FESTIVALS: Cinequest Puts on Wild 10th Anniversary Party
by Cynthia Gentry
Nestled in the heart of California's Silicon Valley, Cinequest San Jose Film Festival (Feb. 24-March 5) celebrated its 10th anniversary this year -- and what an anniversary it was. "We wanted to give our patrons an experience they wouldn't forget," said Cinequest Executive Director Halfdan O. Hussey. He wasn't kidding. Wackiness was the name of the game, with everything from stripping filmmakers to scene-making celebrities.
This year's festival had its own share of drama even before opening night. Despite Cinequest's popularity among Bay Area film fans -- more than 45,000 attended the festival, and overall ticket sales broke the previous year's record -- organizers were stunned to discover that they'd lost $50,000 in expected funding from the city of San Jose a few months before the start date, leaving them scrambling for additional sponsorships. Additionally, in January, United Artists suddenly pulled one of Cinequest's traditional venues, the money-losing UA Pavilion multiplex, located one convenient block from long-time sponsor Camera 3 Cinemas.
Nevertheless, Cinequest carried on in grand style, expanding from seven to 11 days, doubling the number of screenings from last year's festival to 212, expanding and extending the geographic reach of its venues from the Camera 3 to the arthouse Towne 3 Theatre and the state-of-the-art AMC Saratoga 14 a few miles away.
Cinequest organizers like to say that the festival was founded in the "spirit of the maverick" by Silicon Valley filmmakers and engineers, and indeed, its lineup was nothing short of eclectic. Documentaries ranged from the lighthearted "Six Days in Roswell," a look at the 50th anniversary of the alleged UFO crash, to "Whipped," which profiled three dominatrices. Notable dramatic films included Anno Saul's "Green Desert" from Germany, which tied with three other films for an Audience Choice Award for Best Narrative Feature; "Don," Iranian director Abolfazl Jalili's docudrama about a nine-year-old boy struggling to make ends meet; and "Suckers," Roger Nygard's biting look at used car dealers. The last film won a special jury award, a.k.a. "the guilty pleasure award," in recognition of "the viewing pleasure [the jury] received for its political incorrectness."
Cinequest also featured its share of comedies, such as "Rum and Coke," Maria Escobedo's spicy story of a Latina struggling to find love in New York City, and Snjezana Tribuson's popular "The Three Men of Melita Zganjer" from Croatia.
Local filmmakers made a strong showing with Bernardo Gigliotti's "Ordinary Madness," produced by Bay Area native James Smythe; "Sting of Chance" from San Jose State University professor Babak Sarrafan; and Charles Koppelman's "Dumbarton Bridge."
Cinequest has been able to attract a variety of high-profile filmmakers for its tribute events, and this year was no exception: Alec Baldwin, Peter Fonda, Wes Craven, Robert M. Young and Dario Argento were recipients of Maverick Spirit Awards. Baldwin was greeted with shrieks when he entered the ballroom at the San Jose Fairmont Hotel to begin the event on Saturday, February 26. The sold-out crowd had been moved to a larger ballroom to accommodate the demand for tickets.
"Just being at a film festival puts you in a special group," said Baldwin. "I'd guess you're not all going home later to watch 'Everybody Loves Raymond.'" The 90-minute event ran to two hours as Baldwin held the audience spellbound with tales from the trenches. "Movie stardom is something you have to want very, very badly. . . and it's not for everyone," said the 41-year-old actor. Baldwin said he has begun to produce his own projects, a challenge that was exciting but exhausting. "In Hollywood today, it's easier to persuade them to spend $105 million than it is to spend $5 million. I've never worked harder in my life [as I have when producing]."
Baldwin's warm sense of humor and sharp wit kept the audience laughing. "The greatest thing about this business is the people you get to meet," he commented. One of those people was Screw Magazine publisher and First Amendment rights activist Al Goldstein. Goldstein and Baldwin met on the plane to San Jose from Los Angeles, and by the end of the flight they were exchanging cigars.
Goldstein, with 19 arrests for obscenity/free speech issues over the years, was in San Jose to help promote Cass Paley's documentary "WADD: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes." During a press conference, Goldstein had the shocked media rolling in the aisles with such comments as "I invented sex!" and "I've been in therapy for 30 years, look how I turned out!" As he left the press conference, Goldstein deposited a stack of Screw magazines next to the podium. Reporters raced to grab a copy just as Peter Fonda came in to be interviewed.
"Now that's a hard act to follow," quipped Fonda, who proceeded to hold reporters spellbound with reminiscences of his famous father Henry. He recounted his dad's response to seeing "Easy Rider" for the first time before its release: "I know you have all your eggs in this basket, and I'm worried." The genial and laid-back Fonda charmed audiences at his tribute event two nights later. "This is really cool," he said as he accepted his Maverick Spirit Award.
Another tributee was Italian horror master Dario Argento, who told a packed house at the screening of his masterpiece "Suspiria" that "Working with animals is much better than working with actors. A rat, or a swarm of bees is more natural than Marlon Brando or Tom Cruise could ever be."
