I am looking at an elongated yellow oval. It is lit from within. Inside the oval is the word, in small black capital letters, “NEVADA.” Next to this word, in larger red caps—“DRUG.” Above the oval there is ring of little white light bulbs around a red neon “Rx.” I see the fading gray-blue of a 6 o’clock sky. I see a wooden electrical pole and the musical staff of its dark wires.
I’ve just spent three hours watching nine short films, and now I can’t stop seeing. It’s not the films themselves that linger, but their mood of quiet vigilance. Here, just off the intersection of Nevada Way and Arizona Street in Boulder City, the world sections itself into extraordinary details—a beige water tower fronting a jagged red mountain, the reflection of a skateboarder in the quilt-shop window.
The nine films—among the 132 entries in last week’s seventh annual Dam Short Film Festival at the Boulder Theatre—have introduced me to a number of not-terribly-likeable people: A woman who has bloodied her butcher knife on an unseen assailant (D.W. Young’s Not Interested); a paranoid homeowner who has ruined the life of the fellow across the street (Lucas Ostrowski’s aptly named Across the Street); a pretty housewife who has poisoned her philandering husband with a pink cake (the masterful American Sweetheart, from director Karin Binanto and executive producer Avril Ilejay). But I’m feeling fine and generous and utterly at one with Boulder City. The town has embraced this festival; there is a poster in every shop window. Handmade crafts are raffled to benefit the event. It is possible to leave this place with a film-fest quilt. The neighborhood traditionalists and the bohemian young filmmakers are bound by a love of making things.
The strange ethical magnetism of noncommercial films comes not from their subject matter but from their earnest delight in close observation. The camera stubbornly, sometimes irrationally, alights and lingers on rundown buildings, blue front doors, the veins on a hand, the oversaturated fluorescent lighting of a gray-carpeted white-collar office. The details don’t get lost in the smoothness of a Hollywood narrative arc; they make a direct appeal to the retina.
Jaded eyes wake to the pleasures of sight.
Outside, the city comes alive.