June 13-21, 2003
Acting as an extension of Las Vegas itself, the primary goal of the CineVegas Film Festival in the past has been to draw tourism. Ultimately, cash. “The Strip” has grown at an impressive rate over the last decade, and despite the constant exposure to strategically placed, pseudo-Orwellian advertising campaigns – ones that discharge suggestions such as, “You’re smiling! You’re winning! Have you considered shopping?” – there remains an atmosphere of impending change. As Las Vegas still survives primarily on gambling and tourism, a definite awareness of impending financial instability permeates the now potentially over-developed strip.
With the hope of expanding its dangerously specialized economy, Vegas has attempted to integrate a more substantial visual culture into the grotesque mélange of flashing neon and scantily clad women serving drinks. In spite of the less than roaring success of these new additions (the Las Vegas Guggenhiem still remains relatively empty – regardless of reduced admission and a Warhol show – while the adjacent casino remains full), a fledgling arts community resides just off the strip. A large number of them current University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) students, they remain in that exceptional free zone of student art making that can lead to so much subversive experimentation. As the film and arts programs at UNLV – and the resulting filmmakers and artists – mature, CineVegas’ recent philosophical shift from culling cash to promoting the slightly more daunting areas of film is finally manifesting in tangible ways.
While the long-term goal for the Festival is to run an event the caliber of Cannes, Festival coordinators and programmers are faced with the distinctive challenge of screening independent (and often low-budget) films in a city filled with enough excess to make even The Cremaster Cycle seem minimal. CineVegas remains unique in that it is, quite possibly, the only major film festival that takes place in a multiplex attached to a casino, hotel, and shopping center. Because of this venue, it becomes one of few events that can genuinely offer smaller, limited distribution films to a general audience. Although putting the “festive” back in festival was high on the agenda for this event (with endless free cocktails provided to all deluxe pass holders), the creative programming selections executed by Trevor Groth and Mike Plante carried the “avant-garde” agenda while remaining non-elitist. In a Las Vegas theme hotel style – one that attempts to bring the Eiffel Tower, New York City, and ancient Rome within walking distance of your hotel room – this year’s Festival sought to make the generally inaccessible available.
Shorts 3: Head Warmers
Mixing films intended for light entertainment with films targeted at serious discourse, “Shorts 3: Head Warmers” encapsulated the atmosphere of the Festival. Comprising an extraordinarily diverse selection of films by emerging filmmakers, the subject matter of Head Warmers’ shorts ranged from a Salvador Dali influenced shopping trip to a precocious investigation of academic protocol.
On the more entertainment oriented end of the spectrum, Vince Di Meglio offered El Elegante (2003) – a light 17-minute film showcasing a “shabby chic” relationship that triumphs despite absurdly obtuse communication issues. European directors John Doornik and Jeroen Mal presented Cheap Ludes (2002), which incontestably offered the lightest subject matter of the event, depicting a three-minute saga starring a man with his head lodged in his rectum. When asked if they were stoned during the conception of this film, the directors simply replied, “Well, we are from Amsterdam.”
Rajshree Ojha’s 25-minute film Badger (2002) functioned as a concise mini-drama, addressing issues of discipline, moral conduct, and cultural and generational divides. Focusing primarily on the momentum of the story, Ojha traces the moral dilemma faced by a teacher at an Indian private school after committing a rash disciplinary action. While the film could have easily endured an expansion of running time, Ojha made efficient use of a short time frame and managed an exceptional amount of character development within such a short window of time. In contrast to the overindulgence of Vegas, Badger‘s strength remained seated in its minimal approach.
Films such as Laurel Almerinda’s Firepussy (2002) and Shari Frilot’s Strange and Charmed (2003) both utilized elements of MTV pop-culture and high academia. While Frilot’s main inspiration for the film derived from a deep-rooted interest in physics, Strange and Charmed manifested as a series of parallel story lines indexical of the behavior of a quark, borrowing an aesthetic and editing method reminiscent of reality television.
Almerinda’s Firepussy adopts Hollywood’s crisp lighting, bold colors, and scopophilic sex scenes while attempting to maintain the structural methods of experimental film. Using a narrative system reminiscent of a fast paced remake of Godard’s Weekend (1967), Almerinda maneuvers quick cuts and hip characters around a chain of poetic montages that loosely chronicle the main character’s conflicted relationships. Admittedly a refreshing film in its non-hierarchical mixture of visual dialects, Almerinda’s approach to filmmaking occupies an individualized space for the reason that it comes from an appreciation of feminist poetic film (she cites Nina Menkes as a profound influence and mentor) without snubbing popular culture. However, while Firepussy remains effective as a technically remarkable visual experience and commentary on stylistic approaches, the film becomes incongruently frustrating in that its ultimate meaning remains obscure. Despite the otherwise well thought out aspects of this film, Firepussy shares an affinity with Matthew Barney’s recent films as it showcases a deeply rooted understanding of style and presentation of seemingly accessible imagery while still maintaining a large degree of idiosyncrasy.
