What Does It Mean To Go To A Film Festival
Nashville Film Festival coverage provided by Jason T. Sparks, Our Man in Nashville
Going to a film festival is its own experience. For the most part, it’s a positive experience. By the same token, it’s a positive experience that ends, and you kind of hate to see it ending. So, afterwards, in the name of psychic defense, you try to zero in on what you won’t miss about the thing.
By all means, don’t focus on what you will miss. Try not to think about the whole days you’ve spent watching movies. Try not to think about the directors and actors you’ve met. I have yet to meet an A-lister, but at last year’s NIFF, I met a former writer for David Letterman—and we’re friends now on Facebook.
Don’t think about the fact that you, and a bunch of other people, have just been through a shared experience. That’s the thing, that’s the crux of it right there. You’ve been through a shared experience. One thing, and one thing alone, has united you with a legion of total strangers. For humans, that’s an experience common and uncommon—uncommon in that shared experiences won’t make up the majority of the average human life, but common in that they will make up a huge percentage of what humans remember about those lives. Sometimes it’s a church service. Sometimes it’s a rock concert. Sometimes it’s sports. In this instance it was watching the hell out of movies. For weeks, you’ve spent most of your days at a movie theatre, surrounded by film buffs and film industry folk. You’ve been in the midst of t-shirts flogging every cartoon character, superhero, and indie band in the world, by more pairs of skinny jeans than are on display at the Slenderman family reunion. Every pair of glasses and every hat has been ironic. The males have been clunky hipsters, the women have been both boho and impossibly gorgeous.
The skinny-jeaned, horn-rimmed elite have the advantage of being cliquish, and standing in the hallways between screenings, talking in circles, inevitably reacting to this or that observation with “Ohhhhhhhhhhh!” You, on the other hand—if You are Me, which, for the sake of this piece, You are—are letting your social anxiety get the better of you and not joining the cliques; you’re clearly not as cool as they are—I mean, you have a day job at a call center, peasant! So you remain off to yourself, writing and observing and trying to decide if, at a film festival, it’s considered gauche to get concessions and bring them in. You finally decide that you don’t care, you’re hungry, damn it, and so you get a 6” pizza and a bag of miniature Kit-Kat bars, and you really enjoy both. Having cut loose of 15 quid for these, you should.
No, you don’t think about or write about any of that. You don’t let yourself wonder what it’s like for the folks who are at the festival all day every day, which is only true of your day-job-having arse on the weekends. You don’t think about your buddy Jason Shawhan, the curator for the Midnight Shift movies (to whom you do talk, when you see him), subsisting for two weeks on cold medicine and Vitamin C because he can’t not. You don’t think back fondly to the VIP area that you snuck into, sat down in, realized after several minutes that you weren’t going to talk to anyone because what would these big shots have to say to a plebe like you, and slink out. (That part went better in 2018; I made friends, and we snuck in and scored tiny bottles of Korbel Brut.) No, you don’t try to capture any of the madness of the milieu, any of the feeling; what are you, Hunter S Thompson, ferchrissakes?
No, you decide to pick on something, to finally have your say about some part of that shared experience that never quite sat well with you. You opt for bullying some of the text, the text with the weakest rhetorical legs to stand on. You look back over weeks of this wonderful, surreal shared experience, and you…pick apart the commercials.
A film festival is, on the one hand, an opportunity to see the cutting-edge, the new, the genuinely creative and original work being done in the film world. On the other hand, it is, inevitably, something that exists at the nexus of art and commerce. It’s a place where indie films will, hopefully, catch the attention of distributors, investors, critics, people who will ideally help the film succeed at the box office.
It’s also at the nexus of art and commerce because the audience is going to at least partially consist of people in the film industry, or who want to be. In other words, there’s a highly specific demographic in those theatre seats, and effort is made to reach that demographic. In other other words, there’s advertising.
Adverts before a film are nothing new; the average moviegoer is used to trailers and invites to go to the lo-bby. Film festivals, however, have very different adverts screening before the features, and I got to know the ads which ran at NIFF 19, because there were about ten of them. Ten of them which ran, in the same order, before every single film I saw. I’d like to talk about some of them here, so I won’t be alone in having experienced them. (Not that I was; after all, I did just explain that NIFF was a shared experience. But still.)
