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When most people think of Oregon, they think of rain. But that’s only about one-third true. Just over on the other side of Mount Hood is a desert plateau region that stretches out into Washington, Idaho, and California, called the High Desert. Nestled right in the center is Bend, Oregon: Originally a lumber town, but thanks to the environmentalists’ vendetta against logging (which they proudly proclaim and which has become a bit of spice to the town's history), the town converted to a ski resort and a tranquil escape for Californians escaping the Los Angeles rat race. It is here in this rapidly growing community of 70,000+ citizens that the BendFilm Festival, correctly spelled with no space between "Bend" and "Film," just finished its second big year, running from Thursday afternoon, September 22nd, through Sunday evening on the 25th.
The annual festival is open to independent films worldwide. The three categories for entries are Shorts, Documentaries, and Features. Generally, the only things excluded are music videos and how-to programming. Virtually any video or film format is accepted.
This year, 67 productions from the three categories, out of 300 total entries, were displayed at the beautifully-renovated Historic Tower Theater, the downtown ballroom, the city library, and McMenamin’s Old St. Francis School Bar and Hotel. Additional lectures and parties were held at coffeehouses, dance clubs, and right in the middle of the street just off the Tower Theater.
One of BendFilm’s biggest drawing points is the $10,000 cash prize given to Best of Show. All selected productions are in the running for this award; it is not limited to any specified category. Therefore it is conceivable that a superb three-minute short could win Best of Show and pay for itself in spades, although for two years now Best of Show has gone to significantly longer and weightier productions.
The awards, including Best Documentary, Best Feature, Best Short, Best Actor, and so on* are determined by a panel of judges which this year included writer Karen Karbo, producer Dane Allen Smith, film critic Marc Mohan, and last year’s Best of Show director Catherine Tambini. The profile of this year’s judges was down a bit from last year, when native Oregonian Gus Van Sant was on the panel. Something about an inaugural year brings out the bigger names, I think.
*Complete list of categories and winners appears at the end of this article.
The Festival Begins
This was my first time attending any film festival, and I think I had something else in mind in regards to a film festival's opening night. I'm used to even much smaller events than a film festival making a huge splash to open things up. So I was anticipating a big hurrah. I was temporarily underwhelmed when it played more like a bunch of pals hanging out, what with our hosts coming out in jeans, everyone playing it quite casual both onstage and offstage - minor things like that. I've since been told that this is actually quite typical for independent film festivals; brass bands and black ties are rarities. Something I will have to get used to.
Founder Katie Merritt was on hand to welcome everyone to BendFilm's second year. She generated some enthusiasm with announcements regarding some new award categories and bigger cash rewards over last year, as well as promoting the benefits of the festival on Bend's economy. I live only fifteen minutes north of Bend, and I learned quite a bit about last year's festival; apparently news rarely reaches Redmond.
With the welcome and "housekeeping" out of the way, the lights dimmed, hearts started pumping, and some woman started rattling her popcorn bag. Hey, it wouldn't be a theater without it.
A film by Paul Cotter – One word ... five lives. It’s 11 o’clock on Estes Avenue. A Sunday not unlike many Sundays that came before. A day of rest. A day of peace. A day given over to "god." "God’s" day, if you like. Five residents greet this special day in their own particular way. A study of the everyday use of the word "god." 3 min.
Each feature-length presentation throughout the weekend opened with two or three short films. So Opening Night began with Estes Avenue, a three-minute film examining five different residents of Chicago’s Estes Avenue and what they do with their Sunday mornings. Each vignette packs either a touching or amusing portrait into less than forty seconds, with well-selected images complemented by a wry narration to instantly convey personality, character, and even some backstory.
Capably shot in one day, with two hours budgeted per vignette, the only thing Paul Cotter’s third short film (after Last Hand Standing and Jeff Farnsworth) does not do is clearly present its point. It feels like five very unrelated glimpses of five very unrelated lives, including a Muslim whose car has broken down, a girl watching a squirrel in her yard, and a man stepping on one of his cat’s hairballs. Each of these is presented in a way that did make me want to see where we were going, but having not read the film's description before the screening, I ended up wondering what on earth was going on and what Cotter was trying to say.
Upon reading the description afterwards, I "got it": Apparently each of the five vignettes contains the phrase "Oh, my God," used either sincerely or explicatively. It is an examination of how various people relate to "God." But this was only made clear through the printed matter I had in my lap. A film should stand on its own without its written material accompaniment; if the film alone cannot convey its message, the film has a problem.
In the MorningA film by Danielle Lurie – When a young Turkish woman is raped, her father calls a meeting of his closest relatives to decide on the fate of the criminal who has brought such dishonor to his home. 10 min.
