AFI Fest | Tapping in the Power of Free

AFI Fest | Tapping in the Power of Free

The 2009 edition of AFI Fest, which opened last Friday in Hollywood with the North American premiere of Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” reflects radical changes made in the past year to the basic DNA of the American Film Institute’s annual fall event. The festival’s central venue has shifted from the art-credible Arclight to the Mann’s Chinese, embedded within the tourist trap shopping complex on Hollywood and Highland that also hosts the Kodak Theater, home to the Oscars. Robert Koehler, a film critic with notably adventurous taste, has been appointed to a key programming position, and in perhaps the most significant and surely the most publicized change, AFI has made every regular festival screening free to the public on a first come, first served basis. The latter is made possible thanks to the generous corporate sponsorship of Audi, lauded on opening night by AFI Fest CEO Bob Gazzale as “a corporation with its finger on the pulse, its eyes on the prize, and its foot on the pedal.”

That same batch of mixed metaphors could be applied to AFI’s strategy to bolster their own brand by spotting a niche and filling it swiftly. Whether AFI’s recent bold moves will sustain the festival through this thrive-or-die economic climate and beyond remains to be seen, but the festival’s evolutions make sense as a way to reach and cater to the cinephiles of a city that’s both synonymous with film around the globe, and a notoriously difficult place to market global film. Rebranding themselves as a “festival of festivals” dedicated to bringing highbrow critical favorites and prize winners fresh from the fest circuit to Los Angeles for the first time (and in some cases, likely the only time), and simultaneously streamlining their program to make do with fewer star-heavy world premieres, the 2009 lineup suggests that AFI wants not only to be a festival of festivals, but a festival that caters specifically to people who pay attention to other festivals.

Oscilloscope founder Adam Yauch with “The Messenger” star Woody Harrelson at a party for the film, which opens next Friday. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

But even if the AFI Fest lineup shares a few films with the most recent edition of the New York Film Festival, no one in Los Angeles seemed to prone to complain, as A.O. Scott did in assessing NYFF for the New York Times, about the scourge of “festivalism.” By showing most movies one time only, for free, on a block that’s symbolically synonymous with what’s left of a functioning Hollywood mythology, AFI managed to turn screenings of films by Euro-auteurs like Claude Chabrol and Michael Haneke into welcoming events. Not only did starry galas for “Fox,” “Precious” and “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” held during the festival’s first weekend attract impenetrable seas of gawkers to the sidewalks surround Graumann’s Chinese, but five of the six screenings I attended — including San Sebastian winner “Woman Without Piano” and Berlinale Golden Bear recipient “The Milk of Sorrow” — were full or very nearly so. On Monday night, I couldn’t get a seat for a prime-time screening of “Fish Tank,” which reached capacity several minutes before show time.

AFI’s Audi-backed creaming of the year-long festival crop seems to be solving the problem of attracting an audience, at least for the time being. Still, aside from “Mr. Fox,” which gloriously suggests that Wes Anderson should have maybe been funneling his pet themes of arrested boyhood through stop-motion animation all along, the single world premiere I caught at the festival is the film that made the strongest impression. Daniel Raim’s documentary “Something’s Gonna Live” focuses on Hollywood production designer Robert Boyle, whose credits include “In Cold Blood,” “The Thomas Crown Affair” and several Hitchcock films including “The Birds” and “North by Northwest.” Raim meets the 90-something Boyle several times over the course of a decade to capture the Oscar winner reminiscing with a sampling of collaborators-turned-cronies, including cinematographers Conrad L. Hall and Haskell Wexler, and art director Albert Nozaki (a Japanese-American who recalls being forced to pack his desk at Paramount just hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor).

Raim goes for conversational and contemplative over didactic, allowing “Something”‘s subjects to essentially free associate on their past versus the present, to glorify specific painstaking artistic techniques long lost without ever fully romanticizing the industry that supported them, and to debate the merits (or lack thereof) of technology, the blockbuster mentality and the ever-increasing homogenization of Hollywood film.

Raim makes his present felt most strongly through his choice of B-roll, sneaking in ample present day footage of a Hollywood (including the complex where AFI Fest is now centered) under near-constant construction, in which the old is constantly being erased to make room for the new. As a revamped film festival takes shape on Hollywood’s most radically gentrified block and provokes questions about the role of film institutions and their relationship to the communities they serve, “Something’s Gonna Live” offers an essential clear-eyed view of Hollywood — as a city, an industry, an idea — as a construct never not in the midst of evolution.

