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Blogging Newport International 2009

9 Jun , 2009  

Written by C.E. Craner | Posted by:

C.E. Craner gives her take on ad men, thwarted love, and cross-cultural comedy on the heels of the 2009 Newport International Film Festival, held June 3-7 in Rhode Island.

There are some dispatches you read from film fests where it is obvious the writer has encountered one or more boredom-breeding films — from the damp, bland descriptions and disappointed critiques, it’s not hard to visualize the screening: the writer passing their fingers thru their hair and peering at their watch in the dark — and of course the inevitable re-positioning in the chair, accompanied by a sharp intake of breath. The Newport fest was — gloriously — not one of those experiences. Instead, I saw three unalike and exceptional films (one of which could easily be Oscar material), and in a one-day visit, also fit in a New England-focused panel discussion, some on-the-fly interviews, and a stop at the Filmmakers Lounge.

The day starts with the “New Visions, New Voices: Emerging New England Filmmakers” panel discussion, held at Empire Tea and Coffee (also the site of the festival’s box office) in the Filmmakers Lounge, a spare and compact space with a stage, upon which three New Englanders sit (all of whom have films screening at the festival): Sprague Theobald (58 Harrison Rd. — documentary), Paul Cannon (Natural Causes — feature), and Dave Ferrigan (the co-director of photography on The Way We Get By, which would go on to win both the jury and audience prizes for feature documentary). The panel is moderated by Steven Feinberg, executive director of the RI Film and TV Office.

The discussion is rich with sensible advice to young filmmakers, with talk of mentors, financing and preferred equipment. Theobald lauds Cannon’s XHA1 HD camera, while the two others praise the Panasonic HDX 100, and Ferrigan singles out the MacBook Pro for editing. An audience member asks, bluntly, how they find their funding, and the answers are also down-to-earth (and sobering) — Theobald notes that he recently had to use the profits from the sale of his house for a project, and Ferrigan says that the $15,000 cost of The Way We Get By was a “donation” from family and friends. (Ferrigan also emphasizes, helpfully, that most young filmmakers do not realize they will need “finishing funds” to tweak and possibly re-do sound and color after the project is complete.)

Feinberg jumps in at this point and says that financing, though tricky, can be found from outside investors and that his mantra to Rhode island filmmakers is “make it undeniable” — i.e. make the project as appealing as possible, given that it appears (at least initially) that you are asking “someone to throw their money away” — and at the same time, think ahead — “any time you ask for someone else’s money, be pretty sure you can give it back and then some.” Feinberg also talks about the valuable 25 percent tax credits available to those shooting in RI on a start budget of at least $300,000 (the filmmaker will get back $75,000 of that). Theobald also notes that it can be useful to have a distribution plan and to seek investors who may find an emotional connection to the project.

When the talk turns to filmmakers’ support systems, disparate sources are cited: everything from directors’ cuts and extras on DVDs (providing impromptu tutorials) to the importance of a trusted colleague who will take your “late night phone calls,” and candid, knowledgeable crew members who can dispense tech advice tactfully. Ferrigan also refers to the Connect the Docs program that meets at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, that allows filmmaker to show their rough cuts and then network and get feedback.

After the panel, I chat with Newport-based Theobald, who had spoken earlier, enthusiastically, about his documentary-in-progress, Northwest Passage (which will find him sailing to the Arctic and filming in areas that he calls “like the dark side of the moon”), and then ask Feinberg for more thoughts about the regional film industry. Feinberg reiterates the economic benefits of film shoots on local hotels, businesses, and (especially) employment, and points out the serendipitous fact — at least for local governments — that DVD-ready films made in the state are “free advertising” (forever). He also notes that the University of Rhode Island’s fastest growing major is now filmmaking, and that Brown and RISD also have film programs that essentially funnel well-trained grads into the area industry.

After this, I step out from Empire Tea and Coffee on the way to the day’s first screening and fortify myself with energy bars, mixed nuts and a shot of sunshine. Munching, I am struck by the grassroots-meets-sophistication feel of the fest: the amiable staff amid the folding tables and chairs at the coffeehouse’s box office, Newport’s proper-seaside-mixed-with-bohemia vibe — the Colonial Tavern is on the same side of the street as the Freaky Burrito — and, most rewardingly, the prospect of the high-quality programming.

The first film I see, White on Rice, is director Dave Boyle’s second comedy, full of both Japanese and American actors, and depicts a middle-aged man’s attempts to find love again after his wife leaves him (he leaves Japan and moves in with his sister’s family in the U.S. in the meantime). Boyle, who also wrote the screenplay and co-edited the film, is suffering from strep today (as we are told by his introducer) and has the type of bespectacled demeanor and tentative speaking style that make you think of a barista at your local Starbucks. The diffident grad-student aura should not be misleading however — he also acted in his first film, is fluent in Japanese (he lived in Australia for two years as an LDS missionary and learned it there), and the film is an adroit, well-edited, delightfully dry comedy with a humanistic core. It is also full of both idiosyncratic characters and universal themes (such as blind date debacles and the teeth-gritting exasperation the sister’s husband feels about his brother-in-law taking up de facto residence …in one scene, the sound of thunder is heard — very anomalously — when he has to give in again to the idea of his relative staying on). Unfortunately, I have to slip out before the end of the movie to catch a different screening and so miss out on the Q&A with Boyle, but plan to catch up later in the Filmmakers Lounge.