Homeless and The Last Movie
A newly remastered 35mm print of Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971) was screened as a preface to Hopper’s Saturday award luncheon and presence at the Festival arts panel. Hopper was selected as this year’s CineVegas Marquee Award winner, and so The Last Movie was screened in conjunction with Homeless (2000) – Hopper’s video piece that was exhibited in the 2002 Whitney Biennial – followed by an introduction and director’s Q & A. In light of attention received from the Whitney, Hopper currently describes himself as an artist, and presented Homeless as a video work about a homeless woman near his place of residence. The most noticeable aspect of the presentation of this work is the subsequent effect it had on viewing The Last Movie.
Homeless opens with a shot of an immaculately groomed woman sleeping on a bench overlooking a southern California beach. Within five minutes of the opening title, she stands and removes her shirt in order to reveal her obviously augmented breasts. Hopper then follows the woman around the city – recording obviously constructed acts of dumpster diving and less than realistic portrayals of a homeless woman’s daily activities. This blatantly constructed narrative is then intercut with fairly idealized footage of the woman working as a stripper.
While Homeless has potential to act as a discussion in response to either the problem of homelessness or the sex trade, any form of social critique that may (or may not) have motivated this piece is obliterated by the obvious sexism of the approach. Hopper’s lack of social awareness notwithstanding, this piece exhibited a blatant ignorance of the artistic discourse with which he claims to be involved. If Hopper desires status as an artist, he should at the very least acknowledge the presence of feminist visual culture – even if he does so solely to disagree with it.
Although exhibiting rarely seen video work is often the best way to draw exposure to this developing genre, the screening of Homeless altered the prospective read of The Last Movie. After witnessing such a piece from Hopper’s mature body of work – where themes only hinted at in early works are expected to be more fully explored – The Last Movie plays out as a masturbatory Hollywood frenzy. Although the film could potentially be viewed as a work focusing on the exploration of film genres and the self-referential aspects of film, these qualities remain so overshadowed by Hopper’s current stance that they appear as purely accidental (or at the very least inauthentic), reducing The Last Movie to nothing more than an early ’70s action flick.
A Trip Down the Strip
Screening a compilation of films shot on location in Las Vegas, CineVegas’ “A Trip Down the Strip” series functioned as a fortuitous comment on the nature of film’s relationship to the context in which it is displayed. Exhibiting high-risk films such as Nina Menkes’ notoriously difficult Queen of Diamonds (1991) alongside readily accessible blockbusters such as Universal Studios’ Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), “A Trip Down the Strip” provided entry into a challenging film experience within an atmosphere that remained non-threatening.
Menkes’ Queen of Diamonds follows an alienated blackjack dealer (played by the filmmaker’s sister and long time collaborator Tinka Menkes) through the underworld of her personal psyche. Menkes’ heroine stumbles through the metaphorical “shadow world” of a Las Vegas casino, trapping the audience with her through the duration of the film. As identification with the female lead must result in the acceptance of a certain degree of discomfort (a theme that is technically re-enforced by Menkes, who pushes scenes to nearly 20 minutes in length), Queen of Diamonds can prove difficult for even the most informed participant.
While viewers with the patience to complete the film are richly rewarded, the majority of Festival attendees walked out mid-screening. Ironically, Menkes lost the majority of spectators during a 17-minute scene depicting a blackjack game. As the only exit from the theater blatantly directs patrons into the adjacent casino, this particular presentation of Queen of Diamonds inadvertently created an experience similar to the New York presentation of Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964).
Although the structural-film’s inadvertent ironic comment on the screening context was more than likely lost on those who left (one man even went as far as to leave the theater muttering, “Whoever made this picture should be shot”), those who finished the film seemed greatly appreciative of encountering a relatively unconventional cinematic experience. Regardless of its shortcomings as a crowd pleaser, Queen of Diamonds succeeded not only as a film, but also as the paramount force needed to push CineVegas toward Cannes standing. While choosing to show a film with this level of difficulty to a general audience presented a risk usually reserved for a high-limit roulette table, Queen of Diamonds provided the Festival with a payoff big enough to impress even the most avid gambler.