FESTIVALS: Lake Placid Finds Niche in its First 'Film Forum'
by Brian Brooks
(indieWIRE/6.27.2000) -- Clamoring for choice condos on the main street . . . endless queues vying for the wait list for a screening . . . the frenzied parties, drink in hand, hoping to find where the REAL party is going to be afterward. . . local residents increasingly contemptuous over the year-to-year swell of attitude.
Not quite The Lake Placid Film Forum. Organized by novelist Russell Banks ("Affliction," "Rule of the Bone," "The Sweet Hereafter"), former film critic for The New York Daily News, Kathleen Carroll and artist Naj Wikoff, The Forum held its first annual event June 8th through the 11th. "We call it a Forum rather than a festival," says Russell Banks, "Because we see it as a site for filmmakers and film lovers to come together to see films and discuss in informal and formal venues the overarching issues of content and the medium."
Certainly, The Forum launched with a unique opening. . . a reception atop the 120 meter Olympic Ski Jump complete with 1932 speed skating gold medallist Jack Shea, a slew of filmmakers, hostesses sporting the Norma Desmond look and ski jumping demonstrations (since it's summer, the jumpers land on plastic grass). Friendliness and informality definitely reign at this event. Upon hearing one attendee express interest in fishing while in the Adirondack town, one of the staff members offered to take everyone fly-fishing if we arrived by 4:30pm -- however the lure of shopping outlets en route ended that possibility.
While all the screening features are familiar from the festival circuit, The Forum nevertheless managed to carve a niche for itself in facilitating "informal discussion" of "overarching issues." A varied array of "insiders" were present including Sony Pictures Classics Co-President, Michael Barker; Eamonn Bowles, Director of Acquisitions for Shooting Gallery Pictures; Producer-director Jay Craven; Director Milos Forman ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "The People Vs. Larry Flynt") and writer-director Paul Schrader ("Taxi Driver," "American Gigolo," "Affliction").
Opening The Forum was Jim McKay's "Our Song," an intimate look at three Brooklyn teenage girls at a crossroads. The film, which is still seeking a distributor, debuted at Sundance and has played well at Festivals all year. The first night also unspooled another Sundance entry, "Other Voices" by Dan McCormack, where a small group of friends of a bored couple misconstrue their sexual role-playing, and, as a result, feel compelled to indulge their neuroses in capturing their respective friend's spouse in the act of cheating. Dark and chaotic, all the streets of the New York-set film abound with the urban grit and teeming streets of wackos and thugs every stereotypical story of Gotham conjures up. Peter Gallagher ("Sex, Lies and Videotape") even co-stars as a European gangster hired to frighten the wife, Anna (Mary McCormack) into submission. Listening to Gallagher's attempt at a French accent alone was worth seeing the movie.
"Shower" by Chinese director Zhang Yang was a personal favorite. Set in modern day China, the Sony Pictures Classics release is based at a neighborhood bath-house run by an elderly father and his autistic son. The house is the social centerpoint for many of the local gentlemen who come to bathe, talk, play mahjong, and other past times like cricket matches. But modernism and tradition face an uneasy coexistence in the neighborhood as signs of pending change seem to destabilize the peace of the bathhouse. The father and his newly arrived son represent this uneasy relationship, and thus, of old and new China.
Jenniphr Goodman's "The Tao of Steve," another Sundance-debut, was best described by a friend of mine as "a straight dude flick." Donal Logue plays Dex, a guy with a libido and personality that never quite evolved since graduating college. Nevertheless, his frat-boyish lifestyle has taken a toll on his physique. To compensate, he preys on the sensitivities of women in order to lure them in bed. The lead's vulnerabilities are, however, palpable and become especially evident after he is smitten by a former college love played by Greer Goodman, the film's screenwriter and the director's sister.
Aside from films currently traveling the festival circuit, The Forum presented restored prints of old classics. "Peter Pan" (1924) directed by Herbert Brenton screened Sunday afternoon in Lake Placid's historic Palace Theatre. The film was purchased by Walt Disney in 1938 and later restored. Also screened was Laurel and Hardey's "The Music Box." Complementing the presentation was The Palace's 1926 Robert Morton Theatre Organ with seven ranks of pipes, snare drums, tam tams and other percussion instruments.
