FESTIVALS: Our Town; Newport Enjoys Fest, While Small Films Find a Home
by Erin Torneo
(indieWIRE/ 06.20.01) -- At Sundance, you wake up and hear panicked executives berating their overworked assistants, demanding, "Where's my fucking cellphone??" At Venice, you wake up surrounded by empty Grappa bottles and hail a water-taxi, hoping you can still read the subtitles despite your hangover. At the 4th annual Newport International Film Festival (June 5- 10), on the other hand, you wake up in a sun-drenched bed and breakfast to the sound of your host greeting a neighbor with a friendly hello. "Well, hullo," he replies. (What the hell is this? Thornton Wilder?) "I'm taking the day off. I'm going to go see some films."
Ah, summer. In June, the East Coast festival circuit shifts to picturesque resort towns, luring industry folk with relaxing weekend getaways where business takes a definite backseat to pleasure. "We bring films to Newport as a celebration of the medium, and filmmakers and audiences seem to respond to that energy," says Festival Director Nancy Donahoe. The spirit of a regional fest like Newport is one of integration between festival and community, with locals coming out to enjoy rather than suffer through a hostile takeover of their town.
In fact, ticket sales were up by 35% this year, reported Donahoe. One of the packed screenings was the U.S. premiere of Masato Harada's "Inugami," which took home Best Feature honors. While the film showcases Harada's impressive technical abilities, it suffers from its ambitious conflation of genres. Simultaneously love story, horror film and folk allegory, "Inugami" is set in a village on Shikoku Island where a woman papermaker falls under a mysterious curse, uncovering buried incest, Oedipal transgressions, and group suicide. Let's just say it makes for a dense tale.
The Claiborne Pell Award for original vision went to "Hybrid," Montieth McCollum's uniquely lyrical documentary about his grandfather's multi-decade obsession with hybrid corn. Part character profile, part vegetable sex-ed lesson, and part paean to the disappearing American farm life, "Hybrid" cast its hypnotic spell over Newport audiences as it has throughout the festival circuit. Newport showed its electric koolaid acid side, awarding the Audience Award for Best Documentary to Gillian Grisman's "Grateful Dawg," a portrait of the famous David Grisman-Jerry Garcia collaboration. (Although Newport touted its screening as a world premiere, "Grateful Dawg" premiered in Mill Valley last October, and not at Newport as previously reported by indieWIRE.)
Other notable award winners included Simon Beaufoy ("The Full Monty" screenwriter) and Billie Eltringham, who shared the Best Director award for their entry "Darkest Light," a British drama exploring faith, fear, and the architecture of religion through the friendship of two young girls from different cultures who witness a mysterious light in the foot-and-mouth-disease-ridden English countryside. Lukas Moodyson's "Together," hitting theaters this August, took home the Jury Award for Best Feature. A hilarious ensemble piece set in a 1970s commune, the Swedish film manages to be endearing and uplifting while employing ABBA as the improbably ideal soundtrack.
Despite the fact that many of its award winners were well-traveled festival favorites, Newport did boast an increase in its tally of U.S. and World Premieres. Billy Bob Thornton's Arkansas family comedy "Daddy and Them" made its World Premiere in addition to "Love and Support," Joe Furey's by-the-numbers romantic comedy road movie. On the doc side, world premieres included John Walter's "How to Draw a Bunny" and Ian Darling's "Woodstock for Capitalists." Among other fest highlights: Joel Hopkins' offbeat charmer "Jump Tomorrow"; Tom Shephard's doc, "Scout's Honor," a thorough investigation of the Boy Scouts of America's anti-gay policy; "Anniversary Party," the wickedly indulgent digital directorial debut of Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming; and the irresistibly titled "Bombay Eunuch," revealing an unseen world of gender identity. In the Short Film category, "The Sunshine," garnered mention for its portrait of one of the Bowery's last remaining flophouses, while Don Hertzfeldt's uproarious animated "Rejected" won Best Short for its twisted parody of American consumerism.
Unofficial Best Party Award went to Thursday night's GUESS! fest at Clarke Cooke House Skybar for its eclectic dance party. Those shaking a tail feather included indieWIRE co-founder Mark Rabinowitz, in town as a "F.O.F." (Friend of the Festival), or resident cat-in-the-hat. Vanity Fair, by contrast, lost goodwill points by neglecting to invite Newport festival staffers to its Friday night party at Beacon Rock. Jury members and journalists shared a strangely Kubrickian moment, waiting for clearance outside the expansive gates of the mansion, while the linen-clad and their oft-sequined dates arrived. While Sony Pictures Classics' Tom Bernard mingled on the patio, and the hoi polloi fox-trotted the night away, the real party went down in the upstairs billiard room where directors Arlene Donnelly and David Nelson joined an exploration of the swanky mansion's darker corners. Unfortunately, the carousing led to none of the mass nudity organized by photog/"Naked States"' subject, Spencer Tunick at Newport 2000. But isolated, unplanned incidents of nudity may have occurred when the hosts abruptly killed the house lights. The fete came to a hectic close, as revelers fought for cabs outside the gates in a scene one attendee later described as "Saigon."
Clams were a-baking at the closing night festivities on the water at the International Yacht Restoration School. There was more than a little consumption anxiety as the anthropomorphic sequences of "Hybrid" made eating corn-on-the-cob seem nothing less than carnivorous. Celebrity presence was provided by none other than Lee Majors, star of one the fest's short entries. When a festival guest apologized for cutting him off in the food line, Majors joked that he was going to use his bionic arm and hurl him over the tent into Narragansett Bay. (How many times do you think he's used that one?) Staff headquarters -- a.k.a. "the Flop" -- hosted an unofficial after-party that lasted until the wee hours.
Despite the late night hours, the last in a series of panel discussions at Newport was by far the liveliest. Jeff Lipsky of Lot 47 Films moderated -- or better said, instigated -- the panel. Part of the debate centered around the importance -- or irrelevance -- of regional festivals, an apt conversation in the wake of the awards ceremony, where conspicuously few of the award-winning foreign filmmakers were in attendance. But Lipsky's panel itself, perhaps provided evidence of the importance of regional fests. Lost in the crowd at the major fests, nascent filmmakers like Peter Connelly, attending his first festival with his first short, or Peter Callahan whose film "Last Ball" lacks the backing of professional PR muscle were invited to speak alongside more recognizable panelists like Lipsky, David Wain (writer/director of "Wet Hot American Summer") and Matt Littin of Sloss's Cinetic Media.
Callahan's "Last Ball," which he describes as "quiet" and "not arty or edgy or with stars" is perhaps the truest form of independent film left. While it shows technical acumen and competent performances, the soft, well-traveled narrative of a heart-broken guy looking for a way out of his small town will likely have a difficult time in the big leagues. But at regional fests like Newport, films like Callahan's have their chance to unspool before an appreciative audience. While referring to last year's winners "George Washington" and "Fighter," which went on to wider acclaim, Newport Director Donahoe might have been speaking to Callahan's experience when she commented, "We know we can promise any young filmmaker interested, responsive audiences."
[Erin Torneo is the Associate Editor of ifcRANT. She still has mosquito bites from the Vanity Fair party and entirely inexplicable redness on her face and neck.]