The ad directed at people I inexplicably wanted to slap: Nashville has had a tourism industry for years, and so, we have a ponderous number of hotels. Increasingly, we’re getting what are called boutique hotels—overpriced rooms in former office buildings where the amenities and features are precious and twee and aimed at millennials. Such is the case with The Thompson, a hotel (formerly a bank) that would apparently love to play host to indie filmmakers. We see a young, doe-eyed, thin couple check into the Thompson, where they proceed to respond with childlike wonder to everything they encounter, from the pretentious drinks at the bar to the hors d’oeuvres they share with (I assume) fellow millennials to the presence, in the lobby, of actual vinyl records you can touch and hold and play on an actual record player, just like at MawMaw and PopPop’s. I know this town, and I know where this hotel is, and, while I have no real reason to wish ill tidings on these twerps, I sincerely hope they take a wrong turn and get their throats cut in Printer’s Alley.
The ad that seemed to be taunting its audience: There is, it seems, a company called Soundstrike. They are in the business of sound effects, meaning that they apparently provide sound effects for film and television. They could say, in their ad campaign, “you should use our sound effects because they’re realistic,” etc. Instead, they choose to say that you should use Soundstrike because you’re so freaking cool. The voice-over tells us, as we watch young, energetic, go-getter directors doing young, energetic, go-getter director stuff, “hard work? You’re not afraid of hard work…you’re a storyteller! You’re a filmmaker!” And as such, it’s implied, you should turn to Soundstrike for your sound-effect needs. Maybe you should, but I kept hearing that almost snide inflection on the words “storyteller” and “filmmaker” and thinking how much it sounded like, say, a younger sister answering the phone, hearing the older sister’s boyfriend on the line, and then announcing the call by telling said older sister, “it’s your booooyyyyyfriend!” So, yeah, a sound-effects company advertising itself…with a weird tone.
The other ad that seemed to be taunting its audience: several of the colleges and universities around Nashville had ads running; knowing people come here with dreams of showbiz, most of these schools offer degree programs that would set one up for a career in mass media (or biding one’s time at a call center while waiting for The Big Job.) One of these schools is David Lipscomb University, connected to the right-leaning Church of Christ; they’ve recently opened something called the George Shinn Center, a new nexus for their College Of Entertainment & The Arts. It looks like a nice enough space, but then there’s the VO in the commercial. Sounding remarkably like John Krasinski (you know, Jim Halpert and Jack Ryan), the voice tells us, “You thought this was just a place? Oh, you’re mistaken…very mistaken. This is the place.” Ah. So, if you don’t go to Lipscomb…you can just suck it?
The ad that seemed to be made by children with too much sugar in their diets: my own alma mater, Middle Tennessee State University, has had an excellent College of Mass Communications for some time. Their commercial, however, might cause seizures. It’s an ad that succumbs to a trend I saw in several adverts—exceedingly rapid jump cuts with a semi-dubstep soundtrack. Recording studio work, TV production, people in graduation robes jumping up and down, while someone sings “You gotta go—hiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh-er! You gotta go—hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh-ER!” while a drum hook grows faster and faster in the background. I’m proud of my school, but lord it was harrowing. Also, cut in among the Mass Comm folk was a scene in which pre-med students are working on a CPR dummy; I guess it doesn’t hurt to have something to fall back on…
The ad for something I value very highly, but came off as unusually smug: Nashville’s NPR affiliate, WPLN, does great work, and I enjoy listening to them. I swear I do. But their spot (1) was a series of still photographs, in sharp contrast to every other ad (2) featured their general manager telling us, “What we do isn’t determined by market research…or a stock price…our mission…is…to serve…you!” Don’t get me wrong, readers, I’m a good liberal, and I hate what iHeart and Cumulus and its ilk have done to radio. But something about this man saying “market research” and “stock price” as if he were spitting the vile terms from his mouth, and slowly…saying…to serve…you, you slack-jawed ingrate—well, maybe I pay too much attention to inflection. Or maybe HE THINKS HE’S BETTER THAN ME, HUH?
The ad that gave me information I really enjoyed learning, but may also ultimately drive me to kill someone: The State of Tennessee has an office devoted to bringing movie and TV production here, and they’re rather good at it. In their self-plug, the Tennessee Film, Entertainment, and Music Commission points out that, in 2018, the motion picture industry employed over 4,000 Tennesseans, most of whom made about $60,000—not too shabby—and that, overall, the Commission has had several hundred million dollars’ worth of positive economic impact on the state. All well and good, but: here’s the ad. Now. Imagine hearing that bizarre song in the background every day, several times a day, for a week. Imagine waking up at 3:00 AM to an earworm that can best be transcribed as “eh-bay (gelf!) eh-buh-bay-beh (gelf!) eh-bay (gelf!) eh-buh-bay-beh (gelf!)” in a seemingly eternal loop. I swear to you, I’m still hearing it.
Of course I’m still hearing it. It’ll have to sustain me until the next Nashville Film Festival.