Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the Independent Feature Project is hosting a film festival, underwritten by Dockers. You may have seen the attractive banners and print ads. They say “Classically” in large letters across the top and “Independent Film Festival” down the left side and across the bottom in slightly smaller letters. “Dockers Khakis” appears twice. “The Independent Feature Project” also gets credit at the top— but in lettering so tiny that, were the poster an eye chart, it would be outside the range of normal vision. Similarly small lettering is reserved for the logos of the other sponsors: Macy’s, the Independent Film Channel, and United. In short, it’s clear who the big spender is here.
But what kind of bang is Dockers hoping to get for their bucks? Consider that Dockerish word classically and the scratchy drawing of antiquated filmmaking equipment that occupies the center space of the main ad. They are meant to suggest that there’s something both retro and quintessential about independent film and, by association, about Dockers khakis. The Gap used an identical strategy in their khakis campaign a few years ago, the one that featured ’50s photos of Andy Warhol and James Dean wearing boring, baggy, beige pants. But Warhol and Dean were indeed classically American artists. In associating itself with them, the Gap suggested that it aspired to their classicism, and that by wearing its boring, baggy, beige pants, you would signal similar aspirations. American independent film, on the other hand, has too amorphous an identity to sustain a classical moment or to allow any single film to be seen as quintessential. If advertising were an honest game, Dockers would admit that it hadn’t bought into a classic but, merely into the decade’s hippest fantasy— being an indie filmmaker.
And what do moviegoers get out of Dockers’ investment? The opportunity to see 10 Amerindies— six revivals and four fresh and unreleased— in three days. The revivals include Jennie Livingston’s exuberant and, in retrospect, horribly sad documentary about the transvestite ball scene, Paris Is Burning (1990); Carl Franklin’s tense, haunting, neonoir One False Move (1991); and what’s still Hal Hartley’s best film, The Unbelievable Truth (1990).
The new films are not as compelling, although Cauleen Smith’s Drylongso (Ordinary) comes close. Smith brings a terrific sense of place and a complex understanding of character to this coming-of-age film about a black college photography major whose project is recording the men who die young in her Oakland neighborhood. The film is suspenseful despite or perhaps because of Smith’s refusal to play by Hollywood narrative conventions.
Eric Bross’s Restaurant has an intense, neurotic, sexy performance by Adrien Brody as a Hoboken bartender and aspiring playwright who only falls for black women (Lauryn Hill puts in a brief appearance as his ex, which, as an indie casting coup, is not as memorable as Susan Seidelman choosing the pre”Like a Virgin” Madonna for one of the leads in Desperately Seeking Susan). Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen’s On the Ropes is an appealing, though conventionally made, documentary about three fledgling boxers (one of them female) and their coach. And Scott Ziehl’s Broken Vessels is a dark male-buddy picture about dissolute paramedics in L.A. It’s something like an episode of E.R.— but with lots of drugs and unlikable people— that glibly resolves into a 12-step tale from the trenches. That any of these films is being considered a classic could only be a joke, albeit not one that would make you split your pants laughing.