The Hamptons Declares Their Independents

By Ruth and Archie Perlmutter

With its affluent community, substantial sponsors and proximity to Broadway, the Hamptons International Film Festival has become a magnet for a great many stars and guys in suits. At its seventh annual edition October 20-24, you could bump into celebrities like William Hurt, Ally Sheedy, Steve Buscemi, Steve Zahn and Gretchen Moll, or walk past perky Martha Plimpton and her Hal Hartley colleague, Adrienne Shelley. Stephen Spielberg and Bill Murray dropped in on the "Critics' Panel" and patiently sat through the jeremiads of each critic who blamed their colleagues for a growing trend toward one-line reviews and a favorable bias toward every film they review.

Stating its mission to showcase independent film, the Hamptons fest ended up more American than "International." Given the limitations of its concentration on American films the festival managed to present a surprising variety of films in all categories. Despite the tendency for many independent films  to be narcissistic Gen-X comedies with predictable single-line narratives, there were still many innovative
products and events. Besides the dramatic features, there were plenty of docus and shorts, including students/kids films; a showcase for
digital video art; an homage to the incomparable Jeanne Moreau (who was a no-show at the last minute); a "surprise" conversation with the director, Barry Sonnenfeld; a group of films that revisited four decades, like Female Trouble and Raising Arizona; and invigorating panel discussions held twice a day.

Deterrence (Rod Lurie), the opening film, was a brave choice, since it was clearly low-budget without sex, action or comedy. Rather, it was a serious cautionary fable about the Western policy of deterrence and when is it ever justifiable to drop the unthinkable nuclear bomb? Controversial and provocative, the one-set talkathon takes place in 2008 in a diner in Colorado, with a Jewish President of the US, played by character actor, Kevin Pollak (The Usual Suspects, Casino). Although some of the diner patrons and the unlikely situation (the president marooned in a blinding snowstorm) are contrived and stagey, the issues presented are handled with skill and political savvy. Besides, the basic problem of the film--how to respond to the challenge of another Iraqui assault on Kuwait with all its weaponry poised to attack Saudi Arabia, is not implausible given the events in Yugoslavia, Timor, Pakistan, Korea, Chechnya and Armenia, not to mention our own unwillingness to ban nuclear testing.  Lurie's unusual background makes him particularly qualified to confront the hypothethical situation he proposes.  Born in Israel, an alumnus of West Point and an L.A. film critic for ten years, and with his father a political cartoonist who moved the family from Israel to Canada to Hollywood, Lurie was always in the eye of political turmoil. His film know-how shows up in the devices used to present the conflicting points of view---switching between the TV image and film, between black and white and color, and inserting newsreel clips of reflections about war by past US presidents. The ironies in the opening event were evident at a seminar the next day. In a Bar Mitzvah-like tent beside the First Presbyterian Church under the "angelic wings" of sponsor American Airlines, an Israeli-born West Pointer, reborn as a film critic, discusses his film about an unlikely Jewish president facing a new catastrophe grounded in an ancient tribal struggle, which makes his Jewish ancestry an added handicap in the decision-making process.

Of  the nine features made by women, we saw three. The most accomplished was Jesus' Son, the first American film by New Zealand director Alison MacLean (Crush, 1993). Based on Denis Johnson's acclaimed collection of short stories of the same name, the film explores the meaning of life through a tragic love story of two counterculture drug-addicted lovers. Billy Crudup (Without Limits, The Hi-Lo Country), ingenious and convincing, plays the Augie March/Huck Finn naif who moves from failure toward redemption. Shot for $2.5 million in six weeks and largely in Philadelphia locations, the film will be seen throughout the country sometime in January. A picaresque black comedy with moments of reflection that often rise to the level of poetic fable, Jesus' Son sticks pretty close to the book, telling its story in the first person and using split screens, elliptical cuts and intertitles to weave back and forth in time.  Its troubled protagonist views himself as the "savior" of his loser friends, but he fails so consistently that his cohorts call him "Fuckhead."  He can't even save his drug-dependent lover, Michelle, played brilliantly by Samantha Morton (Under the Skin, 1997; Sweet and Lowdown, Woody Allen's upcoming film). At the end of his ordeal,  he realizes that he has given meaning to his life by reaching out and literally "touching" other people.  MacLean's gift of infusing spirituality into an environment of degradation is enhanced by the excellent acting performances and an inspired music score by Joe Henry.

Although Nicole Garcia is known as an actress in France, Place Vendome is her fourth feature. Her convoluted narrative method can be confusing and irritating at times, but it enables the aging still exquisite Catherine Deneuve to do a nostalgic star turn. Grown rounder and looking more serious, Deneuve plays a legendary middle-aged beauty, the unhappy wife of a diamond jeweller.  In the beginning of the film, she is almost catatonic, with wounded  feelings evoked by her expressive eyes, until she is motivated by her husband's death into exposing untrustworthy lovers and unscrupulous cartel-controlled businessmen. With many doublings and moody atmospherics, the subtle script overdoses on intrigue. Although the film takes place in Paris chic-dom,  the scenes play out mostly in noirish interiors--cold  hotel rooms, empty corridors, bars--where a world of scheming men manipulate women to acquire power and wealth.

