Film Festivals: The Los Angeles Film Festival

Attend the Los Angeles Film Festival and you never quite forget that you’re in, well, Los Angeles. The nine-day event, which this year took place during the last week of April, is held at the DGA offices on Sunset Boulevard and Fairfax, mere blocks from the Paramount and CBS studios.

Down the road is the WGA building, where this year labor strike negotiations cast a palpable pall over the entire town. Mammoth billboards along The Strip pitch the latest upcoming summer releases, while inside the festival itself—despite the cajoling and near-begging of event organizers—the annoying bray of cell phones can be heard at just about every screening.

And while filmmakers get easy access to the industry, there’s a downside, too, to hosting a film festival in the heart of Hollywood. “Filmmakers can come to my office instead of meeting at a Starbucks,” says Arianna Bocco, vice president of acquisitions at New Line/Fine Line Features. But, she adds, “At other festivals, we’re out of town and forced by necessity to hang out and network. At the LAFF, a lot of us just end up going back to the office to work after screenings.”

An increased wariness in Hollywood about independent films and the concurrent economic anxiety has also had its impact on the LAFF, according to festival director Richard Raddon. “In the industry’s eyes, it used to be much cooler to be an independent filmmaker five or six years ago than it is now,” he says.

As a result, the LAFF made greater efforts this year to market the festival to the general public, employing more banners, billboards, and direct mailers to boost attendance. “The industry will always come,” says Raddon. “This year, we specifically targeted a general audience because they’re usually a much better indicator for the filmmakers of how a film will be received.”

By all measures, the LAFF had its best year ever. Attendance jumped to over 30,000, up from 27,000 last year. Wait-list lines often stretched the length of the DGA lobby. Festival programming expanded to nine days from six and included 21 world premieres. Submissions jumped to over 2,000 from 1,700 last year. By press time, at least two entries had been picked up: Jesse Peretz’s The Chateau, bought by IFC Films; and Marina Zenovich’s documentary Who is Bernard Tapie?, bought by the Sundance Channel. Several films were getting second screenings at studios around town for possible purchase. According to Raddon, 2001 has been their most competitive year in terms of quality of submissions.

It was also the festival’s most digital year. To mangle a line from Sunset Boulevard, the LAFF event is big, it’s just the pictures that got smaller. Instead of glossy, dramatic features getting all the buzz, ultra-low-budget DV productions grabbed a lion’s share of audience attention. According to Raddon, a flood of quality digital entries forced LAFF organizers to add an entire host of seminars, presentations, and “filmmaker dialogues” dealing will all things DV. “We didn’t set out to play digital films, we just wanted to play the best films out there,” says Raddon. “But when we saw how many of the films were going to be digital this year (a third of the programming was either digitally created or projected), we knew we had to talk about the state of digital filmmaking right now.”

And talk they did. At various seminars and post-screening Q&As, many of the conversations echoed the “how low can you go” braggadocio of the El Mariachi and Blair Witch years, with filmmakers boasting of the low budgets and high shooting ratios possible with DV productions. Dogme director Kristian Levring drew gasps and laughter from the audience when he admitted shooting 170 hours, with multiple cameras, on his latest digital project. Other DV directors described letting their cameras run for hours on end—sometimes, it seemed, just because they could. “I didn’t want to turn off the cameras between takes because we had little sound issues, so we just kept them rolling,” says The Chateau director Jesse Peretz (First Love, Last Rites).

The digital seminars drew huge crowds (including AIVF’s DV-to-35mm transfer presentation), although some audience members were less congenial than others. At the eye-popping “Digital Extravaganza” event, which offered side-by-side comparisons of feature film clips in both traditional 35mm and Digimax DLP formats, one film purist blasted the look of the digital versions. To be fair, many attendees admitted they couldn’t distinguish between the two, even when the subtle differences such as graininess or color saturation were pointed out.

When the seminar’s host told the audience that there would be 100 new digital projectors in theaters this year, one attendee questioned just who was going to pay for them. Others wondered aloud about the relevance of all this new technology to cash-strapped indie filmmakers.

