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Leonard Klady

By Leonard Klady

Que la Fete Commence 2

The expression goes “that if I had a nickel for every time I (fill in the blank), I’d be a millionaire.” What crosses my mind at this particular point in time is the number of articles and words I’ve committed to film festivals.

In a broad sense it can be boiled down to: the role of the film festival in context of the wider world of film going. Obviously the landscape has changed since the first such events that began life as far back as the 1930s. The sheer volume of “festivals” has grown from a selection of rather distinctive events to a crushing title wave that would allow someone with inexhaustible means and devotion to spend the entirety of a year on the circuit.

However it’s not simply the staggering number and variety of film showcases that’s altered the nature of the beast. The way films are distributed – the relative availability particularly of “alternative” choices is radically different. The fact that one can sit in the comfort of one’s home and view a movie on disc with a reasonable facsimile of the theater experience has probably been the most significant element demanding a re-think. Again, someone truly persistent can get his mitts on virtually any film past or present for their domestic retro house.

The AFI Fest in Los Angeles began its 10-day run on Thursday and it’s what you might call a traditional film festival. It shows more than 100 features, documentaries and shorts ranging from mainstream Hollywood fare to arcane productions from every continent save Antarctica.

Los Angeles got into the festival game relatively late in the cycle for a major metropolis. The pashas of the film capital of the world weren’t particularly receptive to a program of picture from interloper industries and the creators of FilmEx in 1971 spent years cultivating allies and sponsors (the AFI fest morphed from the ashes of that event) to eventually realize an opening night.

Thirty-seven years later, L.A. has become America’s best and most eclectic place to see movies. Apart from a handful of institutional outlets (including another FilmEx satellite, the American Cinematheque), there are innumerable mini and specialized fests. In the past month alone there have been film spotlights on the cinemas of Germany, Ireland and Hungary. That fact alone makes it more difficult to program an A-class film festival that demands at the very least local premieres.

While the circumstances of Los Angeles are geographically and culturally unique, they don’t particularly illuminate the bigger question of the role of the film festival. In earlier writings I’ve explained that the bottom line reality for events big and small is the financial balance sheet. Altruism or mission statement aside, solvency ultimately is the color of the trump card and that’s simply fact rather than indictment. Some navigate that verity better than others.

The AFI Fest and indeed no single festival provide the template for the dos and don’ts of putting on a show and so the prospect of defining a role is problematic. One can taste the dust caking on the inside of the palette as homilies about “knowing” the audience or community is voiced. They suggest a homogeneity that cannot be sustained outside of a clinical environment and a conspiratorial synchronicity between those programming and the people buying tickets.

An anecdote pops to mind that illustrates one aspect of how precarious and complex it is composing a program. About two decades back I was talking with filmmaker David Cronenberg and he mentioned that the organizers of the Toronto Film Festival had offered him the choice of opening or closing night for his new film (Dead Ringers). He asked my opinion and I instantly put in my vote for closing night.

Cronenberg was intrigued by my quick and confident response. I told him that festival curtain raisers are largely designed for patrons and that they tend not to have a particular adventurous attitude. At the time the film I invoked as an apt opener was Steel Magnolias and to illustrate the point more recently I’ve substituted The Devil Wore Prada (opening night at a recent L.A. Film Fest) as something of quality with recognizable stars and a reassuring story. The filmmaker ultimately decided on opening night and while the crowd was cool to the film, it did not seriously hobble its subsequent commercial life.

For an event of the scope and size of the AFI Festival part of the programming has to be done with an eye to patron tastes. There are also going to be pressures applied by the industry (native and international), the critical community and a perceived sense of the tapestry that comprises the core ticket buyers. The likelihood that one could comprise a program of films that simultaneously satisfies all those elements is frankly laughable. The exercise and the vitality of any festival is in providing a sufficient number of bullseye selections that offset what might be diplomatically described as eccentricities.

But a deft juggling act addresses the realities rather than the purpose or role of the contemporary film festival. In lofty terms – and I say this without derision – an event that strives to be a cut above the rest has to embrace the element of discovery in its mandate. The problem is that it’s something that cannot be dictated and in a public event (as opposed to the more industry titled Cannes or Berlin), is defeated by overt orchestration.

Because of the timing of the AFI Fest, it benefits from the availability of pedigree movies looking for a berth in the intensely competitive end -of-year award season. This year’s program has a fair number of entries that debuted at other high profile festivals to great acclaim or controversy including Che, Hunger, Gomorrah and The Wrestler. One’s tempted to say that these are films that demand slotting and while I embrace their inclusion, I’m nonetheless skittish about any situation that puts a festival into a scheduling straight-jacket.

There’s another concern inherent in a program that weighs too heavily on films that have acquired a festival reputation and that is the space they tend to inhabit at the expense of movies that are largely unknown. The former provide a degree of comfort and the majority, even among the supposedly risk-taking fest audience, wants to see something they will like and though nothing is guaranteed, the pre-tested at least offer up some degree of assurance.

As to the role of the film festival, I find myself flummoxed by the very notion and weighing realities and intents brings me no closer to decisive conclusions. On a gut level I gravitated toward the idea that film festivals ought to have a boutique quality that stamp their unique qualities whether that primary focus is thematic, genre related or, as New Directors/New Directions does so well, beats the bushes for emerging voices.

As for the film festival that more closely embraces a national chain outlet, one can only hope that its more far-ranging inventory has the versatility to allow one to sample as if they were going to a specialty store. It’s admittedly not much of an answer but it will suffice until something more evident emerges.

November 2, 2008
– by Leonard Klady

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

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There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

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My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon