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Waterfront Film Festival ambiance

The streets of Saugatuck, Michigan were deceptively empty during the first couple days of the 2004 Waterfront Film Festival, which began June 10. The steady rain kept the usual stream of weekend tourists away from all the specialty shops and gourmet restaurants in this West Michigan town of just over a thousand permanent residents, but poor weather’s apparently not a major deterrent when films are screened indoors, as the opening night presentation – a restored print of Clara Bow’s celebrated 1927 comedy It – filled the Yacht Services warehouse with enough movie fans to temporarily double Saugatuck’s population.

Waterfront typically opens with an outdoor screening, but meteorological circumstances dictated otherwise this year; happily, local Fox TV station (and prominent Waterfront sponsor) WXMI went so far as to inform viewers throughout the day of the change in venue with an announcement regularly scrolling at the bottom of the screen. Character actor James Karen, one of those familiar faces to anyone who’s seen even a handful of movies, acted as host of ceremonies, and It’s piano score was replaced by a live performance by Kalamazoo quartet Blue Dahlia, whose indisputably contemporary approach to film scoring challenged typical notions of silent film accompaniment. Think Cocteau Twins meets The Blue Note meets Natascha Atlas; Blue Dahlia eschews the usual strict matching of sound effects to visual cues and weaves aural tapestries that prove as entrancing as Clara Bow’s immortal screen performance.

The choice of It would seem to contradict the festival’s slogan of “Celebrating the Art of the Independent Film,” but Waterfront’s maverick programming streak effectively mirrors the singular visions of the legitimately indie films that followed throughout the rest of the weekend. (Waterfront continued through June 13.) Selections ranged from Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle and Stacy (Dogtown and Z-Boys) Peralta’s Riding Giants, both of which were among the fest’s sold-out screenings in the capacious Yacht Services, to Sundance darlings Napoleon Dynamite and Born Into Brothels (the latter of which also brought to Saugatuck’s galleries a collection of photographs produced by Brothels’ young subjects).

Speaking of Sundance, 2004’s Dramatic Grand Jury winner Primer made the rounds with writer/producer/director/star Shane Carruth in tow, who remarked that this was “the coolest place I’ve ever seen a film, much less shown one.” This was one of those times that the usual Q&A session that followed was more than welcome, as the on-the-verge-of-sci-fi pic offers no expository shortcuts and makes you earn every scrap of narrative insight. Our in media res fly-on-the-wall purchase of events juggles technical jargon with corporate peon fashion and a “purposeful” visual scheme born out of low-budget necessity, and the result is equal parts exhausting, beautiful, incomplete, and frankly brilliant. Carruth’s subsequent behind-the-scenes explanations only magnified the accomplishment; the self-taught filmmaker knows his theoretical physics as much as his film stock varieties, and any financial windfall from Primer’s rollout into theaters this fall will be well-earned.

Waterfront’s prescient programming scooped the major markets as well with Open Water, in which a Caribbean vacation goes wildly awry and two scuba divers are left behind by their tour boat in shark-infested waters. Water, like many of the festival’s offerings, boasted a Michigan connection with star Daniel Travis, a native of the area who was present at the screening to detail the circumstances of the production where bait was thrown around Travis and co-star Blanchard Ryan to attract the all-too-real sharks that swarm about and keep viewers at least as edgy as the imperiled divers. Our eyes constantly scan the seascape for dorsal fins amidst the waves, and our brains debate which is worse, seeing the sharks or not seeing them. Any cracks in the couple’s romantic relationship amplify in the course of their prolonged distress, and though writer/director/editor Chris Kentis risks an anticlimax with his subdued final twist, it’s a laudably unorthodox choice that stays resolutely within the bounds of plausibility. (And ocean-getaway enthusiasts will be chagrined to learn that it’s all based on true stories.)

Festivalgoers snatched up every available ticket for Saturday night’s showing of Saved!, Brian Dannelly’s John Hughesian teenpic set in the theologically perilous world of a Baptist academy, where hormonal and social-climbing impulses are justified with a few sloppy Scriptural flourishes. “No place could appreciate this movie more than West Michigan,” said Dannelly, referring to the no small number of similar private schools and pockets of religious fervor that distinguish the region. Tickets will hardly remain so scarce, however, as the film’s growing success in a limited theatrical run resulted in an expanded national release that same weekend; Dannelly flew to New York City and back that morning for an appearance on “Good Morning America” to discuss his film, which Jerry Falwell’s decried as “the most hateful movie to come out of Hollywood in years.”

How you’ll perceive Saved!’s actual approach to the Christian-youth subculture depends on your own spiritual background; if a world where the principal proclaims in an assembly “Let’s get our Christ on!” and bathroom graffiti declares “SANTA = SATAN” is already absurd to you, then the whole affair will only confirm its mockability; for those who take their Christianity more seriously, Saved! is an effective reminder that being born again doesn’t always mean you cease behaving badly. A who’s-who cast of young Hollywooders from Patrick Fugit to Heather Matarazzo to Jena Malone to Mandy Moore covers the spectrum of the faithful, each with their own crises of faith and degrees of tolerance for the gray areas in daily life. Macaulay Culkin and Eva Amurri, as the school’s black sheep, illustrate how conformity remains odious even when your peers are pressuring you with holiness, and how social hierarchies infect even the most righteous student bodies. The Waterfront screening lost a few mortified spectators as the film unspooled, and Saved! isn’t immune to various overwrought clichés of the genre, but Dannelly’s attempt to “put the ‘fun’ back in ‘fundamentalist’” does just that.