While the digital seminars sparked lively debates and appreciative audiences—the rollicking “master class” featuring filmmakers Allison Anders and Kristian Levring was especially well received—the true stars of the festival, appropriately enough, were the films themselves. Here are a few of the standouts:

This year’s Critics Prize went to Kaaterskill Falls, a haunting look at the deterioration of a couple’s relationship during a weekend trip in the Catskills (not based on Allegra Goodman’s novel of the same name). The film set the standard for the “less is more” feel of the festival, with its 13-day shoot, two-person crew (Josh Apter and Peter Olsen served as directors, writers, producers, and editors), and ultra-low budget. The story itself was familiar: Contented yuppie couple is torn apart by the appearance of a mysterious, seductive stranger. But the strong cast performances and a compelling story line combined to create an edgy, unforgettable thriller.

Grabbing both the Audience Award for Best Feature Film and a special Critics Jury Award for Writing and Acting was Kissing Jessica Stein, one of the freshest and funniest films in the festival. Jennifer Westfeldt captivated audiences with her star turn as Jessica Stein, a neurotic, perfectionist copy editor (is there any other kind?) whose unrealistically high standards and a hilariously unappealing roster of dating prospects keep her from finding the “perfect man.” Heather Juergensen plays a smart, utterly appealing art gallery director who might just be that man—if she weren’t, of course, a woman. And therein lies the core of this sweet, insightful comedy.

Fresh from a successful outing at Slamdance, Virgil Bliss wowed audiences with its gritty look at a former convict’s attempts to go straight after a 12-year-stint in a New York state prison. Lead actor Clint Jordan, an ex-con himself, delivers a standout performance as Virgil, a career criminal who mistakes his first sexual encounter, a ten-dollar “date” with a drug-addicted prostitute, for true love.

Dark humor rarely gets any darker than this. Anthony Gorman, playing Jordan’s unredeemable halfway house roomie, is at turns hilarious and fiercely menacing, while Kirsten Russell’s haunting, multi-layered portrayal of a down-and-out addict struggling to win custody of her child never lapses into sentimentality. Joe Maggio has a winner with this passionate work, which marks his debut as a feature film director and was one of the festival’s best examples of the artistic potential of low-budget DV productions.

Ever Since the World Ended . . . evoked memories of the best Twilight Zone tales, employing a powerful narrative and a minimum of special effects to create a chilling vision of the not-so-distant future. The story is set 12 years after a plague has destroyed almost all of the world’s population. It follows the lives of a handful of survivors in San Francisco who have managed to cobble together some semblance of a working society.

Directors Calum Grant and Joshua Atesh Litle shot the film in a flat, documentary style, allowing the story to unfold through “interviews” with the survivors, most of them non-actor pals who were cast to play versions of themselves. For example, the doctor in the opening sequences who speaks so dispassionately about the spread of the disease is actually an emergency medicine M.D.—a strategic move that boosted both the richness and the believability of the film.

America So Beautiful also scored well with festival-goers with its story of an Iranian immigrant’s experiences during the height of the Iran hostage crisis. Set in Los Angeles in 1979, the film uses grainy archival news footage and seventies Disco classics to capture the schizophrenic mood of the times.

Another festival standout was Cookers, a frenetic horror movie about two crystal meth dealers holed up in an abandoned farmhouse with a huge stash of stolen amphetamines. At first, the protagonists twitchy, paranoid behavior—brought on by lack of sleep and their tendency to dip too deep into their own product—is played largely for laughs. But the paranoia is ultimately contagious, as the viewer starts to question whether all those shadowy figures and bumps in the night are real or just drug-fueled hallucinations.

The LAFF remains one of the top regional showcases for independent film, and attendees were upbeat about the future of the art form as well as the festival. According to Three Seasons director Tony Bui, “the climate has changed. Big actors are willing to invest time and energy into independent films.” Raddon agrees. “I constantly hear people talk about how American independent cinema sucks and how any festival dedicated just to showing North American independent films couldn’t be that great,” he says. “I defy anybody who actually came to the festival this year to say that. They’d be wrong.”

Robert Ito is a freelance writer and editor at Los Angeles Magazine.