‘Hot town, summer in the city/ Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty’ — The Lovin’ Spoonful
‘Man, it smells like someone is cooking trash!’–Anonymous man next to me on the 1 Train platform.
It’s nice to be back in New York City after spending an entire month on Nantucket. The island is a lovely place, but this year was abuzz with the recent New York Times article highlighting the class distinctions that exist between the insanely rich, the very rich and the simply rich. It was interesting to spend the month on the island on a small film festival salary, trying to enjoy myself but at the same time ultra-conscious of the people just like myself; the workers on the island. Nantucket is a wonderful place for me if only because I met so many kind, interesting people working at the bars, restaurants, and stores that serve the community. On an island where it is pretty much impossible to get a hamburger for less than $10, I have to admit there were moments when I had a crisis of faith as a film programmer, and they always came at the strangest of moments.
Take this example:
I was flipping through the guide on the satellite television when I saw that Catherine Hardwicke’s debut feature, Thirteen, was playing on some pay station. As I looked up and down the channels, the film felt like any other mid-day piece of television programming because in this context, it was. In 2003, my first year as a film programmer at Nantucket, I remember working really hard with Fox Searchlight to bring this film and Catherine to the festival. We programmed it, and the film recieved much acclaim that year. I remember feeling proud to have negotiated our showing of the film, only to have it payoff when Catherine won the Writer Director Award at the festival. Now, Thirteen was just another old film on cable television, trotted out to cross-promote the release of her latest film with fellow NFF alum Stacy Peralta, Lords of Dogtown. There I was, sitting on the couch, having an existential crisis; I had fought tooth and nail to bring Thirteen to the festival. I had struggled with logistics, argued passionately for the film’s inclusion, discussed it with audience members and now it was nothing more than any other movie, playing in a world wholly separate from my programming of the film. It was a movie unmarked by the experience of ever having been a part of the event I had created.
Needless to say, this seems pretty obvious and hardly cause for a nervous breakdown. But at this particular moment, precisely coinciding with my growing class self-consciousness, it could not have felt any worse. This year’s festival was only days away, and all I could think about was what greater purpose I thought I was serving by bringing independent films to an incredibly privileged audience. I spent a couple of days in a serious funk, absolutely positive that working on a film festival might be the biggest waste of time, stress, energy, frustration, and heartache I could be involved with. I eventually found contentment in the fact that presenting a film program is less a creative act focused on establishing some sort of permanent impact on a specific film, but instead an activity centered on creating a temporal event that nurtures the appreciation of quality filmmaking by celebrating it. This was a big realization for me, and the idea that my job centered around bringing films to an audience by way of an exciting, community-building event assuaged my self-doubts long enough to get me rolling into the festival itself.
This year’s festival was, in my estimation, one of the best I have been involved with. Highlights abound for me, but here are a few;
— Standing in the back of Jay and Mark Duplass’ film The Puffy Chair as it drew huge laughs from the most unexpected of places; the older women who found the film hilarious.
— Watching the audience howl with laughter at our screening of The Aristocrats at 11:00am. On Sunday morning. In a church. (Ah, the little joys of film programming…)
— Having Danny Leiner (Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle) profess his love of the other films in the program after a screening of his latest, The Great New Wonderful.
— Feeling an electric, palpable political outrage while moderating the question and answer session after a screening of Jessica Sanders’ After Innocence.
— Having strangers stop me on the street, in shops and after screenings to ask me how it could be that Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane could possibly be my favorite film in the festival. (It was!)
— Steve Martin’s speech as he accepted the NBC Universal Screenwriter’s Tribute this year… Line of the night:
“This is truly a dream come true for me because, as a child, my friends and I used to dress up and play ‘Nantucket Film Festival Screenwriter’s Tribute…”
— Running into one of my favorite comedians, Mike Birbiglia , who had come to Nantucket on his own dime to watch movies and hang out.
After all of the doubts, hard work and worries, in the end, we had made something really great. It was a wonderful time.
Back to Brooklyn on Wednesday, getting situated (and taking in a screening of Batman Begins) on Thursday, before heading out this afternoon to my official New York City reunion destination, Film Forum, for a screening of Werner Herzog’s Wheel of Time. If ever there were a film to render all individual existential crises irrelevant, this was it. The film details Herzog’s headlong dive into an enormous gathering of Tibetan Buddhists in Bodh Gaya, the home of the Bodhi tree where Siddhartha Gautama sat and attained enlightenment as the Buddha. Herzog’s primary focus is The Kalachakra Initiation, an event held every few years and centered on the creation of a sand mandala, or “wheel of time;” a sculpture made of sand that maps the inner expression of Buddhist ideals, only to be destroyed by the Dalai Lama upon its completion. Herzog’s outsider status allows for an enormously moving inquiry into the feeling and specificity of the rituals, never once becoming literal minded or overly expository. Instead, like all great directors, Herzog allows the faces, emotions, and actions of his subjects to speak for him. And they speak volumes without saying very many words at all. The film is patient and curious about the human activity of devotion, and ultimately a wonderful expression of the best in documentary filmmaking.
I am not a faithful person but I must say, watching the Dalai Lama sweep away the mandala sculpture after the meticulous, non-stop work by the monks who created it, I felt like I was being initiated back into the possibilities of the future and powerfully validated in my own work. Maybe I’m stretching, but I took comfort in watching the sands of the sculpture, once so carefully placed, being swept together like common dust and released into an Austrian river; a feeling that my own work was no different from all work, everywhere, tied to the rhythms of life, eternal only in its temporariness.
It’s good to be home.