After that it’s on to the Jane Pickens theater, where I see Art and Copy, a documentary by Doug Pray (also of 2007’s acclaimed Surfwise) about the 1960’s heyday and subsequent evolution of American advertising. The embryonic thought that forms while watching this is that the quirky beauty of a successful documentary is its ability to make minutiae seem gripping — i.e. to make the audience feel they have been given a particularly sharp magnifying glass on real life (and glad of it). The particular sharpness of Art and Copy — with its superb visual style and cinematography — lies in its fun, brainy view of advertising as creativity incarnate and as a potential force for social change — while not ignoring its less pristine commercial aspects and the highly developed (sometimes crafty) sense of psychology involved. The film often intercuts old ads beloved by baby boomers (the Samsonite gorilla, the fast-talking FedEx guy) with newer ones like those for the iPod, and includes many interviews with the giants of the industry (Hal Riney, Jeff Goodby, etc.) in their sometimes wondrous office locations — check out Weiden and Kennedy’s “bird nest” conference room. The film also excavates, intriguingly, the backgrounds of the ad execs, several of whom seem to have had difficult childhoods (one of them says that advertising “allows you to express things you cannot in real life”). Set for an August release date, this is the sort of film you would not be surprised to see at next year’s Oscars, such is its narrative interest buttressed by enticing — sometimes extraordinary — visuals.

Following this, I step back in to the bleached Rhode Island sunshine (whose quality of light — as I can see, squinting — has something to do with the state’s latitude — apparently a boon for its painters), and head back to the Filmmakers Lounge. Since this morning’s panel discussion, the room has been agreeably swanked-up in a Pottery-Barn-meets-free-spirited-chic way, with candles, artful — but spare — flower arrangements near the sofas, and wine bottles in iced tubs. The mellow space however lacks the two filmmakers with whom I had hoped to speak — Doug Pray is not attending the fest, and Dave Boyle has been laid low this afternoon by his strep. So after some friendly chat, it’s back to the Opera House for the third and final film of the day.

It’s awfully difficult to say that a beautifully shot, fun, Oscar-grade documentary is not your favorite film there, but that designation would have to go to 500 Days of Summer. The theater is sold out, based on advance word, and it lives up to it. (Fox Searchlight, the movie’s distributor, has sent security guards with goggles, as we are told, to prevent clandestine cell phone-to-internet recording of the film.)

Directed by Marc Webb, and to be in theaters next month, the story does not have one bland minute… it relates the comic deconstruction of the sixteen-month relationship between Summer and Tom — hence its title — and stars Zooey Deschanel (known to hipsters as one half of the eclectic music duo She and Him, and to mainstream audiences most recently as Jim Carrey’s love interest in Yes Man). Tom is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who in the 90’s was on the TV series 3rd Rock from the Sun, and, based on his performance here, may become known, like Natalie Portman and Leonardo DiCaprio, as one of those actors who was already working as a young teen and whose talent turned out to be the real thing. (He seems incapable of giving a false line reading and his technique is free of any artifice or tics; he has the slightly spooky quality of not seeming aware that he is being filmed.)

Physically, the mix of the two actors has an amusing, discordant appeal: Deschanel, whose eyes always seem to be wide blue orbs of wonderment, plays well against Gordon-Levitt’s reserved intelligence and sleepy, slacker-in-a-tie mien. (Both Tom — and initially Summer — work at a small greeting card company.)

While not quite a comic masterpiece, both gentle laughs and guffaws — that caused me to lose my place on the armrest — occur every couple of scenes, from the very first frame to the finish. (This is except for when it turns surprisingly — and sweetly — engrossing.) Interestingly, the film has glimmers of homage to both The Graduate and Woody Allen (its montage-flashbacks of the relationship recall Annie Hall, and its quick, witty mock-foreign film depictions of what is transpiring echo Play it Again Sam). That said, its dialogue and smart, snappy undertone are energizingly unique, and it has some elements I cannot recollect ever seeing in a film (look for the “Expectations/Reality” split screen in particular). Its soundtrack is also gratifyingly eclectic, and includes everything from The Smiths to Hall and Oates and the pre-first-lady work of Carla Bruni. The only drawback is its cinematography, which looks somewhat washed-out — probably a result of its un-Hollywood budget.

A final note: the Museum of Modern Art joined with the Festival this year to highlight the “To Save and Project” film preservation project, which seeks to restore and then re-show older films that had been in danger of technical decay. (This meant that classics like Taxi Driver and On the Waterfront were also being screened there.) It seems a worthy cause in which to invest, in order to safeguard the mind-refreshing variety of films like those I saw at this year’s event.

Check out the Newport International Film Festival online.

Check out the Newport International Film Festival online.