DEAR DIARY, THIS weekend I spent nearly 10 hours taking in films at the Arizona International Film Festival. I must confess that in past years I haven't given the festival its due in print, and the members of the Arizona Center for the Media Arts have rightfully felt neglected. I'm hoping it's not too late to make up for that.
But first a few notes. One thing I like about film festivals, Dear Diary, are all the intelligent people. I met quite a few folks who know vastly more about film than I do. On the other hand, much of the university's film faculty was also there.
In addition, I saw Steve Barancik, the local screenwriter who penned The Last Seduction and is now doing big-budget Hollywood movies. Funny, he never used to dress like a rock star. Then I met Ed Lachman, the cinematographer for Mi Familia, who has worked with such great directors as Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog and Jean-Luc Godard. He had a glow about him. Bad joke.
After a while in the theater, you start to notice The Screening Room has its own unique smell, which is faintly dusty but not unpleasant. You also notice the home-stereo speakers distort the sound sometimes. But I don't mind, because it makes the atmosphere more cozy somehow. It's sort of like Tucson's own Cinema Paradiso, except without people having sex in the back rows.
Among the films I saw, Dear Diary, was the outstanding documentary The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, an absorbing case study of the relationship between politics and art. I also saw Clean, Shaven, which features a scene in which a schizophrenic slices off his fingernail with a pocketknife. Everyone squirmed, it was great. And then there was that somber little German film called Olympic Summer. Gutentag.
But what really made an impression on me was the short film Desert Spirits, an artlessly made low-budgeter shot near Gates Pass or the Saguaro National Monument or somewhere around there. It had a Beavis and Butthead quality; it was terrible but also terribly funny. Two dudes go into the desert and take peyote and one of them hallucinates that a (stuffed) lizard named Nori is talking to him. Nori talks in a scratchy voice about the complicated connections between the spirit world and each individual's body, or "meat housing." The dude's only response is, "Oh."
Which brings me to why I am writing this entry, Dear Diary. On Sunday I went hiking at Sabino Canyon, and the strangest thing happened. A large greenish-blue lizard with a yellow head pounced into my path. I am not making this up. It wasn't Nori, of course, but he looked like he might be a relative.
In a scratchy lizard voice, he started to talk. He said, "Why have you become addicted to Hollywood production values? Why do you neglect The Screening Room? They have put the full energy of their meat housings into creating a festival to celebrate the wonderful possibilities of cinema. Always babbling you are about how much Hollywood movies stink of dead maggotness, and yet where lies your support for the alternative?
"Hollywood always tells you what you want to hear; Hollywood whispers sweet nothings into your ear. Why are you always listening? Independent films like those at The Screening Room are not catered to mass consciousness. They are personal. They have the primal force of expression by individuals, and links with the cave paintings at Lascaux, where my ancestors once roamed.
"So what if you don't always know what the artist's intentions are? Perhaps you have to dig to find out. So what if you can't attach judgments of 'good' or 'bad' in the usual ways? Perhaps you have to rethink your criteria for judgment." (At this point the lizard's tongue waved hello.)
"Sure there is a great level of risk involved. You could invest precious mental energy trying to appreciate something strange and realize there's nothing there. You could end up sick to your stomach from movies that show people slicing off their fingernails with pocketknives, or worse, you could find yourself sitting next to an artsy person with B.O. But you could also end up more satisfied and stimulated than you've ever been by a Hollywood film."
"And you shake your head and complain that Arizona filmmaking is dead. But you are wrong, my friend. It's not that there's no local filmmakers, it's that the local audience doesn't see. They're too busy wading through vast parking lots of fast-food wrappers so they can view the latest formula-driven, market-researched, production-value-filled thingamabob. They don't know any better. But I can tell you personally: there is life in the desert."
With that, the lizard leapt aside onto a nearby rock, still eyeing me angrily, but letting me pass. For some reason, I thought of Jurassic Park.
I'm not sure whether this was all hallucination, Dear Diary, but in any case I've done a lot of soul-searching since then, and I've concluded that there's no excuse not to go back to The Screening Room this weekend for more. There's so much to see: a rowdy Sandra Bernhardt film; a new picture from the god of American independents, John Sayles; and a revived Western from Sam Peckinpah. There's a movie called The Best Movie Ever Made--can't miss that. There are films from Spain, Canada, Mexico, Austria, France, Great Britain, you name it. There's an in-depth documentary about Bosnia-Herzegovina. There are guest filmmakers to interrogate, or at least question about their art. There are workshops.
Most importantly, there are the films by locals. I've been lucky enough to see a few of them in advance, and it's indisputable that the selection has improved over the years. Here's hoping there will be even more quality local films next year. That is to say, here's hoping more people will get off their butts and express themselves.
It ain't Sundance, Dear Diary, but give it a few years, and a better audience, and it could come close. At least, that's what the lizard told me. And I believe him.
The Arizona International Film Festival will continue through April 30. For more information pick up a schedule at The Screening Room, 127 E. Congress St., or call 6222262.
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