The celluloid vs. digital argument is often portrayed as a battle pitting projection-booth purists against James Cameron’s army of bloodless replicants, but this week’s HDFest is a reminder that digital video is also generating some very personal filmmaking. The Historic Digital Cinema Festival, an oddly peripatetic fest that visits a different city each year (previous stops include London, Helsinki and Seoul), arrives in Portland with a batch of movies made on budgets tiny enough that the directors never had to fret about mass appeal. The festival, in fact, suggests a sort of twilight world of highly individual—not to say bizarre—sensibilities. I’m not sure it’s a better world than the mainstream, but it does seem somehow more free.
“The course of true love never did run smooth,” warbles the fairy-tale narrator of i]Bedfellows,[/i] “a phrase made all the more true when both lovers in question possess a penis.” That’s a cockeyed line to open a movie with, and Pierre Stefanos’ 15-minute short only grows more, well, queer: It includes an extended post-coital romantic fantasy in which one of said lovers imagines not only starting a family with his hook-up, but being consoled by him after a surrogate miscarries their baby. That’s some highly specific stuff—endearingly so—but it seems downright ordinary compared with The Macabre World of Lavender Williams, a 25-minute picture by Nicolas Delgado de la Camara that plays like a live-action All Dogs Go to Heaven shot by David Lynch. It’s about an orphaned girl who journeys with the zombiefied remains of her family mutt, Lester, a detailed creation that looks like something left rotting in Jim Henson’s garage for the past decade. Lester is voiced by Christopher Lloyd. God is voiced by John Lithgow. The dog and his master share a poignant reminiscence about the time he bit her and her parents subsequently shot him in the head. (Both films show in the shorts program, at 9:30 pm Monday, Dec. 6.)
The most accomplished work in the fest is also the opening-night feature: The Beginner (7:15 pm Monday, Dec. 6) presents a reductio ad absurdum portrait of the kind of moony slacker by now noxiously familiar. He’s been lolling through movies since The Graduate, but this guy can’t even commence schooling—instead he wheedles for his college fund and starts spending it at every pizza parlor he can find. Director Ben Coccio has far more stylistic ambition than any of his mumblecore peers, however—he has a mastery of sound editing and loves iris-ins for transitions—while lead actor Cal Robertson creates a hero so passively repellent he becomes perversely fascinating. In one remarkable scene at Foxwoods Casino, he makes an indefensibly reckless roulette gamble, and his reaction to the result is impossible to decipher. Some things are so personal we’ll never understand.