Cause for Celebration
After 30 years, the Nashville Independent Film Festival hits its stride
By Jim Ridley
JUNE 21, 1999: Near the end of the fifth and final day of the biggest year in the Nashville Independent Film Festival's history, executive director Michael Catalano let out a sigh of relief and said, "This is the year everybody finally got it." It certainly wasn't the year everybody got in--by last Friday, the festival had so many sellout shows and so large a waiting list that the NIFF stopped taking ticket sales over the phone. But it was the year that everybody seemed to realize just what kind of galvanizing impact a successful, well-organized film festival could have on the city in general and the film community in particular.
Why Nashville needed 30 years to reach that conclusion is a mystery. In its earlier incarnation as the Sinking Creek Film/Video Festival, the NIFF had been bringing noted films and filmmakers to town since it moved from Greeneville to Nashville in 1972. If not for Sinking Creek, local audiences would've had a hard time encountering the likes of Kenneth Anger, D.A. Pennebaker, Frederick Wiseman, or Ed Emshwiller on a big screen. And yet, even though the festival was supporting independent film long before the term was abused, Sinking Creek's attendance dwindled in the mid-'90s--the same time the film-festival circuit was exploding across the country.
The name change two years ago--along with the hiring of Catalano, changes on the festival board, and the event's departure from Vanderbilt's sepulchral Sarratt Student Center--marked the pivot point in the Nashville Independent Film Festival's turnaround. However, it was this year, the festival's 30th anniversary, that gave Catalano and the festival board the kind of mandate that permits unlimited growth. Where last year's festival at the Belcourt drew more than 4,000 people--a whopping 94-percent increase--this year's NIFF at Regal's Green Hills Commons 16 megaplex nearly doubled that figure, according to inexact early estimates. This despite the fact that Regal's two smaller screens added up to only 15 more seats than the Belcourt's one auditorium last year.
As the weekend went on, the news just kept getting better. Three selections by Nashville filmmakers--Coke Sams' Existo, Marvin Baker and Ann Gillis' Films That Suck, and John Lloyd Miller's "I Still Miss Someone"--caused such a demand for tickets that additional screenings had to be scheduled. Miller's short film, a feverish slice of country noir driven by Mark Collie's uncanny performance as a sweaty, pill-popping Johnny Cash, sold out thrice. For the first time in its recent history, the festival sold out multiple shows on Sunday, and Regal's downstairs lobby, outfitted with widescreen TVs and trade booths and giant floral arrangements, buzzed all five days with conversation and laughter.
When Catalano says everybody got it, he means that for the first time, audiences, filmmakers, and bean counters alike could see tangible benefits from the film festival--the same benefits found in cities like Austin, Minneapolis, and San Francisco, which have flourishing festivals of their own. One of the biggest winners was the Regal megaplex itself, which needed the boost. A Regal employee said at one point during the weekend that concession sales were up by 40 percent, and weekend shows of quasi-arthouse items Cookie's Fortune and Tea With Mussolini were mobbed with festivalgoers who couldn't get NIFF tix.
Which just makes you wonder: Where are all these people when a movie like The Dreamlife of Angels plays in general release? If Regal hadn't dumped the stunning French drama on Thursday, the film might've found its deserved audience during the weekend. Maybe next year the megaplex will take advantage of the NIFF--and the opportunity to build a steady, year-round audience for indie and foreign films--by programming four or five arthouse titles to soak up the overflow, instead of relying on creaky summer blockbusters weeks past their opening.
The most dramatic demonstration of the festival's potential, however, involved the feature Dill Scallion. The surprisingly tart country-music satire, written and directed by Jordan Brady, screened on Friday night to a full house that included Regal VP Phil Zacheretti. So taken was Zacheretti with the film that he reportedly booked it on the spot for a Nashville theatrical run in a few weeks; its poster was moved from a far wall to the theater's lighted bank of coming-attractions posters.
A similar stroke of good luck befell two of the festival's most popular entries, Existo and "I Still Miss Someone." The festival prizes picked up by these two films included bookings at Regal theaters in Atlanta and other cities. In essence, Regal and the NIFF are building a model for the sort of alternate distribution system that could give true American independents a fighting chance in the marketplace.
Marketplace, shmarketplace; what about the films? I spent close to 48 hours at the festival over four days, and I saw about 70 films; even so, I still managed to miss many of the prize winners, such as Matthew Mailer's drama The Money Shot and Kyle Rankin's widely admired short "Pennyweight." That said, just as audiences and reporters walked away from Sundance and South by Southwest this year bemoaning the scarcity of quality features, too many films I saw at the NIFF last weekend reflected a general indie malaise.
In a well-attended morning panel, screenwriter Carol Caldwell wryly noted that all stories can be boiled down to two basic premises: We left the house, or A stranger came to town. I'd append that to say the festival circuit is clogged with films, long and short, that fall into two categories: I can't get a date, or I can't get a three-picture deal. The most entertaining of these was Robert Meyer Burnett's Free Enterprise, which suffered from typical indie vices but treated its Star Trek-obsessed fanboy heroes with warmth, good humor, and loads of firsthand insight. Best of all, it boasted a very funny turn by William Shatner as one Bill Shatner, a slightly vain, klutzy ham whose dream is to film a musical Julius Caesar--playing every role himself.
