Last Wednesday night, I was pretend-reading texts on my cellphone while waiting in line for the men's room at Eastside Tavern. I furrowed my brow at an old message to a friend about which of us was going to drive to lunch, as if deep in thought. Nobody at this bar will realize how boring I am if I keep staring at this phone, I told myself.
"I got that phone," said the guy in line ahead of me. He pulled his out, and we talked LG models for a minute. Eastside is one of Columbia, Missouri's cool-kid dives, but it also draws the occasional tweaked-out townie. Between this guy's hat — white, with a black bill and pinstripes — and his enthusiasm for his Virgin mobile plan, I assigned him to the latter camp.
Eastside was hosting an unofficial kickoff party of sorts for the True/False Film Fest. About an hour later, a band from Milwaukee called Catacombz plugged in. Cramped at the center of the stage behind a synth was the guy from the bathroom line, except now he was wearing a boa around his neck and a leather jacket with no shirt underneath. The hat was gone. His hair was shaved into an asymmetrical flattop. The band burned through a set of dark, droning Krautrock, which reminded me a lot of Cave, the former Columbia act now based in Chicago. The entire performance was weird and cool and progressive — all words I'd use to describe True/False. Or, to put it another way, I now think of that pinstriped hat as pretty fly.
The screening of documentary films is ostensibly the reason that more than 37,000 people attended True/False last week, but the fact that it's basically a four-day party didn't hurt, either. (I doubt that I was the only attendee who allowed for hangovers when mapping out my film schedule.) Lots of arty kids who went to Mizzou or Stephens College and now live in big, cool cities trickle back in for the weekend. I've decreed a personal moratorium on the h-word, but I heard somebody else describe the event as Hipster Homecoming, which seemed to nail it.
There is a sense of inexhaustible fun at True/False. Films during the day, music and booze at night, then wake and repeat. Either an official or an unofficial party occurs every night of the fest. Wednesday, it was at Eastside, where, in addition to Catacombz, I caught Enemy Airship, some indie-rock locals with nice melodies doing a spirited cover of "Age of Consent." (At the Thursday party at Mojo's, a grungy psych-rock act, Jerusalem and the Starbaskets, covered "Ceremony"; New Order never seems to go out of style.)
The venues change, but you see the same faces night after night: the dude who looks like Charles Manson, so-and-so's old T.A., the tall blond chick with the black glasses and patterned tights. The fashion at True/False is borderline out of control but great for people watching. My primary fashion observation: Designing Women-era Annie Potts is a new female style icon.
Another observation: It is not difficult to find your way into some pretty druggy situations at True/False. Obscure drugs, too. A friend of a friend at an after-party huffed something from a film-canister-sized glass jar. It turned out to be some kind of discontinued cleaning solution for VHS tapes. "It gets you high for, like, 10 seconds," she told me. All right, then.
All the bars and restaurants were packed for the dinner hour Friday, so I headed to the west edge of downtown and stopped in at Snapper's, a townie bar with a dartboard.
A guy in his mid-20s, wearing a derby hat and a tan sport jacket, was hanging around the bar, talking up strangers, being way too nice.
"You see that dude?" my friend, a local, said. "That dude lives in Denver or something, but he comes in town every year for True/False to sell coke and painkillers and shit. He just hangs around bars and sniffs people out. They kicked him out of Ragtag last year for it."
We watched him operate for a while — he was a drug dealer, no question — but we were running late for the @ction party at Tonic, a downtown club. The @ction party (which we took to calling the "At Action" party, even though nobody laughed at that, not even once) is a much-anticipated staple of the fest. The music came courtesy of Fatback, a Washington, D.C., DJ collective; the organizers brought in the Hella Go-Go Girls, a local group of pink-hair-bobbed, generally hot women who danced on an upper landing. Schlafly beers were free. Groping on the dance floor was also free, unless you counted the price of inhaling dizzying levels of body odor. Seriously, it smelled like rotten garlic down there.
Three straight nights of labor-intensive partying just isn't as practical at the age of 29 as it was at 19. Throw in a pretty humbling romantic encounter, and I just wasn't feeling up to the task of worming my way into the super-secret-surprise party Saturday night. So, of course, that was the party at which famous Hollywood actor James Franco turned up.
Franco was in town because he's involved with one of the festival's secret screenings — films that play at the fest covertly so as not to violate contractual agreements with other film festivals, like Cannes or Sundance. Twitter exploded in the late afternoon with news of downtown Franco sightings. He ended up at the secret party, which was held at the space formerly occupied by a bar called the Forge & Vine. My friend met him. "He was surrounded by these three young girls with glasses, and every conversation at the party was about how James Franco was at the party," she told me. "He was shorter than you'd think."
The fest wrapped up Sunday night with Buskers Last Stand, a party in the lobby of the Missouri Theatre. An older-skewing, wall-to-wall crowd sipped beers, mingled and listened to some musical acts. It all seemed very civilized compared with The Sun Also Rises debauchery of the previous four days. It was kind of nice. Nicer still was arriving back in Kansas City and resuming my boring life. Not every day can be a fiesta.