Monday, September 24, 2007

I've Moved

I'm no longer offering revelations here, and have moved my blog to the Virginia Film Festival website. Come check it out.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Film Festival as Superpower

I ran off to the Tribeca Film Festival last Thursday night. Now here I am, 23 films later, ready to report for blogging duty. Those 23 films include seven shorts, plus three feature selections I watched on my laptop on the bus, after downloading them thanks to Tribeca’s partnership with the amazing new Jaman service. I’m not sure my fellow passengers were as thrilled by the flicker effects of Ken Jacobs’ RAZZLE DAZZLE as I was. The 23 also included two remarkable films I snuck away from Tribeca to catch at the IFC Center and Film Forum, since they’re not likely to make it to Charlottesville soon, Robinson Devor’s ZOO and Johnnie To’s TRIAD ELECTION.

The Tribeca festival has attracted more than its share of gripes. Since it was created after 9-11 to aid in the revitalization of lower Manhattan, the festival has managed to squander the affection of many, not unlike another superpower I could mention, with behavior that is, arguably, imperial. The festival has been accused of stomping on filmmakers and other festivals who won’t let Tribeca screen its desired films first, and being crassly profligate in its hoopla. Being the director of a regional film festival, I’m sensitive to the cries of smaller festivals; our fall event is often turned down by filmmakers afraid of blowing their chances (incredibly slim—4 out of 100) of getting into Sundance, the neighborhood bully faced by fall film festivals.

Yet I don’t think gripers are giving enough credit to the terrific programming by Peter Scarlet and his team. Peter is one of the most knowledgeable and tireless film discoverers I know, and shorts programmer Maggie Kim also has a great eye. Out of the hundreds of films on offer, I was able to carve out a program of extraordinary films on the theme of “family,” since I’m shopping for films to screen in our KIN FLICKS program in November. And much of what I saw was so extraordinary, that I can only hope that my festival in November is as good as the festival I attended this past weekend. What I admired, I will pursue for Charlottesville.

My personal favorite of the weekend was the new documentary, AUTISM: THE MUSICAL. Less than a year ago, I sat on the balcony of the Georgian Hotel in Santa Monica, and met the producer Perrin Chiles, a University of Virginia alumnus, who told me about the project. I can’t say the premise—autistic kids gather to perform in a musical, sounded all that promising, at least to my somewhat jaded ears. But Perrin and his partners, including vet indie producer Janet Grillo and Kristen Stills, wife of Stephen (both moms of autistic children) found fantastic subjects (five kids and their parents) and the perfect director, Tricia Regan. Regan elicits such frank and honest testimonies from the parents, and, with her own camerawork, such a range of awkward, agonizing and exhilarating moments with the kids, that the strong emotional response of the loudly applauding audience felt wholly earned, not tugged.

Other titles I am likely to solicit include FIESTAPATRIA, a Chilean film about a family gathering that gets very messy as political fissures between Pinochet regime defenders and opponents, and the generations, erupt. TUYA’S MARRIAGE, the Berlin Film Festival prizewinner, is a visually stunning portrait of a woman whose extraordinary strength and character supports her damaged family, yet is undermined by the patriarchal norms of her community. THE LAST JEWS OF LIBYA is the amazing accomplishment of a Libyan Jewish émigré grandmother, and first-time documentary filmmaker, who tells the dismaying story of the collapse of a 2500 year old Arab Jewish community through the voices of her own family. MISS UNIVERSE 1929 is the latest film by the great Peter Forgacs, the experimental documentarian who mines home movies to uncover the social history of 20th century Europe. Here, he has hit on a treasure trove of footage by the lovestruck husband of the Jewish Austrian Miss Universe of 1929. The winner of the best short film award, A SON’S SACRIFICE, is about a reluctant Muslim son’s assumption of the reins of the family butchering business. Not likely to be the favorite film of vegetarian viewers, the film is nonetheless a great portrait of a Muslim-American family.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Home Movies

A suggestion came in today that we show Su Friedrich’s film about her father, Sink or Swim and Alan Berliner’s film about his dad, Nobody’s Business. Friedrich also made a film I love about her relationship with her mother, The Ties That Bind.

Su has been to our festival several times, but, somehow, I’ve never brought Alan Berliner. Alan and I were film students together in Binghamton in the early ‘70s (Alan’s voice, I insist, carries the intonations of his influential film professor, Larry Gottheim). Alan has accumulated a tremendous body of work that could be described as “experimental home movies.” He's an incredibly talented editor of archival footage, including the home movies of many unknown families he stitched together in Family Album (1988). That film brought out cultural and formal patterns linking the amateur movies, and was illuminating and funny, like all of his work. Along with Nobody’s Business, Intimate Stranger, and his latest, Wide Awake, it deserves to be showcased in connection with our theme, and I’ve already asked Alan to hold the dates November 1-4.

