"Festive" sometimes seems like the wrong word for film festivals, which can come across as strongholds of solemnity. This year's Atlanta Film Festival opens Thurs., April 15 with Freedom Riders, a documentary about the Civil Rights Movement and the freedom rides of 1961. The fest also includes movies about such cheery topics as the plight of Tibet, Proposition 8, illegal immigration, high school shootings and blind teenagers. And that's just the documentaries. Phrases such as "drug addict," "underbelly of suburbia" and "spiral out of control" frequently describe the feature film plots.
While a majority of the movies at festivals tackles heavy subject matter, a deeper focus on the programming and people behind the scenes can find a sense of humor that's usually subtle, but sometimes silly. "The tag that film festivals get is that we're bastions of liberalism. We're so serious about issues that we wake up with knots in our stomachs, because we care so much about these things. No: We're like everyone else. We want to have fun, too. We want people to come together and have a good time," says Charles Judson, communications director of the Atlanta Film Festival.
This year's Atlanta Film Festival lightens up with an unusual emphasis on comic relief, including three documentaries about the art of live comedy performance: The Battle of Pussy Willow Creek, I Am Comic, and most notably, Saturday Night, a making-of look at "Saturday Night Live" directed by stoner heartthrob James Franco.
"We always look for comedy so we can have variety in our programming, but we get more dramas because of the nature of independent film," explains Festival Director Dan Krovich. "Independent filmmakers tend to be interested in personal stories, so they tend to make dramas, because dramatic moments in life seem to have the most impact. Unfairly, comedy tends to be seen as frivolous."
Amid the hundreds of submissions the film festival receives every year, comedies face certain hurdles to make the cut.
"It's harder to get comedy films programmed, because comedy is more subjective. If you don't laugh at a comedy, it's not good. But someone else might be on the floor," says Judson. "It's not like a drama, where you might think about it an hour after seeing it, and then decide, 'You know, that was a good movie.' With comedy, you either enjoyed it while watching, or you didn't."
Krovich learned a lesson about subjectivity of humor the first time he programmed the comedy shorts for the Atlanta Film Festival. "People thought they were good, but they didn't really think they were funny. Maybe I have an unusual sense of humor. Since then, I've been viewing our comedy shorts in a more mainstream fashion. As a programmer, you want every film you show to be a good film. But you also know the films that your audience will really like, and the films that you really care about and want to be in the festival, that other people might not like."
Occasionally, indie comedies such as Clerks and Napoleon Dynamite can become crossover hits, but they tend to be exceptions. "Comedy is all in performance. You can have a brilliant script, but in the wrong hands, it falls flat. In Hollywood films, comedies are star driven. You see someone like Will Ferrell doing his shtick, it's familiar, so it's like it gives you permission to laugh. It's harder with independent films, when you don't have that level of talent or the cachet of the actors," says Gabe Wardell, Atlanta Film Festival executive director.
Occasionally, the audience or the angle of the programming provides the high spirits. Take We Dare You To Watch These Shorts, an evening of challenging, often disturbing short films (Sat., April 17, 11:50 p.m.). "These are hard films to program. You can't stick these on the animation program after Wallace & Gromit," says Krovich.
"There's probably nothing funny about most of these films, but I think the concept is hilarious," Wardell says. "We're not daring people to watch them because they're bad. 'Feeder,' for example, has a miniature camera in the back of someone's throat, so you see what a person is eating and smoking. On one level, it's educational. On the other, people can get physically sick while watching it. It's like watching surgery."
"My fear is that people will come out of We Dare You and say, 'Oh, this is nothing!'" he adds.
Wardell hopes attendees bring a similarly playful attitude to the 50th anniversary screening of Psycho, Piedmont Park's Movie on the Meadow (April 17, 9 p.m.). "I don't think many people haven't seen Psycho, or don't know the story, so I hope there's an ironic approach to it as well. There's a long scene with Norman Bates and Marion Crane talking, and if you know what's coming up, it's actually hilarious. Hitchcock knew comedy and horror could be intrinsically connected."
During the interview, Wardell quipped that indie filmmakers and festival staffers were sad clowns, but if anything, they're the opposite: sober on the outside, laughing on the inside. So what's the opposite of a sad clown: A mirthful mourner? A cheery doomsayer? A happy scold? Even when the going gets grim, don't be surprised to notice smiles at the corners of their mouths.
THE BATTLE OF PUSSY WILLOW CREEK (3 out of 5 stars, Sat., April 17, 2:20 p.m.; Tues., April 20, 12:20 p.m.)
Ken Burns' epic PBS documentary The Civil War may not be required viewing to enjoy this pitch-perfect historical satire, but it couldn't hurt. Director Wendy Jo Cohen uses a phony version of Burns' formula – including dramatic readings of letters, archival photos, talking-head experts and lush shots of the actual sites – to recount the Civil War's most decisive, yet most obscure battle.
The Union's heroes at Pussy Willow Creek include septuagenarian Chinese General Li; a one-armed former prostitute disguised as a drummer boy; a nerdy, biracial former slave; and an opium-addled, cross-dressing dandy whose ex-boyfriend fights for the South. The film strains a bit to extend the concept to feature length, but includes plenty of blink-and-you'll-miss-them gags in the margins. Plus, with interviewees from venues such as the "Tolerance Institute," the film skewers the kind of history that spins events to suit political agendas.