Other features were a mixed bag. The familiar but satisfying Possums, the tale of a defunct high school football team revived by its former radio announcer (Mac Davis), offered plenty of Mighty Ducks underdog clichs, but it also had a keen sense of place and an ending that's revolutionary for the genre. Jim Rumsfield's The Rest of the Oyster petered out long before its farcical finish, but its ribbing of backwater Laweeziana politics and low-budget TV advertising earned some big laughs.
The biggest rulebreaker among the features, I say with hometown pride, was Existo, Coke Sams and Bruce Arntson's musical fantasia about a performance-artist superhero (Arntson) who rouses from inactivity to wage war on the Religious Right, the forces of complacency, and the opponents of arts funding. The movie combines show tunes and topical satire, two ingredients guaranteed to give studio bosses hives; if you pitched it as Rocky Horror meets Bulworth, with a strong dose of Twin Peaks' second-season delirium, you wouldn't be far off the mark. With its mix of political commentary and loony flights of fancy--e.g., a production number that finds the priapic hero boinging madly on a penis-shaped pogo stick--it's the most original American indie I've seen all year.
Existo has been likened to a John Waters movie, and the comparison holds for good and bad. As in Waters, belly laughs and hilarious shock effects are surrounded by stretches of indulgence and borderline incoherence. The danger of doing topical humor on film, which requires years of development, is apparent in some of the movie's satirical barbs, which would've worked like gangbusters before the collapse of the Republican Revolution but now sometimes seem vague and shelf-dated. (I bet Sams and Arntson freaked last year when Newt Gingrich fell on his sword.) Plus I wish the movie didn't draw such a self-congratulatory distinction between its own presumably hip audience and the only representatives of "the people" we see onscreen: a pair of TV-suckled yokels with (literal) dip for brains.
Still, there are genuinely funny performances by lots of local thespians; the extended sequence that depicts the Existo gang's art war is a riot in every sense; and Sams ends the movie with a burst of energy and wiggy abandon. Give him and his colleagues credit for shaming the ambition of most current independent films, and extra credit for putting their pocketbooks where their politics are by shooting the film entirely union. That's something Michael Moore can't say.
Documentaries, on the whole, were much stronger than the features, even if the same devices and techniques turned up in film after film. (Henceforth, a ban is declared on all shots of the middle lines of a road.) Paul Jay's Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows, the long-form documentary prizewinner, generated more suspense, humor, and moral ambiguity than most of the festival's fiction films by following straight-edge wrestling superstar Bret Hart's decision to leave the WWF. The excellent PBS series P.O.V. was represented by two fine docs: the short-form festival winner, "In My Corner," Anne Sundberg's powerful account of trainers and young boxers at a South Bronx gym, and Ellen Bruno's "Sacrifice," which documents the exploitation of impoverished Burmese girls in illegal Thai brothels.
Even better matched were Laura Harrison's "Secret People," a fascinating study of the inhabitants of the U.S.'s last government-run facility for leprosy, and Richard Kotuk's "Travis," which followed a young South Bronx kid's heartrending struggle with AIDS and constant pain. Putting the two docs on the same bill created a compelling meditation on our national phobias of disease and "the other," and our readiness to attach biblical significance to medical phenomena.
The most unexpected find among the documentaries was "Newcomer," New York filmmaker Glenn Lazzaro's portrait of Greg Garing, the bandleader and hillbilly-music enthusiast whom many credit with sparking Nashville's honky-tonk renaissance on Lower Broad a few years ago. Captured in electrifying live footage--both at his current club residence in New York and at staged jam sessions here with Royann Calvin, Justin Thompson, Preston Rumbaugh, bluegrass great John Hartford, and others--the gaunt, spectral Garing makes a gripping camera subject, never more so than when he's railing against Music City's enervating apathy (which may explain the tepid applause the film received). But if Lazzaro presents Garing in the most flattering light imaginable, he also lets Hartford gently question just how bad Garing had it here after all.
As usual, the shorts provided many of the festival's best moments. Oddly, the shorts with the most resources, longest running times, and biggest-name casts often proved the worst (such as the awful "Mulligans," a sour comedy with Tippi Hedren and Marcia Rodd as drunken golf widows). On the other hand, Charlie Call's "Peep Show" was a perfectly realized goof on what women want from men, while the ingenious French film "Exit" altered its narrative according to the changing variables in a mathematical formula.
The festival's most baffling point was the evening of gay/lesbian films. Queer cinema has provided plenty of startling, challenging work in recent years, but you wouldn't have known it from the program, which ended with not one but two lengthy educational films made by and for teenagers. Not only would the films have been more appropriate in the Young Filmmakers program; their inclusion treated the adult audience as if it should be grateful for anything with a gay theme. Their presence was as jarring as the promotional film for Nashville's movie industry that preceded the night of shorts by Tennessee filmmakers. Save the cheerleading for a trade show, not a film festival--at a film festival, the work should make all the claims for the region's capabilities.
That said, the Nashville Independent Film Festival is providing the kind of platform that would make such work possible. The exciting thing about the NIFF this year wasn't so much any one film, program, or award. It was the awareness that when Nashville filmmakers begin to produce films regularly that can compete with the best being made throughout the world, the festival will provide a place where they can be shown and appreciated. That's why, despite its most successful run ever, the Nashville Independent Film Festival must raise its standards higher every year. As it proved last weekend, 30 years after its inception, from now on it'll be setting a mark the rest of the city will have to reach.
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