Opening night, Sat., Oct. 26
How I do love that great old Variety headline-writing style. It makes this old copy editors heart sing.
As the eighth annual Savannah Film Festival opens, the entire block of Broughton in front of the Trustees Theatre is sectioned off for a VIP party complete with open bar. A line of not-so-VIPs snakes around the corner, waiting to get into the opening night gala.
I walk up just in time to take some photos of Sidney Lumet, George Segal, Natasha Richardson and James Franco.
Richardson is stunning. Franco looks like hes about 12.
Its interesting how the stars react when the flash bulbs start going off. Like sunflowers, they instinctively face the cameras, passively arranging themselves in front of a blue accordion screen erected for precisely this purpose.
I wade into the bar crowd in the middle of the street, and lo and behold the first familiar face I see is that of SCAD President Paula Wallace. Shes talking to well-wishers, relaxed and generally having a good time. And rightly so -- the festival is off to a great start.
Whenever I see Paula Wallace in person, Im always struck by the difference between the legend and the reality. Some people in town concoct the most absurd conspiracy theories about Wallace, portraying her as some kind of sinister evil mastermind.
Then you meet her. And instead of biting your ear off and rotating her head 360 degrees before vomiting green bile all over your face, she turns out to be this petite, graceful, soft-spoken Southern woman with no pretense.
I see a few friends, but the merriment is short-circuited when, as if prompted by some deep-seated genetic lemming instinct, the crowd wafts as one into the Trustees Theatre to be seated.
The tireless Danny Filson, festival director, introduces Wallace, who in turn introduces tonights guest of honor, the great director Sidney Lumet.
I dont envy Filson, who has to please the two most fickle and demanding clienteles in the world -- Hollywood and Savannah. He copes by checking his watch a lot and gently informing people to move it along. As far as I can tell Paula Wallace is the only person Filson never presses to finish up quickly.
Before Lumet accepts his award, were treated to the usual fawning career retrospective. Wow -- what a career this guy has had. Hes directed Kate Hepburn, Al Pacino (twice), Henry Fonda (thrice) -- and Vin Diesel?
Say it aint so. But there it is -- a still shot from Lumets upcoming 2006 release, starring none other than the talentless musclehead named after designer jeans. An audible wha? goes up from the crowd.
Then its time for the screening of the new George Clooney flick, Good Night, And Good Luck. Clooney is our generations Paul Newman -- a movie star with gravitas and intelligence, a real fighting liberal from the old school.
Alas, Im disappointed. In a nutshell, the movie is rich in only two things: cigarette smoke and political messages. In telling the story of broadcaster Edward R. Murrows feud with the right-wing Sen. Joe McCarthy in the 50s, Clooney cannot resist the urge to make direct -- really direct -- comparisons between the McCarthy era and our own Commander Coo-Coo Bananas era. Less usually is more, and Clooney misses the mark.
The Ape, Oct. 30
Im unavailable for Festival-going today. So heres a guest entry from Connect Music Editor Jim Reed:
The directorial debut of James Franco was shot on video and featured a mostly no-name cast, but triumphed over such adversities, emerging as an intelligent comedy that makes no attempt to hide its origins as a stage play written by Franco and Merriwether Williams.
Franco is visibly nervous during his post-show Q&A at the Lucas. One unintentionally hilarious moment comes when an audience member asks Franco if, now that hes directed his first indie film, hell no longer concentrate on making big-budget fare like the upcoming Spider-Man 3.
Um... no, he chuckles. I think Ill keep making big movies for big money as long as they ask me to.
Sound and the fury
The Squid and the Whale, Oct. 31
Connect goes to bed on Mondays, so I cant attend squat today. So heres Jim Reed again, with a report from Sunday nights gala at the Trustees:
How do you define irony? Just before noted film editor and sound designer Walter Murch strides onstage to receive his Lifetime Achievement Award for Sound and Editing, he waits behind the Trustees Theaters massive screen while a compilation of clips from some of his most celebrated projects is shown.
The irony? One appreciates little of his Oscar-winning aural craftsmanship -- represented by scenes from such works as Apocalypse Now and The Conversation -- through the loud hiss permeating the montages low-fidelity soundtrack.
