Best Feature Film: Paradise Falls, Nick Searcy, dir.
Honorable Mention: Topless Women Talk About Their Lives, Harry Sinclair, dir.
Mary Jane Coleman Award for Excellence in Documentary Filmmaking: The Vanishing Line, Maren Monsen, dir.
Tennessee Independent Filmmakers Award: “A Look in Her Eyes,” Bobby Anderson, dir.
Best Documentary (Long Form): Wonderland, John O’Hagan, dir.
Honorable Mention: Circus Redickuless, Phillip Glau, dir.
Best Documentary (Short Form): “Dear Dr. Spencer: Abortion in a Small Town,” Danielle Renfrew, dir.
Best Short Film: “The Storekeeper,” Gavin Hood, dir.
Honorable Mention: “Phil Touches Flo,” David Birdsell, dir.
Best Animation: “The Old Man and the Goblins,” Seamus Walsh, dir.
Honorable Mention: “5 Dreams,” Luke Jaeger, dir.
Best Experimental: “Daily,” Natasha Uppal, dir.
Best Music Video: “City,” Nick Brandt, dir.
Best Student Film (Kodak): “First Daughter,” Anne Madden, dir.
Best Student Film (ASCAP): “My Body,” Joel Moffett
Best Young Filmmaker: Noah Burger, “Clone(ing) Around”
Day One (Wednesday, June 10)
Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m fried. It’s just after midnight, and I’ve spent the past 10-plus hours at the opening day of the Nashville Independent Film Festival (NIFF). I arrived at the Watkins Belcourt shortly after noon, just in time to find a local news crew photographing patrons against the poster for Taste of Cherry. (Hope it made every broadcast.) I left about 11:30 p.m., as the last few patrons were straggling out of what has been, by far, the best film yet shown at the 29th annual edition of the Festival Formerly Known as Sinking Creek.
Of course, the festival’s only been underway for one day, and to my jaded eyes that day had the weakest lineup of the whole event. But that didn’t deter the crowds. I left a half-hour before the evening’s “Best of Tennessee” program and returned to find the screening sold out; the afternoon panel discussion of Full-Tilt Boogie was nearly as full. If the festival is drawing this kind of attendance in the middle of the week, count on lines around the block for the rest of the weekend. Congratulations to NIFF executive director Michael Catalano and his team of assistants for getting out the word.
Oh, yes, the films. The documentary Frank Sinatra: The Bobby Sox Years was a big disappointment, a lazy treatment of the Chairman’s early apprenticeship with the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey big bands. If you’ve seen one A&E Biography episode, you know the drill: loads of “historical” stock footage overlaid with simple-minded generalizations. (One nugget of wisdom: “Frank Sinatra’s life was uniquely American.” That took research.) What’s more, the screening was hindered by barely visible, oddly framed video projection that broadcast the image at an obvious slantnot the ideal conditions under which to judge a movie’s merit. Nevertheless, I did get to see Ol’ Blue Eyes’ amazing rendition of “Ol’ Man River,” and there’s a choice snippet of Sinatra’s jaw-dropping World War II short “The House I Live In,” which proposes a novel strategy for building ethnic tolerance: bombing “Japs.”
The Cajun double feature that followed, “Annie & Eddie” and “Good For What Ails You,” suffered from identical problems: overlength (especially a willingness to let people ramble on lovably forever) and a substitution of quaintness for genuine substance. But each had its moments: a demonstration of alligator feeding and tending in the former, some nifty examples of alternative bayou healing practices (especially the homemade cough syrup and the spellbreaker) in the latter.
At least those weren’t as self-congratulatory as Full-Tilt Boogie, the documentary that tells you working on the Robert Rodriguez-Quentin Tarantino vampire flick From Dusk Till Dawn was even more fun than you thought it was. You don’t learn much about why the script was written, why the actors wanted to do it, or why it merited a two-hour behind-the-scenes documentary, but if you stick around long enough, you’ll see Juliette Lewis sing karaoke and George Clooney and Tarantino exchange spittakes. (Lewis and Clooney are engaging; Tarantino needs to avoid any substances that contain caffeine, sugar, or self-esteem boosters.) You’ll also see Harvey Keitel deliver a stultifying monologue on the art of acting and the actor as storytellerstrong stuff coming from a guy who’s playing a vampire hunter in a titty bar. To be fair, some fans in the audience told me they thought this was every bit as good as From Dusk Till Dawn. (Unfortunately, it is.) But the movie’s lack of perspective is maddening: it bashes the I.A.T.S.E. union for threatening to strike the set, but from the movie’s chronology, the strike threat apparently forced Dusk/Dawn‘s producers to provide health benefits for the crew. Kudos to the audience member who asked whether the two events were related.
