Celebrating a Decade of Laughs, U.S. Comedy Arts Festival Wraps in Aspen
by Jonny Leahan
With war and unrest erupting in so much of the world on what seems like a daily basis, it's no surprise that audiences at the HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival simply wanted a good laugh. By the time the fest wrapped last weekend in Aspen, after a successful run from March 3-7, it's safe to say that attendees got several laughs and perhaps made a few unexpected discoveries along the way.
Kicking off a slate of more than 22 comedic features and 19 shorts in the film discovery program, Jared Hess' "Napoleon Dynamite" opened the fest to a rousing reception. Fresh off its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, the surreal high school comedy once again had audiences firmly gripped in laughter. Part of a new crop of twenty-something directors who are more influenced by Todd Solondz than Woody Allen; Hess delivers a fresh first feature that leaves you wanting more. We may actually get more, as rumors of a television series in the works swirled around the theater lobby that night after the film's screening.
The following day, despite a blustery snowstorm, a screening of Morgan Spurlock's controversial documentary "Super Size Me" showed to a standing-room-only crowd. In a case of perfect timing, McDonalds had announced that morning that it was eliminating the Super Size option from its menu, denying that the move had anything to do with Spurlock's expose -- which promptly landed him on the front page of the local paper, not to mention "The Today Show" and a host of other programs.
Screening in the same building, and much easier to get into, was Stephen Fry's directorial debut "Bright Young Things," starring Emily Mortimer and Stephen Campbell Moore. The title refers to a wealthy group of young men and women in 1930s London who live to party while thriving on the tabloid press coverage, but the emptiness of their world becomes increasingly apparent as the story unfolds. Adam (Moore) is part of the gaggle of rich kids, but is also a journalist struggling to make a life for himself so he can marry his sweetheart Nina (Mortimer), but she is impatient and has a penchant for gold digging, not to mention sniffing "naughty salt." The cast is rounded out with several small but memorable roles played by such luminaries as Peter O'Toole, Stockard Channing and Dan Aykroyd.
In another directorial debut, David Rosenthal's "See This Movie" had its world premiere in Aspen, screening to great reviews from a very receptive audience. The film, shot on location at the 2003 Montreal World Film Festival in only 13 days, stars Seth Meyers ("Saturday Night Live"), John Cho ("American Pie"), and Jim Piddock ("A Mighty Wind"). The story follows a misfit group of Three-Day Film School graduates as they con their way into the Montreal Fest with a feature film that doesn't exist. Having nothing to work with but blind determination, they attempt to write, shoot, and edit a movie in time for their own screening.
Even more compelling is the way "See This Movie" itself was made. "It occurred to me that it would be a great to watch someone lie their way into a festival," said Rosenthal, "and then make a film during the course of the fest and show that satire to the very audience they were lampooning." So, after hammering out a 95-page script, they got permission from the Montreal fest to use them as their guinea pig for this experiment, and the crew was off and running.
"When we went to sell the idea to the festival people in Montreal it was actually much easier than we thought it would be to get them to co-operate," said Rosenthal. "The main thing that they were worried about from us was disrupting other filmmakers and their screenings. They didn't really know what to make of us. I think that they may have gotten wind that the film was a parody of the festival world and they started restricting our original plan, but it all worked out in the end." The filmmakers actually edited and screened a shorter version of "See This Movie" on the last day of the Montreal fest, shot that audience reacting to the film, and incorporated the footage into their final cut, further blurring the line between documentary and fiction.
A more traditional documentary, Barry Levinson's "Original Diner Guys," offered a tribute to the close-knit group of friends who inspired the 1982 film "Diner," whom Levinson has known for three decades. He shot the doc from 1990-1997, documenting reunions, weddings, and parties where the old gang gets together, often to reminisce about friends who couldn't join them because of illness or even death. "We still have reunions," said Boogie (played in the original film by Mickey Rourke) at a Q&A after the screening, "and unfortunately someone is dead just about every time."
As dark as it sounds, the documentary contains a lot of humor, and is actually a testament to a kind of male bonding and long-term loyalty that is rarely seen these days. "We had the diner, and that's the truth," said Boogie. "It's sort of sad... a lot of us don't have the bonding we used to. I have a diner right here in Aspen, and people just come in, eat, get up, and leave. I don't think there are any places like the old diner any more."
The USCAF is not just about movies, however, in fact the live portion of the festival is considered by many to be the main attraction. There's stand up, theater, improv, seminars, and special presentations to choose from, and the programming is refreshingly daring. A performer named Will Power, who could hardly be called a stand-up comedian because of the innovative style of his show, is one example of how the festival is able to rethink traditional comedy and present unexpected live acts and films to its audiences. Will Power is a hip-hop storyteller who inhabits his rapping characters while accompanied by a DJ, and draws you into his story arc with powerful force and skill.
Another performer on the edge is Mike O'Connell, a comedian whose surreal heavy metal style had a sold out house in stitches as part of stand-up program A, which also included excellent sets by Andrew Donnelly, Carmen Lynch, and Al Madrigal. Named by Rolling Stone as a "hot comic to watch," O'Connell is currently working on treatments for Comedy Central, starring in an upcoming short film, and writing a feature script called "The Living Wake" with Peter Kline. "It is the story of K. Roth Binew," O'Connell told indieWIRE, "a wildly eccentric failed artist who knows the hour of his death and attempts to find peace on his final day. The film culminates in a living wake populated by the people he knew. We are actively seeking financing and hope to shoot the film in July."
Like most filmmakers and performers who attend, O'Connell truly seemed to enjoy the festival. "I found it pleasant to see comedy celebrated in such grand and varied fashion," he said. "It was much more refreshing than many of the shows I do in the dive bars of this country. The warmth of the local audience could not be stifled by the many jaded suits from Los Angeles. I was recognized many times on the street and even assaulted by preteens in some of the local bars -- 'You're fucking crazy!' was the chorus I heard repeated many times." O'Connell continued, "As far as industry contact, I found that to be quite elusive though perhaps I am now in the memory banks of some high-powered member of the oil or cotton industries who vacation in lovely Aspen. Overall, I would say it was surely one of the top honors bestowed upon me in my career and for that I am grateful."
Rosenthal agrees. "I've been to a number of festivals of different sizes and flavors," he said, "and Aspen is by far the most fun. Maybe it's because the air is so thin that people are giddy from lack of oxygen, but the live comedy is great and the people really let their hair down."
The many parties were another place where people let loose, especially the crowded Netflix/HBO shindig for "Sex and The City" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Among the attendees sipping cosmos were Sarah Jessica Parker, Richard Lewis, Larry David, Greg Proops, and Scott Dikkers from The Onion, who brought his directorial debut "Bad Meat" to world premiere at the fest. Complimentary Alka-Seltzer was available for those who may have had one too many.
In the end, the week-long festival offered so much variety that there is hardly room to cover everything here, from the expanded awards ceremony to the excellent short film programs to the Peter Sellers retrospective. Suffice to say the USCAF entered its 10th year by solidly demonstrating that it's still America's premiere comedy festival, while also showing that it's willing to experiment and evolve. Most importantly, though, it delivered the laughs.