The second short subject was In the Morning. A fairly graphic opening rape scene leads into a family meeting, where the father and brothers of the female victime are deciding how to punish the one who disgraced their family. They decide that the youngest son should be the one responsible for shooting "the monster who did this." The film has an interesting ending I will not divulge, and a gripping warning. The downside is it feels laboriously long getting there, perhaps because the conversation amongst the family members seemed to circle without making progress for several minutes and most of it is shot using a hand-held camera, which I have never liked. I realize a hand-held camera is supposed to make us feel like we’re "in the moment," we’re really there, we’re experiencing the immediacy of a live home video. I just get nauseated.
It does not help that portions of the rape scene are regularly dropped in to the family meeting sequence, making the film not so much "gritty" as "grimy." I wanted to wash my hands afterwards. But overall, because of the statement it finally makes about a very real problem in today's world, I suggest a viewing of In the Morning.
A film by Shane Acker – A mechanical beast attacks two rag doll creatures as they scavenge the ruins of their world. After witnessing the death of his Mentor "5" by the hands of the malevolent construct, the rag doll "9" must confront the terror. Only through cunning and the use of his primitive technology can 9 hope to destroy the creature and steal the talisman of trapped souls it carries as a trophy. 11 min. Winner, "Best Animated Short"
The third short subject was simply titled 9. This computer-animated film was genuinely intriguing, as it followed the plight of some unusual creatures in their battle against, well, another unusual creature. Our heroes appear to be small burlap sacks with eyes, who are on the run from a bizarre metallic cat-like junkyard beast who delights in sucking out the burlap-sackmen’s souls, little green glowing modules. The focus of the film is Sack #9's attempt to destroy the evil creature with what little resources he has. How do people think of this stuff?
There is no dialogue in the film; all emotions and story are conveyed on the sackmen’s faces and their actions, and it is well done. A very moody and Burton-esque opening title sequence sets the tone for this rather darkly lit fantasy that is clever and inventive throughout. 9 went on to win "Best Animated Short" of the festival. Check it out if you can find it.
A film by Matt Mulhern – A sensitive comedy about a well-meaning alcoholic struggling to pull out of his bad luck morass as a pit-boss in an Atlantic City casino. Constantly a victim of his own compassionate nature, Duane’s bad decisions threaten to rupture his fragile truce with his ex-wife and expose his daughters to dangerously funny episodes until he finally starts to get a grip. 86 min.
Imagine that you’ve arrived at a big party: You’re right on time, the evening is just beginning, everyone is really looking forward to a swinging night ... and before anything else happens, one of the guests announces that he just got divorced. Then he leaves, and barely clears the driveway when he is clobbered by a drunk driver and is killed. Imagine how all the party guests are feeling at this time. That was the general effect on my anticipation of BendFilm’s opening night as we all sat through Duane Hopwood.
David Schwimmer stars as an alcoholic divorcee who, through his own stupidity, is about to lose custody of his children to his ex-wife, Janeane Garofalo. The movie is ninety minutes of Schwimmer whining, drinking, staggering, crying, and struggling to prove he can still handle being a father. Yip ... pee.
This is not to say the film is incompetent. Apart from a couple of shots that jiggle as though the cameraman were stifling a sneeze, the production feels professional. It appears to be shot on film, but I couldn’t be sure because everything at the festival was transferred to and displayed on high-quality digital projection. It is not sloppy in its execution, from the acting to the production design to the editing and mixing. So it is well made.
It is just also really boring. We’ve seen every element of this film – comical sidekicks, weepy drunken collapses, courtroom dramatics, and heartfelt reconciliations – done better and presented elsewhere in a more entertaining fashion. I think Duane Hopwood made Opening Night because it was the film with the biggest star power. But even big stars can be vastly un-entertaining.
So my drive home Thursday nightwas less than enthusiastic. But with 63 other films remaining to choose from, I was quite confident that better things lay ahead. Well, yes and no.
A film by Scott Coleman Miller – In the fictitious town of Uso Justo, an experimental filmmaker is playing havoc with its residents. 22 min.
Uso Justo turned out to be the bright spot of my festival experience. Director Scott Coleman Miller did not make a new film so much as he took a really old one from Spain that no one has heard of or cares about, and added his own subtitles to it.
According to Miller’s reworked subtitles, our characters are all aware of the fact that they are in a film. They are also aware that an "experimental" director is using the footage they are in to try out some of his new ideas. Some of the characters are out to get the director, while some are simply hoping to fall in love before fading to black. I laughed quite hard along with the rest of the audience. I imagine anyone watching the film who knows Spanish will laugh even harder at the dichotomy between the original dialogue and Miller’s sub-titles.
At times politically incorrect, at times vicious black humor, this gentle satire pokes fun at the experimental genre, and in doing so pokes fun at Miller himself, whose previous works are all bizarre experiments in non-narrative storytelling that look like someone’s idea of a drug trip.
