Pasadena Film Festival Roundup, Pt. 1: Funny in Search of Money

Stephen Fife

Writer, Non-Registered Critics

Bruce Ladd is Beethoven and Nan McNamara is a modern day musicologist in 33 Variations at the Actors Co-op

Hipster Tip of the Week:  33 VARIATIONS by Moises Kaufman at The Actors Coop.  They just added two more performances - Saturday the 25th at 8 and Sunday the 26th at 2:30 - of this brilliant production about a contemporary musicologist stricken with ALS who is determined to solve the mystery of why the dying Beethoven devoted so much of his dwindling energy to composing complex variations on a "mediocre" waltz.  I found the play to be more accessible and moving here than in Kaufman's own production with Jane Fonda which played at the Ahmanson in 2011.   (Purchase tickets at or by calling 323-462-8460)



During the first talkback at the recently-completed Pasadena Film Festival (PFF), following the showing of seven short films, one well-meaning audience member raised her hand and said in a tentative voice: "Well, I really enjoyed all the films, they were very well-done, but here's what I don't understand: how do you make any money with these?  I mean, where do you get a return on your investment?"

This elicited a big chortling laugh from the audience and lots of nervous titters from the filmmakers, who glanced at each other uncomfortably.  How do you answer a question like that?  A question that was - let's face it - kind of taboo.  I mean, it's the indie world, people!  Money is the 800 pound gorilla who is obviously there, so why mention it?  Unless of course you have any of it, in which case, do we have a film project for you!

Marco Neves and Jessica Hardin, husband-and-wife co-founders of the Pasadena Film Festival

One by one the filmmakers - most in their late 20s or early 30s - intoned variations on the same response:  These are passion projects.  The work is its own reward - the satisfaction of taking an idea all the way to production and editing and bringing that idea to fruition as a movie that you feel proud of.  But of course it's also a calling card for the industry, showing off what they can do in their chosen profession if given the opportunity.  And the chances of that happening?  Another taboo.  Don't talk about Fight Club.  Or about how hard it is to get these hard-fought little victories of visual expression in front of the eyes of agents, managers, producers or - hold for it - studio execs!

Well, never fear, the Twisted Hipster is here to cut a swath through the Festival underbrush and reveal the gems hiding beneath the piles of actors' headshots and self-publicizing social media posts (with apologies to those films I was unable to catch because of scheduling - I'm sure there were many that deserve mention).   And before the outraged emails from actor/filmmakers come zinging out of outraged laptops: yes, I get the need to self-publicize.  Been there, and, to some extent, done that.  The winding path of the Twisted Hipster has included a few years on the Yellow Brick Road of performing, picture and resume in hand, trying to get the Wizard to cast him in something lucrative and exciting.  And lucrative.  But one's own pressing need to be cast - or to be famous - is not in itself a great basis for a good film.  While I sincerely hope it does the trick for you with casting agents, well, that is really all it was meant to do.  Right?  (Be honest now.)

Meredith Hama-Brown stars in Matthew Tichenor's 34 minute film, CINEPHILIAC


The bane of the film festival circuit - or so it seems to the Hipster, based on his limited experience of such events - is The Relationship Comedy.  They seem so easy to do.  All it takes is two or three actors, a coffee shop booth or a few stools at a bar, and a compelling situation - and presto, change-o, we have cinematic magic!  Maybe not Annie Hall magic, but maybe something reminiscent of Seinfeld - or at least Friends.  But in fact, no -  these shows stay in our minds for a reason, and their level of irresistible charm is not easy to duplicate.  Which doesn't stop many an intrepid young filmmaker from trying and falling flat on his/her face.

The most successful example of this genre in the PFF was Cinephiliac, a flawed but inventive romp through film history and genres as a woman in her 20s has a wonderful first date, meeting the man who may in fact be "the one" - but then losing him over and over again in various movie scenarios - a kidnapping, a journey on horseback in the old West, a Science Fiction showdown like something out of Minority Report - all leading to the young woman's coming to terms with her own fears about love and commitment.   It's an intricate high-wire act, and writer/director Matthew Tichenor displays a great deal of wit, both verbal and visual, along with an impressive command of film vocabulary.