Still, Murch gamely jokes that its disconcerting to watch his decades-long career flash before his eyes in reverse -- a reference to the horizontally-flipped visual perspective of his backstage vantage point.
Afterwards, the packed house is treated to a screening of writer-director Noah Baumbachs latest effort, The Squid and The Whale, starring Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels (who also received an Achievement in Cinema Award for Acting after the film).
This bone-dry comedy is widely known to have been based on the directors own difficult childhood in Park Slope, Brooklyn during the mid-1980s. A wry and at times almost frightfully funny movie, it deals with the divorce of two successful New York City-based authors, and the unexpected stress this brings to bear on their teenage sons.
The uncomfortable humor in the film is reminiscent of both Wes Andersons The Royal Tenenbaums (which Baumbach co-wrote) and Todd Solondz Happiness. Based on this audiences reaction, the film has the potential to crossover from an indie-cred sensation to a smash mainstream hit.
Babs, Bobby Z, & the f-word
The Owl and the Pussycat, Nov. 1
This 1970 lark, screening at the Lucas, involves a culture clash between two of Hollywoods oldest archetypes, the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (Barbra Streisands Doris) and the fish-out-of-water (George Segals Felix).
Im struck by the young Barbra Streisand. Id forgotten not only what a capable comedienne she is, but how truly gorgeous she was back in the day. Then again, maybe Im biased -- my wife shares a birthday with Babs.
At the too-brief Q&A session afterward, Segal and scriptwriter Buck Henry comment at length on Streisands unique starpower.
She was always saying she was scared of being around live people, Henry remembers. I thought to myself, big deal, so what if shes scared of live people. And then at one performance, at the end of a number I saw all these guys who didnt have real lives advancing toward the stage like zombies.
Segal echoed Henrys observation.
At the opening of Hello Dolly, Broadway was packed six deep like there was going to be a parade, Segal recalls. At that point I got it -- I finally understood that people just had this robotic thing of being drawn to her.
Though The Owl and The Pussycat is based on a play, Henry tells us only three scenes made it into the film. He says one scene from the play -- in which Felix humiliates Doris in Central Park -- was kept in the film specifically because Streisand insisted on keeping it.
I tried to take out that whole part where he makes her act like a dog on a leash. It offended me. I also thought that it would be too difficult to recover from that. But Barbra wanted it. As you can see, Barbra made that scene work.
Barbra made the scene work? pipes up Segal in mock indignation.
Henrys disappointed that the screening today features a poorly edited, censored version of the film. He describes one scene in which a carful of hooligans harasses Doris and Felix. In the unedited version, Doris gives the hooligans a profane piece of her mind, resulting in them leaving the car and chasing the couple on foot.
But instead all we see is Streisand telling them to leave her alone -- and the men inexplicably start chasing them.
Henry fills in the blanks:
I really wanted Barbra to use the word fuck. I wanted to hear her say it in that accent. And she did, to these guys that stop her at Lincoln Center. Theres this long, very amusing paragraph where she says it just wonderfully.
Alas, Babs saying the f-word is a thrill that will have to wait until another day.
Off to the side during the Q&A is Bobby Zarem, native Savannahian, noted film publicist and walking Rolodex for the Savannah Film Festival. Looking more like a Brooklyn shopkeeper than a movie impresario, the quiet yet ubiquitous Zarem gets a shout-out from George Segal.
This is a great town to hang out in. For us its like a vacation, Segal says. And its all thanks to that man right there, the great Robert Zarem.
Buck Henry goes on to explain the unique, timeless appeal of the Savannah Film Festival to him.
Does the word freeload mean anything to you? he says.
The Red Thread, Nov. 2
Today I see the full-length feature film Red Thread, made entirely in Savannah through the auspices of SCAD and produced by local film mavens Stratton Leopold and Harvey Ray.
The film is the story of an eccentric young maintenance man (Jonathan Irons) who weedles his way into the life of Tamara (Jasmine Brook White), whos a veritable Rogets Thesaurus of film cliches: a young beauty neglected by her fiance (of course) and who works in a strip club (naturally), but as a cocktail waitress, not a stripper (needless to say).
