Want to become a producer of a film helmed by a four-time-Oscar-nominated director? All you need is $5 million, and Paul Mazursky will chat with you. Yes, the man responsible for both "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" and "The Pickle" has written the perfect screenplay on immigration with a role tailored for Gael Garcia Bernal; all he needs is the moolah, or so he said in the lobby of the Hotel Zoso, the center locale for the 18th Palm Springs International Film Festival.
Mazursky, 76, was in town to showcase "Yippee," his new new documentary on the annual gathering of Orthodox Jews in the Ukranian town of Uman. "You know, I've made all my movies in the studio system, except 'Yippee," he noted. "This is my first real independent film. But independent filmmakers often think of me as an independent filmmaker. 'Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,' 'Harry and Tonto,' 'Alex in Wonderland,' and 'Next Stop, Greenwich Village' were all made within the studio system, but [the studio heads] left me alone. In the '70s and into the '80s, I had the great of luxury of real power. I didn't know how lucky I was till now when I don't have that power anymore. But I made what I wanted to make. Now it's hard so I decided to make a documentary. I didn't want to sit down any longer."
Neither did many of the other seventy or so directors who attended the festivities. And with 15 screens presenting over 254 films, more than 500 screenings, and 79 premieres, it was no wonder. When not pushing their own product, the helmers were scurrying to and fro for screenings, daily parties, and panels such as "How to Write for the Independent Film World" which was moderated by Jeff Gordon, founder of Writer's Boot Camp.
This cynosure of this event is the fabled festival director Darryl Macdonald, the founder of both the Seattle and Hamptons Film Festivals. So how does a debonairly aging gent keep going after three decades in the biz?
"I'm still so passionate about it," the handsomely bearded Macdonald explained, "because I can still walk into a film by an unknown filmmaker, take a seat, have the lights go down, and find myself a half an hour later utterly thrilled in every part of my body and in every part of my mind. I just feel so alive because I'm again seeing the world through a new set of eyes. My own taste buds and my own brain cells are waking up and perking up because I'm being turned on to what I'm seeing on screen, and I'm opening up to new realities again. That's what working in this medium does for me. It's what has always fueled me, and there hasn't been any dulling of those senses, thank God, over the years."
So does expertise and a festival with a successful track record make putting together each new edition a breeze? Is money thrown at him?
"Believe me, as executive director of the festival, I can tell you point blank that I wage a constant and ongoing war, both with the financial situation of the festival and with the board of the festival about expenditures," Macdonald said. "For instance, I can't tell you how many times this last year it was suggested to me that we need to cut back on travel expenses. This in a time when air fares just keep going up and up and up; whether it's because of a fuel crisis or other reasons, who knows? Also, here in Palm Springs, hotel prices keep going up and up and up, and that of course is a reflection of how hot Palm Springs has become as a kind of resort destination. So I have to fight the battle on both a practical level and a philosophical level, but wait a minute! That's one of the main things this festival exists for: to bring filmgoers together with filmmakers. Ours is not just about the passive experience of watching a film on screen... Consequently, I have to be the advocate for why we cannot cut back on the quality of the various aspects of the festival from the travel budget to the paperclip budget."
The festival's open coffers were especially obvious at it star-studded gala awards ceremony, which as usual had the problem of having too many stars in attendance. This year the audience was able to goggle Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Philip Glass, Danny Elfman, Kate Winslet, Kate Blanchett, Sydney Pollack, Adrianna Barraza, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Rinko Kikuchi, Todd Field, Rex Reed, Jessica Biel, Laurence Fishburne, Sissy Spacek plus Alan Arkin, and that was just for starters.
Happy to be part of the activities was Michael Arndt, the screenwriter of "Little Miss Sunshine." Before the gala officially began, Arndt told indieWIRE that he wasn't focusing on the upcoming announcement of Oscar nominations: "Nah. Nah. No. I'm just happy the movie got made. Honestly. Like literally a year ago, it was January, we didn't have distribution, we were two weeks away from Sundance, and I was just dying of anxiety because I was afraid we wouldn't get picked up. I was afraid that we had spent all this money making this movie, and we thought it was going pretty well, but we just didn't know how it was going to play in front of other people. So I was literally sort of having panic attacks, sort of shortness of breath, and I had never been to Sundance. Then sort of everything that you possibly could hope would go right in the last year did. It was Murphy's Law in reverse."
A few tables down and also chipper, Turkish actress Meltem Cumbul noted that "filmmaking in Turkey is great. We're making like about 60 movies a year. It used to be like 10."
On stage, Adam Beach on receiving the "Rising Star Award," noted through tears, "What I would like to say is as a kid, when I started acting at 15, I had a dream. That dream came true with 'Flags of Our Fathers.' Not just the accomplishment of working with great people like Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, and the cast that was involved, but it really sent a message that Native Americans are not only heroes of this country but also human beings."
Thereafter, Philip Glass, on receiving the "Frederick Loewe Award for Film Composing," instructed that the major difference between writing film scores and operas was that with films, the projects have an ending. "I'm still rewriting operas I'd written 20 years ago... [Also with films,] the parties are more fun."