Despite the tepid response to the movie, the filmmakers themselves came across well at the post-film panel discussion, sponsored by the Film Music Workshop (whose Betty Rosen served as moderator). Director Sarah Kelly passed along the reason Tarantino was glad the movie was showing at the NIFF (“I hail from fuckin’ Tennessee,” said the Knoxville-born auteur). Veteran music supervisor Lonnie Sill encouraged budding filmmakers to help their chances of landing a certain cut by building “artist to artist” relationshipsi.e., taking their case directly to the performer. Producer Rana Joy Glickman, who looked really cool in her spangled hat, likened the process of documentary filmmaking to “trying to assemble a puzzle without having the box top.” Local film composer Leonard Wolf was among the many musician/filmmakers in the audience; so was Bug Music’s John Allan (of Four Hundred amp-smashing infamy).
The standing-room-only (no exaggeration) evening show of works by Tennessee filmmakers was a mixed but pleasant bag. “Shatterhand,” by Brent Stewart and Greg Hallmark, had some handsome, moody Pixelvision camerawork in black-and-white, but it was hurt by stilted writing and acting and a melodramatic surprise ending. Stewart and Hallmark are talented guys, though: they’ll be back. “Obit,” by David McClister, used a popular student-film themethe last moments of a suicide victimas the occasion for some first-rate cross-cutting and strobe-light montage by editor Stacie Schwarz.
Schwarz also turned in commendable work on a late evening entry, Ken Carpenter’s likable, innocuous TV pilot Carter Raye. If we had a network, we’d pick up this less hormonal, better-written, appealingly cast Dawson’s Creek of a sitcombut nobody knew why it was showing at a film festival. Still, Schwarz was one of the heroes of the night. So was cinematographer Armanda Costanza, who worked on no less than four of the festival entries, including Peter Neff’s sweet, sentimental “Dear Mr. Goodlife,” which could serve as a location reel for the state and local film commissions.
Bob and Dominic Giordano’s scroungy tall tale “Blind Spot: A Grifter’s Fable” packed an entire movie’s worth of plot into its short running time, but its grubby low-key raunch was a breath of toxic air amidst the earnestness of the other selections. And Bobby Anderson’s popular “A Look in Her Eyes” created a modern-day fairy tale (in verse!) around a burly jock, a starry-eyed girl, and the slacker hero who worships her from afar.
The documentaries, however, were the brightest spots of the night. “Tradition,” by Scott Colthorp, is a Koyaanisqatsi-like rendering of a UT football game, which sounds just awful; but its amusing, at times astounding time-lapse shots of marching-band formations and traffic elicited laughs and applause, and it did something few of the other selections managedit recast familiar sights and events in a new light. Curt Hahn’s “Jubilee,” a promotional history of the Fisk Jubilee Singers that was filmed pro bono, has a lot of rousing concert footage and a house-rocking guest spot by the Fairfield Four, who command the screen in closeup as surely as Muddy Waters did in Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. A good advertisement, nothing more.
Best of all was “Tell About the South,” the first film in a projected trilogy about Southern literature by documentarian Ross Spears. The film boasts exemplary use of archival photos and music, intelligent narration that gives equal weight to African American and white literary traditions, and pointed interviews with everyone from Alice Walker to Pat Conroy. It gets unwieldy during the final section on Thomas Wolfe and Zora Neale Hurston, and the recreations of scenes from various books are unnecessary padding. But its superior qualityas well as its lengthy running timeshould’ve earned the film its own festival slot. Instead, it was tacked onto a bill that already lasted three hours, and during the first reel change most of the exhausted audience bolted.
Let’s hope they’ll regain their strength for the festival’s best days, which still lie ahead with The Cartoon Network’s Rarities show, Les Blank, Jeff Lipsky, John Pierson, and Saturday’s all-day block party. If you want to share your thoughts on what you’ve liked or haven’t liked at the festival, e-mail me at email@example.com, and I’ll post some of the responses. Or just tell me at the screenings. I’ll be the one with the red eyes and the zombified stare, unless I get to bed right this instant. See ya tomorrow at this same location.
