FESTIVALS: Virginia's Masquerade Ball; Pollack, Rowlands, and Others Look Behind the Mask
by Peter Brunette
(indieWIRE/ 11.06.01) -- The 14th annual Virginia Film Festival (Oct. 25 - 28) is a wrap, and if it was somewhat less scintillating than in previous years (film fests have been stricken by 9/11-itis as well), some high-powered guests of the caliber of Sydney Pollack and Gena Rowlands -- with the aid of some wonderful weather and Charlottesville's brilliant fall foliage -- lifted it well beyond the ordinary.
Each year, festival director Richard Herskowitz chooses a theme and, in principle at least, all the film selections and accoutrements (musical events, art exhibitions, lectures at the University of Virginia, the festival's chief sponsor) are based on it. What is most impressive about this three-day festival, and perhaps unique, is that the topics, far from acting as an inhibiting straitjacket, actually allow audiences to think through an idea in all its various permutations. Yet while the intelligent, cine-literate audiences that populate screenings are never condescended to, neither are they overwhelmed by academic gobbledygook, and the overall effect is of an intellectually stimulating weekend that doesn't seem too much like work.
This year's focus was "Masquerades," and it included films that ran the gamut from Pollack's "Tootsie" to René Clement's "Purple Noon," which features a con artist pretending to be someone he's not. The theme jibes well with recent feminist film theory, which holds that all gender, at base, is a kind of "performance," with femininity especially being seen as a show or masquerade. A stunning example of this idea is indie guru John Cassavetes' lacerating "A Woman Under the Influence," which was shown here in a new print. In this hard-to-watch but rewarding film, the ultra-violent husband played by Peter Falk tries and fails to get his mentally disturbed wife, played by Gena Rowlands, to "act normal." It is perhaps only with the benefit of three decades' hindsight that we can understand that what his command really means is that she should act the way a repressive society expects a woman to act. The classy Rowlands was on hand to discuss the work of her real-life husband Cassavetes, but said she wasn't able to watch the film, which features her harrowing performance as a woman having a very convincing nervous breakdown.
Henry Jaglom, one of Cassavetes' many disciples, was scheduled to attend but got the post-9/11 jitters two days before the festival began. Another casualty was highly regarded indie filmmaker Mark Rappaport ("Rock Hudson's Home Movies" and "From the Journals of Jean Seberg"), who fell ill at the last moment, but literally phoned in his analysis of the career of his latest subject, Danny Kaye.
I finally managed to see Henry Bean's disturbing Sundance winner "The Believer" which concerns a self-hating Jew who disguises himself as a Nazi skinhead. It's quite powerful, and if the film's ideas get a little too convoluted for their own good, the mere fact that any film made today is even attempting to sustain a coherent thought is a cause for celebration.
A little bit less good, but still eminently watchable film was Peter Bogdanovich's latest effort, "The Cat's Meow." This immensely talented director has seemed jinxed for years, uncomfortably stuck as he is between the mainstream and the independent film worlds, and it's to be hoped that this new movie, an enjoyable and stylish murder mystery set on William Randolph Hearst's yacht in the 1920's -- starring a phenomenal Kirsten Dunst in her first role playing an adult -- will help him along in his perennial attempt at a comeback. (The film's scriptwriter, Steven Peros, was on hand to discuss the film after the screening with the always sharp critic Godfrey Cheshire.)
Less interesting was UVA alumni Mark Johnson's latest producing effort "Goodbye, Hello," a morose story about coping with a daughter's death that stars Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, Holly Hunter, and newcomer Jake Gyllenhaal. The script, by writer-director Brad Silberling, starts out wonderfully acerbic, but quickly enough falls back into the usual feel-good Hollywood pattern in which everyone's life gets unconvincingly straightened out in the last reel. (To be fair, though, Johnson said that the film should be considered a "work in progress," and director Silberling's discussion with the audience about which scenes could still be shortened was fascinating.) Other films included Sam Fuller's "The Naked Kiss," Abbas Kiarostami's "Close-Up," William Wyler's 1929 film "The Shakedown," with live accompaniment by Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton, and Jem Cohen's well-regarded documentary "Benjamin Smoke." (1940).
The biggest hit of all, though, was the supremely voluble Sidney Pollack, who, counting his appearances before and after several of his movies and his director's workshop at the university, must have spent more than ten hours talking to audiences. He's a wonderful raconteur and no one gave the slightest hint that they wanted him to shut up. A remarkable Hollywood figure, he's excelled as an actor ("Tootsie," "Eyes Wide Shut"), a director ("They Shoot Horses, Don't They," "Three Days of the Condor," "The Way We Were," etc., etc.) and most recently, producer. With his business partner Anthony Minghella ["The English Patient"], he is currently working on "Cold Mountain," which will star Tom Cruise, and a wonderful-sounding project called "Heaven," from a script by the late Polish master Krzysztof Kieslowski that will be directed by Thomas Tykwer ["Run Lola Run"] and will star Cate Blanchett.
Pollack regaled the audience with behind the scenes stories of the making of many of his films, and in the director's workshop, he closely analyzed scenes from "They Shoot Horses" and "Tootsie." This fascinating mini-course in direction should have been worth three credits for every film student in the room. In another session, he talked about the late Stanley Kubrick's obsessive perfectionism that led him to do seventy or more takes, for example, of the Pollack and Cruise billiard-room scene in "Eyes Wide Shut." Considering the films he's been involved with, the 67-year-old Hollywood veteran struck me as remarkably modest, insisting that even today he doesn't have the slightest idea what makes a film a success or a failure. "Every year a small handful of films sort of accidentally become art. Remember that even the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel started out as something useful," he said during his workshop. He also carefully explained the CinemaScope anamorphic process and why he insisted on this format until he got tired of fighting the mutilation of his films that occurred when they were panned and scanned for video.
For three days, Pollack was completely available to anyone who wanted to talk to him. I know we're not supposed to think much of these Hollywood guys, but Hollywood has its own particular brand of brilliance, after all, and I, like many of the festival's audiences, was completely smitten.