The Other Side of Indie at SF Indiefest's 9th

Max Goldberg February 8, 2007

The alarm has been sounding for some time now that “indie” simply doesn’t mean what it used to, especially when it comes to American cinema. Jeff Ross, founder and director of San Francisco’s Indiefest — opening Thursday for 13 days — simply ignores the cranky clamor, bringing the Bay Area another round-up of challenging, no-budget fare which eschews the gentrification of American independent cinema. One specific critique which consistently surfaced in this year’s Sundance slams was regarding the numbing sameness of much indiewood product (“The theme is relationships, beginning in angst and ending in reconciliation,” writes Richard Corliss in Time. “The focus is often on a dysfunctional family (there are no functional ones in indie movies) that strives to reconnect,” and in this respect especially, SF Indiefest is a welcome antidote in its unrepentant eclecticism. Grotesque neighbors feasting on their own sores, the discourse of black barber shops, Japanese garage rock, Bukowski barflies, frisky fundamentalists, a revived Shaw Brothers freak-out (“in stunning Thunderball Fist-O-Scope,” whatever that means), and we’ve only started.

Beyond Paul Giamatti’s starring role in Julian Goldberger’s “The Hawk is Dying” and Carrie-Anne Moss and Billy Connolly playing opposite one another in this year’s closing night selection, the zombie-comedy “Fido,” the film’s in this year’s SF Indiefest will largely be without familiar names and faces, meaning that filmgoers ought to expect to take each selection on its own terms. There is, of course, also Laura Dern’s labyrinthine performance in David Lynch’s latest mind-melter (and opening night feature), “Inland Empire,” but no matter how familiar audiences might be with Dern’s twisty face and Lynch’s expressionistic direction, “Inland Empire” resists any attempt at recognition or even legibility (Lynch has admitted in interviews that he made the film without a script, shooting scenes as they came to him). “Inland Empire”‘s aesthetic merits will take much bickering and a few master’s theses to sort out, but as a model of filmmaking — shot with the cheapest digital equipment and wearing its pixels proudly — it represents an unusually pure vision of independence. Lynch was one of indie’s progenitors (his early emphasis on the grotesque seems especially resonant), and now 20 years on, he remains an exemplar of a truth lost amidst the Sundance marketplace: that is, to be an independent filmmaker, one must act the part.

Documentary has become a major draw in recent years, and Bill McCullough’s “Cutting Edge” has the sort of slice-of-life focus that’s sure to captivate some. Set in a busy Harlem barbershop, McCullough’s film isn’t so much about haircuts as it about speech pattersn. One perhaps wishes McCullough challenged his subjects a little more, but he’s so savvy navigating the tight, cacophonous barbershop space that one forgives the film’s repetitiveness. Elsewhere in SF Indiefest, music docs rules, with ranging titles included like, “Darkbeat: An Electro World Voyage,” “Gypsy Caravan,” “Rock ‘N Tokyo,” “Counting Headz: South Afrika’s Sistaz in Hip Hop,” and, though music is only one of its foci, “The Ballad of Greenwich Village.”

Of course, even if the film isn’t a proper documentary, verityé technique can still be an important tool in making due with lack of funds, and so many of SF Indiefest’s fiction films (“Rolling,” “Dance Party USA,” San Francisco-set “25-Cent Preview,” and what’s being billed as the first film made in the Aboriginal language Ganadingu, “Ten Canoes”) share from-the-hip style and a preference for non-actors with their documentary cousins. Late-entry “Forgiving the Franklins” draws on another low-budget style (that of the soap opera) to lampoon Christian fundamentalism’s hypocrisies. The family of the film’s title are rigid and repressed until a car accident sends them to heaven and back. Refreshed from a meeting with muscle-bound Jesus, the survivors, much to the surprise of their churchgoing neighbors, embrace a newfound liberalness in their family values. The film makes its charge with pretty broad strokes and can be preachy in its own right, but director Jay Floyd has fun upending the sitcom schema, even if those fundamentalist sex scenes still seem a little icky to this secularist.

Speaking of ickyness, Graeme Whifler’s already notorious “Neighborhood Watch” is sure to please fans of gross-out horror; if you don’t have the money for great special effects, this vision of cheapo horror goes, then to do what you can to score with the sickest sh&* (and I do mean sh&*) imaginable. Needless to say, if you were looking for another reason not to move to the suburbs, do go see Whifler’s opus. If “Little Children” and the rest has you saying enough already, though, consider “The Shore,” Dionysius Zervos’s (that name!) quiet meditation on a family come undone in the lonesome seasonal swing of New Jersey’s boardwalked coastline. The coastal setting and central plot element of a missing child might remind some of “In the Bedroom,” but “The Shore” is its own beast, a sort of art cinema “Jaws,” with a finely honed sense of place and pace and cinematic compositions (remember the days of wide-angle long shots?) which offer a welcome respite from the television-inspired medium close-ups which seem endemic to much current low-budget fare.

I had never heard of Zervos before, but as an admitted sucker for European-styled ennui, “The Shore” is certainly one of my favorite films of the still-young year. A program like SF Indiefest’s can’t help but be inconsistent, and, indeed, there are sure to be films in this batch underwhelming in technique and concept, but there’s an upshot to the festival’s scattershot quality: the quality of not knowing what to expect when the lights go down. This level of surrender is increasingly hard to come by in today’s hype-saturated movie culture — think of how many films you’ve recently gone to pretty much knowing what’s in store — and in the case of a film like “The Shore,” it makes cinema feel like discovery in a way that the latest Sundance winners simply cannot.