Outside is in

IndieFest travels beyond typical film-fest terrain

By Cheryl Eddy


A certain mountain and one aging virgin aside, it's no secret that the quality of Hollywood product is on the decline. This week, you could go watch the When a Stranger Calls remake (recap: He's in the house!), or you could check out the San Francisco Independent Film Festival, where the combined total of every film's budget would maybe cover the cost of animating King Kong's opposable thumbs.

Despite their limited resources – real-time suicide drama Façade was made for a mere $7,000 – the films in the eighth annual fest cover a huge array of subject matter, most of which aims to shock, enlighten, and otherwise challenge the viewer. More than any other local fest, IndieFest exists to bring films made by show-biz outsiders to the forefront; this year in particular, many of the films seem to be about outsiders as well. In other words, this fest couldn't be more in tune with its multiplex-allergic audience.

A movie you definitely won't see at the Metreon is Mad Cowgirl, Gregory Hatanaka's twisted tale of a comely meat inspector (Sarah Lassez) who may or may not have a brain tumor and is on intimate terms with a sleazy TV preacher (Star Trek's Walter Koenig) and her own brother, a butcher (Gregg Araki film vet James Duval). She's also addicted to a local late-night kung fu show, The Girl with the Thunderbolt Kick, and is a voracious carnivore to boot – the sheer amount of (lovingly photographed) dripping red meat contained in Mad Cowgirl may set some kind of cinematic record. Hatanaka doesn't spend much time on dialogue or character development; instead, this one's all about imagery, strange twists, flying guillotines, and "huh?" moments. The end result is chaos – a truly unusual kind of chaos even vegans can appreciate.

The toe-curling subgenre of body horror reaches new heights (literally) with Philip Chidel's Subject Two, which is kind of like Reanimator at 12,000 feet. Atop a snowy Colorado mountain, Adam (Christian Oliver), a medical student who's recently failed an ethics course, becomes the research subject of a mad doctor (Dean Stapleton) with the ability to bring the dead back to life. Or at least, he's able to bring Adam back to life – and neither man seems to mind much that Adam's killed over and over again in the name of science. Subject Two isn't exactly a thriller – the pacing is kind of slow, and there's not much suspense to speak of. It's got a great premise, though, and the isolated setting blends some cabin fever (and Cabin Fever) into the endless life-and-death cycle, which sees our hero shot, impaled on a ski pole, stabbed in the back, and sleepily dangling his slashed wrists over a bucket between his knees.

Life may be cheap in Subject Two, but it's even cheaper in Jimmy and Judy, yet another of those crazy-young-lovers-on-the-run movies. Natural Born Killers, this ain't – the film tries so hard to be edgy, the press kit proudly features clippings from star Edward Furlong's on-location Kentucky arrest (yep, for the thing with the lobsters). Jimmy and Judy's single best line is "I fucking love crank, baby!" Enough said, other than that there's a scene involving an enormous dildo and Beverly Hills, 90210's James Eckhouse.

A better depiction of how people draw together in a crisis can be found in Ben Rekhi's Waterborne, an ambitious, intense drama set in the days after terrorists contaminate the Los Angeles water supply. The government's slow response to the disaster echoes the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as does the escalating panic among the thirsty. Despite his big themes, Rekhi keeps his focus small, using only a handful of characters to represent the city's population: the slacker whose behavior becomes more erratic as the situation escalates, two military dudes called upon to guard local aqueducts, and an Indian family who encounter racism as they ration the precious bottles of water in their grocery store. Waterborne may indulge itself a bit (are those voice-overs really necessary?), but Rekhi – who offers an astute, gloves-off take on a rather possible real-life scenario – is clearly a filmmaker to watch.

The chilling Waterborne only feels like a documentary, thank goodness. But three of IndieFest's strongest selections actually are docs. If you missed it at 2005's Mill Valley Film Festival, David D. Sabatino's Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher is back, and well worth a look. Vintage footage, photographs, and recollections from friends and rivals illuminate the life of Lonnie Frisbee, a charismatic, influential, and maybe even personally touched-by-God evangelist who was tossed aside by church leaders when they discovered he was gay. The film also offers an interesting look at the early 1970s "Jesus People" movement – who knew so many free-love types went on to find the Lord by speaking in tongues?

The most versatile word in the English language gets amazingly thorough treatment in Steve Anderson's Fuck. Essential viewing for linguists and guttermouths alike, Fuck explores the history of the word (no, it's not an acronym), its rise to prominence during the World Wars, its importance in entertainment (Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and you-know-which-scene in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles all get their due), and its cultural importance ("Go fuck yourself, Mr. Cheney!"). The film also features an impressive assortment of talking heads, with everyone from Sam Donaldson (enthusiastically: "The F word is a grand word!") to Miss Manners to Ice-T to the late Hunter S. Thompson. As the film notes, the obscenity of champions "can be used as virtually every word in a sentence, as in 'Fuck you, you fucking fuck.'<\!q>"

Just as controversial, but a bit more lovable, is Tommy Chong, the self-described "doper comedian" whose recent legal troubles are the focus of Josh Gilbert's AKA Tommy Chong. This doc manages to be funny and uplifting despite this infuriating fact: The case against the "last of the antiestablishment Mohicans" (as the film calls him) was masterminded by John Ashcroft and his cronies, who somehow decided Chong was a threat to America's moral fiber. "This government is equipped to handle rebels," Chong points out. "Yeah, you're free – but not really."


SAN FRANCISCO INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL Feb. 2-14 Castro Theatre 429 Castro, SF Roxie Film Center 3117 16th St., SF The Women's Building 3543 18th St., SF $8-$25 www.sfindie.com