Where film is king

In the mad, swag world of film festivals, Nevada City is a throwback to better days

BY Corey Scholibo

August 27 2007 12:00 AM ET

If you aren't
a big fan of film festivals, then the Nevada City Film
festival (Nevada City Film Fesvial) is for
you. Sure, there are films and shorts and panels, but
there's also a feeling that everyone (even the
festival director) is surprised to find they're having
a real film festival--the fancy kind, with films and
shorts and panels.

Nevada City,
Calif., is a mountain town situated at the base of the
Sierra Nevadas. The entire downtown is a designated
historical landmark and therefore looks like it could
still be 1890. The air is clear, the trees are green,
and the locals are hippies and hipsters. It's a weird
sort of tourist trap, to be sure--the main street is lined
with kitschy shops that sell ceramic cats and local
art, but the shop owners don't mind if you wander
in barefoot, leaving your Birkenstocks piled neatly
out front.

I went to this
under-the-radar festival from August 16 to 19 with my
boyfriend, Job, who helped start it seven years ago. He also
helped build the 60-person movie theater, aptly named
the Magic Theater, that serves as the primary
screening room for the festival. Unassumingly situated in
a small strip mall next to the local FTD, the Magic Theater
was built by hand by “townies” like my
boyfriend. As much an act of good will as a anything,
they painted the walls blood red, adorned its concession
menu with hand-drawn peacocks, and installed the
mismatched seats. Persian rugs hang from the walls to
absorb the sound, and the lobby hits maximum capacity
with around five people.

The rest of the
festival was held downtown at the historical
National Hotel, the Nevada Theater (a sometimes
playhouse, which this year showed the opening-night
screening of the Morgan Freeman–directed
feature Just Like Son), and at the
Miner's Foundry, a cultural center of sorts dedicated to the
gold rush for which the town owes it's existence. I'm told
that in previous years, the festival consisted of
three nights of short film screenings all at the
Magic, but at the behest of a woman, who refers to
herself as "the money person," it added the two venues, went
international (one patron was from Spain), and even has its
own liquor sponsor.

The festival
originated out of the good will of Jeffrey Clark, heir to
Clark Pest Control, who enlisted the help of Nevada City's
creative 20-somethings. Clark moved to Nevada City
after many years in Los Angeles and has
since supported the sometimes-break-even Magic Theater
and the now-profitable annual film festival.

This year boasted
feature films for the first time and a several short
film programs including the Bryce Dallas Howard short
Orchids. The actress was scheduled to attend but
pulled out at the last minute. They even had the world
premiere of Girls Rock, about a girls camp
that teaches girls to play instruments, sing, and
work through their surprisingly intense life issues
through rock and roll. (The fact that the camp appears
to be run almost exclusively by lesbians--including Beth
Ditto--bears mentioning, even if it wasn't addressed in
the film).

But the backbone
of the festival still seems to be shorts. During the
two-night shorts program, I saw for the first time the cute,
if unoriginal, Love Is Love, about a world
where everyone is gay, and straight is an
abomination—and Jane Lynch is a minister,
no less. The most notable short of the festival,
however, was the autobiographical The Lonely LightsThe Color of Lemons, an impressive short by
Benjamin M. Piety about adolescence. Not afraid of
stationary shots, Peity allows the camera to hold
spaces of nonaction while he recounts an early sexual
experience with his male cousin or the absurdity of
his father teaching him the difference in
pronunciation of the words “crash” and
“trash.” His sparing use of
cinematography only serves him later in triumphantly
visual scenes, such as when the camera pans our hero
standing dumbstruck in the middle of a room full of
“lonely lights” as they fill the edges of
the frame. Peity splits the frame here to make it seem at
first as if things are opening
up—identical worlds pulling apart—and then
collapsing in on each other until all that is left is a
small and empty chamber.

The producers and
some of the stars of Lonelygirl15 were in town for a
panel titled New Media and Internet Storytelling.
But the real star of the panel turned out to be MadTV
actress Crista Flanagan from the internet hit
Hope is Emo. Current TV's Saskia
Wilson-Brown hosted another panel about her network's short
program format and its outreach to new filmmakers. Now when
I say hosted a panel, I mean she talked for five
minutes and then told us that she would be available
in the lobby, which she was, outfitted with
a Bloody Mary and a cigarette.

It isn't that the
festival is low-budget, though it is. And it isn't that
the organizers are still figuring things out, which they
are. The point is that it's the kind of place where
the idea of a panel is just too rigid. It's a place
where the closing-night award ceremony lasts 10
minutes in the hotel's downstairs dining room before
everyone migrates to the bar. It's a place where
everyone has only a passing interest in the exact
times of screenings, which seem to vary depending on
whom you ask. It's a place where you spend much of the
afternoon sitting in bars or in parking lots and
talking about film. Filmmakers and jury members, most
from out of town, love every minute of it. They likely spend
the afternoon in the Yuba River before a quick shower
and a low-pressure screening. You could probably
find the approachable Crista Flanagan at Ike's, a
local favorite, after her panel. You would definitely
find her at Jeffrey's Saturday-night
after-party—organized in 15 minutes on a whim
and featuring beer from the back of his SUV. These impromptu
events are one of the best parts of the festival.

The Nevada City
Film Festival is what Sundance used to be and what
Telluride strives to maintain. One day, presumably, it
will blow up beyond its current charming adolescence
into something more obligatory, more controlled, and
more like other festivals. But for now it is just as
it should be.

After the closing
night's event we all went to the home of a local
artist, of course, to watch some of the shorts that didn't
make it to the festival on a giant projection screen
in the living room. It was another unofficial
screening, complete with wine, laughing, and more talk of
movies. It was everything you could ever want from a film
festival, and if you had been there, you would have
been invited.

Tags: film

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