The Festival is a Canadian produced Independent Film Channel (IFC) original series that lampoons the American independent (or is that “Independent”) film scene. The six 22-minute episodes are framed as a fictional IFC documentary about Rufus Marquez (Nicolas Wright) whose first feature, The Unreasonable Truth of Butterflies, has been selected to screen at the Mountain United Film Festival (MUFF). The satire in The Festival alternates between sharp and insightful and blunt and obvious, and, in the end, offers a mostly bleak and cynical view of the above ground, Sundance-y indie world that produces works such as Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) and Little Miss Sunshine (2006).
Where the series is most effective is in its deconstruction of the “independent” label. The star of Marquez’s film is a childhood friend turned big action star, Lance Rawley (James A. Woods). MUFF, now in its 13th year, is sponsored by Stack Tobacco (“PUFF at MUFF” is the official slogan). Most of those in attendance, from festival programmer Sandy Jackson (Jean Nicolai) to the local volunteer coordinator, Judy Macon (Linda Smith), are more interested in making the scene than they are in filmmaking. Distributors start bidding wars before anyone has even seen the movies being bid on, and, indeed, the reps take not seeing the films as a point of pride. “Independent” is revealed to be nothing more than a marketing term, another entry point into the Hollywood machine and a way for people like Lance Rawley to repackage themselves as “serious” actors.
The series also suggests that “independent” has been transformed into a kind of genre in Hollywood and that being “independent” is a convenient a way for filmmakers to mask their cinematic sins. The Unreasonable Truth of Butterflies, in addition to echoing indie landmarks like The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) and Angels and Insects (1995), is a title that suggests important elements of independent film as genre: “quirky”, “personal”, “real”, “journey of self-discovery”, and “arty.” The Festival further intimates that the independent label and the qualities attached to it not only define a certain kind of film, but are also excuses for a movie’s flaws. Murky photography, spastic editing, obscurity, seizure inducing camera work, fetishistic treatments of violence / sex / loneliness / drug use, etc. – all can be passed off as marks of one’s independence.
Ultimately, though, displaying just the right kind of off-centeredness is important if a filmmaker is going to grab the brass ring of a distribution deal. What the distributors want, more than anything, is to make a killing. As made clear through the character of Vic Morgenstein (Rob deLeeuw), rep for “Vic’s Flicks”, the distributor’s ideal is to find a fresh, young filmmaker with a marketable edginess and a desire to be discovered, you buy the rights to their film for a few hundred thousand, and rake in millions (especially after the DVD release and international box office). “Independent” is all about return on investment.
While effective at unpacking the meanings of “independent”, The Festival is less deft with its characters. Through the first three episodes in particular there is a sameness to everyone you meet. MUFF is populated by people who are, to one degree or another: self-important, pretentious, precious, jealous of others, and, above all, fame-seeking. The filmmakers want to be famous. The festival staff and hangers on want to be near the famous, or, perhaps lowest of all, near those who simply might become famous. The problem here isn’t that you don’t get the point, it’s that you get it over and over and over again. For his part, Rufus adds hypocrisy to the show’s portrait of the indie scene by dismissing fellow director Malcolm Brandt (Christian Paul), who hit the big time with his MUFF debut, The Meaning of Velocity, for his financial success, and savaging his new film, Love Vigilantes, while clearly coveting Malcolm’s achievements.
Thankfully, as the series progresses there are individual characters that depart from the norm. Particularly notable in this regard are Cookie Armstrong (Miranda Hanford), director of the IFC documentary about Rufus and MUFF, and Gigi Wallace (Sarah Carlsen), Rufus’ roomie, self-proclaimed dyke and maker of short films, both of whom ultimately display a basic humanity and artistic integrity that set them apart from the rest of the festival crowd. After having his screening repeatedly postponed, even Rufus becomes sympathetic. Not so much because of the mishaps themselves, but because these failures function to push aside his vain aspirations of stardom. In their place is the more basic desire to just have his work seen. To be sure, this desire also has an element of narcissism to it, but it is at least the kind of narcissism that underlies most art and not the kind that drives one to seek fame and fortune at whatever cost.
Ironically, The Festival‘s best, or at least most humanistic, moment is one between Rufus and Malcolm Brandt. Near the end of the festival, the two directors find themselves at the same screening of some marginal film. They are seated in the same row, a couple of chairs apart.
Rufus: “Y’know, you’re like the last guy I’d expect to see at a screening like this. What’s the deal, man?”
Malcolm: “Hey, I’m a director, I’m doing okay, but, at the end of the day, I’m just a guy who loves movies.”
After sharing a laugh, the exchange continues with Rufus explaining to Malcolm what The Unreasonable Truth of Butterflies is actually about (viewers only get snatches of this explanation; indeed, every time Rufus launches into a description of the film, the documentary crew’s sound equipment has some kind of failure). This is a genuine moment of bonding between the two characters, and it is the only moment when The Festival allows that love of film might actually motivate someone to make movies or start and run an event like MUFF.
The territory and perspective covered by The Festival will seem familiar to regular viewers of HBO’s Entourage, particularly in its Queens Boulevard story arc. What separates the two shows is the latter’s discomfiting charm and sense of fun, which points not only to the alienating vacuousness of Hollywood, something that The Festival clearly gets as well, but also its allure, something that The Festival doesn’t get, or at least chooses to push away.
In the simple and stark world of the IFC series, filmmakers seem to have but two choices: play the game and make the films that “they” want, which is where the show leaves Rufus and Lance, or give up and get out, which is the solution for Cookie, who leaves IFC to shoot nature documentaries, and Gigi, who seems to have turned her latest short, “My Vagina Scares You” into a performance piece.
Entourage‘s world is a more complex place, one where “independence” is always relative, and filmmakers have more than one fork in the road to negotiate. And yet, for all its broadness, The Festival is still pretty smart and knowing about its target, and that’s not bad, especially when dealing with a subject as ripe as the Sundance-shaped strain of independent film.