The cliches continue to fly as Billy introduces Tamara to his pet snakes (!) and takes her on a bike ride in the park -- wherein Tamara meets Billys friends, the ducks at Lake Mayer.
The movie is technically outstanding, however. Beautifully shot, well-lit, masterfully edited, Red Thread will make a good resume item for the huge and predominantly local crew associated with it.
Director and Writer Teddy Sharkova Pashikov -- a girl, not a guy -- explains the genesis of the film:
I got the idea from the maintenance people where I lived, she says. I started asking them questions. Are they happy doing what theyre doing? I started asking them all about themselves.
So whats a maintenance mans life like? According to Red Thread, it involves letting yourself into a young womans apartment while shes taking a shower. I must be getting old. Is that what the kids do nowadays?
The newsworthy item here, though, is Diana Scarwid, in a juicy role as the bawdy, nymphomaniacal property manager of Billys apartment complex.
People talk about Mommie Dearest all the time, like thats the only thing shes ever done. But not a lot of people realize Scarwid got the Oscar nomination for Inside Moves, not Mommie Dearest. The girls got all-around skills.
Seeing this professional bite off this role and chew it up with relish is a delight. She knows its a cardboard character, knows its a cliche -- but blows it out of the water all the same.
Channeling Christian Slater, Irons does a good job in an impossible role as Billy. Overall, his character is pretty likeable -- for a stalker.
Producer (and master saxophonist) Harvey Ray is dashing as always as he introduces the cast and takes questions after the screening. He explains that co-producer Stratton Leopold actually had to leave early on during filming.
Stratton was asked to return to L.A. to be a producer on Mission Impossible 3, which they say is going to be the most expensive production Paramount has ever made, Ray says. So I guess he had a pretty good reason to go.
Phantom of the Opera, Nov. 2
Im a moron. I show up for the directors choice surprise screening 15 minutes late. Not even standing room.
Not even for media? I ask, doing my supercilious editor bit, flashing the M badge around my neck. No, not even for media, the nice girl at the Trustees says.
With some time to kill before the Lucas screens the 1925 silent classic Phantom of the Opera, my wife and I go for an ice cream and coffee at Leopolds.
A sign on the door informs us that Stratton Leopold is on location filming Mission Impossible 3. Harvey Ray wasnt kidding.
After dessert we mosey over to the Lucas Theatre to catch The Phantom of the Opera. As we walk, I wonder aloud what the surprise film might have been.
The new Woody Allen, answers a raspy voice at one of the outdoor tables.
Great. I only missed the new Woody Allen. What a credit to journalism.
Turns out our al fresco informant is a producer of one of the Festival entries, and he confesses to not being much of a Woody Allen fan.
Not my cup of tea, he says. I walked out.
We go to the Lucas. A line is already snaking around the corner. I meet Lucas Director Ken Carter outside.
Carter tells me the Alloy Orchestra is really the group that started it all, referring to the new silent film revival. Carter says the Alloy guys just arrived in town from their previous gig in Philadelphia with all their stuff packed into a van like a teenage rock band.
Walking in, I see a Sergei Eisenstein DVD for sale. I comment to my wife about how that Russian silent film director is still considered one of the best moviemakers of all time.
This just fits in with my theory that every art form begins at its peak and goes downhill into entropy from there, I expound. The first work of Western literature is The Iliad, and its still the greatest story ever written.
Would you still think it was the greatest if it wasnt the first? my wife shoots back. Good question.
We take our seats in the rapidly filling theatre. The Alloy Orchestras array of instruments -- synthesizers, theremin, kettle drums, etc. -- sits in the orchestra pit at stage right. In the middle of the house are two cordoned-off rows of seats, guarded by a pair of young SCAD students in black Festival T-shirts.
George Segal and his wife approach. But one of the SCAD kids wont let them sit down. Hes all, Im sorry, but this section is for VIPs.
Segal gets a little grin on his face. Not a happy grin, but a lets try this again, shall we? grin.
I read his lips as he quietly says, Im George Segal -- not in an obnoxious way, but as a statement of fact. George Segal, Oscar-nominated star of stage and screen, two-time guest of honor at the Festival -- ipso facto VIP. Hello!
