Virginia Fest Cools Down with Movies, Music and Roger Ebert
by Dean Smith
Set against the backdrop of the blue ridge mountains in a Jeffersonian
paradise, the 11th Annual Virginia Film Festival (VFF) convened over
Halloween weekend. The 1998 VFF explored 33 films dealing with various
personifications of "cool" and the music that drives these
movies--especially jazz--in the creation of a "hip" ambiance. The VFF
is a learning experience for all who attend. And whether it's immersing
yourself in the panels and films or using the sunshine and Fall colors
of Charlottesville as a kind of meditative canvas, the VFF is a welcome
"I initially came here because I wanted to see Monticello," Roger Ebert
explained, referring to Thomas Jefferson's home, an architectural wonder
built on a mountain overlooking the University of Virginia campus where
the festival is held. "But the atmosphere really drew me in." Ebert
was also at the festival for "Democracy in the Dark," a main attraction
of the festival where he analyzed films in front of a live audience.
Filmmakers, movie lovers, and students thronged to the Regal Theater for
the Saturday morning session. "I drove all the way from Baltimore," one
gentleman pleaded with the stage manager, waiting to get in. This year,
the film under the microscope was Antonioni's 1966 masterpiece,
"Blow-Up", where even Aaron the bartender put his two cents in: his
favorite scene is in the park. "The tension without any dialogue is what
I love about it."
It marked Ebert's third year at the VFF dissecting a film over three
days of intense discussion. Last year, he tackled "Pulp Fiction" a
subject he wasn't as familiar with. "The crowd really did their
homework, bringing a boatload of additional information and
appreciation." Ben, a retired professor, remarked, "Sometimes he's not
that familiar with the material. But he listens, and never forgets a
thing." The results led to a forum chaired by Ebert at this year's fest
on "Hip Irony: The New Geek Cinema and the Curse of Tarantino," where he
reported on how movies like "Happiness," "Very Bad Things" and "Apt
Pupil" use laughter to mask violence whereas Tarantino employs it to
master and tame the subject matter.
Ebert could also be seen hanging out at the coffee shop in the village
square, talking about films with the likes of Eva Marie Saint and anyone
else who stopped by. "I was taken with "Thirteen," Ebert said, David
Williams dreamy film about a black teenage girl, shot in Virginia. He
also had positive things to say about "Me and Will," directed by two
B-movie veterans and reformed substance abusers, Melissa Behr and
Sherrie Rose. One of the most evocative films of the festival, "Me and
Will," which screened at the IFFM, is about two women motorcyclists
seeking out the legendary chopper with the American flag from "Easy
"It's a beautiful setting, an idyllic retreat," said Festival Director
Richard Herskowitz in his fifth year of orchestrating the event. "The
Hollywood types come too. Mark Johnson, Mark Gordon, Sara Richer from
New Line." Charlottesville has long been a haven for artists of all
kinds: Hollywood stars like Sissey Spacek, Jessica Lang, Christopher
Reeve, writers such as John Casey, Pulitzer-prize winner Charles Wright,
George Garrett, playwright Sam Shepherd, and the "hipster" spirits of
Poe and Faulkner. The VFF also featured cool customers like Rip Torn,
William Styron, Lew Allen, and Arthur Penn in person working the panel
sessions and the moving celluloid images of Kerouac, Brando, Gazarra,
Keitel, Superfly, Sinatra, and Greer.
"It's the largest community event of the year," Herskowitz explained,
"bringing together the university and its film hungry citizens.
Charlottesville has long been rife with alternative theaters. I
remember seeing Down by Law' and Swan in Love' at Vinegar Hill Theater
in the late eighties. There are three movie houses within walking
distance and the worst film playing is Beloved.'"
"I like to take an issue that we are struggling with and bring it out in
the open," noted Herskowitz. He discovered that his students in film
class were having trouble talking about "cool." This year's "cool" topic
emerged from many ideas that have been circulating in the independent
film community. Herskowitz is fascinated about the ways in which
independent film is created from alternative subcultures like the punks,
beats, slackers, and hippies and describes this in his cool manifesto
"Cassavetes' Dance" appearing in the festival program. Last year's
festival theme was "caged," focusing on imprisonment in films.
In addition, the fest included live poetry readings by Beat generation
poets and musicians such as Diana Di Prima and David Amram, a
photography exhibit, panel discussions and gallery talks, and an evening
of Chaplin shorts, initially intended to play with a live musical score.
Personal attention was lavished on attendees at the Virginia Festival.
The attentive and resourceful VFF staff provided everything you could
possibly need. Assistant Director James Scales attended every event to
make sure everything was running smoothly. When the bandleader at the
Chaplin shorts program got the flu, Scales quickly rustled up a video
copy that had the musical accompaniment and ran it in sync with the
movie. "He's a guerilla concierge," one person remarked.
"I do the circuit: Toronto, Sundance, Cannes and get pretty tired," said
film critic and scholar Peter Brunette. "I come here to relax."
[Dean Smith is a freelance writer and published poet who lives in