FESTIVALS: Literati Becomes Digerati at Mill Valley
by Scott Smith
(indieWIRE/10.23.00) --The 23rd Mill Valley Film Festival (Oct. 5-15) began this year on a traditionally theatrical note, but ended on a decidedly technological tone. The venue, nestled in the affluent hills north of San Francisco, lured the cultured community with big-screen openings from two of the world's most renowned playwrights. John Berry's "Boesman & Lena," starring Bay Area actor Danny Glover and Angela Bassett, is based on the play by South Africa's Athol Fugard. The film was followed by the star-studded "State and Main," the latest project helmed by David Mamet.
Even the shorts program had literary overtones. One of the most popular tickets was the festival's "Five@Five," 80-minute blocks of 5 films each, shown nightly at 5pm for a $5 admission price. Corralled by likeminded themes, these programs are titled by their nearest resemblance to a song of Elvis Costello. For example, last Friday's "Everyday I Write the Book" presented literary adaptations like "Speed for Thespians," a modern day twist on Chekhov's short story "The Bear," as well as Charlie Ramos's 7-minute computer-animated version of Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," a 10-minute exploration of Raymond Carver's "What We Talk about When We Talk about Love" by San Francisco-based filmmaker Scott Stewart, and actor Peter Riegert's 15-minute take on O. Henry's "By Courier."
The 40,000 attendees exceeded the expectations of founder and executive director Mark Fishkin. "Among our caliber community of attendees, there are key educators and multimedia artists as well as traditional storytellers. My intent this year was to create an interesting mix between mainstream entertainment with some experimental forms."
Which explains the festival's pervasive use of digital technology this year, notably the dedicated DPI projection systems in four screens of the Rafael Film Center, as well as the online extension of the festival activities through video streams on the Apple website. The MVFF's Quicktime TV channel recorded an average of 75,000 hits daily over the 11-day event. The site remains active at http://www.apple.com/quicktime/qtv/mill_valley.com with clips of celebrity interviews, seminar highlights, and even a few classic television interviews of Orson Welles conducted by Dick Cavett, one of this year's MVFF honorees.
Also new for 2000 was the addition of the New Movies Lab, a chance for aspiring digital filmmakers to spend two intensive days in seminars, panel discussions, and workshops with innovators like Darren Aronofsky ("Requiem for a Dream"), Adrian Belic ("Genghis Blues"), Good Machine's Anthony Bregman, and the ubiquitous Todd Verow. There was even a special demonstration of selected Hollywood features like "The Perfect Storm," projected with a state-of-the-art HD system supplied by Texas Instruments. It seemed that technology has run amok in the festivals that border the Silicon Valley. "Even the way in which filmmakers are entering their work has opened our eyes to the widespread use of digital tools in the independent film community," says programming director Zoe Elton, "Artists now simply state 'this is a feature film' on the submission form and list the format as an incidental."
This seamless integration of digital movies into the regular lineup threatens the fate of the MVFF's longstanding Videofest program, a new media forum that used to champion storytellers who used broadcast equipment. The Vfest has a rich heritage of supporting alternative artists, like Verow and Jon Jost, but now finds many of their projects fitting neatly into the mainstream. "In the past 23 years, our Videofest program has gone through several iterations. It was mostly experimental and the majority of the material shown in the Videofest would ultimately wind up it museum exhibits. Today, there are so many avenues for that same content: multimedia CDs, DVDs, cable, and the Internet," explains Fishkin.
However, one such film in the VFest's Mixmaster V series won't easily find it's way as a commercial product. The crowd-pleasing "Special Report," one of two entries by the wickedly divisive Bryan Boyce, is a hilarious satire on the evening news. Boyce captured footage of famous TV anchors Dan Rather, Ted Koppel, and Peter Jennings, and replaced their words with the melodramatic exclamations of B-movie actors in such retro sci-fi and horror fare as "Plan 9 from Outer Space," "Teenage Zombies," and "Creature from the Black Lagoon." The results are side-splitting, but the "borrowed" material has the copyright lawyers of interested parties checking to see if the digital effects are a clear-cut freedom of expression or outright infringement. Boyce has yet to find a permanent distributor for the film.
Perhaps the centerpiece of all this digital focus was Tuesday's tribute to video pioneer Rob Nilsson. "He's had a tremendous impact on young filmmakers because his career parallels the rise of the digital revolution," says Fishkin, who characterized the evening as more than just a night of celebration. The relationship between San Francisco-based Nilsson and the Mill Valley Film Festival goes back two decades. Historically, the filmmaker's struggles with distribution have been offset by the unflagging support of the nearby festival. In fact, the week's program included a trio of new work -- "Winter Oranges," "Singing," and "Stroke," -- all directed by the prolific Nilsson. Fishkin believes it's the first time a festival has shown the world premiere of three feature films from the same director. "He's as important as Lars von Trier," Fishkin explains. "He's really the Cassavetes of our generation, putting an edge on everything without compromise."
[Scott Smith is the Senior Editor of RES: The Magazine of Digital Filmmaking and a featured columnist on the Adobe.com website, as well as the author of "The Film 100" (Citadel Press), and "Making iMovies" (Peachpit Press). He recently edited The DV Filmmaker's Handbook, due out this November.]