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16 Jan 2020

Neighbors Onscreen: The Palm Springs International Film Fest's Local Spotlight Was Admirable, Even If the Films Were a Mixed Bag

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A scene from Iconicity. A scene from Iconicity.

Love for the Coachella Valley was a running theme during the Local Spotlight series at the Palm Springs International Film Festival—whether it was expressed by filmmakers who live in the area, or by the onscreen showcases of local landmarks and institutions.

The three Local Spotlight films come from different perspectives and have different goals—but all of the filmmakers involved clearly have a passion for the community.

Co-directors (and married couple) P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes joked about the surprisingly strong turnout for a 7:30 p.m. screening in Palm Springs at the festival debut of their documentary House of Cardin, a tribute to legendary fashion designer Pierre Cardin. Palm Springs residents for the past five years, Ebersole and Hughes developed a love for Cardin’s work thanks to the prevalence of his designs in midcentury modern furniture, setting them on a journey that culminated in the first authorized biography of the notoriously particular fashion icon.

Once Cardin agreed to participate in the film, that opened doors to celebrities including Naomi Campbell, Sharon Stone, Dionne Warwick and others. House of Cardin is a comprehensive look at Cardin’s prolific career in fashion, home furnishings and branded items of all kinds. (Ebersole and Hughes themselves own the Cardin AMC Javelin featured in the movie, shown in a distinctively Palm Springs driveway.) The movie is slick and informative—the kind of thing you could easily imagine streaming on Netflix—and it conveys just how massive the Cardin brand was at its height.

Cardin—still working at the age of 97!—has been involved in so many projects in so many phases of his career that the movie can be a bit unwieldy as it attempts to encapsulate his entire life. For viewers who know nothing about Cardin, the movie offers a sense of the scope of his work and his desire to encourage ethnic and economic diversity in fashion. It’s also relentlessly positive, and can feel a bit overly promotional, especially in the brief sections about Cardin’s personal life that gloss over his complex relationships. Still, the filmmakers could only include as much as they were allowed access to, and as a love letter to the Cardin empire, the movie succeeds.

Director Leo Zahn’s Iconicity (which had its world premiere at the festival) is also a love letter to artistic achievement, in this case to the many quirky art movements in the Coachella Valley and the Mojave Desert. Zahn, who’s lived in Rancho Mirage since 2010, previously made two other documentaries dealing with the cultural history of the Coachella Valley—2016’s Desert Maverick (about architect William F. Cody) and 2018’s Sinatra in Palm Springs—and Iconicity rounds out what he refers to as a loose trilogy. It’s a travelogue of sorts as Zahn visits artists in places including Joshua Tree, Borrego Springs and the Salton Sea’s Slab City and Bombay Beach, chatting with artists in each place, many of whom create unconventional, location-specific works.

Zahn has a clear enthusiasm for the art and artists he features in the movie, and his passion for the material carries the unevenly structured film. Zahn devotes nearly half of the running time to Bombay Beach, which has been extensively transformed by the artists who have colonized the town in recent years. Bombay Beach and its Biennale art festival are fascinating enough subjects that they could easily support their own feature, and Zahn simultaneously takes on too much and not enough by trying to incorporate multiple art communities and movements in the film. At the same time, the movie succeeds in creating a desire to learn more about the artists and their work—and it continues Zahn’s efforts to bring local culture to a wider audience.

The third movie in the Local Spotlight section, Christopher Munch’s The 11th Green, doesn’t have much in common with House of Cardin or Iconicity … or any other movie, for that matter. It’s a narrative film from the writer-director behind cult movies including The Hours and Times and Letters From the Big Man, and while it was mostly shot in Palm Desert and the surrounding areas, it’s not specifically about the Coachella Valley. It’s tough to say what the movie actually is about, since it feels like it was crowd-sourced from conspiracy-theory message-board posts about a government cover-up of UFOs.

Campbell Scott plays a journalist who investigates his late father’s involvement in the alien conspiracy, while staying in his family’s sprawling Palm Desert mansion and working/sleeping with his father’s former assistant (Agnes Bruckner).

Meanwhile, Barack Obama (Leith M. Burke), on vacation in Hawaii, convenes on the astral plane with the ghost of Dwight D. Eisenhower (George Gerdes) to learn about the history of alien involvement in human affairs and decide whether to reveal the truth to the American people. (The movie takes place during Obama’s presidency.) These two completely bonkers storylines never quite fit together, although they sort of converge toward the end of the movie.

Munch takes advantage of the beauty of Palm Desert, shooting in plenty of picturesque outdoor spaces and setting scenes at local businesses, but the location is incidental to the plot. Veteran performers Scott and Bruckner do as well as they could with the absurd storyline, but the best this baffling oddity can hope for is a sort of ironic cult following, along the lines of movies like The Room and Neil Breen’s Fateful Findings.

As far as local culture goes? It’s in a class entirely of its own.

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