Footnote: When I got there, a Belcourt staffer was dragging off the metal cans containing Taste of Cherry. The wondrous Abbas Kiarostami film turned out to be a surprise moneymaker during its five-day run at the Watkins Belcourt, thanks largely to Iranian patrons who traveled from as far away as Florence, Ala., to see itand no thanks to The Tennessean, which couldn’t even dredge up some pathetic wire review to cover one of the most important foreign films of recent years.
Day Two (Thursday, June 11)
“I don’t know what the word independent means,” says the pint-size moppet auteur in the funny Independent Film Channel ads that kick off each screening. You and me both, sister. Today’s Nashville Independent Film Festival lineup at the Watkins Belcourt brought one of Japan’s top-grossing animated features, which has been acquired (and dubbed) for home-video release this fall by those free-wheeling indie spirits at Disney. Later came a short presented by Fox and an hour-long promo for The Cartoon Network. The tangle of financing, acquisition, and ownership is positively Gordian. If you try to define what’s independent by weeding out anything with a taint of corporate commerce, you’ll probably consign yourself to a lifetime watching stick figures dance in a zoetropeor wish you had.
Me, I got no problem with a little commercial taint. One of the pleasures of Kiki’s Delivery Service, the Japanese animated feature that started yesterday’s round of screenings, is the high-powered vocal talent that fleshed out the round-eyed, round-edged character designsespecially the late Phil Hartman, God rest his soul, who made a scene-stealer of a skeptical feline sidekick. On the other hand, a nice thing about this feature by Japanese animation superstar Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke) is that its story is more than an excuse to market a bunch of toys and soundtrack albums. Kiki (voice of Kirsten Dunst) leaves her family at age 13 to pursue her destiny as a witch; fresh out of options, she puts her broom-riding powers to work by delivering cakes for a bakery. The character animation is a little stiff, but the pictorial effects of Kiki flying through the city are frequently dazzling.
The grade-schoolers who packed the morning screening started tuning out past the 90-minute mark. But they wolf-whistled when they got a flash of Kiki’s undieshey, I remember being in fifth gradeand they perked back up for the exciting runaway-zeppelin finale. When the credits came up, the two 9-year-old wiseguys beside me hollered, “Yay! It’s over!,” so nobody would accuse them of liking something so uncool. Nevertheless, they laughed every time Hartman’s Gigi the cat made a well-timed wisecrack.
That afternoon, I could either attend the highly touted documentary workshop at the Pancake Pantry (with The American Experience‘s Margaret Drain, P.O.V.‘s Lisa Heller, the Independent Television Service’s Lois Vossen, and producer Maxine Wishner) or the program of short subjects at the Belcourt. I heard the workshop was great (and absolutely mobbed), but I was glad I didn’t miss the shorts. Thanks to a lot of new venuesparticularly cable networks such as the Independent Film Channel, Bravo, and fX Moviesshort subjects are finding a wider audience, and filmmakers can stretch out and experiment in a five- to 10-minute format without the risk or expense involved in making a feature.
Which is helpful when you’re making something like Stephen Berkman’s “Room 103,” a black-and-white study of capital-P paranoia studded with Kafka in-jokes (it was shot in Prague), or Patrick Cady’s “Gossamer,” a dreamlike, largely silent whatsit that resembled a Jeunet et Caro remake of Eraserhead. The latter, which had something to do with urban alienation, glowing boxes, and pulsating cocoons, left a lot of people scratching their heads, including me. But I loved its burnished look, and its butterfly imagery holds together in a way that approximates dream logic. Chris Kairalla’s “Play the Game” makes obvious jokes about Madison Avenue as the province of alien invaders, but the jokes are still pretty funny, especially when we learn the horrible secret behind alien abduction: demographic research!
Even a short subject can go on too longhence “Nude Descending,” which flogged its one smutty joke about a nude model who’s worried his ying-yang will misbehave in front of an art class. That wasn’t true, however, of Corky Quakenbush’s “One Hand, Left,” which wrung every laugh out of its goofy premise (the rivalry between a concert pianist’s two hands) in an admirably brisk running time. Apart from “One Hand, Left,” my favorite was Perry Lin’s “17 Years to Earth,” in which an Asian-American girl’s diary reveals a lifelong exercise in self-delusion. Carrying the notion of the untrustworthy narrator to its extreme, Lin’s film finds a simple but effective way to handle issues of ethnic self-hatred and body-image obsession.
