Coachella: Triumphs, failures, and lessons from the inaugural AMFM Fest

The inaugural AMFM Fest, which shares a valley with the Coachella Art and Music Festival, may have been too ambitious. But the future is bright.

Starting a new film festival in a big city is tantamount to gentrifying a neighborhood. Not only do you have to program great films, host good parties, and assemble intelligent panels—the gentrification equivalent of constructing new stores, restaurants, and schools—you must also entice an affluent population to exchange a pre-existing event for your festival on their busy calendar (i.e. leave their street and move onto your block). But starting a new film festival outside of a major metropolitan area, where the population and cultural infrastructure doesn’t exist year round, is like building a frontier town in a desert. You aren’t asking people to give up their leases and move into a warehouse under the Manhattan Bridge. You’re asking people to abandon the amenity-rich city and relocate to an inhospitable wasteland. The only way to entice them, accordingly, is to offer them something they can’t get anywhere else.

No one has more thoroughly proved that people, if the price is right, will subject themselves to hellfire than Paul Tollett—the visionary concert promoter behind the Coachella Art and Music Festival. Even in April, the Empire Polo Grounds get so hot that festival security officers roam the campgrounds every morning evicting people from their tents so they don’t die of heat exposure.

So why do kids make the haaj to Indio every spring? Last year it was to see Phoenix and Lou Reed (and Aesop Rock, and Youth Lagoon, and Beach House, and Passion Pit). The year before it was to see The Black Keys, Swedish House Mafia, Bon Iver, and someone called Radiohead. In other words, music (and drug) fans brave the heat and dust of Coachella because Coachella consistently assembles the most exciting lineup of music acts on earth, and provides a no-rules environment to watch them perform. If you book the right bands, and dispense with certain laws curtailing the use of controlled substances, the faithful will help you found the kingdom of Israel.

But does the same hold true for film festivals? If you program the right lineup, will people put up with 106-degree temperatures?

It is on that article of faith that Rich Henrich and Rob Galarza sold their share of the Albuquerque Film Festival (which they directed from 2009-2012) and staked their claim to the Palm Springs-adjacent Cathedral City and began building AMFM Fest (is anyone getting sick of this town-in-the-desert metaphor yet?)—the inaugural edition of which wrapped on Sunday night after four sweltering days of film screenings, live music, parties, panels, and perhaps most interestingly of all, poetry readings.

Henrich and Galarza, though, hedged their bet. Perhaps unconfident that a film-only event would attract a big enough crowd, AMFM (an acronym for “art, music, film, and more…”) aimed for an insecurely broad array of entertainment offerings. Movies were arguably the festival’s focus (50 screened, including eight premieres), but for the first “M” in their name, AMFM also shut down the main square outside Cathedral City’s City Hall to host two marathon nights of live music. Patrons of Sundance have no doubt watched (or avoided like the plague) bands playing at the Fender Music Lodge off Main Street, but in Park City the music venues are ancillary, not primary. At AMFM, conversely, some press releases gave the musical acts top first billing.

Purely as an attendee, my feeling is that AMFM needs to choose allegiances. If they can build an audience with one group (i.e. film-lovers), they can expand to incorporate music in the years to come. Better still, if AMFM could coordinate calendars with Coachella, they would benefit greatly from cultural cross-pollination (come for the best bands, stay for the best films). Slamdance didn’t ask permission to throw another festival in Park City in January, and AMFM needn’t ask permission to occupy the same valley as Coachella in mid April.

With a narrower focus and a earlier start date, though, I think AMFM is onto something. The films I saw were of an inconsistent quality, but the programming was still bold. Tony Glazer’s meth shock-farce, Junction—a sort of “Breaking Bad” meets My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?—bit off more plot than it could chew (it was, after all, on crank, and didn’t have many teeth left), but before it choked was a legitimately unnerving, unpredictable tragicomedy. Likewise, Phil Donlon’s fragmented, recursive, short-stretched-to-feature-length Man in the Silo, about a black man tormented by his senile white mother-in-law, makes a compelling stylistic homage to Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (or maybe David Lynch’s recent music videos?), and though I can’t say I liked it, I haven’t really been able to forget it.

The highlight of the extended weekend for me, though, was the Michael Madsen poetry reading that Michael Madsen didn’t show up for. He got caught up “shooting a film,” his surrogate told us nervously, standing at the front of the Amigo Room at the Ace Hotel with a small library of poetry books by the missing author. My girlfriend and I, both disappointed and annoyed, started edging out of our booth. But we got caught listening to the guy who wasn’t Michael Madsen read a poem—and it turned out to be quite good. So we settled back into the booth. After not-Madsen read a few more selections, he asked if anyone else would like to read a poem. Neal Bledsoe, who had played the least stable of the unstable meth addicts in Junction offered to take the stage, and after delivering a piece from Madsen’s American Badass, pulled out his phone and read one of his own—about an Inuit man drifting out to see on an ice floe (borderline brilliant, by the way). This broke the dam, and afterward a stream of people took the mic to read their own work, as well as masterpieces by John Berryman, Charles Bukowski, and Edward Arlington Robinson.

The entire event lasted nearly two hours, and though it almost devolved into a fiasco (a man named Patrick, slurring drunk, picked a fight with a woman who started snickering while he extemporized a “poem” about not letting anyone “tell you you can’t fucking do whatever you want to do; you can!”), my girlfriend and I both felt as we walked back to our hotel that we’d witnessed an organic efflorescence of creativity. Coalescing around the absence of Michael Madsen, an accidental community had formed, and a bunch of strangers sat around listening to poems—and not because that guy who was in those Tarantino films was reading them.

I hope AMFM survives another year in the shadow of Mount San Jacinto. I’d like to go again—especially if the festival moves up to April and Henrich and Galarza rack and zoom on their film program. There is room for a destination festival in California, and I, for one, would like a perennial excuse to relocate to the desert each spring.

For more information on AMFM Festival, head here. For more information on how to subscribe to MovieMaker Magazine, click here.

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