It's the 25th anniversary of the Incredibly Strange Film Festival and it could be its last. Greg Bruce examines its incredible voyage.
In 1994 there was nothing to do in Auckland. Not anything. It was like the Remuera shops on Saturdays but all the time and everywhere.
Young people would sleep all weekend for want of entertainment. Sky TV was around but still fairly new and dominated by monster truck racing and late-night soft porn. Kurt Cobain died in April and left us alone with Pearl Jam. Young people wore multiple layers of baggy clothing regardless of season and spent long hours playing the never-ending board game Risk. There were no more than a dozen buses in the city's fleet and nobody had seen a working train since the 1950s.
It was a scene ripe for something, it knew not what, and it could never have believed that that thing would be a man in his mid 20s with a filmic fever dream that would fall among the city's desperately bored and creatively-underfed younger generation like an attack from a 50-foot woman.
I can't remember how I came into possession of the programme for 1994's first ever Incredibly Strange Film Festival but I can remember opening it at my mum's dining room table in Ellerslie and thinking, hang on, this doesn't read like TV Guide.
It was the year of Once Were Warriors and Heavenly Creatures, the year Jane Campion and Anna Paquin won New Zealand's first-ever Academy Awards. Something was afoot in the New Zealand film scene, but it would be a factual stretch to say Ant Timpson was part of it. He hadn't helped create it, and his new festival definitely wasn't documenting it - neither The Piano nor Heavenly Creatures would ever have been allowed anywhere near an Incredibly Strange programme.
What he was doing was something different but arguably equally important. He was finding a bunch of films like nothing you'd seen before and he was saying, "This is also possible."
In a mid-90s media milieu, where we were forced to watch Holmes every night and listen to him again on radio the following morning, opening that first Incredibly Strange Film Festival programme felt like stepping into a lovely warm shower in an isolated motel run by a mentally unstable man with mummy issues.
he programme has always been an entertainment masterpiece, not just entree but meal in itself. The viscerality of Timpson's movie teases (what he calls "ballyhoo") is such that I can no longer be sure whether I've seen some of the older movies or if it just feels that way.
From the first festival, it was all revolution all the time. In his programme introductions, Timpson ripped into corporates and mediocrities of all kinds: Forrest Gump, Coca-Cola, even the festival's own recently departed blue chip corporate sponsors. His ballyhoo was funny and bombastic and, alongside his film descriptions, he included cleverly subversive icons designed to visually represent their content. Introducing the icons in that first programme, he wrote: "Multiplexes cause brain death - it's a fact. These symbols have been designed to aid multiplex syndrome sufferers."
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Early icons included "Nice 'n' Sleazy" (a drawing of an eyeball looking through a keyhole), "Adolf Feature" (a Hitler moustache and haircut on a film strip), and "Amputease" (a hook hand). By 1999, there were 80 icons, some genuinely informative (Action, Kitsch, Shockumentary), many appealing to sex (Death by Fellatio, Bald Sex, Primate Love, Puppet Sex, Sea Sex, Sex Animal). By 2003, the 100 icons included: "Wacked Out Hippies", "Jungian Concepts" and "Scenery Chewing".
In 2004, after Timpson had spent 10 years establishing Incredibly Strange as a direct rebuke to the "boring mainstream" traditional festivals, it was absorbed into one - the New Zealand International Film Festival. He had to work out how to exist as a disreputable presence in a respectable institution.
He says nothing really changed ("I mean I played Birdemic, so there were never any constraints from HQ"), although he has room for fewer films in the programme, which has meant the end of watchably dreadful old-school staples of earlier festivals like Valley of the Dolls, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Reefer Madness and more or less Ed Wood's entire oeuvre.
he archetypal Incredibly Strange programme entry follows this basic structure: "For the first X minutes, a series of increasingly weird things happen, then suddenly Y does Z and from there it's basically WTF all the way down."
From this year's programme: " . . . sleazy and explicit, but within the grime it promises one of the most unusual and naked friendships you'll ever see portrayed on film. That's before it all goes to pieces, anyway." (Mope)
From 1999: " . . . mindless mayhem, wretched earnest acting, imitation SHAFT musak, H-U-G-E afros and a kitchen-sink mentality where everything and anything goes." (Abar, The First Black Superman)
From 1994: "We are treated to scenes of Glen / Glenda frothing over lingerie items, then for reasons unknown we cut to stampeding buffalo." (Glen or Glenda.)
Next year, for the first time since Timpson's deranged project was brought into its cosy environs, the New Zealand International Film Festival will have a new director. Timpson doesn't know whether Incredibly Strange will stay on. "He could clear the deck of all programmers," he says. "I would do that."
It's hard to believe Timpson would let it die. More than just a collection of super-wack films, the festival has always been a package of feelings and beliefs: a worldview you can buy into for the price of a ticket or even less - it's no small thing that a programme alone was enough to shine a light through the cultural darkness of mid-90s suburban Auckland.