As soon as the crowd from that screening was emptied out onto the mean streets of Hillsboro Village, the mob in the lobby was ushered in for the animation fest, always the most popular single event on Sinking Creek’s schedule. The audience makeup was more diverse than in past years: the sold-out crowd had plenty of familiar scenestersactress Susan Davis, the Connection’s DJ Russell, Ormond Family chronicler David D. Duncan, members of Holtzclawbut there were also dozens of folks who’d probably never set foot in the Belcourt before.
That might explain why the program was so much fun. Once again, the shortest pieces worked the best: Tim Cheung’s sick, sick computer-animated “Gabola the Great,” which demonstrates why you shouldn’t just yank a rabbit out of a magician’s hat; Luke Jaeger’s free-associative “Five Dreams,” with its Secret Service wedding and commando attack on Arnold Schwarzenegger; Pavel Koutsky’s “Duel,” a clever collage that shows kids losing their individuality as they get literally funneled through a narrowing education process. Many of the cartoons expanded the form, including Jeff Scher’s staggering “Yours,” a psychedelicized riot of tinting laid over an old pop-song film clip; and Seamus Walsh’s macabre stop-motion “The Old Man and the Goblins,” a cross between The Nightmare Before Christmas and a George Pal Puppetoon.
After sitting through the endless “George Namahage,” an assaultive Japanese cartoon filled with electronic doinks, vomitous colors, and acid-casualty graphics, the entire audience felt as if its popcorn had been laced with angel dust. Luckily The Cartoon Network’s hour of rarities and outtakes came along to cleanse everyone’s palate. The program was somewhat misleading: many of the selections were promos familiar to the channel’s regular viewers, and none were especially risqué. Still, the audience roared at vintage Tex Avery and Friz Freleng propaganda shorts, relieved to be watching Daffy Duck and the Three Little Pigs instead of scowling Asian bogeymen.
The last show of the night was a screening of Jeff Lipsky’s feature Childhood’s End, and it’s too bad more people didn’t stick around to see it. Apart from cable, the festival circuit is the last best hope for risky, offbeat narrative films like this one, a frank, sobering, and very moving comedy-drama that follows three unformed high-school gradsa callow photographer, the daughter of the older neighbor he covets, and a painfully shy mutual friendas their careers, personalities, and sexualities take shape in the wealthy suburbs of Minneapolis.
Lipsky, the October Films cofounder here making his writing and directing debut, writes dialogue that is frequently awkward but more often penetrating and original. Just when you think a character has closed a conversation with some glibly cutting statement, a listener will fire back a “How so?” or “What do you mean?,” and a real knock-down/drag-out discussion will begin. His sex scenes are remarkably candid and intimate, and he makes effective use of Everytown locales (kitchens, diners, back roads) as backdrops for life-changing moments. Before the film Lipsky said he was fascinated by that last period in young people’s lives when they aren’t set in their ways, and he allows us to watch his actors sharpen and define their rolesthis is the rare movie about teens that doesn’t wedge every character into inflexible stereotypes. And he’s got a great eye for unusual but telling detailsthe squeak of gym shoes, the ways women of vastly different degrees of modesty undress. I didn’t expect to like Childhood’s End when it started. I didn’t expect to love it when it ended.
The post-film Q&A didn’t get going until a quarter to midnight, and by that time the 50 or so people left were absolutely beat. Lipsky, a direct, witty, and extremely approachable man, probably didn’t get as many questions as he would’ve liked, but his film was still warmly received. Asked if he would’ve picked up Childhood’s End if it had come to him at October, Lipsky said he definitely wouldwhich a couple of audience members said later they found hard to swallow. (I agree.) But Lipsky made an excellent point: despite all the conventional wisdom about getting a bankable star for your indie feature, the most profitable (and memorable) indie films have often had no-name castsIn the Company of Men, Clerks, She’s Gotta Have It, Stranger Than Paradise. Most people wanted to know what happened to the film’s terrific cast of largely unknown actors, and Lipsky passed on the depressing news that, after completing Childhood’s End, actress Heather Gottliebwho gives a wonderful performance as the shy Rebeccaquit acting altogether. Please, somebody, if you know Heather Gottlieb, urge her to reconsider.
