The great 20th Century theater critic Harold Clurman said that the relative health of any society could be measured by the vitality of its theater scene. I'm not sure that this is true anymore in the age of Trump, where his election can be viewed as the triumph of self-interest over conscience and moral self-sacrifice, and skyrocketing theater prices increasingly threaten to make the art form a fashion accessory for the well-to-do. But Clurman's quote did occur to me when I was watching the parade of films marching by my over-worked eyes at the recently-ended Pasadena Film Festival.
After all, filmmaking has become a truly democratic art form, with the tools now accessible to pretty much everyone. The number of films made each year in this country is astronomical - I've heard 50-60,000; but it wouldn't surprise me if it was more than that. Still, the number of films that gain distribution each year has held pretty steady at around 350. And there's the reason why these festivals are so important for the filmmakers, as they seek a way to give their films a leg up in their Darwinian struggle for recognition. It also creates the kind of "vitality" that Clurman had in mind, where so much competition forces the filmmakers to be as inventive as possible.
And what was my takeaway from all these films - the dominant emotion that they left behind in their wake? Fear and Anger. Fear of the unknown, anger at the Other - the outsider. Also desperation and loneliness. "And those were just the comedies," the Twisted Hipster cracked.
Well no, not exactly. As I wrote in my last column, the Festival had its share of dating comedies and rom-coms, some ending happily or at least with some hope. But there were several horror-comedies that tried to capitalize on the formula of tongue-in-cheek scare tactics that made The Scream Trilogy such a success. And then there was a comedy like Don't Tell Larry. A six-episode web series totaling 16 minutes, it tells the seemingly familiar story of what happens when two office workers forget to send an evite to their excitable office mate, Larry, and then go to great lengths to cover up their omission. Writers/directors Greg Porper and John Schimke do a terrific job of establishing the claustrophobic atmosphere of the cubicle, as Katie Hall and Matthew Murumba invent lie after outrageous lie to cover up their original miscue. Larry is played by Kiel Kennedy as a passive-aggressive outsider who wants to be liked - and he is the kind of character who in other times might have been played just for laughs. But here things escalate to the point where the comedy becomes very violent - and yet doesn't stop being funny.
One of my favorite films in the Festival - in fact, perhaps my numero uno - is the feature-length Occcupants, a sci-fi horror thriller (also very funny at times), written by Julia Camara and directed by Russ Emanuel. This is a found footage film in the vein of Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project (still exerting a powerful influence on new films after almost 20 years).
We are informed at the outset by the Peterson Research Institute that a married couple has disappeared, and they have put together the recovered clips we are about to see in order to help solve the mystery of what may have happened. We then meet Annie the documentary filmmaker (Briana White) and her architect husband Neil (Michael Pugliese), an attractive and laid-back couple in their early 30s. Annie announces that she has set up cameras all around their house (except the bedroom) in order to document the effects of the vegan detox diet that the couple is about to embark upon (at Annie's insistence - Neil is a reluctant participant). "I've heard that some people have had visions while on the diet, and I want to see if these show up on the videos." But, while Annie and Neil don't experience any such visions, something strange does begin showing up in the video footage: an alternate version of Annie and Neil in an alternate reality in the same house.
This is the point at which some audience members might raise some reasonable questions about what's going on. Camara and Emanuel know this too, and they have enlisted a third major character to address these doubts. This character is Dr. Alan Peterson, head of the Research Institute and a mentor of Annie's from a previous documentary. He is played to perfection by Robert Picardo, the well-known TV actor (Star Trek: Voyager, Frasier, The Wonder Years), who grounds the movie just firmly enough in a paranormal reality to allow me to continue suspending my disbelief and go with the movie's very idiosyncratic flow.
