Woodstock Film Festival 2019 Part II

Condor&Eagle On Stage

Going to Woodstock Film Festival is like going to your summer place, your country home, your neck of the woods, literally. It’s a pleasure to return to the Upstate areas in the early fall, as the season and weather changes, into a familial vortex of indie films and filmmaking connecting artists, fiercely independent mavericks with a worldly, film loving, film festival organizers and appreciative audience.

A happy destination festival with an established brand, loyal sponsors, a walking around town with cultural events and contemporary programming vision amid an artsy ‘60s atmosphere. It’s been awhile since “command central” moved from a rustic outpost with an apple cider, autumn leaves atmosphere that had a fireplace going on those crisp, drizzly, cold snaps into a light, and airy open space, a contemporary art gallery in the center of town. Several venues and the Box Office –just around the corner – are in walking distance allowing new arrivals to orientate themselves, survey the main drag, Tinker Street, scope out the shops and find the right choice for a dining pleasure.

On nice days, its a wonderful walk to the Woodstock venues– the Woodstock Playhouse and the Upstate Films Woodstock. I even made it to Bearsville Theater once, almost turning into the Byrdcliffe Artists Colony; however, without a shuttle service of some sort, you need a car and more so, the understanding of how and where to park your car. Respecting businesses parking areas so as not to cause any more unsettling during the several days of film festival for people who live and work there. It’s only challenging if you are completely unfamiliar with the layouts and did not check in advance the maps, transportation, accommodations info offered online.

This year, those logistic calculations determined my choice of film schedule. Remaining in Woodstock worked well for my limited time instead of branching out to the other theaters in Kingston, Rhinebeck, Rosendale, and Saugerties. It allowed a more relaxed, three-film-in-a-row, plus event schedule for the day. I got to see some great films that fit into my research for mastering the art of the film festival experience into the business of culture.

The story of the Mass MoCA in “Museum Town,” a High Line-type project where a long time factory employer, a local electric company, closed in 1984 sending North Adams, MA, into an economic depression. First time filmmaker, Jennifer Trainer is part of the story, one of a group of visionaries transforming the deteriorating structure into one of the world’s largest contemporary art museum. After the film, she talked about taking risks, having a gutsy mayor, local support, raising money, curator boldness, and having a great soundtrack. One of the key moments reveals musician/artist David Byrne willing to step up and promote a cause for contemporary art.

It seems the (violin) strings of music in film and musicians in film became a theme in other films like “Speed of Life,” described as a quirky, heartfelt film about the impact the sudden death of David Bowie had on a young couple. A more suitable title might have been, A Crack In the Universe after David Bowie Dies Opens into Magical Realism. It hits the right notes. The best part was a live musical performance by Robert Burke Warren, whose voice and acoustic guitar, with an especially lovely tone, was an excellent opener before the film. He played several Bowie tunes invoking images of Major Tom/Ground Control and BTW, whose shirts is he wearing? out of the “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars” album. I’m sure the majority of audience were transported back into the day, as I was sifting between a Bowie concert at Giants Stadium, his duet with Bing Crosby or his interview on MTV where he asked a VJ why there are not more black musicians on MTV. When given a convoluted explanation that music that is not rock and roll does not get played, David Bowie looked at him with very cool, half closed eyes, “Interesting.”

That’s not all. I personally time-traveled at the “I want my MTV” screening– back to August 1, 1981, standing on the edge of a major consumer seismic shift in the way we access the music we wanted to listen to anytime, all the time. I am a witness and willing participant because we had Cablevision. It was back in the day– mid-1960s– when now billionaire, Charles Dolan built a cable system business in NYC, launched HBO (Home Box Office), the first premium programming service which played mostly American-made indie films and some foreign, likened to the “soft porn at midnight” hour. After selling HBO to Time/Life, he started Cablevision and took it into the suburbs. That’s how we had MTV in Clifton, New Jersey. It wasn’t everywhere because of the sporadic cable company territories and the wiring technology necessary for expansion. Nonetheless, it made an IMPACT. Their famously infamous “I want my MTV” campaign to push for more expansion catapulted the nascent music video industry into the outer territorial stratosphere of moneymaking in the music business with the cable industry exploding.

