Bright Lights Film Journal

San Francisco’s Indie Fest 2001

Some bright lights and a few dim bulbs distinguish this year’s preeminent indie showcase

Now in its third year, the IndieFest (formally known as the San Francisco Independent Film Festival) has become one of the more significant showcases for indie cinema. This field is becoming so ripe that it may eventually overtake mainstream movies, a consummation devoutly to be wished and one helped along by the plummeting prices of video production and the slow merging of the video look with the “real movie” look that comes from a 35mm camera.

Of course, content is still king, and no amount of visual legerdemain or budget can redeem a lack of imagination or a DOA script. This year’s fest has ample evidence, based on a sampling of a dozen of the features and docs, of both the highs and lows of the indie field, and as such is a good indicator of where the movement is now and where it’s heading.

As always, the documentaries hold special interest. One of the best in recent memory is on view in this year’s fest. For 900 Women, director Laleh Khadiv gained unprecedented access to one of the country’s most notorious prisons, Angola in southern Louisiana. Khadiv doesn’t sugarcoat the women’s crimes; she simply lets them tell their stories, offering a context for their incarceration that’s missing from cold statistics and reactionary media images. Another strong, though less successful, documentary looks at New York’s Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation. In Black and Gold, directors Rick Rowley and Jacquie Soohen trace the transition of this group from gangbangers to activists trying to rebuild their communities in the face of constant police harassment and brutality. The film compacts a complex history into its 74-minute running time, but the barrage of visual and aural pyrotechnics (endless double-exposures and a throbbing bass line) compromises some of the story’s power.

Yuppies in crisis is one of this fest’s recurring themes. Opening night’s Standing in Fishes, written, directed, and acted by Meredith Scott Lynn and Bradford Tatum, minutely details the romantic travails of sculptor Caleb and his overbearing girlfriend Erica. There’s some good dialogue “This isn’t sex, it’s two-party masturbation” and Kelsey Grammer has a fine turn as a queeny windbag movie director. Sexy Jason Priestly’s intermittent appearances as Caleb’s best friend provide a respite from some of the film’s eventually overwhelming bombast as Caleb and Erica argue, loudly, for what seems like hours. Additional troubled yuppies can be found in Rick Bridwell’s sumptuous Rendezvous in Samarkand. This travelogue-with-story has gorgeous location shooting in Africa and Europe that provides a diverting backdrop to a decent, if ultimately unsatisfying “ugly American” tale. John Littlefield as Randall is winningly handsome, but his nastiness to most of the people he encounters in his attempt to smuggle an SUV into Africa makes him one of the more unappetizing hunks in recent film memory. Another fucked-up male dominates P. David Ebersole Straight Right, a cliché-drenched but watchable story of a boxer whose memories of childhood abuse turn him into a vigilante who first beats, then murders, men in his neighborhood who are beating their kids.

On a more fey note, camp followers may want to sample John Michael Murphy’s Superstarlet A.D., but be warned. This homage to lipstick, hair dye, John Waters, Tura Satana, Bettie Page, The Time Machine, Mesa of Lost Women, and god knows what else is best left to completists in this area. Nonaficionados of the above will find the film interminable and irritatingly insular in its worship of the 1950s burlesque queen. At least the director had the good sense to throw in some hot dyke makeout sessions.

Speaking (as one must, always) of queer meccas, the housing crisis in San Francisco reminds us that New York’s is just as bad. East of A explores this idea by distilling ten years in the lives of three initially unwilling roommates who come together in a New York Loft. Reggie, the lone female, is a chubby chaser screwing the fat Japanese landlord and trying to make it as a singer. Chart is a drugged-out slacker but secret nice guy. Peter is an ex- priest on Prozac whose one gay tryst has repercussions in the delicate balance of this ménage. Amy Goldstein has crafted a consistently engaging tragicomedy of life in the big city. There’s a “specter of AIDS” motif, lots of hairstyle changes, and plenty of well-written, well-acted character-based comedy. Among many witty scenes is the treatment of Chart’s drug problems as Peter and Reggie attempt to send him to a “cheap Christian detox center”; typical of the film’s wry sensibility, he complains about the poor quality of his friends’ intervention (no food, no drama) before agreeing to be treated. The film’s one drawback is a protracted “miracle of birth” sequence that plunges it unpleasantly into bathos. This happens also in Standing on Fishes when hunky Jason Priestly waxes nauseatingly poetic about having a kid (“I want that little weight on my shoulders,” he blubbers). Maybe it’s an end-of-the-‘90s thing, but please.

The fest’s queer component is, with one exception, mostly a glimpse or two of a tired queen or dyke. Besides the lesbian moments in Superstarlet A.D., there’s the ever-welcome tranny whore in the video feature Hunger. Only diehard fans of Knut Hamsun, the Nobel laureate writer on whose 1890 novel this film is based, will want to suffer through this overcooked turkey. Kelsey Grammer’s assistant in Standing on Fishes is a screamer who flutters nervously when he sees sculptor Caleb’s much-discussed prosthetic vagina. The Real Gay Feature in the fest is Straightman, written and directed by Ben Berkowitz, who also costars as misanthropic, horny straight comic David. His best friend Jack (Ben Redgrave, who cowrote the film) is finishing off a straight relationship because, as we learn, he’s really gay. The title soon becomes ironic, as the story moves from the excesses of David (“straightman”) to the coming out of Jack. The latter process is rendered with grainy intensity, unabashedly showing Jack and a variety of tricks fucking their brains out in tearooms, alleyways, and stairwells. There’s plenty of dark humor, and Berkowitz doesn’t stint on the lurid, seedy nature of David and Jack’s world. But there’s also a humanity, a palpable bond between this odd couple, that gives the film a refreshing sense of reality, even when scenes run overlong or lose focus. This makes Straightman both absorbing in itself and proof that the IndieFest is a good place to look for solid cinema, queer or otherwise.