But the SCAD kid still doesnt get it. He motions again that the empty rows are reserved. On this kids planet, George Segal does not qualify as a VIP.
I cringe in embarrassment -- embarrassed for Segal, embarrassed for the kid, embarrassed for my town. Is there anything Savannah cant screw up? I think to myself as I sink lower in my seat.
Finally the kid walks off. Segal lifts up the cordon and he and his wife sit down.
According to Festival Director Danny Filsson, last years screening of Nosferatu was too big a hit to ignore. He tells the crowd tonights screening is a direct result of students telling faculty they want more silent films, and they want them here at the Film Festival.
Film prof Michael Chaney then introduces the flick, doing a funny riff on the similarity of his name and that of the Phantoms star, Lon Chaney.
Michael Chaney is one popular professor. The students here in the theatre absolutely love this guy. Thats probably the kiss of death, of course. I give him another year here.
The Phantom begins, and the effect of the live orchestra is intense. It goes way beyond any experience you might have had with so-called home theatre. With deep, rumbling basses, sinister organ lines and punctuating percussion, the Alloy Orchestra accompanies the on-screen action with a compelling yet unobtrusive audio portrait of the dastardly Erik and his subterranean machinations in the Paris Opera House.
Were told later that the Orchestra has nearly 200 cues to hit during the ninety-minute film. They hit them flawlessly, and the result is magnificent. The silent film revival, I conclude, is worth the hype.
At the too-brief Q&A session, Roger Miller of the Alloy Orchestra explains their unique art:
We consider the movie our conductor, says. He explains that the Orchestra composes and masters music for each scene individually, and then we connect them all.
Ken Winokur, also head of his own company, Box 5 productions, has actually bought the original negative of Phantom of the Opera. Turns out the studio that made the film, Universal, inexplicably let the copyright lapse in 1953, putting this incredible masterpiece into the public domain.
Winokur says his firm had to recreate the primitive two-strip Technicolor technique used for the masked ball sequence, and had to hand-color another gorgeous sequence where the Phantoms red cloak waves in the wind atop the Opera House.
On the way back to the car, we run into our friend Alexandro Santana, local artist, aesthete and all-around fun guy.
I mention that I was always told that The Wizard of Oz was the first color film.
Yes, thats what I always heard too, Alexandro says. But obviously thats not the case, is it?
Sure enough, heres a 1925 silent film using Technicolor, albeit an early version, to great effect. Its true -- you learn something new every day.
The other Paula
TV production panel, Nov. 3
I go to the Paula Deen panel out of journalistic duty. I dont expect to enjoy it. But it turns out to be one of the best things I do at the festival.
The challenges Deen faced in getting her show, Paula Deens Home Cooking, on the Food Network were daunting. Her longtime producer, Gordon Elliott, explains:
At the time the Food Network had very smart chefs in starched coats telling people how to cook. It bored the pants off of me, he says.
We immediately recognized Paulas food as food people actually ate. The network had all these culinary people who thought Paulas cooking was too lowbrow. I thought, shit, I eat it. I love it.
Elliott is an old-school Aussie tabloid guy in the Rupert Murdoch mold. The former Current Affair host tells it like it is and doesnt care if you dont like it. He is yang to Paula Deens yin, the wind beneath her wings, as it were.
They make a great team, Elliott with his gruff down-underisms and Deen with her cackling laugh and self-described Wal-Mart and Goodwill wardrobe.
So is it the format or is it personality? Elliott opens the panel rhetorically. Ninety percent of it is personality. Unless the viewer can have a relationship with the host, theres no show.
Apparently, despite Deens personality the Food Network still didnt think there was a show there -- though it wasnt for lack of persistence on Elliotts part.
Deen says the reason she got her show was because of one event: 9/11. Hey, if Bush can use that as an excuse for everything, why not Paula Deen?
It took a heartbreaking tragedy in our country, Deen says. All of a sudden we became vulnerable and frightened. This country needed some comfort.
Comfort as in comfort food.
Elliott describes his post 9/11 breakthrough moment with the Food Network:
The head of the network was sitting at her desk eating mashed potatoes, gravy and meatloaf. She called me and said, You know, Im thinking about that Paula Deen show.