When Alan gets here, he’s going to find that some of the editing stations at the local Light House media access center for high school students are named after his movies. Light House founder Shannon Worrell is a big fan, and she says her students are inspired by Alan’s editing skills.

Another filmmaker who works with home movies is Peter Forgacs, whom I’d love to invite. He compiles his films from historic home movies reaching back to the Nazi era and postwar Hungary. I’ve also gotten in touch with Patricia Zimmermann, author of Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film and the upcoming Mining the Home Movie, and she may be presenting films collected at the Smithsonian’s Human Studies Film Archive.

Any other ideas for me in the home movie area? Should we have an open screening of home videos?

And do people have more filmmakers to suggest who have made films about their parents or kids?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Your suggestions

Thanks for all the tips. There are more suggestions pouring in than I received last year, and I’m relieved that the theme is going over so well.

Here are some reactions to your thoughts……

Mrs. Bates is definitely a great movie mom to feature alongside MILDRED PIERCE and MOMMIE DEAREST.

I saw the French Quebecois film C.R.A.Z.Y at a film festival and was surprised it didn’t get released here, since it was so entertaining and inventive (although it reminded me a bit of Alain Berliner’s MA VIE EN ROSE). I’ll look at it again…..

I’d forgotten about LALEE’S KIN, which impressed me when I was on a documentary award panel in 2001. I was thinking of inviting Al Maysles with GREY GARDENS, and now this gives me another film of his to present.

Donald Sosin sent me a lot of tantalizing choices. I got stuck at the top of his list, with Herbert Brenon’s 1924 PETER PAN. I showed that film several times at Cornell Cinema when I worked there in the 80s, and I’d love to introduce it to kids and families here. Great cinematography by James Wong Howe, and a pleasure for grownups too.

LE SOUFFLE AU COEUR is a good idea, although its treatment of incest may be too tasteful. I think I prefer Francois Ozon’s SITCOM, which has greater shock value, as John Waters would say. The DVD comes with a precociously twisted early short by Ozon called FAMILY PHOTO, in which he murders the members of his (real) family before posing them for the camera.

Keep the suggestions coming, and I'll keep adding titles to my video queue...

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Kin Flicks Kicks Off

It’s 2am and I just got back from the Film Festival’s first annual Pre-Oscar Bash. I announced the 20th annual Film Festival’s new theme, KIN FLICKS, and  dates, November 1-4, 2007. The press release should be up on our website shortly with more information about the kinds of family films and  films about families (The Shining, Joshua) and film families (The Wilsons, The Fondas, the Rossellinis, etc.) we’re looking for.

This blog is now re-open for business, and I need suggestions, for titles, guests, and sidebar events (art exhibits, musical performances, etc.). Last year’s blog sparked a lot of great programming ideas I would not have had otherwise.

I’ll update this blog regularly with news as the program comes together, and reactions to your suggestions.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Final Revelations

     The festival is over, and I have only a few more revelations to offer.
     The attendance records we broke, and the comments and emails I’ve received, are very gratifying. But, since I was running around giving introductions and doing festival business, I was only able to watch two film programs—Live…From the Hook and the Black Maria Festival program. The first one was a big gamble for me, since I had only seen a few minutes from it before promising it a slot, and I saw the completed film at the same time as the rest of the audience.  It turned out to be the highlight of the weekend for me and many others. I didn’t share the deep connection with the Charlottesville live music scene that most people in the audience clearly had, and yet the sense that there is something extraordinary about this scene came through powerfully to me. The rapport between the musicians of different bands, their self-effacing humor, and their taste for musical experimentation was absolutely inspiring. And I just got a wonderful message of thanks from singer Johnny Sportcoat himself (Bob Girard) that made my week.
     I also loved the experimental films that John Columbus brought for his Black Maria program, especially the flowing video abstractions of Leighton  Pierce’s  Viscera.  The spectacular beauty that emerged from the artificial, chemically induced decay of Phil Solomon’s Clepsydra and the natural nitrate decay of Bill Morrison’s How to Pray were pure examples of cinematic transcendence.
     I was glad to have the opportunity to screen, at the end of that program, my most exciting film discovery of the year, DeeDee Halleck’s documentary  Bronx Baptism, which DeeDee  filmed with Richard Serra and Babette Mangolte in 1980. It portrays a reconstituted movie theater in the South Bronx, with a glass window where the screen used to be. Behind the window/screen, the Puerto Rican congregation could view a live parade of baptismal bathers. The three artists who made the film stumbled into this phenomenal space of sacred, community performance art, and they recorded it with a sense of awe and  wonder that came through strongly even in the much-faded print. DeeDee Halleck was present, and she indicated that my enthusiasm is inspiring her to search for the negative and strike a new print, which I hope others will screen and rediscover.
     Robert Duvall seemed to have  a great time, and his rapport with David Edelstein on stage was something to behold. Duvall, Liev Schreiber, and Morgan Freeman all really enjoyed their forum with Drama students, and everyone seemed charged by the incredible gathering of talent in the room.
     I am always eager to hear reports from others about what they experienced, both good and  bad, at the festival, and so  I encourage people to send  comments to this blog about their experiences.
     Also, over the next few weeks, I am preparing theme proposals for the Festival’s Advisory Board, and so now is your chance to influence the theme selection  for our 20th anniversary event. Somehow, we’ve got to top this last one, and given the amazing turnout and critical response, it ain’t gonna be easy.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