While introducing an uncut version of his "Tenebrae" the next day, Argento said he had already bared his soul the night before, and had nothing more to say. He then proceeded to disrobe to his boxer shorts, jokingly claiming that was all he had left to share. "Good vision to you all!" he exclaimed.
Award-winning indie director Robert M. Young also screened his "Alhambrista!" and "Dominick and Eugene," while Wes Craven introduced showings of "Scream 3" and "Music of the Heart." Craven was later sighted taking copious notes at the digital cinematography panel.
Digital Events; Coppola Family Attends Screening
As befits its Silicon Valley locale, Cinequest sets itself apart from other festivals with its strong focus on technology, particularly advancements in digital cinematography. Laurence Thorpe, a pioneer in the development of digital cameras for Sony Electronics, led a panel discussion on the latest in digital filmmaking. Panelists included Robert Miller, who directed the first all digital film, "Mail Bonding"; Lloyd Silverman of The Artists' Colony, producer of one of Cinequest's closing night films, "Solid Ones"; Bart Cheever, executive producer of D.Film; Cassian Elwes of the William Morris Agency's William Morris Independents; and director Christopher Coppola. A state-of-the-art digital projection and sound system designed especially for Cinequest had the SRO audience oohing and aahing over stunning footage from a recent NASA shuttle voyage and clips from an upcoming Discovery Channel presentation on the Eco-Challenge. Commented William Morris' Elwes, "Digital isn't the future: it's now."
The next day, Francis Ford Coppola, Marc Coppola and the other members of the Coppola family helped fill the sold-out world premiere of Christopher Coppola's "Bel Air," which the young filmmaker said was the first of several "digi-flicks" he planned to make. "Cinequest is one of my two favorite festivals along with the Havana Film Festival," said Christopher Coppola. "Havana for its cigars and Cinequest for what it does for filmmakers."
Commenting on his nephew's film, the elder Coppola said, "I am very excited about this new digital production possibility -- and am always fascinated by Christopher Coppola's original work." After the screening, he was mobbed by autograph hounds, including one woman who begged him to autograph her breasts. After a little prompting, he finally acquiesced.
Winning Films; Kirkland Acts Out
At an awards brunch on the last day of the festival, festival officials bestowed their highest honor, the Maverick Spirit Award, to British filmmaker Claire Kilner's "Janice Beard: 45WPM," a comedy about an imaginative office temp. The film also won Best First Feature. Perhaps, not surprisingly, Best Dramatic Feature Award went to Colin Nutley's "Under the Sun," which is also Sweden's Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film. Barry Blaustein's look at the World Wrestling Federation, "Beyond the Mat," took the award for Best Documentary, while Canada's "Elimination Dance," directed by Bruce McDonald and Don McKellar, won Best Short Narrative. In a field of strong contenders, two films from the United Kingdom tied for Best Short Animation: Peter Peake's "Humdrum" and Mike Booth's "Little Dark Poet."
The Audience Choice Award for Best Narrative Feature was a tie between Anno Saul's "Green Desert," Lorena Parlee's IMAX film "Mexico," Paul Lazarus' Tim Daly starrer "Seven Girlfriends" and "Under the Sun," with Honorable Mentions to Fred Fougea's digital feature "Hanuman" and Gavin Hood's "A Reasonable Man." The Audience Choice Award for Best Documentary Feature went to Lisa Jackson's "Life Afterlife," with Honorable Mentions to "Beyond the Mat," "Six Days in Roswell" and "X-Philes," directed by Chris Clements and Maria Bowen.
The brunch was the scene of one of the festival's more surreal moments, as Sally Kirkland, furious that the film in which she starred ("Norma Jean, Jack and Me") had not received any awards, angrily accosted stunned jury members Jack Nyblom and Jim Harrington. "She told us we didn't know what we were doing, that she deserved an award for her talents and that she had given a better performance than any other actress at the festival," said Harrington.
Festival organizers breathed a collective sigh of relief as Cinequest came to a close that night following the standing-room-only world premiere screening of Brent Florence's "Solid Ones" filmed using Sony's HD-CAM format. 23-year-old Florence said during a Q&A after the film that "One of the complaints is that (the HD image) is 'too real.' My response is Awesome! Perfect! We're making films about real people." Also screened was German award winner "Paths in the Night."
The city's funding cuts have led Cinequest organizers to consider relocating the festival to locales as close as Palo Alto and as far away as San Diego. But the enthusiastic reception from audiences and filmmakers would seem to indicate that Cinequest's home should stay in Silicon Valley. Perhaps some of the area's Internet millionaires will decide to share their success with the film community. It would be a shame for the Bay Area to lose a festival that offers a glimpse at the technical and artistic cutting edge of today's independent films.
[Cynthia Gentry is a screenwriter and published fiction writer whose work has appeared in Reed Magazine and The Montserrat Review (www.themontserratreview.com). She indulges her lifelong penchant for dishing dirt by reviewing film for dailygossip.com and is currently at work on a novel, Catherine Saunders: Her Super-Fabulous Life and Times.]