While the official end to ActionFest came Sunday night, after the film festival’s closing night screening of Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins at The Carolina Asheville, it unofficially wound down Monday night behind the building of West Asheville’s Blue Barnhouse studio. There, a handful of people caught a screening of Evan Glodell’s pre-Apocalyptic love story Bellflower, projected on a bed sheet pegged to a couple of drainage pipes. Not far away was not only the film’s director, but also the star of the film, a matte black, fire-breathing muscle car named Mother Medusa. As a whole, this was not only the perfect finale for ActionFest 2011, but a pin-point summation of it, too, with its mix of the community driven and the unorthodox.
In its second year, ActionFest might have actually set itself up to become the film festival Asheville has long wanted and tried time and again to create, but never quite pulled off. Last year’s festival, for numerous reasons—whether it be the spur-of-the-moment fashion it was organized in, or the over-reliance on the star power of guest Chuck Norris—was a disappointment. Sure, crowds came out for the stunt show in The Carolina parking lot, and to catch a view of Norris, but attendance to the films themselves was sparse. Granted, having Mr. Norris in town drew a lot of attention to this fledgling undertaking, but when you’re throwing a film festival, people need to see the movies.
Sure, there were the celebrity draws this year, from Black Dynamite star Michael Jai White to professional wrestler Trish Stratus, not to mention legendary stuntman—and possibly the world’s friendliest guy—Buddy Joe Hooker. But ActionFest this year really placed the emphasis on the films. I can’t think of a single year of any film festival in Asheville that—from top to bottom—was programmed as consistently. In late 2009, when I first heard rumor that the first ActionFest might happen, I found the idea kind of silly and cheesy, with visions of dumb action flicks playing for a weekend, with all of us pretentious, elitist cineastes left out. But the reality has been much, much different. Even last year the movies were almost all fine, professional pieces of filmmaking in their own right, ranging from just entertainments to others with more artistic aims. This year’s selection spanned multiple genres and cinematic schools, from the splattery schlock of Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun to the only time I’ve seen something resembling mumblecore film (for lack of a better word) made palpably entertaining, interesting and dangerous—the aforementioned low-budget stylings of Bellflower. James Gunn’s Super was the talk of Friday, and Ken Hanke’s even attested that it’s one of the best films he’s seen this year.
Sure, the festival this year had at least one film that could fall into the category of big, dumb action flick—the Trish Stratus vehicle Bail Enforcers—but even that was apparently not all that bad (I didn’t get a chance to catch it), since it never acts like nothing more that what it is. On the other side of the spectrum, though, there was 13 Assassins, which isn’t just a great actioner, but a great movie, better than anything not named Slumdog Millionaire shown at the now-defunct Asheville Film Festival (retrospectives not included).
The key, though, is that the inherent nature of a film festival revolving around nothing but action flicks is the lack of heavy dramas and the well-meaning, gooey audience-award winners you often come across, meaning you get a whole weekend of movies that are simply entertaining. The accidental return on all these action movies is the atmosphere created, which is one of fun and of people who were refreshingly happy just to be at the movies. This is, after all, a film festival that prides itself on its lack of stuffiness and pretension (summed up in an awards show where emcee and local radio DJ “Freakin’” Jay Deacon made jokes about porno films and it somehow didn’t seem awkward or out-of-place). With its crowd-pleasing stunt show in the parking lot Sunday, and its convention-like atmosphere, the festival still managed to show plenty of quality movies.
This feeling became contagious in a way—or maybe it was ingrained from the beginning—since everyone in attendance genuinely wanted to be there, and because they just honestly love movies. This was just my own personal experience, but I can’t remember the last time I talked about such a wide variety of movies—from Paul Verhoeven to 10,000 B.C. to Ruggles of Red Gap—in completely non-contentious, understanding ways, and with so many different people. There was a moment after the Asheville Film Society screening of Harold and Maude, just before the film’s stunt coordinator Hooker gave a Q&A on the film (and proved that there is a connection between action films and more genteel fare) and while people downstairs milled about and chatted, that festival co-founder and Carolina owner Bill Banowsky said to me that he’d never seen the theater so alive. And you know, what? He was right. Because there was an energy that I’d never experienced in that building before, and it was an energy that maintained itself throughout the weekend.
Really, this was a festival for movie fans more than anything else, something that didn’t exist in last year’s festival, when no one in town seemed to understand there were movies with all the Chuck Norris hullabaloo going on. The credit can be placed on the festival’s organizers and programmers (not to mention all the volunteers and employees), like first year Festival Director Colin Geddes, a longtime programmer with the Toronto International Film Festival, who knows his stuff and knows how to throw a festival. For once in Asheville, people with an understanding of film culture were put in charge of a festival with the resources —like co-founders Banowsky and Aaron Norris and Executive Director Tom Quinn of Magnolia Pictures—to back them up. Finally, we get to see what a festival run by someone other than a bureaucracy viewing it an also-ran behind Bele Chere and wasting the talents of a lot of hard-working, intelligent people.
This is, of course, still a small festival in the scheme of things, but this year was the first time we saw what ActionFest could be. Last year’s edition seemed to stumble into its identity as being a platform for honoring stuntmen and women, while this year, that was the goal from the onset. It takes years for a film festival to grow an audience and to turn a profit (something the Asheville Film Festival never managed to do), but there was definite, palpable growth to the point that—from one figure I heard—three times as many people showing up this year compared to last. The growing pains were there as well, with Friday’s midnight screening of Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun having to be canceled due to the 35mm print being built wrong, and other occasional technical glitches here and there. But to steal the sentiment from festival programmer Peter Kuplowsky’s introduction of Little Big Soldier—paraphrasing Richard Attenborough in Jurassic Park—even Pirates of the Carribean doesn’t work all the time. It’s an attitude born out of the positivity created by the festival’s atmosphere: These muck-ups weren’t death knells like they might’ve been last year, but instead things to improve on.
Hopefully, this is the path ActionFest will continue on, improving, fine-tuning, and growing. In a way, it might be the film festival Asheville—a city that’s prided itself on clever niches and its own ability to be singular and different—always wanted without realizing it. One of the problems with the once and former Asheville Film Festival was that it wanted to be a destination and prestige festival in a world filled with such, where ActionFest, in its own demure, unassuming way, became simply fun. Maybe it’s my jaded nature, or the way I’m so often underwhelmed by The Next Big Thing here in town. The AFF has long been demolished, and I still don’t know what the hell HATCH is, but for once it’s encouraging and exciting to see festival in town not only exceed expectations, but show honest potential, too.