This city has changed since 1994. Our cultural wastelands now feature far more oases, but Incredibly Strange still feels like one of the most vital. By design it arrives each year as a jolt, a reminder of the importance of madness to our collective consciousness.
Timpson told me the big film-making studios are always looking to make what's known in the industry as a "four quadrant film" - something that appeals to each of the following demographic quadrants: female, male, under 25 and over 25.
I said, "So is an Incredibly Strange film typically a one quadrant movie?" He said, "No, it's a no quadrant movie."
Nobody in this country is more of a film nerd. The NZ On Screen website contains thousands of biographies of New Zealand screen identities, all identified by a relatively small range of job titles - actor, director, producer, writer etc. Timpson's reads "Film Fanatic".
He has what he says is the biggest collection of 35mm films in the Southern Hemisphere, and regularly shows them at the Hollywood Cinema in Avondale, which is owned by his brother. He started the now-famous 48 Hour film-making competition in 2003 as part of the Incredibly Strange Film Festival. He has previously called 48 Hours the world's largest guerrilla film-making competition. When I wrote to ask him if we could say that here, he replied, "You can but I'm not sure it's true."
In 2011, he and Hugh Sundae received funding for a national competition called Make My Movie, in which they invited people to submit film ideas, selected the best one and gave its creators $100,000 to make it. They did it again a year later, but with horror movies.
Timpson has produced notable international films The Greasy Strangler (awarded comedy of the year 2017 by British film magazine Empire), Turbo Kid ( Awarded best international film 2015 by America's Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films) and horror anthology The ABCs of Death. He's just directed his first film, Come to Daddy (91 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes at time of writing) which had its first screening at New York's Tribeca Film Festival in April, stars Elijah Wood, has already been picked up for distribution in the US, and has just been selected to open London's Fright Fest.
But, through all the busyness, the success, the international projects and the fulfilment of a long-held film-making dream, Incredibly Strange has remained.
He has tried many times in many ways over the years to define the festival. Maybe the best description, which he used in a piece he wrote a few years ago, is "untamed bugf*** cinema". The festival's films are often neither good nor so bad they're good; but they're never mediocre. They're movies you think about the next day and the day after that and then again a few weeks after that, and then it's five years later and you wake in the middle of the night because it's still messing with your dreams.
One of Timpson's all-time festival highlights is the New Zealand premiere of The Room, which screened to a sold-out audience of 700 in 2007. The Room is acknowledged as one of the worst films ever made but competition for that title has flared again after the release this year of Verotika, the first film directed by heavy-metal legend Glenn Danzig. Verotika won't be showing at this year's Incredibly Strange Film Festival. When asked why not, Timpson says: "I should have the Danzig. I feel I've let down New Zealand."
What he does have is nine sometimes odd, sometimes disturbing, untamed bugf*** films, including what he describes as "a visual poem" re-evaluating the heavily nude 90s flop Showgirls, and a documentary about a famous magician that starts seriously messing with its maker's head about 30 minutes in, and with viewers' not long after.
In a recent article published on notable international film nerd website "Birth Death Movies", Timpson railed against the ease with which people can now get hold of films via streaming, torrents and whatnot.
He wrote: " . . . the inherent nature of the 'hunt' is part of the process of film salivation and mastication. I'd argue that it's a very true component for enjoying a film to its fullest capacity. Food analogies are for lazy writers so here's another one; who do you think would enjoy a yummy meal more? Patient A who is given a beautiful plate of food to eat or Patient B who is told about how beautiful the plate of food is and is then made to wait before final being allowed to eat it. The hunt for elusive prey has been part of our nature, to bypass that and fast-track it, is to lose a part of who we are."
As he suggests, this metaphor is already creakier than the floorboards of an abandoned cabin in the woods, but let's hang on to it for just a little longer - long enough at least for it to fall apart.
The problem with it, is we're not all hunters. Most of us are, at best, scavengers, foragers, gatherers, or whatever likes to lie on the couch and have its prey appear directly on its smart TV while it eats a bowl of chips.
For Timpson however, the hunt is and always has been critical. He has used the phrase, "Symbiotic auto-voyeurism" or "getting off watching you getting off" to describe the satisfaction of finding films that will move people. It's hard to say how many people suffer from this condition but he had to invent the phrase, so probably not many.
From the time he started putting on festivals for his mates in the 80s, he has always been a hunter's hunter, an apex predator, thrilling to the chase not just for his own sake, but the sake of his pride.
It's not hard to find good art. An enormous worldwide apparatus of marketing people, awards, critics and publishers exists to do just that. To find whatever comprises incredibly strange art, on the other hand, takes years of accumulated knowledge, practice, connections, a good sense of the boundaries of taste and the ability and willingness to properly transcend them. These skills and attributes vest in a very small number of people. That's probably for the best.