As with most American cities, there is a war for the heart of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and as expected, it largely involves money. On the one hand, you have a culturally rich downtown, complete with expensive hotels, top resorts, museums, classy restaurants, and wildly overpriced boutiques and art galleries. On the other, you have the dull, monotonous outskirts, which are littered by strip malls, nothing more upscale than a Motel 6, and endless rows of chains, filth, and litter. The Santa Fe of legend, and the one that continues to draw artist, tourist, and wealthy retiree alike, is a striking place indeed, even if the city square is teeming with scruffy vagrants, semi-conscious Native Americans peddling 244 varieties of turquoise, and the requisite nonsensical protest, which, on the weekend of our visit, appeared to have something to do with Darfur, but is not above bringing the WWI-era slaughter of Armenians into the mix. All told, it is the part of town people fall in love with at first glance, and is the primary selling point for one of the nation’s smallest state capitals. Adobe defines the scene, as it does everywhere else, but here, there’s a dignity to the sameness, adding a quaint charm to the surrounding’s unavoidable ability to set the mind and body at ease. As such, there’s a quiet defiance to Santa Fe; a resistance to bloat and mindless development, but an understanding that cash is still the magic that makes the world go ‘round.
Drive a short distance from the city center, and you’ll find pockets of solitude and beauty, but just as likely, you will encounter the underbelly of a region that prides itself on sculpture, canvas, and world-class opera. Grime and grit await all who venture forth, as well as the occasional narcoleptic drunk who finds nothing odd about hovering on the verge of collapse in the dead center of an empty parking lot. Take a walk through the trashy mall near the edge of town and behold the hoochie explosion, where every female of the Hispanic persuasion is primed for employment at the nearest strip club. Crispy hair tumbles forth with all the majesty of a diabetic preschooler, also in tow by the dozens. There is madness, noise, and impending pregnancy afoot, and it is a striking contrast to the downtown’s artistic bent. Not surprising, then, that the annual film festival, held in nine venues dotting a few square miles, is a downtown affair, both in attitude and attendance. While Hispanics constitute nearly half of Santa Fe’s population, I failed to see a single Latino at any festival event. What this proves I leave up to the reader, but by all accounts, there is a racial and class divide that the city fathers fail to acknowledge. Is Santa Fe but another example of an American town comfortable with its brown members scrubbing and shuffling behind the scenes, when deference to decidedly white capital is its primary function? Hardly, as many of the artists themselves are both Mexican and Native American, but do they exist solely for exploitive purposes? Where do they go after they ply their wares? Are they to help furnish an image, only to avoid active participation altogether?
Despite my extensive background in sociology and years of training in the field, answers to these questions continue to elude my keen insight, and will likely go undiscovered for generations to come. And are they really all that important anyway, given that I was staying in a delightful villa with dual showerheads and heated floors in both the bathroom and kitchen? What’s more, there was a heated towel rack, as well as complimentary champagne and caviar. And what in the blue blazes was in that cheese? And hell, didn’t Santa Fe pride itself on living wage legislation, ensuring success and fulfillment for all who dared to live the dream? The “other” could take care of itself for the time being, and I had every intention of ignoring its cries for the duration of my long weekend. Santa Fe has come to feel like a second home in many ways, and hobnobbing with its well-dressed and well-heeled was about as class conscious as I was going to get. Sure, I might dine in a dive of a pizza joint for the hell of it, or even travel the dozen or so miles to the Camel Rock Casino, where I would throw all forms of caution to the wind as I craftily snuck away with thirty American dollars through my preternatural gift in the art of roulette. Who could have foreseen that I would hit not one, but two numbers with a single fifty-cent chip, thereby ensuring a wary eye from a nervous pit boss? Sure, there were leathery drunks and gravelly-voiced ghosts from the rez to contend with, but one must get dirty in order to appreciate the good life, once attained. Flush with dough, the movies called us home.