Additionally, The Forum presented a free live staged screenplay reading of "The Choice of the Cross" by writers Tom Mercer and Terry Field. Performed by a cast of fourteen actors, the screenplay is based on the true story of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 when the Spanish Empire was driven out of what is now New Mexico and Arizona by the native people of that area. Mercer called this little known part of history, "the first American Revolution" and "a universal story of the struggle for freedom."
Panels were popular at The Forum, ranging in topics such as 'From Novel to Screen,' 'New Technologies,' 'The Festival Circuit,' and 'Wooing the Distributor, Self Distribution.' Despite its early time, 'From Novel to Screen' attracted a large crowd Saturday morning. Moderator Ed Pomerantz, Russell Banks, Paul Schrader, novelist Michael Ondaatje ("The English Patient," "The Skin of A Lion"), film critic Stephen Schiff and Milos Forman discussed the controversy of control. Schrader commented that screenwriters should not involve themselves in the visual, and an overriding theme was that directors should be given freedom to interpret for themselves.
Not quite so harmonious was the debate on the panel titled, 'Technology on Screen Writing' moderated by indieWIRE's Eugene Hernandez. Jerryll Adler, VP of Promotions at Broadcast DVD Inc. argued that new technology would allow for more viewer control over content and revolutionize the narrative form. This, however, caused a debate among the panelists and members of the audience. One audience member argued that entertainment ceases to be enjoyable if the viewer is required to "work" at viewing a film. For his part, Russell Banks (who at the beginning of the panel admitted he was more of a "dinosaur") called some aspects of the new technology "an insidious attack on consciousness making the mind like a mall." Adler argued that new technology would allow a viewer to focus in on a particular aspect of a story that perhaps is of greater interest and have greater control as to how the story unfolds. Banks, however argued that the novel was a "guided hallucination" and, despite one audience member's suggestions about using technology to manipulate a story's structure, Bank countered: "a good novel can't be picked up at any point." Interestingly, Banks is currently adapting 'On The Road' for Francis Ford Coppola.
Somewhat less contentious was the 'Distribution' panel attended by Sony Pictures Classics Co-President Michael Barker; Shooting Gallery's Eamonn Bowles; Producer/Director Jay Craven ("Where Rivers Flow North," "Stranger in the Kingdom"); and AIVF Program and Information Services Director Michelle Coe. Both Barker and Bowles seemed to agree that many good films have difficulty finding distribution because independent distributors are attracted to the potential for big money. Films like "Scream" and "The Blair Witch Project" are examples of a "threshold" that has been raised among the expectations for many distributors according to the duo.
Bowles, however, attributed "The Blair Witch" success to a "cultural moment" that allowed for its phenomenal success and suggested that it was more of an aberration. Still, Barker said his company maintained its willingness to support a film even if the potential for profit was small. For their part, Jay Craven and Michelle Coe encouraged filmmakers to seek self-distribution if the traditional system failed to provide an outlet.
For its first annual event, The Forum paid tribute to Milos Forman at a dinner hosted by film critic and author David Sterritt. The $65 price tag did not deter a large attendance, however, as audience members viewed clips from Forman's extensive work. Proceeds from the dinner went to Fledgling Films, a program founded by Jay Craven that cultivates young filmmakers in Vermont and the Adirondack region. Also on hand to pay tribute to Forman was writer Buck Henry ("The Graduate"). Accepting the award, Forman mentioned "The People vs. Larry Flynt" as one of his favorite efforts, commenting on his admiration for individualism and that a anyone who dared to raise his voice was a hero.
The organizers of The Lake Placid Film Forum deserve credit for a dignified launch. Certainly it may take some time before it attains the cache of other festivals, but The Forum has already carved a niche. Co-organizer Naj Wikoff expressed his desire to add one or two additional screens next year and to strengthen the digital component including an award for work developed for the DVD format (original, director's cut, original use of the medium). Enthusiasm on the part of its organizers, local support and the beautiful setting of Lake Placid all make the Forum a welcome addition to film events across the nation.
[Brian Brooks is the Assistant Editor at indieWIRE.com]