Indie Mood

Fourth annual Saguaro Film Festival offers cinema toast

Boy meets girl when she hails his cab. When fate throws them together for several more meetings, she at last succumbs to his charms. The affair grows from raw sex to tender love, to conflict when she finds out he's not really only a taxi driver.

The heavy-featured DeCadenet seems too characterful to be a supermodel, but that's not something to complain about. She's entirely plausible as a woman weary of being noticed only for her striking looks. And if the ferrety Schaeffer is miscast (to be fair, his casting may have been a budgetary matter), it does add a comic edge to sex scenes. Certainly, he's a better choice than some smoldering hunk.

With a straight face, Schaeffer dedicates the film "to the celebration of all slain hope." (Didn't I read that in Dante's Inferno?) Yet despite this risibility, Fall raises one's almost-slain hopes for Schaeffer; certainly the film is, by far, his best work yet. Still, for all the heartfelt lift of the hero's passions, the dramatic question of whether a supermodel and a cabbie would end up together just wasn't one I could take seriously. This is, I'm sure, a reverse-elitist bias on my part, but that doesn't bother me: The victims of reverse elitism have compensations no other minority can claim.

The Disappearance of Kevin Johnson and The Last Big Thing--Two Hollywood satires, both flawed, both fascinating. To clear up an obvious question, the KJ of the first title is not the beloved Sun--he's a well-heeled British businessman who wants to break into the movie biz, and who always seems to be surrounded by gorgeous young women. When he goes missing, a documentary crew from British television begins probing the shady side of his life.

A fictitious mystery, Kevin Johnson is presented as a mock documentary. It was directed by Francis Megahy, a real-life veteran of Brit TV, who also "plays" the off-screen director, asking nervy questions of his squirming subjects--the producers, agents and other cronies and sycophants in KJ's circle. Each of these hangers-on--played by Michael Brandon, Richard Beymer, John Hillard and Kari Wuhrer, along with amusing, relaxed turns by Pierce Brosnan, James Coburn and Dudley Moore as themselves--is given long single-take scenes in which to squirm.

The film truly achieves the authentic feel of a politely lurid Brit doc, like Nick Broomfield's Heidi Fleiss, Hollywood Madam. How much of an artistic triumph that is may be debated, especially since the point is the same one that most Tinseltown expose films make--that in Hollywood, surface beats substance every time. Not exactly a stop-the-presses revelation, but The Disappearance of Kevin Johnson is still an ingenious, often impressive moviemaking stunt.

Even better is The Last Big Thing. This freeform lampoon of L.A. culture, and of the cranks who study it obsessively while proclaiming their hatred of it, may be the most stylistically original film to play at Saguaro this year.

The protagonist, played by writer-director Dan Zukovic, calls himself Simon Geist. He lives with his jumpy, addled girlfriend Darla (the wonderful Susan Heimbinder) in a featureless tract house in the L.A. suburbs. Claiming to be an interviewer for a new magazine called The Last Big Thing, Simon sets up meetings with rising actors, models, comedians and bands. The magazine doesn't actually exist, however, and Simon's only purpose in the meetings is to confront and insult his subjects about their vapidity and cultural toxicity.

Simon Geist feels that a cultural apocalypse is imminent, and must surely happen in L.A. He's been suckered by the feeling all of us have from time to time--that this shit can't go on much longer.

The Last Big Thing is fueled by genuine, hilarious, unnerving spleen. It's clear that at some level, Zukovic shares his hero's outraged disdain for junk culture, and it gives the film a startling, freaky fervency. But Zukovic is too honest a satirist to stop with mere ridicule, however justified. As Simon and Darla's nonproject "develops" (financed by Darla's father), Simon's own hypocrisies are explored, and we see what the film is getting at: that to define oneself culturally as heroically opposed to crap is, nonetheless, to define oneself by crap. The real target of The Last Big Thing is nicely communicated by the name of the production-company slug line at film's end: "A Byronic Pose Production."

Also scheduled for this year are three intriguing documentaries: Mary Works' Life and Times of the Red Dog Saloon, about the Charlatans, a key band from the '60s rock scene in San Francisco; Ronald Levaco's wistful Round Eyes in the Middle Kingdom, about Europeans who embraced Mao's revolution in China; and Edward James: Builder of Dreams, a portrait of the oddball English surrealist architect. Shekhar Kapur's harsh, hard-edged Bandit Queen, about the bandit and lower-caste heroine Phoolan Devi, is also among this year's offerings, as is the cyberspace film Synthetic Pleasures, although both movies have had brief Valley runs already.

The program is rounded out by two Gen-X comedies, Fritzi Horstman's Take a Number and Kari Skogland's The Size of Watermelons; a drama, Drunks, with Richard Lewis as a 12-Stepper on a bender; Pure Race, an actioner about a black kid and a white kid menaced by white supremacists, made by Valley-based filmmakers Rocco DeVilliers and Dan Urness; and, on Thursday, an evening of Arizona-made shorts, featuring Chris Lamont's Jimmy & Frank Rob a Bank.

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