Natural Selection

At a spotty indie showcase, less is more

The numbers were down at the Independent Feature Film Market (September 17 through 24 at the Angelika and other nearby venues), which made the experience less daunting and depressing than in recent years for buyers and sellers alike. There were fewer pieces of gold than in the IFFMs of the early '90s, but at least one didn't have to pan through as much dross to find them.

Complaints about overcrowding and the poor quality of the films at last year's IFFM resulted in a new policy of selective admission. The cuts were felt most in the category of fiction features, where midnight-style flicks were notable for their absence, as were movies made by people who seem not to have any idea of what movies have been in the past or might become in the future. Most of the films I saw were doggedly derivative and earnest to a fault but, since almost every town in the U.S. now has an indie festival, many will have some sort of public life after the IFFM. Only a handful will make it to the big festivals, get a television sale, a distribution deal, or even a second look from newbie companies such as iFilm or AtomFilms that were shopping for pics to stream on the Net or sell from their sites.

The most useful aspect of the IFFM is that it immerses filmmakers in the icy waters of the marketplace. And if the experience chills inspiration in all but the most dedicated, that's probably to the good. On the other hand, what I dislike most about the IFFM is being left with the nagging feeling that I and everyone else have overlooked some truly talented filmmakers. And given that even this downsized market had over 300 entries, luck plays no small part in whether a film attracts notice or not.

In the fiction features category, the most interesting films I saw were Roddy Bogawa's Junk, Ken Yunome's island, alicia, and the Still brothers' Fawns. Junk is an apocalyptic, noirish Godardian romance set in an East Village that was disappearing even as Bogawa was shooting. While the film's experimental edge makes Indiewood distributors nervous, it's exactly what European festival film programmers look for but seldom find at the IFFM. Another obsessive romance, but more in the mode of Rivette than Godard, island, alicia has been trimmed since it played in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes in 1998.

A collaboration by the Still brothers directed by Victor Still, Fawns puts a great many serious ideas in play about race, power, sexuality, and art. The film has very little sense of pace, the cinematography is functional at best, some of the actors are terrific and others are just awful, and there are embarrassingly arty sequences. And yet, Fawns was the only film I saw at the market that had a sense of urgency from beginning to end. The Still brothers live in Jersey, but they are, in the best sense, from another planet; I hope the indie world will be hospitable to them, although I fear that will not be the case.

In Les Bernstien's Night Train, and Greg Watkin's A Sign From God, stylishness is not quite enough to sustain a feature. Set in Tijuana, Night Trainis a resourceful, nasty, no-budget Touch of Evil that should serve Bernstien well as a calling card. In A Sign From God, West Coast filmmaker Caveh Zahedi gives a wonderfully droll, deadpan performance as a filmmaker who's exactly like Caveh Zahedi. The film was shown in the rough-cut section; Watkin should bite the bullet, cut the last 20 minutes, and forget about trying to make it feature-length. Another compelling rough cut was Josh Aronson's documentary about deafness, Sound and Fury, selected for Sundance on the ''early admissions'' track.

With distributors picking up potentially commercial features earlier than ever in the production process, Works-in-Progress has become the hottest category at the IFFM. Set in a Florida trailer park community, Stephen Earnhart's ebullient Mule Skinner Blues (it's a cousin to Chris Smith's American Movie, but without any of the condescension) had distributors fighting to give him finishing money. Jennie Livingston's lesbian s/m musical Who's the Top? also excited interest, as did Jesse Moss's Con Man (about con artist supreme James Arthur Hogue) and Eva Ilona Brzeski's Last Seen, which has a certain resemblance to the boy-who-might-have-flown-out-of-the-window section of Todd Haynes's Poison. Jacqueline Garry's horror spoof The Curse, about a woman with such terrible PMS that it turns her into a werewolf, had a promising trailer. Fifteen minutes before the IFFM video library closed up shop, I popped a cassette of Scott Crowell's Stranger in the VCR and got a glimpse of what I suspect was the most expressive and accomplished filmmaking in the market. Strangerlooks a bit like a Tarkovsky version of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and Crowell has as lyrical a sense of sound as of image. I have no idea what the film is about—the protagonist seems pretty reprehensible—but it was an enthralling finale to a fairly lackluster week.

 
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