The great thing about having a film festival in Nashville is that there’s no need to try to impress potential distributors, no need to hype Film A over Film B. All you have is a large audience that likes movies, likes moviemakers, and likes them both more every year. And as festivalgoers, we just want to see something we couldn’t see otherwise. I’m sorry Childhood’s End hasn’t found a bigger audience, but I’m grateful that it wasn’t given a token release and dumped into the back 40 of some megaplex. And I’m grateful to the NIFF for showing it here.
Friday brings Les Blank and Burden of Dreams; the Gay & Lesbian Mini-Fest; and the midnight showing of Juicy Danger Meets Burning Man. Also, Saturday is the big block party in Hillsboro Village, with the “Gonzo Filmmaking” contest open to anyone with a camcorder. See you tomorrow.
Day Three (Friday, June 12)
What’s in a venue? Plenty, as it turns out. Moving the Festival Formerly Known As Sinking Creek from the gated seclusion of Vanderbilt to Hillsboro Village has made a huge difference in the appeal and accessibility of the eventnot to mention the box office. In its first three days the Nashville Independent Film Festival has tripled the attendance of last year’s first three days. Thus far the festival has had at least three sell-out shows (the Best of Tennessee Wednesday night, the animation fest Thursday, the Gay & Lesbian Mini-Fest Friday), and except for the after-midnight screening of Juicy Danger Meets Burning Man every show I saw Friday night had at least 200 people in the audience.
I know it sounds crass to count heads. But I can’t help but wonder: Where did all these people come from? If 2,000 people will show up for movies they’ve never heard of, why won’t they turn out for Kusturica’s Underground or Melville’s Le Samourai when such films play regular bookings at the Watkins Belcourt? Maybe the framing device of a festival gives the movies the feel of a social event. If hundreds of people are taking a risk on seeing the same obscure features, they’ll still have a shared experience to discuss later.
That goes for kids alsonot the easiest audience to please with unfamiliar product. In the mornings, the NIFF shrewdly programmed unreleased children’s movies to take advantage of summer vacation and day care. It could’ve been a disaster, but the experiment worked: The theater was full, the kids were appreciative, and the festival gained exposure to a whole new audience. Plus Friday’s morning show, the locally filmed puppet comedy Lunker Lake, would’ve seemed out of place anywhere else in the festival. The Peppercorn Players’ galumphing yokel puppets were cute (though tailor-made for merchandising tie-ins), and Ruby Guidara’s clever production design managed to camouflage the puppeteers in a subtle way. The movie itself, however, suffered from slack pacing, dull linking segments by a surly A. Wilford Brimley, and human characters with all the charisma of potholders.
Still, the morning slot allowed the NIFF to recognize a Nashville-lensed indie feature, even if a minor scandal erupted when the film shut off before the closing creditsas all the crew members and puppeteers sat in the audience. “We’re gonna riot!” shouted someone who may have provided the voice of a talking fish. The moral of this story: Puppets have feelings too.
I missed the afternoon and early evening showsthe Lou Ferrigno doc Stand Tall; the music-video program; the feature Paradise Falls, which had excellent word of mouthbut I returned for the screening of Les Blank and Maureen Gosling’s 1982 documentary Burden of Dreams, one of the best movies ever made about the agony of making movies and the strength of will required to realize any artistic vision. The week’s previous features had brought in large crowds, and except for the roundly disliked Full-Tilt Boogie, they were generally well-received. But Burden of Dreams seemed to mark the moment when the festival became something more than a bunch of consecutive screenings.
Watching director Werner Herzog defy God and nature to finish his hellish production of Fitzcarraldoa process that entailed avoiding native warfare in the Amazonian jungle, coping with flash floods and quicker droughts, and dragging a steamboat over a hillthe filmmakers in the audience laughed and groaned out of sympathy. And yet there was a significant shift in the festival’s mood in the lobby afterward. Part of it was the sheer crush of people, which raised a heat even an electric fan couldn’t cut. Perceptibly, though, conversations were livelier and more animated, spilling over into the coffeehouse Fido across the street (where director Blank, a lanky, laconic figure with a Whitmanesque beard and a dry wit, retreated after the screening) or into the nearby brewpub Bosco’s, where the Jazz had Da Bulls singing the blues. All through Hillsboro Village, you heard laughter or music or excited voices. “This is the greatest thing,” said one Nashville director, who’d shouldered his own burden of dreams for the past year, juggling work schedules and a shifting crew base.
