The house is full for the opening night screening of “1999” at the first annual San Francisco Independent Film Festival. The sharp tang of expectation fills the air — perhaps anticipation of the catered vegetarian hors d’oeuvres and tubs of iced free beer hidden behind the screen for the after show party.
Founder/director Jeff Ross takes the stage to introduce the proceedings. Ross is a plainspoken man with a wide, pleasant face and longish brown hair, and in sharp contrast to the pierced and bespectacled arty/intellectual S.F. film crowd, he looks like your next-door neighbor.
He lets the audience in on a mild disappointment — Fed Ex has lost the 35mm print of tonight’s film, and the screening will be on video instead. “Film snobs,” he informs us, will have their money cheerfully refunded if they are aesthetically offended at the dire prospect of watching scan lines.
Nobody takes him up on the offer. After all, San Francisco is a Mecca for underground cinema, and we’re used to suffering to see film. A brisk dash from the BART station through shifty-eyed legions of panhandlers, zombified junkies and smack dealers, the ancient Victoria Theater is the city’s oldest operating movie house, originally built in 1908 as a vaudeville venue. The interior is coated with gray primer, awaiting a paint job that will never come. The seats are rickety and cramped. The video projector is balanced upon a slab of flaking particle board precariously duct-taped atop the backs of third and fourth row seats. In other words, the Victoria is a Taj Mahal of style, personality, and architectural rapture compared to the dungeonous basements where indie films are often shown.
The unofficial theme of the festival is a microcosm of film at large; art versus exploitation. There is gunplay, murder, rape, car-chases, gay-bashing, drug-using and dealing, and sex, sex, sex. On the flipside are humanism, love, self-referentiality, philosophy, existential angst, and high-budget polish slapped together on shoestring budgets.
In a cafe restroom near the theater, I am struck by two pieces of graffiti that seem to sum up the experience. The first is the infamous quote by Joseph Goebbels, propaganda minister of the Nazi Party; “When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I go for my gun.” Beneath, in crisp reply, reads, “When I hear the word ‘gun,’ I go for my culture.”
Ross should be commended for putting together a classy, quality first festival, and I look forward to the next one.
1999 (1998) ^ * * 1/2 ^ When using a party on the Millennial New Year’s Eve as a metaphor for humanity, what defining trait should the main character possess? Indecision, naturally. This is the lot of Rufus Wild (Dan Futterman), who spends the night trying to decide if he really loves his girlfriend–not my idea of a great character goal.
The film avoids discussion of major subjects of midnight, year 2000, such as the Y2K bug, apocalyptic cults, economic collapse, or drunk a******s partying until dawn in the apartment above yours, and instead focuses on the shallow anxieties of a group of 30-year-old whiners, so indecisive that they can’t even commit suicide correctly.
Supposedly psychedelic fruit is introduced as some kind of plot device, and although consumed by most of the major characters, doesn’t seem to do much of anything.
Comedian Steven Wright is a welcome addition, and gets to interject the occasional snide remark at opportune moments. Also of note is screenwriter/actor Buck Henry (“The Graduate”), who appears as the father of party host Andrew.
Overall, a moderately entertaining film that says nothing, but has fun in not saying it.