Creed Bratton in The Ghastly Love of Johnny X.
Paul the psychic octopus.
San Francisco Indiefest, the city’s answer to Sundance, celebrates its 15th birthday with a lineup of films as challenging, unexpected—even surreal—as any yet. The 2013 Indiefest takes on America’s obsession with fame through films that court celebrity in a decidedly indie way:
Bound by Flesh (Feb. 16-17): Leslie Zemeckis (director of Behind the Burly Q and wife of director Robert Zemeckis) presents a documentary portrait of the Hilton sisters. No, not those Hilton sisters, but rather the conjoined twins who became the biggest stars of the 30s Vaudeville stage and were immortalized in the cult classic Freaks.
The Hiltons were the prototypical modern American celebrities. "A sideshow is the equivalent of watching reality TV," Zemeckis says. "The Kardashians are our 'freaks', for lack of a better word. It's just the form that's changed." Bound by Flesh features exploited child stars, scheming managers, rumor and controversy, and a singular relationship forged via the spotlight.
"I came to understand it as a love story about these sisters," Zemeckis says. "I wondered what it would be like to have somebody there every second of your life. We can never know that."
Inside Lara Roxx (Feb. 17-18): Mia Donovan’s new documentary tells a story as old as Hollywood: A young girl goes to L.A. to become a star, gains celebrity overnight, then drops out of the public eye just as quickly and struggles with depression and substance abuse. But Lara Roxx's notability was tragic from the start: She made news by contracting HIV on the set of a pornographic film. "She wouldn't have any fame had she not contracted HIV," Donovan says.
Roxx lived in the limelight for a few heady weeks, being paid for interviews on NBC and Entertainment Tonight, flying around the country, and courting big offers, just like any new star. "People were promising her a foundation to raise money and a lot of [other] promises. None of it came through in the end." Donovan's film follows Roxx in the years since as Roxx tries to get clean, stay healthy, and get herself together. "I thought we were going to make this film to make the porn industry safer for women," Donovan says. "But it became more just a portrait of this girl."
The Ghastly Love of Johnny X (Feb. 15 & 18): A film (in)famous in its own right: It was the lowest grossing movie of 2012, with a total box office of $116.15—all from a single theater in Kansas. “They rounded down from seventeen cents,” says director Paul Bunnell.
The numbers are a bit misleading; Johnny X drew bigger crowds at film festivals, but those don’t count toward box office. Infamy is better than obscurity though, Bunnell says. “It’s helped in a weird way. If we’d made another hundred dollars we wouldn’t be talking.”
Johnny X features Indiefest’s strangest but most sincere comment on celebrity hero-worship in a scene between Kate Maberly (Finding Neverland) as a star-struck rock fan and Creed Bratton (The Office) as an zombie rock star. “He’s falling apart, but she loves him no matter what,” Bunnell says. “She sees past that big, green bug-eyed monster.”
Also featured this year: Documentarian Alexandre Philippe tackled celebrity and hero-worship in 2010’s The People vs. George Lucas but his Indiefest offering profiles an even bigger star. In 2010, an octopus in a German aquarium miraculously seemed to predict the winner of eight World Cup soccer matches in a row. As chronicled in Philippe’s biopic, The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus, the oracular cephalopod became the centerpiece of a feeding frenzy of PR agents, bookies, skeptics, and soccer zealots.
"There is no limit" to what celebrity can be or do in this day and age, Philippe says. "Look at YouTube. There are a lot of individuals who are far more ridiculous icons than Paul." But Paul the Psychic Octopus is not a satire; Philippe found the whole thing charming. "I don't call it a documentary, I call it a fairy tale. The sheer impossibility of this makes you dream."
All listed screenings are at the Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St. For other screenings and films, check out SfIndie.com.
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