Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Kicking and Screening

After three decades, the Nashville Independent Film Festival is stronger than ever

By Jim Ridley and Noel Murray

APRIL 26, 1999:  We should all be so successful at age 30 as the Nashville Independent Film Festival--especially after such a dramatic turnaround. Three years ago, the 27-year-old NIFF (né Sinking Creek) was playing to dwindling audiences in its longtime home at Vanderbilt's Sarratt Cinema. Fast-forward to June 1998, the year the festival moved to the Watkins Belcourt in Hillsboro Village. When the better-organized, better-promoted NIFF cleared the last of the popcorn from the Belcourt's lobby, attendance for the five-day fest had risen to more than 3,300 people--a 94-percent increase over the previous November.

Even in its 30th year, though, the Nashville Independent Film Festival is anything but settled down. With the Belcourt closed, the festival is moving for the second time in as many years. Its new home will be two screens and the downstairs lobby of the Regal Green Hills Commons 16. Then there's the problem of managing a major festival with a full-time staff of three. "There were people I begged to come in for workshops last year that I never got to meet," says executive/artistic director Michael Catalano, rubbing his gray whiskers in the NIFF's tape-strewn MetroCenter office.

This year's festival, to be held June 9-13, won't give him any rest. Between the opening-night selection--Morgan J. Freeman's offbeat comedy Desert Blue, with Christina Ricci, Sara Gilbert, and John Heard--and the closing-night documentary Halsted Street, U.S.A., a whopping 175 films will be shown.

Special screenings include The Decline of Western Civilization Part III, in which director Penelope Spheeris (Wayne's World) revisits the milieu of her seminal punk doc The Decline of Western Civilization; and In Bad Taste, Steven Yeager's fond look at the career of John Waters. Spheeris and Yeager will attend, as will Desert Blue director Freeman, Hands on a Hardbody director S.R. Bindler, and country singer Mark Collie, who debuts his performance piece on Johnny Cash, I Still Miss Someone.

Coke Sams' long-awaited Nashville-shot satire Existo will make its local premiere, as will the William Shatner comedy Free Enterprise, the Gary Morris documentary A Gift to the Tretyakov Gallery, the country-music takeoff Dill Scallion, and the locally filmed farce Films That Suck. Documentaries range from a portrait of wrestling manager Jimmy Hart (Hitman Hart) to an examination of the church-burning phenomenon (Forgotten Fires). The festival will also reprise its popular theme nights of animation and gay/lesbian films. As for workshops, There's Something About Mary producer Charles Wessler is scheduled to discuss film producing, journalist/screenwriter Carol Caldwell will host the screenwriting panel, and Kim Adelman from FX Shorts will discuss selling films to cable.

A full schedule for the festival will be announced soon. In the meantime, for more information about films and memberships--which include passes to advance movie screenings throughout the year--call the NIFF office at 742-2500.

--Jim Ridley

Semi-charmed life

A recent Entertainment Weekly contained a brisk article about the decline of the television sitcom. Given more space, the magazine might've observed that comedy in general is on the decline, especially in the cinema. At least TV has The Simpsons and NewsRadio. What do the movies have to offer in the way of good yuks? Last year produced two classic film comedies, The Big Lebowski and Rushmore--but neither caught on with the public the way the slovenly There's Something About Mary did, and its influence has been ominous. Films like EdTV and Lost and Found are already tossing off gratuitous animal-abuse gags, trying for that elusive Mary-esque edge.

Still, the sorry state of film comedy is less a matter of too much in-your-face, smug scatology than it is a failure of nerve. Because comedy is hard--and because the marketplace favors laffs 'n' tears or laffs 'n' action for the broadest possible appeal--few filmmakers are willing to make an out-and-out comedy and label it as such. A case in point is Life, a buddy movie and prison period piece that stars two comedians but is played as much for drama as for laughs.

Eddie Murphy plays a 1930s sharpie and bootlegger who makes a moonshine run to Mississippi with a newly hired bank clerk, Martin Lawrence, who owes a gangster money. The twosome are framed for murder by a local cop and sentenced to life in a work camp. The film follows our heroes for the next 60 years, as they plot various escapes and learn to get along.

Murphy and Lawrence are both terrific; it's clear they enjoy getting to chew on material that's more substantial than usual. The director, Ted Demme, working from a gang-written script, keeps the film from being overly maudlin or overly shticky. Unfortunately, he keeps it from being overly anything. Life avoids the tasty metaphor of two black men yearning to be free; in fact, it zooms through 20th-century history in montage and never allows the two leads to comment on the changing face of black America. The film isn't even that funny until late in the second half, when Murphy and Lawrence slip into old-age makeup and mumbly, profane patter. (Something about disguises always brings out the best in Murphy.)

Life is yet another in a string of comedies that skimp on laughs in the service of supposedly more serious intentions. How else would you describe the likes of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels or Go? Neither are really thrillers or dramas, and they're not funny enough to be called comedies--a fact that may explain why neither film completely works. Life, like those two indie faves, is afraid to commit to being either serious or zany. Unlike them, however, it's afraid to confront its audience with anything even remotely disturbing.

It's not entirely fair to pick on Life, which is admittedly entertaining and even amusing at times. Until the closing blooper reel, though, it's never truly hilarious--a serious mistake, no matter how well intentioned. Notably, a few jokes from the trailer have been excised, which indicates that Demme and crew deliberately scaled back the humor. If so, why? For the sake of what? We don't need another sentimental middlebrow brain fogger. What we need are some good jokes.

--Noel Murray

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