An even larger (and rowdier) audience turned out for the Gay & Lesbian Mini-Fest immediately afterward. Screams of laughter greeted Joel Moffett’s “My Body,” a frantic farce in which a repressed nerd’s night of passion with a hunky butcher leaves him with an indefatigable boner and the limp corpse of his closeted self. The slapstick is often more manic than funny, and it winds up with a maudlin resolution, but the film’s sheer speed and exhausting energy are something to behold. The only distraction was some kind of lovers’ quarrel in the row behind me: a man kept loudly comparing his partner to the erect hero onscreen, while his embarrassed companion hissed, “Behave!”
Jenni Olson’s “Blue Diary” combined nicely muted street scenes of San Francisco with melancholic narration, as a young lesbian reflects sadly on an all-too-brief encounter with a straight girl. (“I’ve been there,” groaned the burr-cut woman behind me, and several people laughed.) The piece was well-conceived, no longer than it should’ve been, and quite affecting. Tom E. Brown’s “Don’t Run Johnny” amusingly recaptured the stentorian no-budget bombast of vintage Ed Wood, as a Criswell stand-in invites us to observe a just-notified AIDS sufferer in spastic flight. The movie’s parody of Woodsian melodrama was met with uncomfortable laughter, especially by dazed viewers who’d never heard of Glen or Glenda? The final film in the program, Christine Russo’s “Virgin of the Sea,” seemed like some amateurish, badly filmed throwback to the late 70s, when cavorting queens lip-synching to Abba and “Lady Marmalade” might’ve seemed remotely daring.
The midnight show, Juicy Danger Meets Burning Man, followed Canadian performance artists Tom Comet and Christine Taylor on an epic road trip to the “Burning Man” festival on the alkali flats of Nevada. There, surrounded by thousands of spoken-word performers, art terrorists, and sunbathing pagans, they juggle chainsaws and bowling balls and make slaw by tossing heads of lettuce into a lawnmower. I remember catching Comet’s act a few years back with the Jim Rose Circus, and David Vaisbord’s film proves he performed all the most memorable stunts, including that ever-popular balancing-a-running-lawnmower-on-your-nose routine. The movie is simply a competent, unquestioning account of their journey and their act, but the footage of the festival supplies enough determined weirdness for three John Waters flicks. And the Burning Man, an 80-foot wooden sculpture that gets built and torched every Labor Day weekend, blows up real good. If you want surefire documentary material, young filmmakers, remember these magic words: performance artists burning stuff.
Saturday brings more Les Blank; an audience with The Maestro (not Kenneth Schermerhorn); a day-long block party on Belcourt Avenue; the “ABC’s of Independent Film” workshop with Coke Sams, Jeff Lipsky, and Peter Wentworth; and Topless Women Talk About Their Lives. We’ll save you some Milk Duds.
Day Four (Saturday, June 13)
Maybe it’s because Burden of Dreams screened the night before, but on Saturday the festival seemed to find its theme: What It Takes. At a packed Saturday morning panel on the ABC’s of independent filmmaking, Jeff Lipsky warned that three indie features are completed every day, creating a hopelessly glutted market. “Ask yourself, ‘If I don’t make this film, will I die?’” Lipsky said. “If the answer is no, don’t make it.” He added that too many first-time filmmakers put more creativity into their financing than they do into their films.
Lipsky bemoaned the lack of imagination of so-called indie distributors, who place undue emphasis on “saleable elements” like sex, violence, or minor stars. “They passed a law in New York that no indie film can be made without Parker Posey,” he said. While it’s less expensive to make a feature film now than ever before in history, he observed, the cost of marketing has grown by 50 times in the past 20 years. To beat the ridiculous cost of promotion, he advised indie filmmakers to work the press angle as imaginatively as they can. With the revived Samuel Goldwyn, Lipsky recently acquired an unknown French film, The Chambermaid on the Titanic, for distrubtion, and he said he planned to exploit the visibility of that other Titanic flick as much as possible. He went so far as to feed the New York Post a fake tidbit about a private screening of the film for all naval personnel during New York’s busy Fleet Week.