I'll Take You There (Adrienne Shelley) took the 30-something crowd by storm. Even with the talented Ally Sheedy limited to shenanigans as a desperate gal who doggedly pursues Bill, a sad-sack reject, the film was really froth-lite. Still in love with his wife, Bill is coerced into blind-dating wifty Ally Sheedy. In his self-involved mopery, he calls her  an "airhead loser" and provokes her into forcing him at gunpoint to drive her to visit her dying grandma. Along with her aging doting boyfriend, screwball grandma does a set piece reminiscent of  Harold and Maude. Thereafter, the film  ticks down into anti-climactic showdowns between Bill and the man who lured his wife away. Sheedy is always fascinating and there are moments that hint at Adrienne Shelley's emerging talent.

Besides Deterrence, a surprising number of films had Jewish content.  Karussell (Ilona Ziok), a German/Netherlands/Czech Republic co-production, was a chilling documentary about Kurt Gerron, a Jewish musical comedy director and film actor in Berlin in the 20s. He was wildly successful on the stage as "Mack the Knife" and appeared in movies by Von Sternberg, Pabst and other well-known directors. Although he thought he had made a Faustian deal with the Nazis to go free if he produced a cheerful show with the doomed residents of Tereisenstadt, Gerron was subsequently killed at Auschwitz. Interspersed by songs from the period and  interviews with those who remembered him, this bizarre portrait reveals another turn of the screw in the fiendish cruelty of the Nazi monsters. The coercion and ultimate extermination of a Jewish director of comedy resembles the severance of the Jewish member of The Harmonists, last year's musical lobotomy.

The Personals (Keiko Ibi) won the Academy Award for Best Documentary, Short Subject in 1999. An NYU Film School graduate and crowned "Miss Japan" at the age of 19, Ibi records the preparations on and off stage of a theatrical production fashioned by Jewish senior citizens in New York City. In these "improvisations on romance in the golden years," The Personals takes a look at the dreams, aspirations and sexual desires of the aging, and comes up with an original, entertaining and nostalgic portrait.  [Editor's Note:  The film was co-edited by Milton Moses Ginsberg, director of the just-rereleased Coming Apart and the cult polticial film Werewolf of Washington.]

Train of Life (Radu Mihaileanu), a Belgium/France co-production, takes place in 1941 in an Eastern European shtetl made up of religious Jews threatened by the Nazis and who  have a talmudic discussion of how to save themselves from extermination. Deciding to refashion their Yiddish into German and to fake their own deportation with Jews dressed as Nazis in full regalia ("After all," they claim, "Jews are supposed to be good tailors"), they construct a train bound for Palestine via Russia. Although courageous and wonderfully engaging in its departure from traditional Holocaust sobriety (like Benigni's Life Is Beautiful), the film falters somewhat in subplots involving communist indoctrination of some of the young (Orthodox) Turks and in a contrived ecumenical sequence of Jews bonding with gypsies.

If Hit and Runaway proved to be a popular audience pleaser, it was because it covered all the bases of sex and romance: an Italo/Jewish amalgam of gay love and filmmaking.  Alex (Michael Parducci) works (unwillingly) in his family's Italian restaurant but he dreams of writing a filmscript, "Hit and Runway," about a cop who "hits" on drug-smuggling "runway" fashion models. Talented writer Elliot Springer (Peter Jacobson) is a nerdy Jewish neurotic with laugh-a-minute gags and terminal lovesickness (a la Woody Allen). He takes Alex under his wing and together, they develop the story of a relationship that we actually watch unfold--along with typical one-liners. (One character says to the other: "Your feet must be tired." Why? "Because you've been running through my head all night.") One hilarious sequence takes place at a gay synagogue, where the members of the  congregation, including the rabbi, make passes at Elliot's young Gentile boyfriend. Except for a predictably romantic ending to the odd-couple male-buddy story, the dialogue by co-writers, Jaffe Cohen and Christian Livingston, is original and witty.

Our favorite film was Ca Commence Aujourd'Hui (It Always Starts Today) by the great French film master Bertrand Tavernier. Like the UK's Ken Loach, Tavernier has always reflected on social issues, although he has crossed many genres to do so--documentaries, costume dramas, police thrillers, even a sci-fi. His latest film is a breathtaking docudrama about a primary school in a region in the North of France where there is a great deal of unemployment and poverty. Tavernier displays his great skill with actors (especially children) as he follows Daniel, the frustrated headmaster, coping every moment of the day with major problems--child abuse, alcoholism, suicide--and worst of all, the ineptitude and indifference of the authorities.

At the Hamptons Festival, most screenings are held in a multi-plex UA in the center of Easthampton. It is viewer friendly, easily accessible and generates an atmosphere of intimacy and modesty. There are no pretensions about masterpieces, no festival megalomania, just broad, varied and open to innovation. It is for the leisure class, liberal film lover (and any veteran who survives the Long Island Expressway bumper trap).

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