Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Mormonsploitation and More

The program is coming together. A great Cecil B. DeMille silent with musical accompaniment at the Paramount….and a prominent Iranian video artist on display at a local gallery…and the recipient of the Virginia Film Award has accepted our invitation. Unfortunately, there’s a restraining order from our publicist preventing me from naming names prematurely.

I’ve gotten woefully behind on my previewing of festival submissions, and I’m staring guiltily at a pile of tapes across the room. Meanwhile, suggestions are pouring in and I’d better get cracking.

I did watch a fantastic film called THE HOLE STORY, one of last year’s criminally unreleased independent features. The protagonist’s search for a hole in the ice (and you want to see this film even though that’s basically the film’s story) is, by turns, pathetic, comic, and heroic. It takes on metaphysical dimensions, and does relate to our theme. If it doesn’t make it into the festival program, I will try to get the film into next year’s Film Society schedule.

I also watched a clever remake of a 1922 “Mormonsploitation” film called TRAPPED BY THE MORMONS. It seems that before their polygamous ways were appealingly rendered on HBO’s “Big Love,” Mormons were portrayed as vampiric threats to society.  The film is funny and would be a good late show. It just has the misfortune of being comparable in style to Guy Maddin’s work. His films have a visual panache that this film can’t touch.

Don’t miss THE POWER OF NIGHTMARES at The Bridge in Belmont on Wednesday and Thursday, May 24 (Part 1) and 25 (Part 2 and  3), at 8pm! It’s an enlightening exploration of the rise of both Islamic fundamentalism and American neoconservatism over the last half century, and director Adam Curtis is equally talented as a visual essayist and collagist.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

San Francisco Wrapup

A couple of other films I caught in San Francisco have potential as REVELATIONS titles. Stanley Nelson’s new film Jonestown recounts the descent of a seemingly enlightened, integrated church and its minister into isolation and suicide. I can’t say that Jonestown helped me understand Jim Jones, although I understood more about the utopian vision that attracted his followers. Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Sun also showed an all-powerful leader, Emperor Hirohito, whose religious authority led many to their deaths. However, this Sun God had the sense, for his defeated country’s sake, to renounce his divinity; the multidimensional performance by Issei Ogata paints an unforgettable portrait of a pathetically oblivious and yet strangely admirable leader. This is the most accessible Sokurov film I’ve ever seen, and I hope it gets an American release.

Other favorites in San Francisco: Taking Father Home (to which our jury gave the SKYY Prize), Half Nelson (our honorable mention), Backstage, Look Both Ways, Play, and Wide Awake.
Back here in Charlottesville, I’m looking forward to the last Film Society screening of the season, Shakespeare Behind Bars, which shows on Tuesday at 7pm at Vinegar Hill Theater. The film’s gotten award after award at film festivals.

Now that I’ve finished teaching my spring semester class, I can turn to the huge pileup of tapes that have been submitted for consideration. Hopefully, I’ll find some gems, and report back here.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Greetings from San Francisco

I’ve been here since Friday. Alongside fellow jurors Marian Masone and Ed Arentz, I’ve seen ten of the eleven films vying for the $10,000 SKYY prize, which we’ll hand out on Wednesday night at the Golden Gate Awards. The films are all directors’ first features, drawn from all over the world.

We had a competitive award in the Virginia Film Festival last year, with jury and audience prizes given to the best undistributed film out of a pack of six. The award tied in to the IN/JUSTICE theme, because all of the films were critically acclaimed and eminently deserved distribution. This year, we’re going to concentrate more on our theme and drop the competitive sidebar. Does anyone think we’re making a mistake and should make an award competition a permanent component of our event?

When the opportunity arises, I am looking at films that fit our REVELATIONS theme. I saw a feature called THE GIANT BUDDHAS,  an essay film by Christian Frei on the implications and aftermath of the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Valley Giant Buddhas, which were 1600 years old but, alas, not Islamic. I was disappointed, and  found it plodding and not that illuminating. SILENT HOLY STONES is a surprisingly irreverent film about the allure of TV to young monks in training in Tibet, made by a Tibetan director. It’s not what you’d expect in a Tibetan Buddhist film and so I’m looking into showing it. Unfortunately, I missed INTO GREAT SILENCE, a nearly three hour portrait of the Grande Chartreuse monastery that my colleagues are raving about. A fellow programmer is going to send me a DVD, and I am fairly confident that I am going to be pursuing it for our festival.

I got to see Tilda Swinton give the annual State of Cinema address here. She was eloquent, moving and beautiful. She talked memorably about, among other things, how Derek Jarman led her and others to be rebellious artists, and about how inspiring his film about St. Sebastian was for the emerging gay movement in 1976. I immediately added SEBASTIANE to my list of likely prospects. My wife, Jill Hartz and I knew Jarman, and visited him at his amazing cottage in Dungeness, under a nearby power plant and surrounded by a strangely wonderful garden of mostly lifeless objects. That day, Jarman was brooding because he’d had an argument with Tilda while directing her in a stage production. The next day, he called to apologize for not being more gracious and offered us one of his black paintings, called “A Song for Dungeness,” with angel figurines emerging out of thick black paint. I will display it in the theater when we show Jarman’s film. Tilda, will you come visit us too?