No Bust Here: Toasting Films and Tasting The Good Life at Newport Fest
by Wendy Mitchell
I was at a lavish filmmaker party at the 2003 Newport International Film Festival, where people milled about in an ostentatious 19th-century mansion, ate bites of ostrich, and were handed spoonfuls of lobster in cognac sauce by a roving waitress. I remarked to a new festival pal that the event reminded me of an extravagant dot-com party before the bust. My friend replied, "There is no bust in Newport. Not 100 years ago, not now." The observation was true: in this Rhode Island resort town, it seems that there are always lobsters in the pots and chardonnay in the glasses. The sixth NIFF likewise proved to be a first-class regional film festival. A never-ending supply of boiled shrimp the size of your fist? Check. Godiva chocolates in huge piles? Check. Khaki-clad yachtsmen trying to dance to 50 Cent? Check. Surreal after-hours parties at a scandal-filled mansion overlooking the harbor? Check.
But of course, this June 10-15 event wasn't just about opulent living in Newport, it was also seeing and discussing the more than 60 films playing here. The selections were mostly strong. My one criticism is that the lineup felt a bit generic -- there were solid selections that would fit into any festival of this size, but not much in the way of local programming. There have to be a few trust-fund kids in Newport trying their hand at filmmaking, right? Or maybe a focus on New England films could be added.
Beth Janson, the fest's new head programmer, and assistant programmer Caitlyn Roper organized a well-rounded line-up. As is the case with a lot of festivals of late, the doc programming was even stronger than the narratives. And docs were attracting big crowds, which is an encouraging sign to the many struggling doc makers toiling out there. My personal favorite was "Speedo," directed and produced by Jesse Moss (a former contributor to indieWIRE.) Moss drove head on into the strange world of the demolition derby, following our hero Ed "Speedo" Jager, an auto mechanic and fairly successful derby driver with a charming penchant for self-promotion (by the way, you can buy his T-shirts at speedo69.com). Speedo proved to be a complicated figure -- at first I worried he might become a white-trash caricature because of his trips to Hooters and chugging of Mountain Dew, but he also turned out to be a caring father devoted to his sons and a romantic who pursues a racetrack soul-mate named Liz. Thanks to Speedo's rapid-fire storytelling and the film's expert pacing (not to mention the killer tunes), even someone with zero interest in the demolition derby can get engrossed quickly. The Newport doc jury recognized "Speedo" with its jury prize, behind Rostislav Aalto's "Cleaning Up" in first place.
Robb Moss' "The Same River Twice" was also a highlight. Moss brought the film back to Newport this year after a works-in-progress screening at last year's festival (this year's DocuClub in the works selection was Julie Mallozzi's "Monkey Dance," about Cambodian-American teens). "River," which premiered at Sundance, looked at a group of free-spirited (and often nude) river guides from the '70s who comment on that lifestyle from their current perspectives. Members of the group are at different places in society (mayor, aerobics teacher, aging river guide) and at different mental states (confronting death, avoiding growing up). I loved the natural pace Moss takes with his doc; he gave his subjects plenty of room and time to ruminate on life's ebbs and flows. My only wish is that Moss had turned the camera on himself a bit more to show us his role in the guides group and what, as a doc filmmaker and Harvard professor, he now thinks of those carefree rafting days.
I was less sold on Cynthia Wade's "Shelter Dogs," the audience award winner in the doc category. As a portrait of one woman's struggles to run her animal shelter (which advocates euthanasia instead of life-long cage living), the doc was well done and definitely made its case. (Although I did feel a little manipulated, not to mention teary, by scenes of dogs being put to sleep). But with a subject this obvious, I think there's a more complicated doc waiting to be made -- maybe one that's less a portrait of one woman and more an examination of the conditions in shelters and the raging debate over no-kill shelters.
Making its world premiere was Jyllian Gunther's "Pull Out," the chronicle of what happens when she visits all of her ex-boyfriends to find out why their relationships soured. While it obviously had the potential to become a self-indulgent tale of one New Yorker's neuroses (uh, I can relate), "Pull Out" pleasantly surprised me due to Gunther's charm and some unexpected revelations on family dynamics. Plus, seeing her series of somewhat crazy ex-boyfriends makes mine look a little saner.