Interesting Footnote: In the Q&A time with Miller after the film, he pointed out that "uso justo" is Spanish for "fair use," the legal clause that enables him to use the Spanish film without securing rights. But only in a festival setting.
A film by Jay Duplass – This road trip comedy is full of sparkling dialogue about relationships, neurosis, and furniture. In honor of his father’s 50th, an everyman named Josh and his manic girlfriend Emily fly off half-cocked across the country to retrieve a symbolic birthday present – a vintage purple Lay-Z-Boy. In their tight quarters their relationship is on the ropes and their personal foibles are writ large, all made worse when they pick-up Josh’s hippie brother and bizarre encounters ensue. 85 min.
With what little time I had to devote to the festival, I picked The Puffy Chair because it sounded amusing and comical. I like a good road trip movie. Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons is a delicious menu of dialogue and colorful characters. Even the repulsive Road Trip had its high points. The Puffy Chair misses its mark just about every time it takes aim.
Jay Duplass stars as Josh, and his real-life girlfriend Kathryn Aselton stars as his girlfriend. Together they head out to pick up an old recliner that Josh found on E-bay, which they will give to Josh’s father as a present in memory of the family recliner from years ago. To Emily’s chagrin, their stop to visit Josh’s brother results in his coming along on what was supposed to be a romantic adventure for just the twosome.
And for the second time in two days, I found myself noting the film’s painful ordinary-ness. There are chuckles here and there, but this attempt at a "road trip comedy full of sparkling dialogue" is largely flat, banal, and done better in many other films before it. Duplass’ attempt to create real life is actually done quite well, and is part of the problem: Nothing is so boring as real life captured moment by moment on tape. I mean, how many of us actually enjoy watching the next-door neighbor’s video footage of his trip to Virginia?
Speaking of video footage, the film looks every inch like a home video. Shaky camera movement, zero attention to lighting, and what appears to be a camera set on its unpredictable auto-focus all help make this production very unwatchable. In the Q&A time, Duplass stated that this is how he likes to make his films: Very off-the-cuff, little rehearsal, no pre-planning on the camera’s moves, and no professional lighting scheme. He touted his belief that if one is telling a gripping story, the audience will overlook the technical side and be drawn in. Well, okay, I won’t argue that right now. But this was not a gripping story, so the technical laziness was a massive detriment. There is a reason they have focus pullers in Hollywood, along with gaffers. The Puffy Chair belongs in the director’s private collection of learning experiences, not at an international independent film festival.
Day Two was now complete for me. I had to dash off to a wedding rehearsal before the day drew to a close, but my drive out of Bend was complemented by the amusing memories of Uso Justo. And by the fun I had showing off my press pass to the cashier at Burger King. The doldrums brought on by the rape and alcoholic squallor of Thursday's films were finally lifting.
Due to employment obligations, I had to miss everything shown on Saturday. But I did manage to attend the Sunday encore showing of the winner for Best Feature, Police Beat, along with its opening number:
A film by Erika Tasini – A secretive woman’s bizarre family ties are upset when an unexpected guest comes to dinner. 25 min.
By the time Winter Sea ended, I was really beginning to wonder if it was just me. Everyone else seemed to be enjoying themselves, from Duane Hopwood on through The Puffy Chair. Other films were selling out. Audiences departed the venues engaged in thoughtful commentary on the images they had seen, often looking quite serious and affected. I was feeling lost.
Winter Sea tells the tale of I’m not sure what. A young woman calls at a man’s apartment, where she takes a bath and learns that he is going away to Boston and wants her to come with him. She is undecided. The next day, she and what I’m assuming are her brother and mother are sitting down to dinner when the man shows up. He reveals nothing of his affair with the woman ("affair" is an assumption since it’s all so vague), but his presence seems to stir up a lot of turmoil. Then the mother gets tipsy and her children carry her to her bedroom. While the man waits outside, the brother and sister get into a passionate incestuous liplock at the foot of Mom’s bed, and, oh, it’s no use – it simply makes no sense, comes to no conclusion, says precious little, and means nothing.
Like Estes Avenue and Duane Hopwood, Winter Sea's technical creation is in capable hands. But what are those hands trying to say? I will probably never know.
A film by Devor Robinson – This crime film follows the daily beat of bike cop "Z," whose obsession with his girlfriend’s questionable whereabouts offers him a dreamy escapism from his world of seemingly rote violence. A West African immigrant, Z’s response to American life is revealed as he ruminates in an internal monologue played atop the random chaos of his police job. 81 min. Winner, "Best Feature"
Of the three features I had time to see, Police Beat was the most interesting. This is, unfortunately, not saying much. What we have is scene upon scene upon scene of "Z" responding to various crime assignments. Laid over these scenes is the voice-over of his running monologue concerning his girlfriend who went camping with another man and who hasn’t called in days.