Off the Rocker: The Senior Side of the Strip
Martin Scorsese’s Casino was but half the tale. Apparently, under cover of darkness, though not later than 5pm, aging lions and their female partners are dancing to dizziness, all in defiance of the maxim that old people spend their days and nights forcing others to listen to their maladies and failures to have bowel movements. Shockingly, and much to my eternal embarrassment, these octogenarians and their younger compatriots have more energy than I have ever known, and have no shame in proving it again and again. Set to the music of an aging lounge act that would embarrass Frank Sinatra Jr., these wacky gray panthers spin, twirl, dip, and even simulate sex when the time is right. And sex! My god, to hear these men speak, you’d think shattered hips and bad tickers had never crossed the paths of the aged. One gentleman in particular, a randy old coot with the libido of a teenager, speaks of intercourse so loudly and so often that I half expected him to attack his girlish partner right on screen. Tucked inside the bawdy adventurousness is a trite message about “staying young at heart,” but that’s not half as important as knowing that prunes with canes are getting more pussy in a weekend than any random year from my entire existence. But I’ll be damned if these oldsters didn’t win me over, and even though I hated their optimism, pluck, and financial security, they at least had the good sense to avoid being burdens to their children.
In keeping with the theme of defying age, this little 33-minute short film made me even more depressed, as I watched women past the age of 100 do more in an hour than I do all week. All in their 90s or well past the century mark, these grand dames painted, played piano, strolled around town, and quite clearly, hadn’t lost a single mental step. They were defiant, opinionated, and talented in turn, though I rarely considered their contributions, as I couldn’t help but calculate how long these fuckers have been collecting Social Security. Still, if they are passionate about life, why not hang around? The film proves conclusively that one must care about something in order to remain in the world, which is curtains for the likes of me, as I gave up the ghost after college. What will motivate my crusty heap when I get along in years? And hell, these people have also suffered, outliving everyone in their midst, even their children. I’ve lived a cushy, unchallenging existence, and couldn’t generate one-tenth the enthusiasm as the woman born during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. So yes, I admire the hell out of them, and tip my cap to their tenacity. Let’s just keep it a novelty, though, lest we go bankrupt before I collect my just rewards from Uncle Sam.
Despite not having the stomach to sit through this film’s entirety, I did manage to stay long enough to experience a laughing fit so intense, I was still wiping away tears while I was storming out in protest. The movie, while containing a decent premise (what if the aliens of 1947 had actually landed a century earlier?), could have contained the lost footage of The Magnificent Ambersons and still not risen above its piss-poor production values, which were akin to some nitwit turning on his archaic camcorder and asking his friends to vamp with little, if any, conviction. The acting was dreadful, though nothing in an entire box set of Ed Wood cheapies could touch the waxwork trying desperately to sound Irish, even though her accent sounded like every other language but the one she was trying to emulate. Line readings were awkward, when not soaked in eye-rolling incoherence, and to make matters worse, the best performance was by a black chick pretending to be an Indian. She did little but sniff horse dung and dash about without direction, but she did her best with an obnoxious role. Was it a farce? A deliberately campy exercise trying to take the fish out of water theme to new, ridiculous heights? Maybe, but when an obscenely tanned meth addict, trying her best to be a can-can dancer, passed in front of a framed portrait of President Lincoln, when the very title told me it was 1847, I lost it completely. My howling might have offended fellow patrons, but by that time, so many of them had left the theater that I was all but tickling myself before an empty house. Some might argue the picture was a deliberate anachronism, but given the incompetence in every other area of the production, I chose to believe it was an unconscious mistake. I doubt these dullards knew better.
In twenty-six nearly unbearable minutes, director Shannan Keenan replayed David Lynch’s The Straight Story, leaving out that film’s quiet power, charm, and originality, and substituting near-toxic levels of sentimentality, rambling self-importance, and pointless predictability. Christ Almighty, even the music was the same! Some old coot wants to make “one last ride” on his horse to visit his wife’s grave, and neither rainstorm nor a fall in a river is going to stop him. He camps, reflects, and waves to passersby, all to our collective boredom and frustration. One wonders why people wait all their lives for that big break, only to wallow in cliché and the decidedly unnecessary. By the end, when the geezer sits graveside to utter more banalities, I wondered why he couldn’t flip around in a rage, strip naked, and send his Appaloosa to the great beyond. It wouldn’t have made a lick of sense, but at least it would have been original.
