FESTIVALS: Newport's Rising Tide, Helped by "Last Big Attraction," Community and Champagne
by Mark Rabinowitz
Last year I wrote, "Every once in a while, a new fest comes along with just the right mix of location, staff, community and programming to make a go of it. This year's leader of the pack for new fests is most definitely the Newport International Film Festival." Well, this year's Newport fest has borne that out. The 1999 Newport International Film Festival (NIFF) was packed with the same solid programming, solid organization and, at least as far as the attendees were concerned, seamless operation as last year's event.
Of course, what the filmgoer sees isn't always what the festival staff deals with. Sure there were the snafus that pretty much every fest endures (a scratched print of a 1978 film, a print lost in shipping, a 16mm film matched up with 35mm shorts), and the staff of the NIFF rarely if ever got more than 4 hours of sleep, but the event ran well for those attending. In chatting with indieWIRE about the second NIFF, Executive Director Christine Schomer said, "It was harder this year. It's like launching a giant boulder with a toothpick - there is something very nearly comically absurd about it."
Not everything was more difficult; the festival found some things worked out better. " It was easier because we had a context. People had heard of us and it made it easier to put together jury and panels. Hell, we had letterhead. Last year it was all free-form," said Schomer. Festival Director Nancy Donahoe concurred, "I had trouble stepping back during the festival to see the big picture. I got mired in details, but now that I've had time to look back at it all, I am very pleased."
In addition to Donahoe and Schomer, the rest of the staff is overwhelmingly female. Now, I have no scientific basis on which to base the following assumption, but I think that this is one of the key reasons why this festival is on the right track. Programming Director Maude Chilton, Filmmaker Transportation and Housing Coordinator Jennifer Koeppel, and Business Development and Event Director Julie Snyder are three of the women that help make this festival run smoothly, along with tireless (male) Transportation Coordinator Mark Brown.
Newport's lineup conforms to the regional festival pattern, that is, a smattering of world or U.S. premieres, combined with festival faves and soon-to-be-released indies, along with a retrospective or theme-program. One thing that this year's NIFF had that most regional fests don't get is the chance to screen world premieres that are actually worth viewing. (Unfortunately, many smaller festivals are often the "dumping ground" for world premieres that don't get accepted into more distributor-oriented fests like Sundance, Toronto, Cannes or the LAIFF.)
The world premiere of Hopwood DePree's "The Last Big Attraction" managed to nab three awards, including the Best Film, Best Screenplay and the Claiborne Pell Award for Original Vision. DePree portrays Leed Vanderwall, whose Holland, Michigan-based family business -- Windmill Island, a reproduction of an historical Dutch village -- is in financial trouble. Leed is faced with the choice of staying home and helping save the business or moving to the big, exotic city. . . Detroit. What may at first appear to be a standard coming of age story -- restless hometown boy yearns for greater things, meets rich girl, must choose between home or city -- "Attraction" contains enough measures of sweetness, oddball situations and characters to make it worth a look. Highlights of the film include Victoria Haas as the woman in love with Leed, Windmill Island and clog dancing, and DePree's whimsical script.
Festival vets included Neil Turitz's delightful "Two Ninas," Nisha Ganatra's well-received "Chutney Popcorn" and Emiko Omori's "Rabbit in the Moon," while upcoming releases included Oliver Parker's Oscar Wilde adaptation "An Ideal Husband" (Miramax), Eric Mendelsohn's "Judy Berlin" (Shooting Gallery), Francis Verber's "The Dinner Game" (Lions Gate), Hirokazu Kore-Eda's "Afterlife" (Artistic License) and Christopher Nolan's "Following" (Zeitgeist). In addition, audiences got a chance to catch Chris Wedge's Oscar-winning short film, "Bunny." A screening of Verber's film was so over-packed, that festival staffers were doing the airline-shuffle, offering two, three and four tickets to other films to folks who would give up their seats. At one point Donahoe asked the entire audience out on a date, joking that it was "very humiliating to be turned down by an entire audience."
An additional pleasure was the ability to screen two films by Errol Morris back-to-back, his first film and his most recently completed film. Screening first was the supurb 30-minute film from 1998 ("Dr. Death" is apparently still being tweaked by the filmmaker), "Stairway to Heaven," a portrait of an autistic woman who designs "humane" slaughterhouses. Until I saw this film, I was adamant that there could be no such thing, now I'm not so sure. Following "Stairway" was Morris' 1978 film, "Gates of Heaven," a study of the rise of pet cemeteries in California that is both profoundly disturbing and frequently funny.
One of last year's highlights was the sidebar of jazz-themed films, which continued this year. Feature films included Otto Preminger's "Anatomy of a Murder" with a score by jazz great Duke Ellington; "Memories of Duke," a 1981 documentary by Gary Keys that follows Ellington and his band on a 1968 tour of Mexico; "Stormy Weather," a 1943 film directed by Andrew L. Stone starring Lena Horn, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway and Coleman Hawkins; "Bix: An Interpretation of a Legend," a 1990 film by Pupi Avati about Bix Beiderbecke, and "Texas Tenor: The Illinois Jacquet Story," a 1991 documentary by Arthur Elgort.
The community of Newport is another of the elements that makes this fest such a gem. Schomer indicated that while the attendance figures weren't final, the festival expected that audience numbers doubled from last year, and three times as many shows were sold out. "People in Newport keep stopping me in the street to thank us for bringing the festival and the films," added Donahoe. The town and its residents seem solidly behind the festival, with the event organizers having more volunteers than they knew what to do with and locals opening their homes as both housing for festival guests and party spaces. . . sometimes both. With names like Beacon Rock, Seafair and Rockery Hall, these mansions would make all but the most jaded of the nouveau riche gape in astonishment.
At one of the aforementioned abodes, the hosts even hired a troupe of outlandishly costumed actors to roam among the party goers -- some of them extremely toney-looking Newport locals -- and basically fuck with the guests. One of the characters had the head of a rat, and he proceeded to bite and lick several attendees, including juror and outright party girl, Maria Maggenti (Dir: "The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love") and filmmaker Mark Christopher ("54"), both of whom enjoyed themselves immensely. Perhaps the free-flowing champagne had something to do with it. Juror Peter Reigert summed up the NIFF in something that he repeated throughout the event: "They (festival organizers) can really make a go of this thing if they keep doing things right."