Sissy Spacek, who was awarding Todd Field the "Sonny Bono Visionary Award," shared that "Terrence Malick once told me that making a film is like running down a football field with a tiny baby, having to protect it from all types of danger and interference while trying to making it across the goal line alive and intact. You've done that, Todd. You've crossed the goal line with both these wonderful films." She was, of course, referring to "In the Bedroom" and "Little Children."
Kate Blanchett, surrounded by cast members of "Babel," then announced, "In honor of Rinko's extraordinary performance, I'm not wearing any underwear today." You have to see the film to appreciate that bon mot.
Brad Pitt, however, decided to address a question on everyone's minds: "Thank you for honoring our film 'Babble.' Or 'Bay-bell" or "Bah-bell." We're still arguing how to pronounce it. We're proud of this film. We're proud of its international cast, of its embracing of multi-languages, and its use of seasoned actors with non-actors, all who gave very inspired and very moving performances, which just tells me I'm grossly overpaid."
The next day after a screening of "Pan's Labyrinth," director Guillermo Del Toro told the cheering sold-out crowd, that once when asked who was the targeted audience for his films, "I said, 'Fuck you is the targeted audience.' I am incredibly vulgar. I don't want to answer those types of questions. 'Devil's Backbone' found its audience on DVD. I'm always very philosophical about this. I say a movie will always find its audience somehow."
Back at the Hotel Zoso, the somber director Shemi Zarhin was rather low-key about the deserved success of his "Aviva My Love," winner of six Israeli Academy Awards and a hit with Palm Springs audiences. When I noted that the characters in this comedy/drama about a dysfunctional, financially struggling family, whose mother wants to become a writer, do not seem to be directly affected by the Middle East crisis, he disagreed: " I'm not sure that they are not directly affected because in the background of the film you can feel the economical situation in Israel, which is really bad because in the last years, it's a country that in a funny way has become capitalistic. And more and more each year, poor people, poor children, confront economic problems and unemployment, and so on and so on."
As for France's hope for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, the delicious boulevard comedy "Avenue Montaigne" might only lose out because it deals with delirious romance, fractured relationships, and aging when its competition might be dissecting heavier subject matter. Explaining the more obvious presence of women in the French film industry, its director Daniele Thompson riffed, "One of the reasons is that we make more films than in America that really are dealing with feelings and people. It's also a question sometimes of money. We don't make these huge special effects and war films, and besides, of course, the Americans have invaded the whole market of these films anyway. And they make them dutifully. We don't have the budget so naturally, very naturally and slowly, women directors came into this tradition of Truffaut and Resnais and Claude Sautet, which to me there is no difference with these men. They all had a lot of femininity in their films. So it's really a French tradition to really speak about people."
As for the films themselves, Veronica Chen's "Aqua" (Argentina) is a visually arresting drama about swimmers. Self-pitying 34-year-old Goyo lost his championship title years ago due to a controversial drugging charge. Impoverished Chino hopes to raise his family to a higher economic level through the water sport. Can the two solve each other's problems? A dissatisfying ending sadly drowns their efforts, but only slightly.
Rajko Grlic's "Border Post" is sort of a Croatian "MASH." To cover up his case of syphilis, commanding officer Lt. Pasic lies to his soldiers that Albania is advancing on Yugoslavia. This way he has a reason to stay away from home, thus hiding his gentital sores from his wife. We, however, do get see them closeup. This is a noteworthy black comedy that ends on a tragic note.
Frank Popper's "Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?" is a first-rate, highly suspenseful doc about a 29-year-old, unknown poly-sci instructor who runs for Dick Gephart's senate seat. One observer describes the candidate as looking "like he's 12 and sounding like he's castrated." A mirror on our political system, the finale has you on the edge of your seat.
Also noteworthy are the first two-thirds of Carmine Amoruso's "Cover Boy," a tale of two impoverished men who become friends in an unvoiced homoerotic relationship. Sadly, when one is discovered by the fashion world, reality goes out the window.
Daniel Burman's "Family Law" focuses upon a highly secular Jew who weds a beautiful gentile, only to wonder why she married him. Also troubling this professor is his father's not exactly kosher legal practice. A subtle, comic character study that slowly wins you over.
Bertrand Blier's "How Much Do You Love Me?" is a delicious sexual romp about a poor nerd who wins a lottery and hires a prostitute to be his wife of sorts. Monica Belluci and Bernard Campan are letter perfect until Gerard Depardieu shows up and destroys the film in a truly bad performance as a gangster also in love with Monica. Blier, who also wrote the screenplay, seems to arguing that one can have only two types of relationships. Hook up with a whore acting as a wife or wind up with a wife acting as a whore; the former is Blier's preference.
More applaudable are the docs "The Rape of Europa" (USA), a look at the Nazis' yen for artwork; "Three Women and a Chateau" (USA), an enthralling history of an extremely big house; and "I Only Wanted to Live" (Italy), a recounting of the plight of Italian Jews during World War II. As for narratives, much of Volker Schlondorff's "Strike," a recounting of the founding of the Solidarity Movement, is pleasurable, but a little more of the whimsy of "The Tin Drum" would have made it a totally bang-up affair.