Tacoma Film Festival

It's back. And slowly but surely it's putting Tacoma on the map.

By Rev. Adam McKinney on October 3, 2010

It seems crazy now to think about how long Tacoma went without having a film festival. I mean, what is it, exactly, that makes Park City, Utah, a more sensible destination for cutting-edge filmmaking than Tacoma, Washington.

Four years ago, The Grand Cinema (specifically, now-former managing director and artistic director, respectively, Erik Hanberg and Shawn Sylvian) took it upon themselves to start up the Tacoma Film Festival. In the years since TFF's inception, it has grown exponentially. Now, films are submitted from all over the world, resulting in a seven-day barrage of every kind of film you can imagine.

Coming hot off the heels of the recent 25 New Faces of Independent Film Festival, The Grand Cinema is beginning the process of making a name for itself, not only locally but nationally, as a theater that cares about independent filmmaking and is dedicated to bringing it to as many people as possible. The hope is that, as the years go on and more TFF's and 25 New Faces Festivals are put on, that the film community of Tacoma will grow and spread and a wonderful intermingling of Tacoma with the rest of the country will begin to occur.

I had the pleasure of previewing some of the films that will be featured in the festival - three features with local ties, and a compilation of locally produced shorts.

The collection of shorts displayed the diversity of voices in our community nicely. Take Kris Crews' The Persistence of Beauty, for example. Starring Humble Cub's Allan Boothe and Crews' own daughter, the film is a gentle, melancholy depiction of a father and his young daughter continuing on with life after the passing of the mother.

Or what about The Color of Fred, a strange and brief glimpse into the life of the oddly appealing local artist, Fred Novak? Fred is obsessed with Betty Davis and Joan Crawford, and lives his life with an appreciation for the kind of high drama that those divas practiced. He tells us about his decision to paint on his eyebrows, and shows us his slightly deranged-looking drawing books. It's a documentary that does an unfortunately rare thing: it intrigues us about the life of a person, and prompts us to want to learn more.

Mr. Radio is an almost dead-on replication of the style of 1920s silent shorts, but with a creeping surreal undercurrent. Filmed with vintage 35mm cameras and populated by old-fashioned automobiles, the film never tips its hat until the end. There isn't even very much commentary about the naïve beliefs of the past, or the outdated manner of speech. It just kind of exists as a faithful replica of a thing of the past, which just makes the experience that much stranger.

Linas Philips may be familiar to readers of the Stranger as a former recipient of their "Genius Award" for filmmaking. He has an uncanny way of injecting himself into whatever project he undertakes, as displayed in his early documentary, Walking to Werner, wherein he walks from Seattle to Los Angeles to meet with his hero, Werner Herzog.

Bass Ackwards is Philips' latest, and it embodies the theme of the three features I viewed: meandering men must face life and realize it is finally time to goddamn grow up already. Philips stars as himself, traveling from Seattle to New York in a bizarrely shortened Volkswagen van as he tries to get over a recent heartbreak. He meets strange people, nearly gets his ass kicked on more than one occasion and comes across as a nice guy who has absolutely no idea what to do with himself.

Linas Philips shows up again in True Adolescents, the Closing Night film at TFF, this time as a spacey hippy who comes along at just the right time to be frustratingly unhelpful. Mark Duplass, of mumblecore fame and Humpday glory, stars as Sam, a fairly recognizable character in these parts. He's in a band, and Calamity Records totally has his demo, and fuck you if you don't like the right kind of music. He's a man-child, if you will, floating around in the comforting womb of Capitol Hill. When he is asked to do the favor of taking a 14-year-old nephew and his friend out for a camping trip, the need for Sam to grow up becomes suddenly more urgent.

"Sam is definitely an amalgamation of friends that I had," says director Craig Johnson. "And not just of friends in bands, though I did have a lot of those. But also friends trying to do theater or friends working in independent film. Just these guys who, regardless of their talent they, for whatever reason, just weren't at the place they wanted to be at a certain point in their life. ... I don't know, I kind of always admired these guys, too, for not giving up the dream and plugging away even if it seems like the odds are against them."

CALVIN MARSHALL: Steve Zahn plays a seething ball of pathetic energy.

Speaking of plugging away to attain your dream, boy oh boy, I was not prepared for Calvin Marshall. Movies over the years have sort of conditioned us to say, "Sports movie? Ah, you mean like Rudy or Hoosiers, right?" When Calvin Marshall started rolling, and I watched as the titular character (as played by Alex Frost from Elephant) trained for baseball tryouts, I was ready for the underdog story, the Rudy story. But what Calvin Marshall delivered was something a lot more truthful and unexpected.

"So few players actually make it to the big leagues in the end," says director Gary Lundgren. "Gradually, as you move up the pyramid, these players are sort of thrown by the wayside and can't continue. I never really felt like sports movies dealt with that reality in that way, about all those people. ... And that's where the Coach Little character really became sort of an example of how someone can have a sea of bitterness carried around with them the rest of their lives."

Coach Little (Steve Zahn, a seething ball of pathetic energy) used to pitch in the minors, but now coaches baseball at a junior college. He uses his status as a semi-celebrity to menace and bully his players. Calvin Marshall, as a baseball fanatic, is helpless against Little's power.

But this is just a small taste of the delightful discoveries that you have yet to make at the Tacoma Film Festival. I knew nothing about any of the films before seeing them. Do you know how refreshing that is, to go in with a totally clean slate? It never happens, these days.

Take advantage of this week of fleeting films to really take a risk.

Tacoma Film Festival 2010

Oct. 7-14
The Grand Cinema, 606 Fawcett Ave., Tacoma, 253.593.4474
tacomafilmfestival.com for full schedule, venues and ticket information

LINK: We're blogging the Tacoma Film Festival daily