What should I be doing instead of this?
July 26th, 2009 By Steven Rosen | Movies |

Wishful Thinking at the Oxford Film Festival

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I guess there’s nothing wrong with wishful thinking.

I bought my ticket for the 6:30 p.m. Friday film Official Rejection at Oxford International Film Festival — being held on short notice at the Esquire Theatre in Clifton — 90 minutes early because the volunteer at the information booth warned me it would be one of the better-attended movies. I then watched the clock as a friend and I had dinner nearby, wanting to be sure we got there in time for a good seat.

So surprise, surprise. When the film started, there were about 20 people in the Esquire’s large auditorium. They made it look awfully empty. (Attendance eventually grew to over 30.)

That said, the film was pretty entertaining and a highly appropriate choice for this fledgling (in Cincinnati) festival. Directed by Paul Osborne, it was a documentary about the quixotic adventures on the B-list (and lower) film-festival circuit that he and Scott Storm experienced with their 2006 indie movie Ten ‘til Noon. (Storm was the director; Osborne the writer of Ten and they both were executive producers.) Official Rejection was frequently witty and stylishly made, mixing affection and cynicism in a way that reminded me a lot of Kathy Griffin’s My Life on the D List TV series.

In fact, it would make a good TV series. Using lots of cutaway interviews with other filmmakers on the circuit to ironically comment on the footage, it gets across the point that while minor-league film festivals have their share of bullshit and bluster, there’s also a lot of passion and love for film. And dreams of stardom.

Watching it in Cincinnati, it also made me wonder why, if places like Riverside and Temecula in California can have successful festivals, and bigger cities can have several, why can’t we at least have one that the city supports? (I wrote a cover story on the subject in January 2008.) Not that we’d want one like the horror show that was the Chicago Independent Film Festival, which is chronicled Official Rejection in a way that is unexpectedly emotional and gut-wrenching.

The film wasn’t perfect — there was a muckraking aspect to Official Rejection, trying to expose the Sundance Film Festival as dishonest in its stated intentions, that came off more like sour grapes (Ten ‘til Noon was rejected) than expose. And the film failed to consider why the more prestigious festivals scout for good movies to invite, rather than just depending completely on submissions. It’s also guilty of something it criticizes others for. One of Official Rejection’s complaints is that name festivals seek marketable stars, in order to sell tickets, at the expense of selecting good films with less recognizable casts (like Ten ‘til Noon). Yet it is itself peppered with interviews with Jenna Fischer, Andy Dick, Traci Lords and Jennifer Tilly — none of whom strikes me as important names in the world of indie-film directing. Could it be because the filmmakers could get them – Storm works in television – and knew their names could help sell tickets when Official Rejection plays festivals like this one? (Directors Kevin Smith and Bryan Singer also are interviewed.)

The film screens again at 6:50 p.m. Monday and is very much worth seeing. On Saturday afternoon, I attended Shorts Block 2, a collection of six predominately mediocre films featuring stock, often-cliched narratives and variable acting and production values. Overall, they displayed little of the technical and conceptual inventiveness one sees in shorts collections at bigger festivals.

But more troubling was the programming — most of these were downbeat films, and several displayed an immature sense of irony toward death and injury that confused absurdist black humor with sadism. Two culprits in particular, Death in Charge and ST*CK, both relied on lazy set-ups to reach their disagreeable ends — in the first, a mother casually mistakes the Grim Reaper, dressed in black and carrying a scythe, for a babysitter; in the latter (from the Netherlands), a backpacker gets his hand stuck in a railroad track after choosing to rest there.

If the fest was going to put these together, shouldn’t it have signaled death and grotesquery as the theme of the package? (I walked out shortly after Heirs of Empires, a 34-minute short, began.) The audience, which started at about 30 and grew to maybe 50 as the screening went on, seemed to enjoy this screening better than me. There was scattered applause after each film, including a god-awful British short, Into the Light, about a daughter who calls on fairies to help restore the eyesight of her mean dad who doesn’t believe in them. I still couldn’t figure out why dad, running to the girl, inexplicably slides to his knees just short of reaching her, like a dog looking for a treat. This package doesn’t screen again, and I fervently hope the other shorts screenings are better.

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