Shooting fish in a barrel doesn’t begin to describe any depiction of LARPers and their wacky happenings, but who knew this shit was so damned confusing? Focusing on NERO Seattle, a ridiculous gathering of fantasy-obsessed nerds and overgrown teenagers, the film is both sad and hilarious, but at no time did I understand what in the hell these people were doing while immersed in their “games.” To a man (and the occasional woman), these were people who seemed to have few interests beyond World of Warcraft (some spent up to 16 hours a day on the internet playing it), but when they came together one weekend a month, they were accepted at last. Or were they? Conflict and jealousy seemed to eat this group alive, and by the end, the owner/operator wanted the fuck out of the operation. And when a young man manages to find a girlfriend at the isolated retreat (yes, it happens), he best keep the outside world at bay, lest the drama of romance infect the dignity of foam swords and packets of birdseed passing as various elixirs and deadly projectiles. Much of the film consists of maddening footage of the actual “plots,” which are alleged to have depth and unspeakable intricacies, but could not be deciphered by the sharpest of minds, even working in isolation with fellow scientists. The group’s rule book — clocking in at over 200 densely worded pages — makes physics seems approachable by comparison, especially when we are treated to the black hole of the scoring system. And the powers each character possesses? I’m convinced not even they know, as people seem to fall over dead for no other reason than sheer confusion.
Picture this: a lumbering boar of a man, painted blue and wearing a flowing robe, dashes about with his sword and perhaps a test tube or two in his pocket. He is approached by no less than fifteen fellow travelers, all of whom are shouting at the top of their lungs while waving swords of their own in the crisp Washington air. That they all scream at once is a given, but within the space of a few seconds, the man surrounded deciphers every word, knowing that three of the wounds are damaging, five others bounce away harmless, and another sixty-three are treated immediately by a potion granted power by a bipedal tree. Hold on, though, for he shouted “summon tentacles!” just in time, thereby enabling his sword to take on additional powers no one but the water elves could perceive. And so this very scene is repeated again and again for hours at a stretch, with the occasional chase mixed in to provide a bit of color. It speaks volumes that these shut-ins have crafted a fantasy world more complex and rule-based than reality itself, but at least here, the most grievous wound is likely to be a grass stain on one’s cloak, rather than a fragile heart pushed through rejection’s meat grinder. And while all are demented and shockingly dull (the single-mindedly obsessed are rarely anything but), look for the kid named Carter, an unemployed freak show who is in his eighth or so year of high school, and just might be the most obnoxious human being who ever lived. Though the dad who pays his daughter’s allowance in fictional gold pieces might yet give him a run for his money.
The Cherry Tree
At last, a short that gets it. In a packed six minutes, this end of the world tale, complete with zombies and a refreshing sense of humor, manages to send up reality television and Hollywood in one fell swoop. Get in, throw a curveball, and get out: what short films used to do before they got cute.
A Dream in Doubt
On September 15, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh immigrant from India, was shot and killed in front of his Mobil service station in Mesa, Arizona by Frank Roque, a deranged bigot bent on revenge. Roque, pushed along by a post-9/11 fever that equated all “towel heads” with terrorism and anti-American hostility, never paused to consider that the Sikh religion has nothing at all to do with Islam, and that the victim, while “different” in skin tone from Frank’s friends and family, was neither Arab nor Middle Eastern. Thankfully, though, this documentary is not about the fanatic whose blind hatred brought about the most senseless of acts. Instead, it is a true immigrant’s tale, and how the victim’s brother, Rana, continued to believe in the American Dream despite losing two brothers to violence and hate. On one level, the film is a powerful indictment of the typical whitebread American’s inability to perceive cultural distinctions, but on another, it demonstrates that while most of us take citizenship for granted, it is the newcomer to our shores who often works the hardest to ensure personal success. And of course, throughout the trial and sentencing (and unsolved murder of his sibling in San Francisco), Rana remains America’s greatest champion, clinging to notions of justice and fair play that would normally sound quaint and naïve, but achieve a rare power when spoken by someone who has truly known their opposite.