Among the narrative features, I agreed with the jury that Peter Mullan's "The Magdalene Sisters" was the best film showing in Newport. No wonder this film has been racking up fest accolades since its debut in Venice: The story was a compelling choice, the performances were strong, and the film overall was extremely well crafted. "The Magdalene Sisters," opening August 1 from Miramax, looked at young Irish girls who were deemed wayward (even if they had done nothing wrong) and sent to work in church-run laundries where they endured physical and emotional abuse. Mullan kept the tale emotional without slipping into melodrama. One scene was the most powerful filmed image I've seen all year: an extreme close-up of one woman's eye, eyelashes crusted with blood, with her cornea reflecting the image of the abusive nun yelling at her.
"American Splendor," the Sundance-winning biopic about comic book legend Harvey Pekar, proved popular in Newport as well. Even for folks like me who disdain comic book geeks, "Splendor" was still splendid thanks to its inspired performances, inventive structure and style, and blend of comedy and catharsis. Other impressive features that I saw were "Valentin," an Argentine film about a young boy growing up in 1960s Buenos Aires coping with a broken family. While the film was at times so charming it was almost cloying, the writing was mostly hilarious and newcomer Rodrigo Noya gave a note-perfect performance as precocious Valentin, like an 9-year-old version of "Rushmore"'s Max Fischer. (Newport's feature jury gave Noya its acting prize.)
Thaddeus O'Sullivan's "The Heart of Me" was well done but not brilliant. Paul Bettany and Olivia Williams gave winning performances in this tale of a repressed marriage in 1930s and 40s England, but overall the film felt like "not-quite-a-masterpiece theater." Patrick Coyle's "Detective Fiction" impressed some festgoers but left me cold. The film appropriates noir conventions in a tale of a Midwestern couple whose marriage is falling apart; I found the whole package to be overwrought. This film got an honorable mention for Newport's student jury prize, with Deepa Mehta's musical "Bollywood/Hollywood" getting the high schoolers' top prize. Among other competition films, Claude Berri's "The Housekeeper" was a slow but charming tale of unlikely love in Paris; Joseph Pierson's "EvenHand" was a charismatic character study of two small-town cops in Texas, blurring the whole good cop/bad cop formula. Locals were also buzzing about Greg Pritikin's "Dummy," starring Adrien Brody. Opening night selection "Once Upon a Time in the Midlands" was received lukewarmly, but most festgoers were more impressed with the closer, Stephen Frears' "Dirty Pretty Things."
All the screenings I attended (even daytime programs during the week) were mostly full, with quite a few sell-outs (the shorts and animated programs were also popular with crowds). Bill Plympton was on hand for a work-in-progress screening of his animated feature "Hair High," and he also took audience questions. Among the shorts, Tiago Guedes and Frederico Serra's "Acordar" (Waking Up) from Portugal got the top prize, with the jury prize split between Rachel Johnson's "The Toll Collector" and Paul Gutrecht's "The Vest," with special recognition going to Roystan Tan's "15." Director Pes claimed the audience short prize for his animated "Roof Sex." Among other honorees was Alina Marazzi, who got the Claiborne Pell Award for original vision for her unique doc "Un'Ora Sola ti Vorrei" (One More Hour With You), exploring her mother's mental illness.
The festival's logistics were friendly to visitors as most everything was in walking distance, and the theaters were only about a block apart. These were old movie theaters, however, and even overlooking the somewhat quaint outdated decor, there were some sound problems and occasional dimness from the projector bulb. The crowd was a pleasant mix of industry folks (the regulars from New York's indie scene) and Newport locals. As with any film fest, there were some silly questions asked in the director Q&As after screenings, but for the most part folks here were culturally aware and engaged in these discussions. The morning First Call panels at a local pub were also well attended (especially considering the late parties).
The festival certainly treated its guests well, offering so many parties and events that it was hard to sneak in film screenings. Still, many directors didn't spend the whole festival here (and many foreign directors didn't make the trip), so by the time the awards were passed out at a Saturday brunch, few of the winners were present to accept their crystal sailboats. As many people kept joking, most of the festival was held during "ideal moviegoing weather," meaning nasty rain. Things brightened up a bit for the weekend, but that only meant festgoers were torn between dramatic tales inside dark movie theaters or carefree trips to the beach. All in all, Newport offered great hospitality, a mostly solid line-up of films, and the kinds of parties where you can eat lobster by the spoonful. You don't get that at Sundance.
[Also see indieWIRE's iPOP photo page from the Newport International Film Festival.]