Tacoma Film Festival

I spent several nights in the dark

By Christopher Wood on October 9, 2008

Fall has arrived, and so has The Grand Cinema’s third annual Tacoma Film Festival 2008. Eight days of cinema commenced with a soiree last night at the United Methodist Church — a block from The Grand. Guests snacked on hors d’oeuvres while the Palin/Biden vice-presidential debate played through the room’s speakers. Noting this strange mixture of politics and film, I scoured the room for soundbytes.

I hobnobbed with actor-writer-substitute teacher Jody Arensberg, who journeyed from L.A. to see her romantic comedy Blind Luck get its Tacoma debut. Having already visited several other West Coast festivals, Arensberg says, “It’s fun to see your work come alive and for people to enjoy it.”

The evening continued at The Grand with its opening night screening. Pierre had viewers gushing over a love-starved rodent desperately seeking affection from the human hottie dwelling in his abode. Narrating his own “tail” with a seductive French purr, Pierre faces disappointment with an unabashed passion for life.

If you think directing a rat would pose challenges, leave it to a USC student to set his sights significantly higher. Richard Martin’s heady drama Light Years has an ambitious task: span the globe to show four Complicated Human Relationships, and resolve said relationships right before Unstoppable Worldwide Apocalypse – all in 15 minutes. Despite good cinematography and some solid acting, Years just needs more time to better illuminate its glossed-over characters.

The night’s feature On Paper Wings achieves a refreshingly innocent storytelling. Like its dreamlike title, the WWII documentary by Ilana Sol draws you in with rhythmic pacing and a simple yet effective score. The film’s recurring image — that of a weapon hovering silently above the earth, its destination determined only by the wind — has lasting power. Sol graciously answered viewers’ questions when her movie concluded.

fog/fedoras/femme fatales

Appropriately, rain began falling in time for The Grand’s Friday screening of two contemporary noir films as part of the Tacoma Film Festival. Both pieces faithfully follow many of the stylistic conventions that defined the unmistakably American genre throughout its heyday. Neither work dissolves into a send-up of those iconic images, which so easily pass these days as quaint, fading photographs of a bygone era.   

The first film’s double homage to classical Hollywood and gritty crime pulp is apparent in its title: L.A. Noir. True to form, the black-and-white short features a hard-drinking protagonist brooding in harsh key lighting. A raven-haired bombshell saunters into his life and instantly becomes the object of his desire. He pursues her through an apartment complex, yet the city’s shadowy recesses keep her identity a mystery. Buildings in Conor Colwell’s photography tower ominously over the individual isolated in the urban maze. The end of the film has man and woman sharing a moment of hot passion. But bliss erupts into murder. No motive. No explanation. No matter – somehow it makes sense in the gray logic of L.A. Noir.

Yesterdaywasalie Yesterday Was a Lie exploits noir’s iconography even more fully. Writer-director James Kerwin’s feature has everything: rain-slicked alleyways shrouded in fog; gruff detectives in fedoras; a slinky jazz score. Anachronisms abound — the main character, a tough-talking female cop named Hoyle (Kipleigh Brown), arrives at the crime scene dressed like Orson Welles in Touch of Evil yet investigates clues to a murder on her Mac. The narrative undergoes a similar temporal anxiety. The story has something to do with Hoyle’s old flame searching for a wartime journal which contains some time-bending secrets. Fortunately all players involved (even a doll-faced lounge singer) can discuss theoretical physics at length without cracking a smile. But who cares? Every shot is gorgeous. Confusion never looked so good.

Old people are funny

Laughs are a tough sell, especially among independent filmmakers working with limited resources and untrained actors. Despite such setbacks, punchlines with intelligence and insight can still reach audiences. The Tacoma Film Festival works screened Saturday at SOTA take their comedy seriously.

Maybe because most of the shorts feature older characters that they end up avoiding YouTube’s level of self-conscious silliness. Take Marty Yacovelli from the mockumentary Cabbie. Marty is a 36-year-old nobody with big dreams of driving a taxi in the Big Apple. He wanders around wintry Chicago while sharing his hatred of inferior modes of transportation: “If you’re a trolley, drive off a cliff.” His cab gab makes for one likable kook. The middle-aged wife in local filmmaker Joseph Andolina’s One Year Later shares Marty’s chattiness — much to the chagrin of her husband, who finally takes action.

Both PK Granny and Taken turn the title “helpless old lady” on its head. The white-haired heroines don’t let age stop them from unleashing a little inspired havoc on some unwitting youngsters.

