Tuesday, July 5, 2011

2011 United Film Festival

I saw three films at the 2011 United Film Festival at the Little Roxie in June.

Gabi on the Roof in July starring Lawrence Michael Levine & Sophia Takal; directed by Levine; (2010) - Official Website
Cleanflix; documentary; (2009) - Official Website
Official Rejection; documentary; directed by Paul Osborne; (2009) - Official Website

The first thing I noticed about these films is that they are "old"...at least by film festival standards. Gabi on the Roof in July played at the 2010 Cinequest and 2010 Indiefest. Cleanflix played also played at the 2010 Cinequest. Official Rejection is a documentary about the film festival journey of Ten Til Noon which played at the 2006 Indiefest! Clearly, the United Film Festival is not about getting the world premiere. Although their Saturday night screening of Superheroes appeared sold out less than 10 people attended the screenings I was at. For Official Rejection, there were only three paid attendees including myself and I think all of us came because we saw Ten Til Noon at Indiefest.


Gabi on the Roof in July is a Mumblecore film (if that terms still applies). In general, I don't like Mumblecore films. The best I can say is that I didn't dislike Gabi as much as other Mumblecore films I've seen. Actually, that left-handed compliment is more sincere when one considers that every character in Gabi behaves in unlikable ways.

Gabi, a college student and would-be artist, travels to New York City to spend the summer with her older brother Sam, an artist of modest success. Gabi is childish and disdain conventional jobs which would help pay the rent. Sam is more practical in pecuniary matters as he spends time with his girlfriend who has a regular teaching art to school kids. Sam shows his flaws when his ex-girlfriend returns to town and commissions a few pieces from him for an avant-garde bed & breakfast. Sam quickly resumes his relationship with the woman while treating his current girlfriend in an increasing shabby manner. Meanwhile, Gabi is exploring her sexuality with frequent nudity and with Garrett, Sam's ne'er do well college classmate.

As I mentioned, each and every character displays character flaws which I found deeply off-putting. I guess this passes for common behavior among the new Bohemians in NYC. Although it is difficult for me to personally relate, I found myself drawn to Gabi's plight. She was a girl in over her head. Still testing the limits of her sexuality, Gabi is a girl in a woman's body. She also has some anger towards her recently divorced father which manifests itself in inappropriate behavior. Sam is not much better as it becomes clear his current girlfriend was on the rebound and that he never got over his breakup with Chelsea.

Recounting the plot or the character flaws is fruitless because Gabi and Mumblecore films in general, are not about plot but rather relationships gone awry. Gabi has broken relationships in spades but it also has a semi-poignant story of a confused young woman whose summer vacation falls well short of expectation and almost ends in rough sex (at least rougher than she was bargaining for).


Cleanflix bills itself and comes on as a documentary about companies (primarily in Utah) that edit films so that offensive material are removed. Imagine Pulp Fiction without the profanity...and violence...and sodomy...and brain matter... Actually, one of the talking heads mentions that some films are beyond sanitizing but many film just need a few surgical edits to make it past the standards broadly established by the Church of Latter-Day Saints. As you would expect, when Hollywood is made aware, arguments in support of artistic integrity and copyrights are made.

The film would be rather mediocre if that is all there was to it. Fortunately for the filmmakers, Daniel Thompson, the most successful purveyor of sanitized films in the Beehive State is arrested for paying for sex with an underage girl. Some in the film argue that the repression of sexual imagery partially caused Thompson's troubles. I don't know if that is true. Thompson never even admits to the crime on camera. He is found guilty and sentenced.

What I do know is that the filmmakers "got lucky" in that there is no way they knew that Thompson would be arrested for the crime when they started the film. As a result, the film takes this strange detour which becomes the main focus during the second half of the film. It makes the film disjointed. Thompson's story would have made a better documentary but the filmmakers seemed too invested in the original premise to let the time and footage go. By the end of the film, a court ruling had basically gutted the film sanitizing business so the film had the feel of telling the audience about a business practice that no longer occurred.

