Little more than a week ago came the close of the Sundance Film Festival’s 40th edition. That festival had been founded to showcase and encourage independent (i.e. non-major studio) filmmaking, which it did—in fact the US indie scene grew exponentially during Sundance’s first decade or so, from a modest fringe to a major movement that resonated around the world. Of course that meant getting your film into Sundance became increasingly competitive, and even those who managed it weren’t guaranteed any further exposure once the festival ended.
So other festivals arose to fill those gaps, not least our own SF Indiefest (Thu/8-Feb. 18), which this week commences its own 26th edition. It, too, is largely centered on US narrative features, but there is also plenty of room for foreign titles, documentaries, shorts, and the odd participatory live event (including the return of the Anti-Valentine’s Day 80s Power Ballad Sing-A-Long).
There are some weighty entries this year, such as Shaun Dozier’s The Problem of the Hero—which dramatizes the conflicts that arose over staging Richard Wright’s searing race-relations novel Native Son on Broadway 80-odd years ago—or Graham Streeter’s Unfix, whose protagonist is still tormented by the childhood abuse inflicted at his parents’ “conversion therapy camp.” On the nonfiction front, there’s Laura Green and Anna Moot-Levin’s Matter of Mind: My Parkinson’s, chronicling three diverse participants’ struggle with that disease.
But unlike Sundance, Indiefest doesn’t particularly lean towards prestige or social consciousness—its emphasis has always been on the fun and adventure of moviegoing. That is borne out even in the relatively (by this festival’s standards) mainstream storytelling of its slick, entertaining official opening and closing night selections.
The dual openers this Thurs/8 at the Roxie are both directorial debuts: A sneak preview of Mar Novo’s Sisters has three Mexican-American siblings (Marta Cross, Valeria Maldonado, Virginia Novello) reuniting for a seriocomic pilgrimage recreating their grandmother’s journey decades prior; Shane Atkinson’s LaRoy is a small-town Texas black comedy a la Fargo in which our hapless protagonist (John Magaro of Past Lives and First Cow) finds himself neck-deep in a mess of infidelity, embezzlement, and murder-for-hire.
Closing night on Sun/18, also at the Roxie, brings Marc Marriott’s Tokyo Cowboy. This droll culture-clash exercise is about a stiff-necked Japanese corporate salaryman (Arata Iura) dispatched to a Montana cattle ranch his company has just acquired. Threadbare grasp of English is just the iceberg-tip of his troubles in grasping a business, landscape, and community unlike any he’s previously experienced. But rather than handily transforming those things to fit a predetermined profit model, it’s our hero who undergoes a metamorphosis. Taking full advantage of Big Sky Country’s scenic magnificence, this is one of several features in Indiefest this year either from or with a significant connection to Japan. Other include the sibling drama DitO and coming-of-age tale During the Rains.
Indiefest primarily takes place at the Roxie and the 4 Star, in addition to a Virtual Festival component available on-demand during that same timespan. With about 90 works of various length in the program, including a lot of in-person local talent represented and numerous themed shorts collections, we can only touch on a few further recommended highlights here:
Youth Must Be Served
Whether angsty or antic or both, the troubles of youth are much on the minds of many filmmakers in this year’s festival. That encompasses depictions of growing pains in Kazakhstan (The Boyz), North Carolina (Polecat), Tokyo (Dead Fishes, Push Pause), Russia (The Edge of the Broken Moon), and Pennsylvania (I Want to Live On Mars).
There are also related looks at contemporary mental health perils: Jessica Hausner’s Club Zero has Mia Wasikowska as a boarding school teacher whose notions of “conscious eating” have a disturbing, cult-like effect on impressionable young minds. Meanwhile in Danny Gevirtz’s I Think I’m Sick, track-team athletics, same-sex attraction, and suicidal ideations prove a combustive mix for one troubled teenage boy.
Sorry, We’re Dead
A particular bright spot amongst numerous titles of local interest this year, Alex Zajicek’s Bay Area-shot comedy manages to be terribly self-conscious about the quirks/conventions of indie cinema, and very funny about it. Lana Jing (Sarah Lee) is a film school grad whose creative endeavors are at a standstill while she’s stuck applying her skillset to the most stultifying job imaginable: That of “professional lecture editor,” cutting together the podium gurgitations of one interchangeable white male “expert” bore after another.
“I think I’m getting second-hand death by Power Point,” she complains—but then, she complains a lot. Her “quarter-life crisis,” exacerbated by a general sulky misanthropy, initially seems like a plotless series of in-jokes. But many of them are good jokes, and Sorry eventually does really go somewhere.
