Descent into Madness at the Del Mar’s Secret Film Festival

Secret Film FestivalWhy the hell am I wearing a garish seventies tunic right now?

There are only three possible reasons:

a. It’s Halloween,
b. I lost a bet, or…
c. The Secret Film Festival was last weekend.

Let’s take it back to the beginning.  Approximately 48 hours ago I walked into the Del Mar Theatre, and also into the most trying test a film lover can face this side of Hollywood.

The eighth annual Secret Film Festival was twelve hours of back-to-back movies, many of them under-the-radar indie or foreign films, and all of them never before screened in Santa Cruz.

The films were going in two different theaters at once, so this totaled up to 10.1 films (the 0.1 being a short).  But I wasn’t there to just watch all the movies.

I was there to work.

In fact, this was my second year in a row selling concessions during the 2 a.m. – 10 a.m. shift.  When I arrived, about a half hour before the first movie started at midnight, I found my co workers frantically preparing — testing the projectors, making PB&J’s and PB&Nutella’s to sell to the audience, popping more popcorn and brewing more coffee than we usually sell in an entire day.

I’ve never been much of a stage performer, but this has the feeling of backstage before an opening night — except in this case there’s only one performance, and opening night is actually all night.

Trying to describe what it’s like working or attending the Secret Film Festival is like trying to describe what it’s like inside a psych ward full of insomniacs wearing ironically-printed pajamas.  The only way to do the experience justice is to present it in fragments, in as close to chronological order as I can remember.

12:00 a.m.  The stampede that has just been lined up down Pacific Ave. for over an hour has finally arrived and are taking their seats in the Grand Auditorium.

An opening ad on the big screen welcomes everyone to the Del Mar and begs one request: please don’t throw up.

The first movie is Mud — or, as some clever customers suggest to me later, Stand by Matthew McConaughey.  It’s a movie about adolescent friendship and confusion, an island-stranded anti-hero, and the lengths people will go to for revenge and true love.  And Reese Witherspoon plays a lost Southern gal as only she can, and it’s great, but I won’t ruin how it ends, mostly because I don’t even know how it ends.  Ten minutes before the credits roll my boss comes into the theater to tell me I was supposed to clock in twenty minutes ago.

Oh, right.  I signed up to work the overnight shift.

2:00 a.m.  The coffee maker is doing something strange. It is producing a half pot out of a full batch.  Where is the other half going?  Is it hanging out somewhere with all those socks I’ve lost in the dryer?

3:00 a.m.  Just finished my third cup of coffee.  Fourth if you count the handful of chocolate-covered espresso beans I shoved down my gullet.

4:00 a.m.  Things have slowed down at concessions, until one guy comes to complain about a noisy group of guys sitting in the front.  I go upstairs to give the noisemakers a warning, stepping over several toes in the process.  The film is The Loved Ones, about a love-scorned high school girl who seeks violent revenge.

Tonight is when I finally learn that torture porn is an actual genre.  I don’t get a very good look at the screen, but the screams in Surround Sound is enough to send my caffeine-seized heart into a rapid pounding against my chest.

After the film ends, a girl comes up to concessions, “That was terrifying.  And I’d like a bowl of Frosted Flakes, please.”

4:30 a.m.  A guy with a British accent asks if he can have an English Breakfast tea, “Yes, you may,” I answer in my best impression of a Brit.

I did not plan this.  I didn’t know it was going to come out like that, and I don’t know what to do, so I act like it didn’t happen.

I give him his tea and he says “Cheers.”  I hope that to be a sign of no harm done.

5:00 a.m.  I get a break to watch another movie.  This is Sightseers, a British comedy about a couple who goes on an RV trip and turn into serial killers.  There’s a lot of killing in this film festival.  There is also, in this movie alone, hand-knit lingerie, K9 theft, and several mid-life crisis realizations.

That’s a lot to take at 5:00 am.

6:00 a.m.  A friend, whom I will graciously leave anonymous, confides in me: “I’m drinking way more coffee than usual, which means I’m pooping way more than usual.”  She stares out into space and breathes a defeated sigh.

8:00 a.m.  The next two movies are a Korean version of Ocean’s 11 and an 80s-inspired vampire flick.  Which is really fun trying to remember and explain to people after you’ve been up 24 hours.

One thing that stands out at this point, as the delirium is setting in, is that the customers are real gems.  One girl gave me rock candy, my co worker Louise was offered a drink from Starbucks, and the tip jar is fuller everytime I look at it.

9:55 a.m.  Handing out raffle tickets to the survivors.  They will give out prizes at the very end, but I will not be there.  I will be asleep. Sleep.  Sleeeep.  Sleeeeeee —

“You can clock out now, Blair.”

10:15 a.m.  It’s the second Sunday of the month, so the antique faire is in progress downtown.  Louise and I stop, just to look and maybe buy something small with our tip money.  I wander around the rows of vintage knick knacks and come across something — is it a shirt?  A muu muu?  No, the sales lady tells me, it is a tunic. I t is a sight for my sleep-deprived eyes to behold.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it is also in the delirium of the overnight employee.

I buy the tunic, go home, and go to sleep.

7:00 p.m.  I wake up after the sun has gone down and lie in bed, reflecting on the previous night.  At this point, I am still so exhausted that it does not even feel real to me.  It all feels like some weird, crazy movie I watched a long time ago.

About Blair Stenvick

Blair Stenvick is a freelance writer who has lived in Santa Cruz for four years.