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Until this year I have been at work when my little town’s film festival occurred. I’ve been to film festivals in big, medium and small cities. I don’t think population correlates to quality. A small town festival can sometimes risk showing edgier films, and the special guests are more unusual choices. The 16th Annual Port Townsend Film Festival just ended. In three days I saw a dozen features, an equal number of shorts and hosted screenings with Beau Bridges, Chris Cooper and Marianne Leone Cooper.
PTFF presented a large number of Q&A sessions with actors and filmmakers from the features after the screenings. There were revival showings of beloved previous productions, and free showings in and outdoors. Our festival officially opens by driving the featured guests up a two-block parade route in classic cars, to the strains of a circus-themed brass band. We prefer ceremony with a touch of the absurd. It’s very Fellini.
The things that move and impress us as viewers are entirely personal. I chose films reflecting my own interests. These were my three favorite features:
There are more people living next to a dump near the capitol of Paraguay than live in my whole town. Their homes are shacks with no indoor plumbing. They support themselves picking through mountains of refuse by hand, selling what they can recycle. An environmental engineer named Favio Chavez was sent to try and create more sustainable water. But the Cateura landfill lies in an unstable flood plain. If the rains are heavy, the “neighborhood” can wash away. The water project failed.
Fortunately, Favio had also initiated another project in his spare time. He noted that the residents, despite owning so little, were excited and engaged by music they heard on radios and cassettes rescued from the trash. He teamed up with one who had carpentry experience, they began fashioning orchestral instruments out of the garbage, and Favio taught the children of the workers to play classical music. The Recycled Orchestra of Cateura was born. This documentary follows the inspirational success of this act of transforming garbage into art.
Zeno Mountain Farms runs camps for differently-abled individuals, and recently they have held Actors Camps in Los Angeles producing narrative shorts starring their guests and volunteers. Their latest was a western entitled “Bulletproof”. This is the behind-the-scenes story of how it was made, focusing on challenges each of the actors had to overcome in preparation and performance. I met Jeremy, who plays “Bulletproof Jackson”, the hero. He’s sweet and funny and very sociable.
This kind of ultra-low budget filmmaking is very dear to me. The writer-director, Ali Selim, worked on the script for over a decade, studios large and small all said no, and Selim, with a cadre of talent who believed in the project, made the feature anyway for a measly million dollars. It’s got everything I love in movies; authentic behavior from a talented cast, beautiful locations and cinematography, effective music, and a story about something of timeless importance.
Sweet Land is a love story. A non-English speaking mail-order bride arrives in rural Minnesota right after World War I. She’s multilingual, and obviously the most sophisticated person around, but Inge (Elizabeth Reaser) experiences prejudice and bigotry from most of the locals. All she has to sustain her is her own spirit, and the confused support of her fiancé Olaf (Tim Guinee), Olaf’s neighbor/friend Frandsen (Alan Cumming), and Frandsen’s wife, Brownie (Alex Kingston). The couple endures being shunned by the town, having to harvest their crops alone. And it all comes out in their favor through acts of faith and generosity I won’t reveal. Make sure you have tissues. I cried for fifteen minutes.
This extraordinary labor of love was released in 2005, and never got a national distribution, though you can purchase it on DVD. It made its money back gradually, from limited runs at art houses like our local Rose Theater. It’s a gem that deserves to be better known and seen. As producer Jim Bigham said during the Q+A, “It got released the same week as Eddie Murphy’s Norbit, and nobody’s talking about that film ten years later.”
Invited guests Beau Bridges and Chris Cooper presented a Q+A called “The Art of Acting”. Beau made the point that he regards acting as a craft rather than an art, considering things like music or writing arts. Personally, I think every art requires education (sometimes self-education), technique and practice, which is the craft part. Perhaps he just isn’t as familiar with how much craft there is behind the arts he doesn’t pursue full time.
Beau was gregarious and charming, telling funny stories about working with his brother and father. Acting is a common profession in the Bridges family. By contrast, Chris Cooper is the first actor in his. He and his wife Marianne, an actor and writer, met in acting class. All three of these actors were inspired and trained by teachers who developed their own styles based on a system of techniques originated by Konstantin Stanislavsky. Various versions and interpretations of Stanislavski’s system include “method” acting (Lee Strasberg), “the reality of doing” (Sanford Meisner), and “discovering your talent through making choices”(Stella Adler).
Beau and his actress daughter Emily wrote a play based on Richard Boleslavsky’s “Acting: the First Six Lessons”, a book by Stanislavski’s student, given to Beau by his father, actor Lloyd Bridges. He also spoke about reading notes about a performance by his mother written by Michael Chekhov, who Stanislavski considered one of his brightest students. Chris and Marianne studied in New York with Wynn Handman, another tributary of this tradition by way of Meisner.
Chris also related lessons he learned working with notable actors like Robert DeNiro (Stella Adler student), and how watching the film adaptation of Steinbeck’s East of Eden as a child was a formative experience. East of Eden stars James Dean and Jo Van Fleet, both students at the Actors Studio under co-founders Strasberg and Elia Kazan, who directed the movie. Chris won an Oscar playing a toothless, maniacal, flower-obsessed nerd in the film Adaptation.
Marianne Leone hosted a screening of “My Left Foot”, a film that became useful for her toward understanding and helping advocate for her son Jesse, who had Cerebral Palsy. After Jesse’s unexpected death, she wrote a book about their 17 years together, which I’m reading now (review to follow). Marianne admired our service pup trainee, and was open and warm about her experiences raising a differently-abled child.
Chris Cooper will be back in my little town next year, along with writer-director John Sayles, to shoot a feature film, the first one we’ve been a location for since 1982’s “An Officer and a Gentleman”. Production is scheduled to begin a couple of months after my retirement next spring, so I’m going to see if I can audition or be otherwise involved in some small way. Wish me luck!