The Year in Dark Places That Smell of Popcorn

"At this rate, 1998 may prove to be the year that Orange County outclasses LA as the place to see cutting-edge and classic films."

I closed my 1997 year-end look at the OC film scene with these words, and let's just say that with prognostication skills like mine, I won't be putting National Enquirer psychic Jeanne Dixon out of work. There were many exciting developments in our local film scene this year, but there were also some bitter pills to gulp down, including the closing of Corona del Mar's historic Port Theatre just as the place was really starting to kick some serious cinematic booty. For years, the Port had featured long, long runs of terminally logy art-house flicks, that Oscar-winning, Merchant-Ivory, hoopskirt-and-crumpets kind of picture that sends refined young ladies into weeping paroxysms of joy as it simultaneously sends their loutish boyfriends diving for the exits. Then, one fine day late in '96, the Port was acquired by the Landmark theater chain, the same folks who run Santa Monica's mind-fryingly neat Nuart Theater. The Landmark people instituted the same policy that works so well for them at the Nuart and began screening an eclectic mix of classics, cutting-edge American cinema, cult films, foreign flicks . . . the good stuff, basically. For a few months, the county was treated to daily screenings of Woody Allen and Jan Svankmajer, of Shock Corridor and Irma Vep.

Aye, those were golden times.

It was too good to last; the Port didn't bring in enough dough to support the Landmark boys in the lifestyle to which they've become accustomed, and a few months back, the place closed its doors, apparently for good. As OC's film gods giveth, so they taketh away.

The Laguna Beach Film Festival was one of the big-deal local film events that put a big, dopey grin on the faces of OC filmgoers in 1997, but in '98, we wept bitter tears when the festival organizers ran into money trouble and cancelled this year's festival at the last moment.

OC's other major film shindig, the Newport Beach International Film Festival (NBIFF), continued this year with a solid but only occasionally breathtaking lineup. Leading the pack: Karl Hirsch's wonderful Green (Whatever), a sharply funny, artfully told tale about growing pains among a group of lovably feckless Gen-X losers who love and despise their friends and themselves in equal measure. Yes, on paper, it sounds like the kind of thing you'd be well-advised to stay far, far away from, but Hirsch is a talent to treasure. The fact that this film still hasn't been picked up for national distribution is one of those little things that convinces us that life just is not fair.

Oddly enough, the best stuff screened not at the movie houses but at the universities. In addition to a butt-kickin' Hong Kong action-film series, UC Irvine also offered an inestimably cool avant-garde film series featuring not just Circus Redickuless, Philip Glau's grimly hilarious, documentary look at the self-proclaimed "world's only punk rock circus troupe," but also an uncut screening of Andy Warhol's historic, ultrarare masterpiece, Chelsea Girls. Likewise, Chapman University gave film fans some excellent reasons not to stick their heads in the oven to end it all. Instructor Maureen Furniss has had a dandy film program for years, but this season, she outdid herself, scheduling a weekly sci-fi series (Brazil, The Day the Earth Stood Still) so swell it could send you into orbit and a film-noir series (Detour, The Usual Suspects) that would bring a grin to the face of even the surliest gumshoe. Furniss can also take credit for the animation conference that came to the county this summer, a sprawling event that featured screenings of dozens of rare animation gems, some of which had previously gone unseen for decades. If LA offered anything remotely comparable all year, I missed it.

Now a new year dawns. The universities are about to unleash brand-new film programs, and a new Newport Beach film fest isn't far off. Beyond that? Nobody can guess. I've said it before and been proven wrong, but given the activity at the universities and the NBIFF, the possibility of the Laguna fest rising from its own ashes, and other events around town, there's enough potential here that I'm willing to risk looking like a dummy by saying it again. . . . Maybe this is the year that the promise long dormant in OC's film scene will finally blossom, and we'll at last outclass LA as the place to see cutting-edge and classic films.


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