What really resonated for me here was the witty way that writer Julia Camara dramatized this state of living with the Other - in this case, the Other is just another version of the main couple, albeit a grimmer and less compatible version. But Camara and director Russ Emanuel know how to keep raising the dramatic stakes and finding unexpected ways for the two versions of the couple to interact with each other. I ended up with a lot of admiration for the way they also kept deepening the metaphor of these parallel realities which begin to intersect and then compete for control of their space. It's no wonder that they are one of the few films in the festival to obtain a distributor and to have a commercial future. The film will be released on Netflix and Amazon Prime in June and may get a limited theatrical release at the same time. So look for it. Occupants. Briana White, Michael Pugliese and Robert Picardo are all terrific, and Camara and Emanuel are talents to reckon with; they are already at work on the sequel.
Mirrored, written by Andrew Henderson and directed by Bradford Hill, is another noteworthy Festival entry that takes on the dilemma of duplicate selves. This dystopian film is set in a renegade cloning clinic in the not-too-distant-future where scientists are now able to clone their clients' personality and consciousness - for a price. But there has been a terrible error. The identity of a living criminal named Derek Krat has mistakenly been downloaded into a dead man's young body, played by Graham Sibley. But the cloned Derek is less than cooperative when the mess-up is explained to him and reeks havoc on the illicit clinic. Finally the real Derek Krat is called upon to take out his cloned younger self. It's a classic showdown, very smoothly engineered by Mr. Hill, who also displays a genuine talent for the color and composition of shots. The performances of Sibley and Brian Gant (the real Derek) also elevate the dramatic tension, as Henderson/Hill conclude with a final twist that forces us to think about the endangered status of our fragile identities.
Our God Machine from writer/director Dana James Jones is another dystopian fantasy, a genre that has really blossomed since the Bush-era meltdown of 2008, to the point that it's hard to shock us anymore with worst-case scenarios. In this one, a young military man named Jack wakes up to find himself in an underground bunker with three other compatriots, two women and a man. In a twist on a thread in the TV series Lost, Jack discovers that it is up to the four of them to keep disaster at bay by peddling a stationary bicycle linked up to a power source for several hours each. What caught my attention, though, was something that was probably not purposeful on Mr. Jones's part. All four of the bunker mates are white, as is the above-ground commander who we see giving orders on the computer screen. The only non-white person we come into contact with is a recreational runner in the above-ground "normal" world - which we soon find out is only an illusory video loop intended to soothe the cabin fever anxieties of those imprisoned down below. So it appears that in this fractured world of the future, only white people make the decisions and supply the power. Only white people are real.
In Perception, a short film from writer/director Andy Cruz, the white people again have all the power, all the control. But Isaac, a 10 year old Mexican boy with an artistic gift, is the only one who really sees the world around him. Ideas for sketches come to him with the force of visions, revealing people's destinies and what's in their hearts. But in the real world, Isaac is powerless and almost invisible. The only person who sees him other than his father and older brother is Kimberly, a cancer-stricken white girl his age, the daughter of the copper-lining dealer that Isaac's father and brother do odd jobs for.
Isaac has had a hopeful vision of Kimberly with her lush blond hair all grown back. He's drawn this sketch and wants to give it to her. Driven by this need, he disobeys his father and older brother and walks from his barrio home to Kimberly's father's mansion. The result of this ill-advised nocturnal journey needs to be worked out on a bigger canvas, which I hope will happen in the near future. Mr Cruz has the makings of a memorable feature film here, which also couldn't be more timely. White people have seldom been crueler in their use of power than now - something that Isaac undoubtedly would see in his visions, not that this would do he or his family much good.
In Robbin Rae McCulloch's impressive dramatic short Oakland in Blue, there are no white characters, and yet the white world seems to be lurking oppressively just off-screen. Kennedy (Jah Shams) is a recent Ivy League graduate who has just returned to his Oakland 'hood to reunite with his childhood friend Marcus (Troy Curvey III) and start making their dream of an independent record label a reality. Marcus is a rap artist who has run up a $10,000 debt with Kennedy's drug- dealing uncle while Kennedy was in college. Now Kennedy has to help resolve his friend's debt or else lose him forever. His education in the white world won't help him here. He will have to recover his 'hood self and 'hood instincts in order to do that. Meanwhile his crossover dreams will have to be put on hold. Which, on the whole, might not be that bad a thing. There are people who love him here. Who loves him out there?