I am writing this on no sleep, which is fitting, considering the event I am chronicling had the very same effect. To be fair, at this point I can no longer blame the 5th Annual Secret Film Festival, as it ended on Sunday at noon (after starting, and continuing uninterrupted, at midnight on Saturday). Having watched “Apocalypse Now” this past weekend, I find a strange kinship with the Colonel Kurtz’s splinter-brained, post-Vietnam lifestyle, though I doubt even he would be able to enjoy the smell of popcorn in the morning.
For those unaware of the horror (the horror!) of the Secret Film Festival, it breaks down as follows: the Del Mar doors open at midnight, and attendees are ushered into the main theater. It’s here that the first film is shown, with clues as to its identity given before it begins. After that, you are given a choice: stay in the main theater or go upstairs for an alternative screening. This continues again and again. For 10 hours.
I consider the festival to be the poor man film fan’s Coachella equivalent, except cheaper ($13 for the whole event) and with the added allure of mystery — the lack of sequined headbands and acceptance of sweat pants are additional pros. But what the Secret Film Festival really asks of you is mental and tangible preparation. I, for instance, came prepared with a blanket, comfortable clothes, and a treasure trove of snacks — only to realize that, in my sleepy state, I packed nothing but a half-eaten bag of saltines and a string cheese that I foolishly put in my back pocket, only to inadvertently sit on it before the festival even rolled film.
The night began with an employee introducing the new format (the alternative screenings were a new addition this year), and giving us clues as to what the first two screenings were, which my film companions and I were able to successfully guess — an ability that would dwindle as the night wore on. Turns out that David Duchovny did not star in a Norwegian-language detective thriller, and that, though it seemed like it at around 7:30 a.m., every clue did not lead to Iron Man 2.
12:30 a.m. — The first film was an Australian caper titled The Square (2008, Nash Edgerton), a taut, if occasionally over-the-top, thriller about a married man’s plan to run away with his mistress in one hand and a duffel bag of stolen money in the other. As with any film that features stolen money and infidelity, things go awry and the worst kind of shenanigans ensue. Considering its relatively early placement in the night’s schedule, the crowd was appropriately active and enthralled, with audible gasps echoing off the theatre walls. I found myself overly enthusiastic, which proved fatal for my string cheese.
2:15 a.m. — My delirium having yet really to set in, my cinematic comrades and I dashed upstairs in time to see “Thirst” (2009, Chang-wook Pak), a Korean vampire film whose abundant usage of art house gore made me long for a pop culture manifesto that didn’t align ‘vampires’ with sparkle-skinned teens and apathetic heroines. I left depressed — my string cheese followed suit.
4:28 a.m. — “Thirst” ends, and while my celluloid juices are flowing, the rest of my body begins to feel the pains of the Festival’s “Clockwork Orange”-like disposition: upright sitting with eyes wide open. Plus, the sitting is really only furthering the flattening of my string cheese.
4:32 a.m. — “The Good, The Bad, The Weird” (2008, Ji-woon Kim) begins. I whisper to my friend asking if she knows what kind of muffins the concession stand is serving. She asks me why my pants smell like mozzarella. I tell her I’m going to close my eyes for a second.
6:41 a.m. — I opened my eyes to find the crowd enthusiastically applauding. I followed suit, exclaiming things like, “What an ending!” and “This is just one of those movies!”
6:45 a.m. — A 20-minute break allowed me to go move my car to a new parking lot. The second I stepped foot outside, I was taken aback by the absence of people, cars, and the smell of popcorn. I hissed at the fresh air, running to my car like a goblin, and thanking God that no one was around to see the hideous mad dash to my car.
7:00 a.m. — My friend told me she saw me running when she was moving her car. I told her it wasn’t me, as my baggy eyes began darting from side to side. She asked me if I was okay — I asked her if they were selling muffins.
7:15 a.m. — “The Secret of Kell” (2009, Tomm Moore/Nora Twomey) was playing in the alternate theatre. I’d been curious about the film ever since it nabbed a surprise spot in the Best Animated Feature category at the 2010 Academy Awards, and was excited to see if it would live up to the hype. But my exhaustion made it too difficult to decipher the Irish accents, reminding me of the time I tried watching “Grey Gardens” but was too high to understand the Kennedy drawl.
8:30 a.m. — I overheard a group of friends laughing and engaging in a lively conversation. Tuning back into my immediate setting, I heard my friend break the silence by mumbling, “I think my organs are failing.” We decided we had come too far to quit now, and vowed to stay until the final film’s credits had rolled.
9:00 a.m. — I passed out mid-vow and missed nearly the entirety of “Terribly Happy” (2008, Henrik Ruben Genz), a Danish-language film that I believe may have been about a detective in a small town who comes across a series of increasingly peculiar characters. The bits I did manage to see are atmospheric and macabre, harkening back to the Coen Brother’s neo-noirs of yesteryear.
10:35 a.m. — My friend with the organ failure kicked the chair in front of her and stumbled upon a roll of five movie posters — gifts given to the first 50 ticket holders. Two “Iron Man 2” posters led us to our overly confident assumption that it would be the last film screened.
10:45 a.m. — “District 13: Ultimatum” (2009, Patrick Alessandrin) ended the festival on a high note. The French-language Parkour film blew everyone’s mind all over their faces — regardless of the fact that my friends and I were continuously waiting for the film to be interrupted by “Iron Man 2.”
12:15 p.m. — The festival came to a close with a raffle. 15 prizes were given out, though the first 12 had “The Runaways” T-shirts included, as well as a copy of the soundtrack to “The Square.” This felt less like a gift and more like the Del Mar’s attempt at spring-cleaning. Two people from the same row of seats won consecutively, leading to sleep deprived conspiracies that were uttered far too loudly. However, I somehow won a “How to Train Your Dragon” sweater, a copy of “Black Dynamite” on DVD, and two free passes to the next four midnight movies. I said “hello” instead of “thank you” to the employee giving out the gifts. He turned out to be the same guy I had approached two consecutive times earlier in the night asking about the Del Mar’s muffin selection.
12:30 p.m. — Freedom! The festival ended, but my plans for immediate sleep were dashed at the news that the Indian buffet was currently open at the Royal Taj. I repeated the same goblin-run I did to my car the first time around, only this time running into the same Del Mar employee in the parking lot. He pitied me.
And, with that, my time at the Secret Film Festival came to a close. It wasn’t easy, but, in those 12 hours, I would like to think that I learned a little something about myself. I learned that my love of film cannot be beaten — that, even in the face of such adversity as exhaustion, paranoia, and an ungodly amount of questions regarding muffins, my passion for film allows me to take any obstacle in stride, risking it all for my celluloid mistress.
But, most importantly, I learned that we are blessed to have a unique film culture like we do in Santa Cruz — where 12 hours of back-to-back films is not just deemed possible, but desirable. I thank the Del Mar for hosting such a wonderful annual event. I thank the studios that support independent theater chains in their unique artistic endeavors. But most of all, I thank the housemates that were foolish enough to join me on an adventure that proved just as challenging as it was entertaining. Scraping the string cheese out of my back pocket will provide a similar experience — one I am almost positive they will not be partaking in.