartedly share his Dad's obsessions (the two have ridden over 400 rollercoasters around the world). As if to counterbalance the often blatant ostentatiousness of these pursuits, the film also includes scenes of Kraft's work for Crohn's Disease (from which his loving brother David died) and his establishment of orphanages in Cambodia (including scenes of his family tromping through a Phnom Penh garbage dump on Christmas morning, which I found to be a bit much). Between Kraft's plus-sized personality and the film's hyperkinetic visual style, Finding Kraftland was a thrill ride I didn't want to end.

Moving along from documentaries to mockumentaries, we arrive at Jim Finn's La Trinchera Luminosa del Presidente Gonzalo and Michael Mongillo's Being Michael Madsen. The former is perhaps more of a docu-drama than mockumentary, as it imagines a day inside a Peruvian prison for female Maoist guerrillas. Filmed inside a cleverly converted New Mexico fairgrounds dormitory, we observe as the women march, chant, recite political tracts, practice first aid and learn to make bombs. I was particularly drawn to a segment in which the prison kitchen manager is put on trial by her peers for micro-managing and humiliating her staff—that is, until a mind-numbing discourse on revisionism put me to sleep. I was jolted awake by the sound of women shrieking "Death to the traitor Deng Xiaoping!" at the poor repentant kitchen manager. It's a bit hard to figure out what director Finn was going for with this film. It's all played pretty straight, with little or no evidence of irony or satire (except perhaps in the title, which translates as The Shining Trench, as opposed to The Shining Path, the real name of Peru's Marxist movement). Maybe a clue lies in the final scene, where at day's end the women do a folk dance that morphs into a rave, complete with techno music set to lyrics by Shining Path ideologues. Or maybe the film, as stated in the festival's program notes, simply "tries to understand how ideological certainty and Marxist rhetoric can turn a 16-year-old Indian girl into a trained killer."

I don't have much to say about the mockumentary Being Michael Madsen, which imagines what would happen if the Reservoir Dogs/Kill Bill actor were to be so rabidly hounded by paparazzi that he hired a documentary film crew to hound the paparazzi right back. The film attempts to satirize both our celebrity-obsessed culture and documentary filmmaking in one fell swoop, and I turned it off after the entire first hour failed to produce a laugh. I can see how the film might appeal to fans of Christopher Guest, which for better or worse, I am not. Others may appreciate the film as well, as evidenced by this 5-star review from Film Threat.

Satirizing celebrity culture is also the raison d’être for La Crème, a film from French director Reynald Bertrand. The story begins with an interesting premise: Two unemployed men named François and Bruno are competing for the same job, and their potential employer tells them that they must decide between themselves who is the better candidate and more deserving of the job. That premise goes out the window, however, when François receives a mysterious jar of face cream for Christmas. By putting a dab or two on his face, people are convinced he's somebody really famous. From that point on, this mundane film is totally about how a famous person can get away with anything, be it paying a fancy restaurant check or even rape. There is one truly subversive moment near the end, however, when François' nemesis Bruno gets a hold of the cream and slathers it on his face while looking into a bathroom mirror. What happens next is too raunchy to print in a family blog such as this one, but if you ask the next time you see me, I'll be happy to tell you.

The festival unofficially closes on Sunday, February 17 with a screening of Gus Van Sant's latest, the beautifully complex and elegiac Paranoid Park. (I say "unofficially" because festival screenings at the Roxie continue for three additional days). The latest word is that Van Sant will make every attempt to attend the screening, but may have to bow out due to the unpredictability of his shooting schedule for Milk.

Two films I intend to see during the festival that were not available for preview are Eric Zala's Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation and Stuart Gordon's Stuck. Raiders is a shot-by-shot recreation of the Spielberg original, made by three teenagers between 1982 and 1989. It was the hit of Indiefest in 2005 and is being brought back for a 10th anniversary revival screening. The pitch black comedy Stuck has garnered multiple rave reviews, and tells the story of a homeless man (Stephen Rea) who goes crashing through the car windshield of an intoxicated woman (Mena Suvari). The fun begins when she gets home and has to decide what to do with the man in her windshield who is still very much alive.

Cross-published on Twitch.