The Secret Lives of Lake Placid: Where Paul Schrader, Larry Clark, and Campbell Scott Come Clean
by Anthony Kaufman
The first thing you need to know about the Lake Placid Film Forum, now in its fourth year, is that it's not a "film festival"; it's a "film forum." It has the all the trappings of your average regional film festival in a quaint resort town -- a selection of films, a smattering of celebrities, evening parties, scenic vistas and a small, loyal local audience -- but it prides itself on its forum-like aspects: intimate panels, a collegial atmosphere, and a willingness to tackle serious issues.
As Forum co-founder and celebrated author Russell Banks told indieWIRE, "Where else could you hear a bunch of opinionated artists speaking about politics? This isn't going to happen at Sundance." Banks moderated the Forum's opening panel discussion, a spirited, clarion call for an opposition to the prevailing powers that be, "Silence of the Lambs: What Ever Happened to Free Speech." Actor-director Arliss Howard ("Big Bad Love"), writer Frank McCourt ("Angela's Ashes"), producer Michele Stephenson ("The Killing Zone") and writer-director Paul Schrader ("Affliction") attempted to come up with ways that artists can break the silence. "There is no more effective form of censorship than self-censorship," warned Schrader. "It's really easy to blame your audience for your lack of courage. You do not want to lose your salary and your vacation in Barbados. You're afraid."
This spirit of resistance was an unofficial theme for the film programming as well. Directing tributee Alan Rudolph was heralded for his distinctive, longstanding and anti-establishment career, present with a retro screening of "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," and his best film in years, the sly, anxious, and soulful "The Secret Lives of Dentists." Other filmmaking renegades on hand included George Romero ("Night of the Living Dead" was screened) and last-minute addition Larry Clark, who showcased his latest look into the secret lives of teens, "Ken Park," at two midnight screenings.
"Fuck rules," Clark told an audience during a panel alongside Romero. The bad-boy-elder filmmaker of "Kids" and "Bully" recounted how distributors told him that "Ken Park" would never see the light of theaters without being cut. But Clark refuses to edit one frame of the film, he said, and railed against company lawyers for freaking out over the potentially offensive material of the film, which includes vivid depictions of masturbation, cunnilingus, and male and female nudity. (Clark told indieWIRE that Palm Pictures was going to distribute in the U.S., but backed out. He is now in negotiations with the American Cinemateque's distribution arm, Vitagraph
Films). Despite its salacious reputation, "Ken Park," which is co-directed by Clark and cinematographer Ed Lachman and written by Harmony Korine, is disturbingly comical, evocatively lit, and at times, darkly beautiful. The film was a much-talked about entry in Lake Placid, and the Forum awarded Clark a special prize for "courage in filmmaking."
The Forum also reflected its political conscience in a handful of films dealing with social issues: the deeply moving "What I Want My Words Do To You" chronicles the women inmates of a prison writing workshop whose work is read back to them by celebrities like Marisa Tomei and Glenn Close (the doc will air on PBS' P.O.V. in December); the unfortunately overwrought Lions Gate release, "Civil Brand," which has none of the authenticity, pain, and pathos of "What I Want My Words"; "The Killing Zone," Joe Brewster's powerful follow-up to "The Keeper," about a West African doctor (Isaac de Bankole) who confronts violence in both Brooklyn and his past, which won an Honorable Mention at the Forum, and "Here Today," a documentary about heroin addiction in neighboring Vermont. Filmmakers and representatives from the area's prison system were present one afternoon to discuss the issues raised by the films in a panel called "Drugs, Prisons and Social Issues."
For a lighter look at local concerns, Vermonter John O'Brien ("A Man with a Plan") unveiled his latest low budget charmer "Nosey Parker," about a couple of yuppie flatlanders who move into rural Vermont and upset the neighbors with their extravagant dream house. O'Brien uses priceless docu-style tableaus of the townsfolk and a leading man in 72-year-old jokester native George Lyford. When the city wife says, "I love farm antiques," and George replies "I'm an antique farmer," it's impossible not to be hooked. (O'Brien is currently self-distributing around New England.)
While liberal politics may be the soul of the Forum, the art and craft of filmmaking is the blood coursing through its veins. Panels on everything from screenwriting to acting, casting to composing brought such industry veterans to the small Adirondack town as Buck Henry, Patricia Clarkson, Campbell Scott, Michael Almereyda, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bob Hawk, Stephen Trask, Carter Burwell, and Michael Polish. And in the Forum's signature series of morning master classes, groups of up to 15 people -- from New York filmmakers to area writers to high school students -- got a chance to get first hand insights from the likes of Scott, Clarkson, and Henry, indie pioneer Ben Barenholtz, cinematographer Tim Orr, and producer Barbara DeFina, among others.
And this is the second thing you need to know about the Lake Placid Film Forum: there is an ease and accessibility that is rare at a public film event. One industry insider compared it with Sundance pre-1990. Debuting writer/director Chase Palmer, who has been traveling the festival circuit with his witty, impeccably polished short film "Neo-Noir" (which won the Forum's inaugural $500 Robin Pell Emerging Filmmaking Award), said, "It was very communal and it was much easier to meet people than at other festivals. Especially with the rain, everyone was hunkering down together." On my own two-hour car ride from Albany to Lake Placid, I had an engaging conversation with Ben Barenholtz and Larry Clark about film, past and present.
The master classes, however, best sum up the Forum's small-town feel. At Campbell Scott's directing seminar on the final and first sunny day of the event, over a dozen aspiring and established filmmakers took a short boat ride on Lake Placid to a gorgeous home along the water to learn the secrets of the craft from the director of "Off the Map," who also co-directed "Big Night" and stars in "The Secrets Lives of Dentists." Scott's passionate and personable discussion with the group yielded about five essential points for any director to remember: "always know what you want (or at least look like you know what you want)"; "get a cinematographer you can communicate with"; "know when NOT to say anything"; "you don't know anything until you've seen the dailies"; and lastly, "the complete secret to directing," Scott advised, "is learning how to encourage."
It's all valuable advice for anyone interested in the techniques and business of making movies. And despite budget setbacks at this year's Lake Placid Film Forum, the event should prove just as valuable, as well, in future editions.