Narrated by Liam Neeson, this infuriating documentary attempts to solve the riddle of descansos (Spanish for “place of rest”), the roadside memorials that seem to dot highways from the United States to Australia. Their origin is largely a mystery, though some connect the current incarnation to an ancient ritual of dropping flowers and mementos along the path taken by a body on its way to a burial site. Whatever the source, they are now an engine of controversy, as they involve two equally important issues: church/state separation, and the sanctity of property, be it public or private. For some, the crosses, pictures, flowers, and stuffed animals are reminders of lives destroyed, and during the film, many relatives and loved ones come forward to testify to the power of place. As they argue, the exact spot of death becomes sacred, and they want the world to remember who (and what) was lost there. For those not burdened by sentimentality and religious fervor, they are eyesores and unlawful intrusions; overtly Christian displays plopped down on government land with implied endorsement for the messages therein. And as a civil liberties attorney so rightly claims, if the state doesn’t take a stand against these memorials, what else will it tolerate on taxpayer supported land? And would it be acceptable to the public if a family placed Satanic symbols and sacrifices along the road because their child believed likewise? That is a test no one in the film attempts, but it’s obvious that such a move would prove conclusively that this is a concerted effort to bring Jesus into the public sphere.
Still, despite the sound legal case against the crosses and the like, any real objection must first be grounded in the desire to see roadways free of clutter. Highways are not cemeteries, and to argue otherwise is to confuse a place of carnage for an appropriate mourning location. It’s about context, and prayer services should not be held on a median in the middle of I-70. The arrogance of the grieving families is palpable, and they all but insist that death has signed over the deed to the patch of earth they now sprinkle with trinkets and mementos. The film is even-handed enough to consider both sides, but it cannot be denied that any failure to rip these people new assholes is based on the erroneous belief that tragedy exempts one from criticism. That these “resting places” are seen around the world proves that Americans are far from owning insanity outright, but it is equally depressing to realize how pervasive religious belief is for what is largely considered the civilized world. Again, the filmmaker insists that there are no clear answers (frustrating, but honest at least), but as there are no laws protecting these displays, it is incumbent on all good citizens to remove them at will, tossing them in the trash where they belong. They are crass, obnoxious, and vile, forcing weary travelers to share in the tears of a stranger. Even now, and especially in public, we have the right to be left alone.
The Child King
What film festival would be complete without the story of a retarded teenager and his overwhelming urge to meet Santa Claus? Jeremy, the boy in question, has recently lost his mother, and when his younger brother doubts Saint Nick’s existence (as well as God’s), he steals dad’s car and drives the boy north, hoping to find the fabled jolly old man. Yes, I said drives. Then again, this is the sort of movie that has a kid with Down Syndrome begin the quest behind the wheel of a car, only to end up in an operating room, dressed in scrubs, saving a girl’s life. It’s also a movie where the two boys bypass all security, sneak onto a plane, and play around in the cockpit, even meeting aw-shucks pilots who appear to have forgotten 9/11 altogether. Apparently, though, Santa does exist, because Jeremy meets old bearded men along the way, encounters suspicious elves, and even receives a coin that says, “In God We Trust, In Santa We Believe.” And how. While the tone of the movie is light and fun (oh, how our retard gets into a pickle!), there’s an aggressive propaganda at work, equating a lack of faith with evil, and a child’s innocence with the ejaculate of the angels. Jeremy is a hero not because he scares the living fuck out of his dad, or breaks no fewer than twelve laws on his deranged vacation, but rather due to his mindless insistence that the unseen is to be taken as gospel, be it Jesus or Santa.