Other Indiefest features specializing in surreal and/or deadpan humor include another local product, Susie Moon & Eric Laplante’s Darla in Space, Paul Osborne’s cartoony Kafkaesque Fluorescent Beast and Jeremy Guenette’s Canadian marital meltdown Melaleuca. The festival’s Narrative Centerpiece presentation on Sat/10 is Joanna Arnow’s prodigiously titled The Feeling That the Time For Doing Something Has Passed, a bone-dry comedy of dysfunction in which the writer-director herself plays a New Yorker whose life runs a narrow gamut from office 9-to-5’er to haranguing parents to the least erotic BDSM relationship ever.
Few had a greater impact on postwar American (then global) home, workplace and public space than Eliot Noyes—though few also demanded so little in return, or saw their innovations so quickly taken for granted that they became virtually invisible. A disillusioned Harvard architecture student during the Great Depression, radicalized by the Bauhaus School’s new ideas, he became something of a design polymath in the years after WW2. Then, prosperity drastically escalated the nation’s hunger for the new in everything from decor to office equipment to advertising graphics.
As a consultant design director for IBM, producer of “the most advanced electronic machines in the world,” he had one major outlet for shaping all the above, drawing in more famous form-is-function creatives like Alexander Calder and Charles & Ray Eames. He even redesigned Mobil gas stations, taking them from cluttered to almost futuristically sleek. Yet eventually he was surprised to find his technology-driven aesthetic targeted as conspicuous-consumption wastefulness by the newly eco-minded generation that birthed the Whole Earth Catalog. Jason Cohn’s documentary provides an absorbing overview of an enormously influential yet popularly undersung career.
Other feature docs of note in Indiefest this year include Joel Fenderman’s Finding Lucinda, which follows trans farmer/musician ISMAY on a roadtrip in quest of the secret to idol Lucinda Williams’ singing-songwriting genius. In Ruth Leitman’s No One Asked You, sometime stand-up comedian and The Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead likewise takes to the road, albeit in an activist mode. Her mission is to utilize humor, theater and some starry friends in support of that generally none-too-funny cause, preserving abortion rights.
It’s been a while since Indiefest—or anybody—had a new feature from independent animation legend Bill Plympton. But his first such enterprise in nearly a decade proves to be one of his best. It’s a sort of western, in which the clashing interests of loggers, developers, a saloon-slash-bordello and some Hollywood visitors in a remote old-timey Pacific Northwest mountain town are further roiled by the arrival of the requisite Mysterious Stranger, a slide-guitar-playing enigma.
There’s plenty of music, scatological humor, imaginative sight gags, and more—including, this time, enough plot to sustain Plympton’s idiosyncratic sensibility for 80 minutes. While this hand-drawn delight is the only feature in its genre, the festival’s current edition also has animation shorts from Hong Kong, Germany, the Netherlands, Mexico and the US scattered throughout its schedule.
Fight Club 25th Anniversary
I still remember walking out from an advance screening of David Fincher’s Chuck Palahniuk adaptation a quarter-century ago, certain that everyone else had had the same exhilarating experience—until I noticed every 20-to-30-something bro in the vicinity muttering things like “That was weird” and “I thought it would be…I dunno, something else?” Fight Club did indeed fly over the heads of audiences expecting straight macho action thrills, as opposed to a mind-messing critique of the same, as well as capitalism, material acquisition, masculinity and other sacred cows of national identity. It was a famous box-office disappointment, but one that also quickly became a cult favorite, then a sort of classic. It entered the vernacular—and still there are people (even professed fans) who don’t quite “get it.”
This revival showing (at the Roxie on Fri/9), marking the 1999 film’s milestone birthday, will be preceded by an onstage discussion between longtime local columnist Broke-Ass Stuart (aka Stuart Schuffman) and Burning Man co-founder John Law about how SF-birthed “influential arts-provocateurs” The Cacophony Society influenced both novel and movie.
Also, what the hell kind of SF Indiefest would it be without reviving The Big Lebowski? Because that other late 1990s cult favorite is many people’s Rocky Horror Show, its screenings on Fri/16 and Sat/17 (both at the 4 Star Theater) will duly be accompanied by live antics from the Bawdy Caste, the long-running troupe normally devoted to all things Frank-N-Furter-ian.
SF Indiefest runs Thu/8 through Sun/18 at the Roxie and 4 Star Theaters in San Francisco, with many programs also available On Demand during that span. Go here for full info on films, schedule, locations and tickets.