Almost as sophisticated though a little too smarmy for its own good, THE LETTER by writer/director Brian A. Ross takes the well-worn trope of the depressive who is such a failure that he can't even manage to commit suicide, and he finds a way to spin this into the unlikeliest of rom-coms, as our anti-hero meets a woman who is at wit's end searching for her lost dog.  There's a final twist at the end whose shock value somewhat diminishes the bittersweet feeling of the blossoming romance, but even the Hipster has to admit that it's funny in a very Twisted way.

J'AI TOUT MANGE, a short by John Humphreys

J'AI TOUT MANGE (I eat everything) is exactly what producer/director/writer John Humphreys describes it as: a film student's attempt to understand the excitement and spontaneity of French New Wave films by making one himself.  The film  doesn't have much of a story - a hipster writer, broke and on the verge of no longer being young, tries to please his girlfriend by stealing an engagement ring for her.  This theft is not portrayed very persuasively, yet there is something wonderfully innocent and genuine about this six minute film which does indeed capture some of the magic of early Truffaut.  I prefer this guileless amateurishness any day to the pseudo-sophistication that plague so many other festival entries.  It's apparent that these filmmakers have gone to school and learned the tricks of the trade, but they don't yet have the things that can't be taught: something to say and an original way of saying it.  Which sure as hell doesn't stop them from trying.

ZOE LILLIAN, an actress to watch

I especially felt for some of the talented actors who were condemned to go down with leaking ships.  (As mentioned before, the Hipster has been on such ships, which have all long ago sunk far beneath the celluloid sea, hopefully without a trace).  But every so often, an actor in one of these festival entries managed to rise above the level of their material and shine with their own light.  In the case of Zoe Lillian, she rose above two comedic films in the PFF, Have a Little Faith and The Shickles.  The first is a short, a rebellious stab at the Catholic Church that had funny moments but didn't seem very probable; the second is a 98 minute ode to Topangan non-conformity and Jewish family dysfunction which all seemed a bit too familiar.   In both films, Ms. Lillian is called upon to portray sexy young girls - in the first she seduces a virginal Catholic boy, in The Shickles she experiences the joys of cunnilingus for the first time - and she somehow manages to avoid the clichés of how such behavior is usually portrayed, as well as the clichés that abound in the dialogue and storylines of both films.  Her work in both is spontaneous, fresh and clever, even while everything around her is succumbing to the obvious.  I look forward to her future performances and hope that she's able to keep keeping it real.

Finally, I have to mention a remarkable 30 minute film called Tale of the Kite, which ultimately took its maker 13 years to create.  In a story that rivals that of Boyhood, Michael Fallavollita had made a short film with the well-known actor John Schuck (Law and Order SVU and two Star Trek movies) and a 10 year old boy named Kevin DeSimone about the boy's close bond with his widowed grandfather.  Ten years later, Fallavollita ran into Kevin DeSimone at a film festival, where he found out that the DeSimone was still acting, propelled by his experience in the earlier short film.  The filmmaker then went back and filmed an entirely new section with the now-21 year old DeSimone as a test pilot whose plane has gone down, which greatly deepens the earlier section of the boy being taught by his grandpa how to fly a kite.  The two stories blend together nicely and the pathos of seeing the same actor at ten years old and at 21 simply cannot be duplicated by any amount of CGI.  Bravo, Mr. Fallovollita, for sticking with your passion project and displaying a fortitude that is one for the ages.

Steve is a 5-tool writer (plays, screenplays, novels, poetry, journalism) who has had 11 books published, 10 plays produced, and has written for the New York Times “Arts & Leisure”, Village Voice, New Republic, and many others. He is one of the few people on the planet who can lay claim to spending time with Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Sandy Meisner, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, as well as so many other extraordinary people who refused to color inside the lines. He is always on the lookout for the original and the incisive.