Week two of SF IndieFest is a week of sharp contrasts, encompassing everything from traditional arthouse fare to the ultra-outré — and though the former style is represented by this year’s centerpiece feature (more on that later), we’re going to kick off this week’s coverage with something relentlessly silly, astonishingly inventive, thoroughly entertaining, and determinedly lowbrow. All films screen at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater.
Lake Michigan Monster (screening at 6:15 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 9) springs from the imagination of delightfully monikered writer-director Ryland Brickson Cole Tews. Shot in and around the titular body of water for a paltry $7,000, Tews’ film is a triumph of low-budget filmmaking.
Though inspired by the work of iconoclastic Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin (who gets a thank you in the credit roll), Lake Michigan Monster eschews the gauzy arthouse veneer of a typical Maddin film in favor of something a little more populist: a good old monster show heavily leavened with broad comedic overtones.
Tews plays mariner Seafield, whose father has fallen prey to the monster that lurks near Lighthouse Island. To avenge daddy’s death, the old salt hires a trio of helpmates — weapons expert Sean Shaughnessy (Erick West, who also served as Tews’ makeup artist, prop maker, and camera operator), ‘sonar individual’ Nedge Pepsi (Beulah Peters, also a camera operator), and Navy vet Dick Flynn (Daniel Long) – to assist him in the task.
What follows is a phantasmagoric adventure utilizing every trick in the book to obscure the film’s no-budget roots. Wisely shooting in black and white, Tews blends animation, inter-titles and subtitles, music, double exposures, an outrageous creature costume, and a relentless stream of silly jokes into his parody, which even takes time to riff on Milwaukee’s absurd liquor laws. As long as you’re prepared for an overdose of silliness and absurdity, I promise you’ll love Lake Michigan Monster.
Pariah (7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 6) is Indiefest’s aforementioned centerpiece, and one can understand why. Also filmed in black and white, Pariah – the debut effort of director Riddhi Majumder – is breathtakingly beautiful.
It’s also a hard slog. The film’s nameless protagonist is an apparently mute young man, who survives on wild eggs and the occasional chicken purloined from a village somewhere in India. While his is a relatively carefree existence, the villagers’ endlessly toil on behalf of a cruel lord who encourages them to work hard by relentlessly broadcasting inspirational propaganda over a Tannoy.
Captured after stealing one fowl too many, the nameless hermit is taken before the lord, who proceeds to abuse and mistreat him – and abuse and mistreat him some more, until the film finally runs its course. The man’s inability to speak or resist ultimately renders Pariah a cinematic catalog of cruelty — albeit, one that is lovely to look it, if you can bear to keep looking.
Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway (9 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 9 and 9:15 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 11) is utterly unique: for one thing, I’m almost certain it’s the only Estonian-Ethiopian-Latvian-Romanian-Spanish co-production ever made. Aesthetically designed to resemble a crude 1980s video game, the film features Ethiopian actor Daniel Tadesse as a CIA agent tasked with bringing the creator of a computer virus to justice. The film’s international cast is dubbed in English, adding an additional layer of strangeness to this indescribably strange film, which also features a man in a bootleg Batman costume, two human-size flies, and a score that sounds like what Akira Ifukube might have composed if he’d been an admirer of Ethiopian jazz.
Finally, I’ll Be Around (9:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 8) is a tiresome two hours of snarky dialogue delivered by a few dozen supremely annoying characters attending a post-punk music festival. The film perhaps would have worked better if its characters had been wide-eyed teenagers; instead, they’re a bunch of grizzled late 30s hipsters who really should know better.