I found the ostensible subject of Cleanflix to be uncompelling and the admittedly sordid business with Thompson to be in need of more examination. Cleanflix tried to have it both ways and I wasn't buying either.


One of the films which really turned me on to SF Indiefest was Ten Til Noon (Official Website) at the 2006 festival. That might have been the first year I bought a festival pass. Ten Til Noon had its world premiere at the 2006 Indiefest.

Ten Til Noon was an exciting story about the interconnectedness of numerous people over a 10 minute period. The 10 minutes is played over and over again from different viewpoints. Each replay adds certain details and surprises to the story. I recall being tremendously enthusiastic about the film.

Official Rejection is a documentary directed by the screenwriter of Ten Til Noon. It chronicles the trials and tribulations of the filmmakers as it Ten Til Noon on the film festival circuit. Along the way, it becomes an exposé of certain film festival practices as well as direct criticism and kudos to specific festival. San Francisco Indiefest comes off quite well. Former programming director Bruce Fletcher gets significant airtime as the audience's instructor on various film festival practices. Chicago Indiefest comes off the worst as a number technical errors and a reclusive festival director incur the wrath of Official Rejection director Paul Osborne.

What did I learn? The big four in North America are Sundance, South by Southwest, Tribeca and Toronto. I already knew that but Osborne attacks their indie street cred (particularly Sundance). Part of that may be sour grapes. Osborne goes on to criticize the film festival industry's preoccupation with "premieres." Premiering one's film at a Big Four festival is not a guarantee of success but increases the chances than if you premiere, at say, SF Indiefest.

Additionally, Osborne addresses issues such as festival entry fees, the secretive and suspicious nature of festival programming, rivalries among the festivals and the personal costs that filmmakers invest in their films. Scott Storm, the director of Ten Til Noon, gets divorce with the implication being that his frequent absences due to following Ten Til Noon on the festival circuit is a primary contributor to his marital woes.

Although I chose to attend the film due to my enjoyment of Ten Til Noon, the merits of that film were only tangentially referred to. The typical audience for Official Rejection probably hasn't seen Ten Til Noon. Official Rejection has to stand on its own two legs and not as a companion piece to Ten Til Noon. I think it does so quite well.

At over two hours, the film breezed along as I started to root for the amiable Storm who doesn't seem to take himself too seriously. By the end, I felt like I had experienced the Ten Til Noon festival tour along with Storm.

Jason Wiener gets about a minute of screen time in Official Rejection. He's interviewed in front of the Roxie as representative of the film festival audience or at least überfan. Osborne added animation to point out the $100 festival pass Jason was wearing around his neck. Jason is a good guy but he came off kind of creepy on film. There is the trench coat and the Fear-the-Beard (four years before Brian Wilson made it cool) which are attention grabbers. During the interview, the enthusiastic (and perhaps nervous) Jason periodically giggled in a manner which suggested he was slightly deranged. Obviously he made enough of an impression on Osborne to keep him in the film.


A fixture at the 2006 SF Indiefest was John Daniel Gavin whose film, Johnny Montana (Official Website) screened that year along with Ten Til Noon. Having been to many film festival, I can say that Gavin was the hardest working filmmaker I've ever seen. I saw him all around the Mission District handing out postcards for Johnny Montana. Every cafe and restaurant in the Mission had Johnny Montana flyers in the window or on its bulletin board. The man was indefatigable.

In Official Rejection he was full of ideas to get your film noticed. One idea was to send the festival a blank DVD screener. If they call and tell you the screener was blank, you know the programming is legitimate. If they don't call you, call them and ask how they liked the film. Gavin hinted that some festival told him they had watched the screener and liked the film but don't call us, we'll call you.

A little research shows that Gavin has no credits on IMDB since Johnny Montana. A link on IMDB sends users to his official website. Mr. Gavin is now billing himself as the Film Dr. His pitch is Let me examine your work, diagnose any problems and prescribe you a winning formula. Among his clients are Adam Bronstein, director of My Movie Girl which I saw at the 2010 SF Indiefest.

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