The bloodiest films on the schedule made the faintest impressions, but at least one of them wasn’t taking itself remotely seriously. Dead & Breakfast pits a cast of vaguely-familiar minor-league actors against a gaggle of zombified Texas yokels in a garishly-colorized Evil Dead homage with a cameo by no less than David Carradine. “This is like a bad horror movie,” announces one of the doomed travellers, except Breakfast’s gory special effects are surprisingly competent, and the frequent musical interludes keep the oft-severed tongues sufficiently in the cheek region. It’s Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi, winner of the Silver Lion at Venice last year, that disappoints to no end; it’s possible he’s referencing the blind swordsman’s cinematic legacy in ways the average Midwest viewer won’t catch, but the utterly fake digital blood and violence, tangential subplots, unexceptional showdowns, absent emotional trajectories, and incongruous dance numbers made for a confusing and lifeless mishmash that the final scene’s punchline only renders more exasperating.

Waterfront’s documentary feature selections reflected the renewed creative exuberance and increase in popularity of the form in recent years – for many attendees, these nonfiction entries proved the strongest of the fest. A League of Ordinary Gentlemen chronicled the recent resuscitation of the Professional Bowlers Association with Microsoft programmers’ money and an aggressive Nike marketing executive’s ideas, and contrasts the fortunes of four of the league’s rising and falling stars (notably the enduring rivals Walter Ray Williams, Jr., and firebrand Pete Webber). League succeeds in the same ways good sports reportage should – by threading together an enormously compelling storyline from start to finish in which the audience acutely feels the ups and downs of its participants and finds itself emotionally invested in the final outcome. The sport’s “utter unhipness” (despite the widespread participation of the general populace) remains a distinctly American phenomenon that the film explores but, to its credit, doesn’t dare explain; but as the PBA’s inaugural season approaches the final championship showdown between Williams and Webber, the lack of glamour does nothing to diminish its dramatic appeal.

American Beer follows five twentysomething New Yorkers as they visit 38 microbreweries across America in 40 days, an endeavor one might expect to be subtitled Adventures in Cirrhosis. Interviewing the presidents, owners, and brewmasters of “iconoclast breweries” with names like Allagash, Hair of the Dog, Harpoon, Acme, and Purple Haze, we’re made aware of the passions behind such a commercial venture, the market challenges where Anheiser-Busch sells half of the beer in the United States and the “retroactive conversion” of the Coors, Bud, and Miller-swilling masses is unlikely,
the technologies behind smaller-scale craft brewing, and the concomitant biological consequences of such persistent beer consumption on our filmmakers. Beer is as much about the quintet’s shenanigans on the road as it is the diverse characters of all these independent microbreweries; and whereas viewers are sure to get a kick out of how seriously these entrepreneurs discuss their craft during the day and then drink the boys under the table in their pubs at night, they will be dismayed to discover that there truly is no universal remedy for a hangover. (Kalamazoo brewery Bell’s, and its founder Larry Bell, figured prominently in this documentary, and after the closing credits Mr. Bell himself was found to be among the audience, as were three of the film’s makers.)

Sunset Story sets its sights on two residents of a Los Angeles retirement community for political progressives; Irja and Lucille, ages 85 and 95 respectively, regularly attend demonstrations, reflect on their various health challenges, and display a vitality in their conversations that distinguishes them from many of their more lethargic neighbors. The inseparable pair follow CNN religiously, force the home’s staff to register to vote, and debate Lucille’s indifference to her Jewish heritage at their regular diner; in between, the film records the daily activities and varying degrees of lucidity among Sunset Hall’s other inhabitants, and occasional textual graphics communicate the occupations they held (dancer, TV writer, engineer, military officer) before they retired.

Director/producer Laura Gabbert could’ve delved into the personal histories of these two charming ladies further, and the mournful music score too effectively elicits tears at the right moments, but Story shows how Hollywood’s excessive focus on adolescents and young adults looks absurd when there are so many rich tales to be told of this nation’s elderly populace. When death visits one of the duo in the course of filming, the sense of loss is palpable as much to us as to the one left behind, but we also understand that human mortality can also be a welcome release from the weariness of long years. “You’re gonna get old, too,” warns another resident as he struggles with the elevator buttons, and Story shows how the twilight years can bring joys as unique as its sorrows.

Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm recently initiated a “Cool Cities” grant program to raise the state’s cultural profile, and when you end up watching League next to Shane Carruth, eat brunch inches from Open Water’s Daniel Travis, and find the post-screening Q & A’s going overlong because viewers are constantly hungry for yet more insights into the filmmaking process, one suspects Saugatuck’s more than qualified for the “Cool” label. By Saturday the weather had cleared up and tourist traffic returned to normal levels, but the lines remained long outside each screening venue from start to finish. Travis declared the day of his film’s Waterfront premiere “one of the best days of my life,” and if the filmmakers are feeling the love on America’s “Middle Coast,” then the Great Lake State is building more indie-film cred than anyone could’ve expected.
Alan Speer


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