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Comments

Kevin J

SOMETHING’S GONNA LIVE is one documentary that’s well worth viewing. I found its focus on the unknown icons of the film industry to be a vitally important exercise in understanding the artistic creativity that goes into making memorable films.

The documentary celebrates the visual art of six extraordinary men, all masters of their craft, all talented artists who created some of the most compelling and exciting cinematic art and imagery ever produced. These guys were good.

We are treated to production designer Robert Boyle’s exacting work with Hitchcock. We learn of production designer Henry Bumstead’s career alongside A-list directors from George Roy Hill to Clint Eastwood. We see and hear cinematographer Conrad Hall’s description of an in-the-moment set-up for a scene from IN COLD BLOOD that is both chilling and beautiful. We watch as illustrator Harold Michelson re-enacts the creation of a storyboard for THE BIRDS. We learn of production designer Albert Nozaki’s creation of those terrifying spaceships in the original WAR OF THE WORLDS. And we get a first-hand glimpse of cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s precision behind the camera. The years have taken their toll: only Boyle, who is 100, and Wexler, who is 87, are still alive. But the work of all six of the featured artists survives, for the enjoyment of future generations.

Writer/Producer/Director Daniel Raim has created an excellent homage to six visual artists who were behind some of the most incredible cinema ever created, long before computer imagery took over the landscape. The art and artistry offered up in SOMETHING’S GONNA LIVE is pure and inspiring, and unfortunately something we’ll likely never see again.

– Kevin J. Sheridan

tomvonloguenewth

well yes, while i may be largely dead on the inside, i nonetheless agree emphatically with what the guys had to say about the value and legacy of art and even, emotionally, about the eclipse of the hand-crafted technique (tho especially in the cgi age i am wary of conflation of the bad workman with his tools). i am fully with you, k8m (well, you all in fact) in the conrad hall camp; i simply prefer documentaries to be less meandering (six major subjects struck me when i first read of it as being quite ambitious) and, if engaged at all in analysis of the work at hand, to be rather more rigourous. my complaints are far more against form than content, not least because the proliferation of documentaries in recent years has given rise to any number of subpar films on fascinating subjects. must phrase self better.

k8m

I found Something’s Gonna Live to be an emotive, thoughtful look at the lives of six incredibly talented men and how they shaped some of the most iconic films of all time, and in turn how their lives were shaped by the industry in which they worked. Robert Boyle’s attitude and dedication towards his work is inspiring. Much like jjrose, the film left me thinking a lot about my contribution to the world, and in particular my work. I love films that leave the audience thinking as much about themselves as they do the subject matter of the film.

I disagree with tomvonloguenewth’s take on the film. It seems like (s)he went into it expecting a textbook instead of a work of art. Biographical information on Robert Boyle and his contemporaries is readily available elsewhere, as is information on their filmography and filmmaking in general. There’s no reason to reproduce it here, and doing so would detract from the film’s philosophical musings on life and the creative process of filmmaking.

I sincerely hope that the artistic renaissance that Conrad Hall forecasts in the film comes to pass. The industry needs more people like Boyle, Hall, and the others, and more films like the ones they worked on!

jjrose

I agree with Karina and disagree with tomvonloguenewth. The film was a lovely, poignant, and moving human story that happened to be set in Hollywood. Much of the audience was in tears after the film, myself included. The film made me think, about Hollywood and our culture in general, as well as about my own contributon to the world. I think if you approach the film with a thought that it will be a “how-to” on making movies, then you miss the entire point of the film–one of the most moving films that I saw at the fest.

tomvonloguenewth

“conversational and contemplative” is an admirably polite way of saying “lacking in structure, focus and detail” or at least tantalisingly little detail. it was really terrific to see these guys and hear their miscellaneous thoughts before they shuffle(d) off, but the few detailed bits like the god’s-eye-view shot and the in true blood window/rain shot are kind of old news and it was so sketchy on biography, filmography and theory and practice of the craft that i found the whole thing most frustrating.
on the other hand, not to rub it in, fish tank was really splendid and well worth seeking out.

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