FUNNIEST LINE: "I pray to see battle, and pray doubly to meet Sinclair Whittier on the field, where I shall not give him the satisfaction of showing that I recognize him," the gay colonel confides in a letter, putting the military campaign on the same level as two exes snubbing each other.
SATURDAY NIGHT (3 out of 5 stars, Sat., April 17, 9:30 p.m.)
Even if you have mixed feelings about "Saturday Night Live," the 35-year-old late-night sketch comedy institution, this documentary provides an intriguing peek into the process that you don't see on Tina Fey's "30 Rock." Actor and one-time host James Franco follows the creation of a single episode, from the Monday pitch meeting in Lorne Michaels' office to the cast and guest host John Malkovich hugging during the closing credits.
Franco's celebrity no doubt gained him his backstage pass, and he clearly enjoys hanging around with pals such as Bill Hader (who does a killer Willem Dafoe impression). Saturday Night proves light on context or conflict, and explores little of the show's history or the volatility of the creative process.
Nevertheless, it captures the mixture of adrenaline and drudgery that drives the show, particularly with the Wednesday table read, where about 50 new sketches are cut down to nine by airtime. In the film's most fascinating aspect, two sketches kill at the table read, but one fails to gel at the dress rehearsal and is axed by airtime. It makes you wonder if the table read would actually be funnier than "Saturday Night Live's" finished product.
FUNNIEST LINE: "You're trying to pitch a play idea you have that's like Dangerous Liaisons in a hot tub, called J'Acuzzi," head writer Seth Meyers says to Malkovich at the initial meeting. And in fact, the sketch makes the cut for the live broadcast.
BIG FONT. LARGE SPACING (2 out of 5 stars, Sat., April 17, 10:15 p.m.; Wed., April 21, 4:45 p.m.)
At a college in Cardiff, England, two pothead students (James Kristian, Gareth Aldon) realize they have a 5,000-word psychology paper due the next day and pull an accident-prone all-nighter to get it done. Current and former college students alike will identify all too well with the guys' half-assed yet desperate approach to scholarship. Director Paul Howard Allen has a pleasing, soft-spoken tone comparable to Scottish comedy director Bill Forsyth. (You could call this one Gregory's Girl Goes to College.)
Unfortunately, there's only so much visual or dramatic interest the film can find in two young men typing at laptops. The locations remain confined to their flat and the apartment of two co-eds, making the film nearly as claustrophobic as Paranormal Activity. The edgier subplot between two mismatched female roommates (Amy Morgan and Kimberley Wintle) ultimately gets the highest marks.
FUNNIEST LINE: "I can't believe I'm ironing notes on obsessive-compulsive disorder," one of the guys comments after a tea-spilling incident.
I AM COMIC (2 out of 5 stars, Sun., April 18, 5:30 p.m.; Tues., April 20, 9:40 p.m.)
In the spirit of The Aristocrats comes this documentary about the life and art of stand-up comedians. The film features scores of interviewees, ranging from the owner of Atlanta's the Punchline to jokesters you've never heard of to established comics such as Janeane Garofalo, Jeff Foxworthy and Tommy Davidson (who comes across like a Zen guru of comedy).
During the film, former comedian, narrator, and Art Carney look-alike Ritch Shydner becomes compelled to return to the stage. He'd be the first to admit his initial open-mic stints fall flat, but his performance doesn't improve that much by the end of the film. More judicious editing would have helped, but the film includes some hilarious, eye-opening stories about sex, drugs and life on the road. Overall, most of the comics would probably agree with a comment from Dana Gould: "I don't do this because I want to. I do this because I have to."
FUNNIEST LINE: "Why are comedy documentaries so serious? Maybe it would be better if we were licking giant lollipops," wonders "Insomniac's" Dave Attell.
COMEDY SHORTS (3 out of 5 stars, Wed., April 21, 9:40 p.m.; Thurs., April 22, 2:20 p.m.)
The quality varies so sharply in most shorts programs, you could get whiplash. This comedy collection is no exception. Several of the selections, like the slacker superhero fantasy "Helium Man," look like reasonably competent student films. "The Spleenectomy" casts an amusing Anna Faris in two roles as a no-nonsense surgeon and a daffy actress aspiring to land the role of a surgeon (maybe you can see where this is going). "The Apostles" takes a familiar idea – the disciples bicker over the Last Supper in Jesus' absence – but finds fresh jokes (and looks particularly slick).
By far the weakest inclusion is "Pet Peeves," which proves so stilted and sexualized, you wonder if it's a knowing spoof of soft-core erotica. In fact, it's neither porn nor parody, but a sexist, mean-spirited portrayal of a jerk who hates his girlfriend's dog. A good twist doesn't come close to redeeming its bad attitude. Film fest habitués should enjoy "The World of Short Films" and "Winner Best Short Film," which take different approaches to tweaking film fest culture.
FUNNIEST LINE: "The hair! Oh, that hair. It's like a painting on his scalp. It's like Michelangelo came on his head as a baby," says the obsessed narrator of his roommate in "Follicle Follies," a peculiar, hilarious short that doesn't overstay its welcome.