God...and Other Stars

We found God….or at least the guy who plays Him in the movies, and announced today that Morgan Freeman is coming to the festival on October 27.  It has turned into quite a lineup of featured actors this year.

We had some pretty interesting guests lined up by late August: writer Michael Tolkin, punk preacher Jay Bakker, video game artist Eddo Stern, and the rising young actors William Moseley and January Jones. The line-up of films, particularly the new documentaries like Jesus Camp and Iraq in Fragments, and the silent and Scandinavian classics, looked pretty good to me.

But the audience here demands very celebrated actors, and has come to expect them from the beginning, when Jimmy Stewart and Gregory Peck showed up for the first Virginia Film Festival. In recent years, we’ve brought Anthony Hopkins, Nicolas Cage, Sandra Bullock, Vanessa Redgrave, and the list goes on. Regional festivals do not usually attract stars of this caliber. Regional festivals are harder to get to then big city events. But the actors have loved the experience here, particularly the encounters with students and our highly intelligent audiences. We also have a very active and committed Board of Advisors, most of whom are based in LA and well-connected in the film industry.

The first featured guest to confirm was Robert Duvall….on September 8, a year to the day after Vanessa Redgrave confirmed her participation. And once again, the Preview Guide was on its way to the printer when we yanked it back and added in the exciting confirmation. Many of my advisors on this program, especially the knowledgeable religion and film authority Drew Trotter, asked repeatedly for Duvall and The Apostle as a centerpiece event.  But we had not had luck with our invitations to him in recent years. In early September, one of the supporters on our new Council of Festival Friends, actress Betsy Brantley, helped us reach Duvall, and we got our most wanted guest. Now, it looks like a second Robert Duvall masterpiece will be added to the program….so keep checking our website.

Then came Liev Schreiber, a week later, through a wonderful, fortuitous encounter I had with a close relative of his. The first time he made an impression on me was in 1996, when we showed The Daytrippers, and that was the same year he scared the hell out of everyone in the first Scream, as Cotton Weary. I’ve been an admiring fan of his acting ever since, but the invitation we extended was for him to show the film adaptation of Everything is Illuminated, which he wrote and directed. It was only a few days between the conveying of the invitation and its confirmation. What a nice experience.

Finally, Morgan Freeman’s film is the one I described in an earlier blog entry. I was handed an invitation to a test screening while I was in Santa Monica last spring. I sat in the theater a few seats away from Brad Silberling, the director. 10 Items or Less felt like a Dogme production….a low-budget, minimally scripted, improvisatory shedding of Hollywood excess, a therapeutic cleansing from the big budget behemoths Silberling and Freeman knew too well. And Morgan Freeman is liberated in 10 Items or Less. It’s the loosest, funniest, most charismatic performance I’ve ever seen him give. The test screening audience cheered, and the audience at the Paramount is likely to do the same.

Julie Lynn, a member of the Film Festival board who had brought us Nine Lives last year, is co-producer of 10 Items or Less. We have been working on arranging this visit for the past six months, and nearly gave up a few weeks ago. The schedule was tight; Freeman will be starting his next film two days after our screening. Transportation was a problem. But, about two weeks ago, Charlottesville was squeezed into an itinerary that includes a visit the day before in Mississippi. And so we had our last answered prayer for Revelations.

Now that the program is out, what do you think? Write me your comments, ask me questions about the selections, and I’ll try to respond here on the blog.