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Where film is

Where film is


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

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.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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