Needless to say, Jeremy is abrasive and hostile, and he lectures his brother with all the authority of a half-wit in search of velvet. Suddenly, without warning, he insists he is dying, and is rushed to the emergency room, where he is admitted without delay. A 15-year-old retard with a 103-degree temperature and lacking an adult guardian? Send him in, and please, ask no questions about where the hell he came from. Before this, Jeremy proves that he’s at the right hand of the almighty by handing out $20 bills to homeless vets and befriending tattooed bikers with the proverbial hearts of gold. Only once is Jeremy ridiculed (don’t call this young man stupid), but the kid who inflicts the damage is so despicable that he all but sprouts horns. Oh, and Jeremy proves how responsible he is by handing out more cash to two kids who claim to have inside knowledge of Santa’s whereabouts. Yes, this is the same boy who, at film’s end, is flattered into believing that the world is his oyster, all because he has a good heart and noble spirit. Why not put him in a cockpit or a hospital ER? Maybe the same fairy dust that keeps our boys safe from harm will help land the plane as it careens out of control because the drooling fuck crawled below to munch on the hydraulic lines. So yes, while the movie is an attack on reason and good sense, it knows its audience, of which I appear to be a part. For as bad as it was, I’ll be damned if I didn’t sit tight until the credits rolled.
Confessions of a Late Bloomer
Thought decidedly average and obvious, this short film became a riotous, unexpected treat when it preceded the family friendly The Child King, thereby shocking the hell out of the wee ones and moms in attendance. As the story of a short, under-developed high school kid, it gave us nothing new under the sun, but with every dick joke, reference to masturbation, or sexual innuendo, I cackled like a plucked chicken. Visible shock registered throughout the theater, and I half expected heavy foot traffic in the direction of the exits. And when the kid steals a ruler to measure his penis? Beautiful, baby, and a delightful way to make mama’s ride home with junior that much more uncomfortable. Oh yeah, does the geek get the girl? Of course he does, but only after we hear his mother mutter, “Has anyone seen my lotion?” as he audibly jerks off in the bathroom. My warmest regards to those who scheduled this piece before the one festival offering best suited for youngsters. Chalk one up for the good guys.
The jewel of the festival, this documentary about movie extras (or “background actors,” if you prefer) is entertaining as hell, but also an insightful look at the profound delusion that plagues the entertainment industry. Profiling ten men and women who spend their days hunting for parts (either by wandering lots or making phone calls), these unsung personalities remain undeniably valuable, given that no movie could exist without them. Some of these folks are SAG, some not, but all fight the good fight while trying to make a living in utter anonymity. And yes, most refuse to believe they are but “bit players,” and one even strolls a video store flashing DVDs in which he appeared. Mind you, his scenes often last less than five seconds (and may be of nothing more than his back or the top of his head), but each one is recalled with utter fondness, as if those brief flashes before the camera constitute stardom. Curiously, they often believe that they’ve “worked” with particular directors or celebrities, even if they don’t get within 100 yards of them during the shoot. Part of a crowd scene where one face is indistinguishable from the next? No matter, as that’s enough for an extra to claim an identification with the finished product.
On the whole, though, despite the self-absorption that refuses to acknowledge reality (no, you will not become a star), these are self-deprecating, pleasant people, and their love for the movies is never less than infectious. Fortunately, the personalities dominate (and we really get to know all ten), but on a strictly educational basis, we see what it’s like to live life in the shadows. From cattle calls to costume hunting, late nights to long days, we come to understand the process as well as can be expected. This isn’t a movie for insiders, then, but an accessible, loving tribute to weirdos and eccentrics alike. And while we often cringe at the unwillingness to bow to reason, the film is never condescending, ensuring our connection to the material and not our insistence in standing above it. Hollywood and the allure of glamour may bring out the worst in people, but in the struggle to stand apart from the crowd, these same folks often make the most interesting subjects, and we are glad to spend a little time in their world, however foreign it is to our own.
A parody of Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny, it’s a virtual remake of the infamous blowjob scene, only without the actual fellatio to make it interesting. The blond chick is kind of hot, but she only simulates the act, making this short more tedious than titillating.