Another codger comedy, The Grayed Escape, shows one man yearning for pleasures beyond the walls of his nursing home. His constant scheming reveals a need to shed restraints imposed upon him by an uncaring system.

The absurdity of society’s rituals is a topic which finds release in comedy; The Man from Mars, Blind Luck and Double Talk all examine one of our strangest ceremonies: the first date. Hailing from Norway, Mars deploys sparkly special effects to heighten its saga of woman’s encounter with some out-of-this-world male behavior. Men find it hard just communicating with each other in Talk. Unfortunately, the film spells out its “surprise” ending way before the climax.

The good-natured Blind Luck follows a matchmaker’s attempt to unite two jaded souls. Following the screening, writer/actor Jody Arensberg shared stories about the inception of Luck. “Short films and stories come naturally to me,” she says.

Sight and memory in war

Is objectivity possible when describing the overwhelming atrocities of war? What responsibilities do documentarians have to people’s suffering? Memorize-you-saw-it and The Corporal’s Diary: 38 Days in Iraq — shown Monday at The Grand Cinema as part of the Tacoma Film Festival — both emit an unflinching gaze at innocents left only with memories of war’s devastation.

Portland filmmaker Jon Betz’s Memorize chronicles his senior internship as an African aid worker. Last summer he visited Ugandan villages and shot impromptu interviews with youth forced to serve in the Lord’s Resistance Army. As Betz told viewers after the screening, he wanted a film about “the recovery from a war, or the post-war situation for the people involved.” His unglamorous footage takes our focus off the present image; what matters are the words of these children recounting past nightmares. Destitute and made orphans by rebels, the kids nonetheless display a remarkable resilience. One 17-year-old girl, a survivor of rape and slaughter, shyly confides to the camera her wish to act in movies where “love has no end.” Such moments of heartache make Memorize hard to watch — and hard to forget.

In Corporal’s Diary, a Bellingham mother pieces together her son’s final days through the work he left behind. Jon Santos served in Iraq barely two months before dying in combat soon after his 22 birthday in 2004. His warmth and humor live on in journal entries (narrated by his younger brother) and video footage of fellow Marines — including friend Matthew Drake, who loses his life in his own way.

While Memorize examines raw survival, Diary meditates on loss and sacrifice, and how we all come to know war’s brutal aftermath. Recalling the moment she knew of Jon’s death, the mother stammers through choking tears, “If you could film that, if Americans could see that…” These films and their subjects believe in the power of sight. When the simple act of seeing calls us to act, hope is born.

Don’t be so dramatic

Independent dramas walk a thin line between affecting seriousness and laughable absurdity. The Tacoma Film Festival works exhibited Tuesday at The Grand oscillate between the sincere and the grandiose.

The afternoon’s opener, My Dad Ralph, stays mostly in the former category. Zach believes his father makes millions as a famous artist, when in reality Ralph humbly serves as a “lowly” house painter. The curly-haired patriarch must decide whether to reveal this devastating truth to Zach. Ralph’s deceased wife appears periodically, offering standard ghostly guidance. Must this film rely on otherworldly revelation to trumpet its earthly message of acceptance?

The apparitions kept on appearing in the Hungarian sci-fi melodrama Now You See Me, Now You Don’t. A scientist tests out an invisibility device on his son — or does he? Sorry, couldn’t tell you for sure. An intriguing premise and hopes of a coherent plot get lost in the film’s pacing. A character gets out of bed, another gets into a flippin’ car — inconsequential details. Get. Drawn. Out and. Balloon to. Ridiculous. Proportions.

Maine Story slows things down further — almost to inertness. Gorgeous New England scenery frames a dull story about a woman who makes chairs. Will the unexpected return of a former lover shake up her ho-hum factory life? Nice try. Watching this cast ranks right up there with building furniture.

Gravida searches for a mood as heavy as its title. An extended low-light seduction scene involving a pregnant woman ends in disappointment and tears. Lots of tears. And snot. Yep, when a pretty half-naked girl runs snotty fingers through her hair, we know we’ve arrived in independent film territory.

The Loneliness of the Short-Order Cook meanders but with good reason. Its disconnected protagonist, a Japanese emigrant waiting for his visa, floats from encounter to encounter because of a system that refuses him admittance. Loneliness achieves seriousness without depressing viewers, sincerity without bombast, and beauty without neglecting content: in short, a drama that works.