And the rest is history, as they say, with Deen all over the Food Networks schedule, a reality show with her sons Jamie and Bobby come and gone, and another show for the boys in the works.
The reality show, Elliott explains, just wasnt meant to be:
The thing about Paula is, shes Mickey Mouse in her own Disneyland. You dont want to see Mickey doing the laundry and cutting his toenails, which is what you get with a reality show.
However, Paulas sons score so high with test audiences and their hand-held interest meters -- those 35-year-old women just dial em up everytime, Elliott says lustily, like a pirate thats found hidden treasure -- that the Food Network wouldnt rest until the boys, too, had a show of their own.
The key to getting a network to give you a show, Elliott says, has nothing to do with how many viewers you can get. Its which viewers you can get.
They dont care if they get a five share. Hell, they dont care if its a one share -- as long as its the right demographic. The right demographic, he says, is the 18-35 age range.
An audience member asks why, with the Baby Boom set to retire, networks dont instead focus on older viewers.
Elliott replies without missing a beat, Because Baby Boomers are set in their brands. The 18-35 demographic are brand-switchers. Thats what advertisers are looking for.
Indeed, the Paula Deen phenomenon appears to have everything to do with her uncanny appeal across age lines. Even little children watch her show.
The other night I was sitting in my bed signing a stack of pictures to send back to people who had written in, Deen says. Almost all of them were for children who watch the show.
Jamie and Bobby apparently cast the same kind of spell. But the two remain humble, and have their own explanations for their moms success:
Were at the restaurant every day, and we see people who love Mom as a real person, Jamie says. Theres so much crap on TV, and they see this person that is a real person. Shes true to herself.
Bobby Deen, paying his mom the ultimate compliment says, my hero -- sitting right here -- shows people that they can do anything they want, that the American dream is alive and well.
Word. Paula Deen just had a supporting role in Elizabethtown and is set to launch her own magazine. The woman has her own Wikipedia entry, for gosh sakes. Shes the white Oprah.
Acting: better than heroin
Film acting workshop, Nov. 4
This panel, featuring George Segal and Diana Scarwid, will be hard-pressed to be more entertaining than the conversation of the SCAD students sitting around me in the Red Gallerys folding chairs as we wait for it to begin.
Im going to see Requiem for a Dream this afternoon.
Oh, I saw that back when I was doing heroin.
Is it just me, or does this festival seem to be screening a lot of real downers?
Thats how indies are. The filmmakers think Hollywood is making such crap so they think they all have to have these big depressing messages.
I see their point, but who wants to pay $8 to be depressed?
Then the panel comes out -- Segal, Scarwid, and some director chick I dont know.
Segal and Scarwid are quite the pair, he as always in his hypercasual homeless-chic mode, and she looking dashing and movie-starrish in a pink 50s style hat.
Normally very reserved, Scarwid is in her element here, as a teacher. She goes on long riffs into the microphone with that warm, comforting, one-of-a-kind voice, Segal looking on in a state of respectful amusement.
I taught myself not to rely on everyone else -- to arrive with my bags fully packed, because theres often not much there to work with, Scarwid tells us. You sometimes get a plate of crumbs as an offering, and you have to gladly eat one of those crumbs off the plate.
But all is not drudgery.
The only way to move forward, as an actor and as a human, is to keep giving and keep offering, she says.
As actors, we have the opportunity to touch massive amounts of people and change their lives. I see a cracked door, and I say to myself, Im going to open it. I look on acting as my turn with the gift basket. How am I going to decorate this?
Scarwid is a one-woman metaphysics machine. She can go on like this for hours, dispensing hard-won wisdom like a thin, blue-eyed Deepak Chopra.
At one point, Scarwid says of acting: The deeper you go, the better you feel. And the better you feel, the deeper you go.
This proves too much for Segal to resist. He does a slow-burn, eyes-wide take to the audience, to much laughter.
This ones a real hypnotic, isnt she? he laughs.
Truth be told, Segal is no less metaphysical than Scarwid. He just frames it in more workaday terms.
You need to build a wardrobe for auditions. Dress in such a way that you feel in control of yourself, he counsels.