Producer-director Coke Sams, who’s currently completing his Nashville-lensed satire Existo, served as Lipsky’s foil throughout the panel, trading barbs about the role of the producer versus that of the filmmaker. Sams also stressed the need for the city and state to support their own filmmakers with tax breaks and other incentives, rather than begging for out-of-state crews to come here. “The investment community here is on the verge of critical mass,” Sams said, then confessed, “I’m just saying that over and over until it comes true.”
Yet Peter Wentworth, who produced two superb indie films, Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, said the term “independent” has been rendered meaningless. “It just gives you a better press angle now,” he said. “There are only two independent filmmakers working today,” Lipsky added. “One is Woody Allen, and the other is Stanley Kubrick.” Nobody else gets backing for movies sight unseen, he explained, or enjoys as much creative freedom. At least the panelists agreed on one thing: The most important aspect of film production is catering.
The audiencewhich included Tracy Gershon, festival judge Eric Mofford, film packager Andy van Roon, director Ken Carpenter, and Tim Ormond of Ormond Family exploitation fameswarmed around the panelists after the discussion, and I walked across the street to the Belcourt, just barely finding a seat for Saturday’s children’s screening, the locally filmed Amy Everhart. This pleasantly meandering tale of a caustic little girl who mails herself to a birthday party in Memphis had funny lines and situations, a fully created comic world, and more interesting child characters than any live-action movie Disney’s released for kids this decade. The film was a labor of love for Sam Stumpf, a Nashville lawyer turned writer and director, and the cast and crew was filled with Stumpfsincluding Kathryn Eleanor Stumpf as the heroine and Jean Elizabeth Stumpf as her resourceful but annoying little sister. The worst thing you can say about the movie is that the pacing is a bit slack and it goes on too long, but that was true of many other films at the festival that weren’t nearly as enjoyable.
After that came the “Young Filmmakers” program, which served mainly to spotlight the talents of brothers Noah and Preston Burger. Sixteen-year-old Noah directed “Clone(ing) Around,” an agreeably silly high-speed farce with ambitious special effects; 12-year-old Preston wrote, filmed, and edited “Tap: The Migration of a People and Their Dance,” which is a real feat of archival research and montage for a filmmaker so youngand it’s more fun to watch than Frank Sinatra: The Bobby Sox Years. Still, I was disappointed that most of the films were so conventional, the Burger brothers’ included.
Outside, the festival’s auxiliary block party lured neighborhood residents, Hillsboro Village shoppers, and bored teens past the NIFF booth and its tables of T-shirts. (Volunteers Janice Zeitlin and Dianne Naff were nicely broiled by the time I got there.) Several people ducked inside for the 4 p.m. screening of Stuart Gordon’s The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, but I needed a break from darkness and celluloid dreamsand besides, there was this cool table of Mexican wrestling masks. Besides, I was having too much fun eavesdropping on various movie conversations, especially the Belcourt staff holding forth on uncut Dario Argento movies and which Asian grocery stocks the best Hong Kong action flicks.
I ventured back inside, however, for the festival’s second showing of films by Burden of Dreams director Les Blank. His 1969 work “The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins” doesn’t try to wedge its subject, the great Texas bluesman, into a narrative or a chronology: the director figures listening to the man talk and sing is going to tell us more than word-of-God voiceovers or rote biography. Sure enough, Hopkins’ tall tale about a run-in with the law cuts deeper than any A&E Biography editorializing, and his music seethes with lust and a hard-won sense of self. (And mmmm, the smell of that barbecue.) Blank doesn’t try to give us Hopkins’ life in a half-hour. He gives us something better: a half-hour of Hopkins living.