There’s something in that scenario, to be sure: The juxtaposition of the often violent and sometimes gruesome crime images with Z’s calm and patient voice longing for his girlfriend to return to him is an interesting set-up. I was looking forward to where the director was going with this. Regrettably, it doesn't go far.
As a general rule, something needs to change in a film to draw us in and compel us forward. While we sense a slight rise in tension as each day goes by with no word from the girlfriend, overall the energy of the film remains at a very low level. Pape S. Niang’s performance as Z is good for what he is doing and he successfully elicits some sympathy, but not with any kind of increasing intensity. Each scene plays along much like the one before. The voice-over never changes tone, emotion, pace. The crime scenes do not suggest any danger to Z’s existence. There is simply no rising action whatsoever. There is something of a climax as Z resigns himself to his girlfriend’s apparent unfaithfulness, but it is not so much an arc or slope as it is a flat road with a wooden sign that says "You have reached the climax" in faded, peeling paint. Sneeze and you’ll miss it.
By the close of the festival on Sunday afternoon, the collection of films I had time to see had left me, in a word, unimpressed. With a few brief exceptional moments, I found my viewing experiences to be completely uncaptivating. This is not necessarily the fault of the festival planners. Prior obligations limited me to what I could attend. It is distinctly possible, and likely, that I passed on some of the more gripping productions being screened.
I’m not knocking the concept of independent film or the abilities of the individual filmmakers. Each film I saw demonstrated a certain competence, as well as an enthusiasm for the art of filmmaking. Sometimes that enthusiasm was more maturely delivered (Police Beat) than at other times (The Puffy Chair), but as an independent filmmaker myself, I am aware of the challenges and achievement that a final product arriving at the Tower Theater’s screen means. And I would never want to dissuade a person from setting out to face that challenge and achieve his vision.
I guess my issue has to do with the juxtaposition between the BendFilm mission and what I actually saw. The festival info book opens with the following: "We [BendFilm] are people who believe that art is best channeled through genius not commercial interest. We also hope for a day when audiences will routinely demand a higher caliber film experience than what is routinely screened in the commercial markets." I agree. Even now our commercial theaters are in a slump of lousy retreads, uninspired scripts, pop stars thinking they’re actresses, and films whose producers believe that the number of explosions is directly related to how much we’ll enjoy the film. Some real creativity in our local theaters would be nice and I applaud BendFilm for trying to encapsulate such creativity into a few days of die-hard moviegoing and industry/enthusiast mingling.
Amazingly, the films I saw at the festival were selected in preference to over two hundred others, meaning that unless something changes, the independent film world is in big trouble and will be losing the battle with Hollywood before it even begins to fight. Two of the three features were "lousy retreads with uninspired scripts." Most of the short films I saw were so obscure in their purpose as to be entirely pointless to the average filmgoer. The film 9 was the only thing I’d call highly creative, and In the Morning did end powerfully. But I guarantee that there will never be a day when films like Duane Hopwood and Winter Sea are "routinely demanded" by audiences, unless Napoleon Dynamite 3 is the only other thing playing. Beyond the technical know-how and sheer determination of the directors, the films I saw will not be raising the bar on cinematic endeavors any time soon.
The blame for this does not fall upon BendFilm. They selected and screened films from among what was submitted. What we need is for independent filmmakers to get their truly creative ideas out of their heads and onto a cinematic medium for all of us to see. And then they need to sit up and take notice of the $10,000 prize, and offer their creative products to BendFilm next year.
Complete List of Winning Films:
Best of Show: Shakespeare Behind Bars (dir. Hank Rogerson)
Audience Award: The Real Dirt on Farmer John (dir. Taggart Siegel)
Student Award: Victoria Para Chino (dir. Cary Fukunaga)
Best Documentary Award: The Real Dirt on Farmer John
Best Feature: Police Beat (dir. Devor Robinson)
Best Short: Green Bush (dir. Warwick Thornton)
Best Animated Short: 9 (dir. Shane Acker)
Best Direction: Police Beat - Devor Robinson
Best Lead Actor (Male): The Puffy Chair - Mark Duplass
Best Lead Actor (Female): Satellite - Stephanie Szostak
Best Supporting Actor (Male): Duane Hopwood - Judah Friedlander
Best Supporting Actor (Female): Reality Check - Cecily Overman
Best Screenplay: The Puffy Chair - Mark Duplass
Best Cinematography: The Devil's Miner - Richard Ladkani
Best Musical Score: Satellite - Vared Ronen and Calla
Special Jury Award: Uso Justo - Scott Coleman Miller
Special Jury Award: CSA: Confederate States of America - Kevin Wilmott
The Bump Student Films Award, Ages 12 - 15: Cats on My Mind - Orion Honaker
The Bump Student Films Award, Ages 15 - 19: The Infinite Universe - Brandon Miletta