Dress for the part and let them know who it is. They want you to tell them what that character is. You become a real actor at these auditions. Youre specific about what youre doing there, he says. Were all our own specialists. Theres no one else like you.
Its heady, inspiring stuff. George Segal is telling me how to become a famous actor! Im ready to chuck this whole newspaper grind and take a Greyhound to Manhattan.
Segal also offers this observation, which is only funny if you imagine George Segal saying it:
Wear a pinky ring! Ive got a pinky ring! A pinky ring makes you feel different!
A student director stands and asks a question about dealing with actors. As is the case with every student director Ive ever seen ask a question at these things, its less of a question than an extended summary of her own accomplishments.
Finally, she gets around to a brief interrogative statement: What do I do about actors who just dont want to rehearse?
For once, Segal is taken aback.
Ive never met an actor who doesnt want to rehearse, he says simply.
Ending on a high note
Capote and after-party, Nov. 4
Film festivals are about hype, and theres been no shortage of that commodity at this one. But believe the hype about Capote. Its that good.
Not a second, not a frame, not a breath is wasted. Even the score -- a haunting, soft accompaniment that in some scenes is but a single vanishing chord -- could not be improved upon.
Every moment of this lean, gripping film serves to push along the films central, horrifying narrative: novelist Truman Capotes strange fascination, almost symbiosis, with an articulate drifter who has murdered a family of four in their Kansas home.
The film avoids the cheap shot of portraying the relationship as purely a homoerotic phenomenon. Instead, the script and Philip Seymour Hoffmans amazing performance combine to make it clear that Capotes relationship with the drifter is about Capote himself.
Youve no doubt heard that Hoffmans performance is a shoo-in for an Oscar nod. Thats true, but Oscars a devalued currency, isnt he? Gwyneth for Shakespeare in Love, Pacino for Scent of a Woman. Dont get me started on Braveheart.
Yes, Hoffman will likely get his Oscar, but not merely on the basis of his uncanny impersonation of Capotes voice, mannerisms and facial tics. Unlike Jamie Foxxs rote mimicry in the insipid Ray, this is an honest-to-God piece of acting here. Unlike Foxx, Hoffman is not content to channel his films namesake; he begins with an impersonation and builds his art on it from there.
After the film, my wife and I are in that dazed stupor you get after you see a particularly powerful film. We passively join the bustling crowd leaving the Trustees Theatre, all marching purposefully in one direction. We lack the willpower to resist, so we attach ourselves to this mass exodus like remoras to a school of fish.
Along the way, we encounter local jazz great Ben Tucker and his delightful wife Gloria -- as glamorous and charismatic a couple as you would see in Hollywood -- and walk with them for awhile, talking about the good old days at Hannahs.
Turns out our crowd of pedestrians is not re-enacting Napoleons retreat from Russia after all. Theyre hightailing it to a Festival party at the First City Club.
Once inside, its the classic everybody whos anybody scene. People are overflowing the balconies, the open bar is rocking as is the band, and we end up seeing a dozen old friends we havent seen in a long time.
I talk with my old chum Anthony Palliser, one of the worlds great painters, in town from Paris with his darling wife Diane.
Turns out Palliser -- who knows everybody -- has been hanging with George Segal and Buck Henry this week. He says neither one has yet seen their recent Connect interviews. I make a note to get their addresses from Bobby Zarem and send papers pronto.
Big is in the room, he of Sex and The City fame. His real name is Chris Noth, but I will always know him as Big.
And he is. Big, that is. Tall guy. Looks and talks exactly like the character.
In the press of the crowd, Film Festival Managing Director Len Cripe brings a well-dressed gentleman over to meet Big. The gentleman and Big talk briefly. The gentleman is in banking, probably a Festival donor of some type.
The banker dude is clearly stoked at his brush with stardom. He walks away grinning from ear to ear.
Lens mama didnt raise no fool.
My wife and I stay for awhile, then conclude the evening with an appetizer and another gin and tonic at Il Pasticcio.
Im all movied out, I tell her. After Capote, theres just no point in seeing any other movies for awhile.
Tomorrow, the final day of the festival, will just have to get by without me.
Jim Morekis is editor in chief of Connect Savannah.