People know Michael Moore as a filmmaker, writer and political activist. Now add to those achievements, film festival impressario. Sunday marked the close of the 2nd annual Traverse City Film Festival, a seven-day event co-founded and hosted by Moore. The setting is an idyllic summer resort town on the shore of Lake Michigan, just a couple hours drive from Moore’s hometown of Flint. Attending the festival’s final two days, I found it a captivating experience, as personal and passionate as Moore’s films and books.
“Just Good Movies” is the festival’s motto. The line-up upheld that by paying no attention to premiere status, programming everything from a sneak preview of the Sasha Baron Cohen comedy “Borat” to this year’s circuit hit “Air Guitar Nation” to the Albania drama “L’America.” The latter film from 1994 had no discernible program hook except that, as promised, it’s a very good movie. There was also a small showcase of Iranian films which Moore described as a “Let’s get to know them first this time!” effort.
Moore was ubiquitous and indefatigable, conducting many film introductions and Q&A sessions himself from morning to midnight. He had brought out his whole New York production team from the doc work-in-progress “Sicko” to supplement the festival’s skeleton staff and 800 volunteers. His celebrity connections brought out more top talent than normal for a regional festival, including tributes to David O Russell and Lawrence Bender. Each morning began with a free panel discussion, moderated by Moore. Topics ranged from comedy with Larry Charles (“Borat”) and Jeff Garlin (“I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With“) to war with Iranian director Mani Haghighi (“Men at Work“) and Deborah Scranton (“The War Tapes“).
If the idea of a small town film festival calls to mind the cloying atmosphere of Woody Allen‘s “Stardust Memories,” Traverse City defied that expectation. Any big city snobbery was swiftly dispelled by the excellent screening facilities at the 600-seat State Theater, the delicious food at the adjacent restaurant Amical, and the fine guest accommodations at the upscale Tamarack Lodge, overlooking the water. Not to mention the stunning landscape of the Sleeping Bear sand dunes, a half hour drive away.
Malcolm McDowell and Matthew Modine, who attended several days of the festival for a full retrospective on Stanley Kubrick, appeared to be thoroughly enjoying themselves all the way to the end. Modine cheerfully signed copies of his “Full Metal Jacket” diary at the Horizon bookstore. McDowell sat on several panels, including a discussion about Hollywood with super agent Ari Emmanuel. The tableau was a blend of fact and fiction, since Emmanuel is reputed to be the inspiration for the HBO‘s “Entourage” agent Ari Gold, while in that show McDowell plays Ari’s arch rival Terence.
I took away two unforgettable memories that embodied the spirit of the festival. On Saturday night, there was a screening of “A Clockwork Orange” set for 10 pm. Moore asked me to come backstage at the State Theater to finish a conversation we’d begun earlier. There was McDowell asking if he could beg off doing a Q&A afterward so that he’d be fresh for the next day’s morning panel. Moore suggested they do something special beforehand, then headed on stage to make the introduction.
But instead of getting on with the show, Moore took the opportunity to solicit feedback from the audience for any suggestions they had for next year’s festival. This went on for fifteen minutes while McDowell waited in the wings with Jan Harlan, director of the documentaries “O Lucky Malcolm” and “Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures.” How was McDowell going to respond to being kept waiting while his 2 1/2 year old son Beckett was eager to go to bed? “You know, I’ve been to a lot of festivals,” he said to Harlan, “and this is the very best one.” Then he went out on stage and treated the lucky crowd to a live rendition of “Singing in the Rain” as a prelude to its use in “Clockwork.”
The next day at the Kubrick panel, Harlan – the brother of Kubrick’s widow – pulled out another special treat. Not long before his death, Kubrick received the D.W. Griffith award from the Director’s Guild of America. At the time Kubrick was ensconced in England making “Eyes Wide Shut” and generally averse to travel. So he recorded a video acceptance for the award. Harlan said the tape had never been seen since, then cued it up. The bearded Kubrick stares into the camera like the subject of an Errol Morris film. It’s startling because he was so seldom captured on film. He delivers his message like a deadpan comic with every line carefully crafted. He says that filmmaking is like trying to write “War & Peace” at an amusement park on the bumper car. Then he ruminates how Griffith was both an inspiration and a cautionary tale, like the myth of Icarus who flew too close to the sun and burned his homemade wings. In conclusion, Kubrick says (I’m paraphrasing from memory): “I don’t know if the moral is don’t try to fly too high, or next time forget the wax and feathers and do a better job on the wings.”
[Thom Powers is the documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival and the Stranger Than Fiction series at Manhattan’s IFC Center.]