Blank followed that with his 1994 film “The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists,” a sweetly admiring study of Gerry Gaxiola, an ex-bodybuilder who worked in advertising but quit suddenly more than three decades ago to devote his life to painting. “Art is a religion, not a business,” runs his credo, and true to his word he refuses to sell his vibrant Western scenes, even at his circus-like art shows. (“You’re a patient woman,” someone in the Belcourt’s lobby said to Gaxiola’s wife Alice.) After the film, Blank turned the podium over to The Maestro himself, who bounded down the Belcourt’s aisle to a scattered standing ovation and cheers. Throughout the festival, the charming, gregarious Gaxiola had appeared each day in a different spectacular hand-sewn leather cowboy outfit, but in his insistence on the integrity of pursuing one’s artistic vision, however seemingly strange or daunting, he sounded closer to Blank’s hero Werner Herzog than to William S. Hart. The Maestro proved so popular that his exit caused a bottleneck in the lobby, and he and Blank stood for an hour afterward in the street signing posters. (I directed Blank, an appreciator of all that is hot and holy in regional cooking, to Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, the thought of which caused the corners of his mustache to curl up and his eyes to widen. Unfortunately, when I drove out Dickerson Road after 1 a.m., I found a sign on Prince’s door saying it was closed for the weekend. Sorry, Les. Try again next year.)
I missed the comedy Merchants of Venus, but the consensus was that the NIFF got stuck with a dud feature because its star, Michael York, had agreed to show up. York canceled, which was a blessing in disguisehe has about as much business at an independent film festival as Richard Donnerbut it’s too bad the prime Saturday-night slot couldn’t’ve been better used. Especially when there are so many worthy indie/foreign films in limited release that have never played Nashville, any one of which would’ve been greatly appreciated. The festival has too few slots for this kind of politicking.
Topless Women Talk About Their Lives, the debut feature by writer-director Harry Sinclair, had its origins as a series of short films made for New Zealand television, and it zips along for the most part like a cross between Tales of the City and a very special episode of Friends, with more energy and little more depth. To the jangly bounce of a keen punk-pop soundtrack, a group of Auckland twentysomethings fall in and out of love, jobs, fidelity, marriage, and parenthood, striking it rich and getting wiped out in similarly random twists of fate. The best thing about the movie is Danielle Cormack’s dynamic performance as an unwed mother who misses her abortion appointment by a week.
By the end of the night, the scruffy hilarity of Phillip Glau’s Circus Redickuless came as a tonic. Glau’s no-budget documentary follows a ratty “circus” of talent-free misfits (led by impresario Chicken John) on an ill-planned tour across America. Punk rock is the last great adventure, sez one of the performers, but the ideal quickly goes sour in a succession of busted gigs, broken-down vans, and internecine conflicts over credit cards, drugs, and dishwashing. As Glau hangs tough with Chicken John for the ride, the movie becomes the flipside of Burden of Dreams: where Herzog ended up with Fitzcarraldo, Chicken John winds up with a buttload of debt and a bunch of angry carnies who won’t speak to him. The dismal audience response is no comfort. “They came expecting Cirque du Soleil,” reflects one performer, “and we gave them Cirque du Solame.”
Still, this saga of perseverance in the face of folly was the perfect close for my stay at the Nashville Independent Film Festival. I can’t see any of Sunday’s screenings, but I’ll post a list of festival winners and a brief wrap-up by mid-week.
It’s a Wrap
For berserk irony, it’s hard to beat hosting a celebration of independent film at Planet Hollywood. And yet here we all were, Les Blank and The Maestro, Armanda Costanza and Tim Ormond, festival personnel and filmmakers, peering around artifacts from Titanic and prop skeletons from Raiders of the Lost Ark as Split Screen host John Pierson made a short pitch for his series, the festival, and indie film in general. (This must’ve been a little different from his previous stay in Nashville 20 years ago, when he was chauffeuring Wim Wenders cross-country.) Pierson’s brief presentation, lit by the fireside glow of Planet Hollywood’s armoire-sized monitors, followed the festival’s award ceremony, hosted by an elated but sleep-deprived Michael Catalano, who accepted the handshakes and hugs of well-wishers with dazed gratitude.
Despite minor glitches here and there, the NIFF was a rousing success. Hillsboro Village restaurants were flooded with business; audiences and filmmakers alike had a blast; the reviving Watkins Belcourt received a huge shot in the arm. And the festival is primed to attract even better films and bigger audiences (not to mention more corporate funding, a mixed blessing if ever there was one).
Next year, maybe the festival can bring in more visiting filmmakers; expand the standing-room-only Gay/Lesbian Mini-Fest to a entire night; take advantage of the Watkins Belcourt’s second screen; and show another international entry or two. (Check out Film Comment‘s list of the Top 150 unreleased foreign films for suggestions.). For this year, though, the 29th annual Nashville Independent Film Festival showed that outside the mainstream, the tide continues to rise.
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