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February 7-13, 2007

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'The Ghost Mountain Experiment'

Hilltop Haven: The sun glints off the ridge in 'The Ghost Mountain Experiment.'

Reel City in Sight

We get started early on some of the highlights of this year's Cinequest

By Richard von Busack


WITH SO MANY films on tap, we're going to have to starting writing about this year's Cinequest (which kicks off Feb. 28) early or we won't get to everything. There is, for instance, a lot to like in Cinequest's opening film, Mira Nair's The Namesake. I'll review it later, but what I think will make this a hit among Indian immigrants everywhere is one particular shot.

That's the image of an extended-stay apartment where one of the characters lives during an assignment. The white, deep-pile carpet is spotless; the frosty-white walls are blank and cheerless; and the infamous anti-light of Cleveland in December seeps in through the curtained windows. It's as welcoming as the inside of a freezer. I'm sure the image will be bitter as wormwood to the engineers who have come to America, leaving behind their homeland and everything that goes with it: the voluptuous heat, the constant throbbing of life outside the window and the comfort of their families.

The documentaries are often the best films at Cinequest, and the one so far that stands out the most is The Ghost Mountain Experiment (March 4-5 and 8). Having been raised in the stinking desert, I'm not the kind of person who can stare at it with longing, but director John McDonald's scenes of the Anza Borrego in four seasons are very persuasive; he finds glory in it, in the heat, in the rare snows and in the spring with checkerspot butterflies exploring the wildflowers.

His subject is one of the most famous rhapsodizers of the area. Marshal South was an Australian immigrant who came to America 100 years ago. He married Tanya Lehrer, a Ukranian lady who worked as a secretary on Wall Street. Together they came to live on top of a desert mountain, which they dubbed "Yaquitepec." On the hill, South wrote pulp-fiction cowboy novels; Tanya wrote poetry and Saturday Evening Post articles about the virtues of the back-to-nature life and how the desert supplied every one of their needs.

These "dreamers of the Golden Dream," as Joan Didion once put it, sold an image of the pure and simple life in California decades before hippies headed out to the hills in droves. In posed photos, South stood on the cliffs, dressed like Cochise, and his children went nude even in the snow. In the rest of the nation, the Souths became cult figures, sought out by fans and curiosity seekers.

In Julian, the only nearby town of any size, the family was alternately pitied or scorned during their rare visits. (One local, quoting a friend: "No one had to tell me Marshal was in town. I could smell him coming.") McDonald views South's attempt to find independence with a skeptical eye. Peter Wild, a University of Arizona professor, comments on South's "showbiz" side and denigrates his abilities as a nouveau-Yaqui: "No Native American would have ever been so stupid as to live on a hilltop where there was no water."


Movie Times Cinequest runs Feb. 28-March 11 in downtown San Jose. For details, check Metro or visit www.cinequest.org. Full Disclosure: Metro is a sponsor of the festival.


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