What makes a film "independent?" From catch phrase to catch all, the term "independent" has ceased being descriptive. Most major studios have "independent" wings -- once Disney bought Miramax, the jig was pretty much up. But we still like to think of independent films as wild things, plucky pictures that will surprise and shock. Nowadays those pleasant jolts are few and far between -- there is a formula for "independent" films and those who abandon that formula are something else entirely. We haven't yet come up with a term for them.
The San Francisco Independent Film Festival traffics in those films upon which the "independent" label sits uneasily. Most of the work they show isn't safe or formulaic, and doesn't belong to that former category of independents released through the above-mentioned Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics, Warner Brothers Independent, et al. These aren't the overly-hyped little pictures with big stars feted every winter at Sundance, so what are they?
Well first off, there is the bizarre. The festival opens with David Lynch's Inland Empire and closes with Fido, a zombie love story. Everyone knows that David Lynch has spent his life depicting the sinister and surreal hidden at the heart every small town. From Eraserhead to Blue Velvet to Twin Peaks, Lynch has consistently produced stunning images alongside increasingly perplexing stories. He's not always successful. I personally didn't care much for the director's last few movies, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, which seemed more like parodies of David Lynch films than actual David Lynch films. But The Straight Story was perfection, so we know the master is alive and well and will at least provoke a response. I didn't get to see Inland Empire for this review, but by all accounts it's as bizarre as one would expect. You'll have to find out for yourself at the Castro Theater opening night, Thursday, Feb 8.
What I did see was a mixed bag. The festival provided a list of several works available for preview and I chose to watch three, so this is by no means a See's sampler of what's on offer at the fest, just the three that caught my eye. Two of them were documentaries, Karen Kramer's The Ballad of Greenwich Village and Tara Wray's Manhattan, Kansas. Kramer's film is an overview of the history of New York's Greenwich Village, including brief portraits of the interesting folk who lived there. The neighborhood has famously been home to a number of bohemian groups including the Beats in the fifties and the Folkies in the early sixties. The film cross cuts quite interesting modern portraits of contemporary residents with short pieces covering the almost 300-year history of the neighborhood. For those who have never heard of Greenwich Village, it's a pretty good primer. For anyone who has, the film's a bit of a snooze. I don't know why I expected to see something new about ground that has been so thoroughly trod.
A few words about Tara Wray's Manhattan, Kansas: what's the point? Wray has a problem with her obviously crazy mother, so she puts a camera in the poor woman's face and tries to trap her into being as wacko as possible. Tara, honey, we've all got issues with our parents. Nobody is perfect. Your mom has an obvious imbalance of some kind. It affected you negatively growing up. You're in therapy now, that's good, but do you have to share it with the rest of us?
Finally, and most satisfyingly, I previewed Mojave Phone Booth and was pleasantly surprised. It reminded me of the early days, when independent films played in smelly art houses frequented by malcontents and ne'er-do-wells. Mojave Phone Booth has "outsider" at the center of its soul. It's a quartet of thinly-related stories that unfold in the desert and feature lost, yet searching characters whose lives are complicated by deception, depression and despair. All of the characters interact with a mysterious phone booth stuck out in the middle of the desert. Folks camp out by the booth waiting for the phone to ring. For some reason, they can tell the stranger at the other end of the line things one would only reveal to a trusted therapist.
I loved how intricately the stories in Mojave Phone Booth ended up connecting. They are held together with tape, literally, audio and video. The quartet begins with Beth, who is obsessed with all the pieces of audio and video tape she finds blowing in the desert wind. It rolls along the ground and gets trapped in bushes and trees. Beth wonders what's on the tape. Does it contain sad parts of other people's lives or messages from some alien species dropping bits of tape onto the earth, just as our technology has moved beyond the ability to play it back? Beth is also dealing with commitment issues, which is a problem for most of the characters in the film. Mary loses her job and learns that her best friend is a prostitute. Alex's lover Glory believes her body is covered with leach-like aliens from outer space and becomes involved with a man who claims to have a recording that will remove them. Richard can't accept that his wife never really loved him and vows to make a video proving that she did.
Mojave Phone Booth is deeply working class. Even though some of the situations sound a bit crazy, they are played straight -- by pros. The cast is made up of actors who have been around for a long time (mostly on TV), actors one might think of more as journeymen than stars. Everyone is familiar and seems to be playing off of a "washed-up" quality, which is actually very important to the tone of the film. There is something weary about the characters, as if they are trying to stop acting, to free themselves from the scenario they are currently playing out. The cast seems to be using their own familiarity to capture that feeling. Mojave Phone Booth reminded me of a Polaroid picture slowly being bleached out by the desert sun. There's just one catch: Mojave Phone Booth is screening Feb. 10 at 7pm and Feb 18 at 12 noon at the Victoria Theater (a venue that should be abandoned for film screenings as the sound there is so terrible.)
The San Francisco Independent Film Festival runs February 8-20, 2007 at various Bay Area theaters. View the festival catalog (at sfindie.com).