I hate to admit the nostalgia feeling. I am trying to shed it like a snakeskin, but I must say, watching the last thirty five+ years of music videos I loved, I can recall every video frame, edit in my mind how I would have done it differently, noting when my top favorites might be playing because you can figure out the rotation schedule after a couple of viewings. I had a Google analytics mind in the making even back then. Producer Nick Quested arrived a few minutes after the music under video rolling credits and our leftover group of ardent MTVers, or just the generational curious, had an outstanding back-and-forth with him. Nick had shot many music videos and was privy to moments that audiences deem enviable and the great thin about him was that he became part of the group that share this amazing history with the generation who lived the years and future generations who will remember it as one of those moments, milestones in the history of our music culture. Kudos to everyone involved in this project. I loved that they included the David Bowie interview about race. He was a class act and a humanistic artist and music contributor for the good of the human race.

The film that made the most impact on me was the World Premiere of “The Condor and the Eagle”, opening with an Indian incantation, it is a film about the treaties and unity the indigenous people from North, Central and South America have taken the fight for climate justice to the streets and onto the big screen– an outreach to save the planet, Mother Earth. After the screening, a final prayer that includes all humankind in this struggle. As executive director and co founder of Woodstock Film Festival, Meira Blaustein remarked during the introduction, the film came to Woodstock film programmers very late in its festival schedule, but it was a film you couldn’t say no to, and they found a way to integrate this work of climate journalism as a World Premiere that included a special invocation by indigenous people after the screening. One of their strongest connections is the forest in the Woodstock area was mentioned as a revered place for Nature’s way for artists to converge on this spot and share their visions of being. I couldn’t agree more. Woodstock Film Festival fulfills in its capacity as a bona fide high end film festival experience. Congratulations on twenty years of being fiercely independent and looking forward to years to come. Stay the course. Take risks. Dream big. Fight hard. Fiercely Independent.

Art of the Film Festival Experience Part II

What happens during film festivals when a perfect alignment of writers, directors, actors, key industry players turn out for a networking social event? Powerful connections born under the stars. It happens more than inexperienced film festival organizers realize.

Navigating through Netflix last week, I came across Frozen River, its opening scene to this day, remains one of the most riveting. A closeup of a visibly distraught character Ray Eddy’s face (Melissa Leo) tells the whole story – desperation after a husband abandons his family taking all the money saved for their home, a double-wide trailer. What she and another down-on- her-luck woman, Lila Littlewolf, (Misty Upham), a Mohawk bingo-parlor employee, do to make money (smuggling across the northern international border) to keep their families together is strikingly similar to the hazardous decisions people make today in their attempts for a better life.

I first saw Frozen River at Sundance 2008 and then at the Lake Placid Film Forum. Writer-director Courtney Hunt was much praised and Melissa Leo won critical acclaim including the Best Actress award from the Independent Spirit Awards, New York Film Critics Circle Award, Sundance Film Festival and many others during that year on the film festival circuit.

It was, however, the 2007 Woodstock Film Festival in October that I remember watching Melissa at a social networking event where I noticed her intensity, her serious face to face conversations with individuals, huddled over drinks, talking strategy for the making of a film that could have a major impact on audiences and critics alike.

FilmFestivViews@Lake Placid Melissa Leo on Frozen River Episode 054

It was impressive to see the team at Lake Placid for a Q&A after the screening. Later, I asked to do a podcast with Melissa and did so at her home in Stone Ridge, NY. I was already a Melissa Leo fan since the television series, Homicide: Life on the Street. It was during my years living in the Washington, DC area, the series was set in Baltimore, a tough area at the time. Her role as Detective Sergeant Kay Howard was my hero. She was a tough cookie, no make up, no nonsense, worked hard, knew her stuff, acted decisively and was respected by rank and file members of the police force.

We talked about her boldness in taking such character roles. Seemingly written exclusively for her or because she makes the character so much her own? I believe she draws upon hellish ordeals that reflect the character’s angst and recourse. Powerfully intuitive as an actor. It wasn’t long after her performance in Frozen River, there came focus of public and media attention earning her several nominations and awards, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Whew.

Following the Frozen River viewing on Netflix, I had to watch another one with Melissa in it. Lo and behold, Yuri Turchyn and I watched The Fighter, (2010) where she won several awards for her performance as Alice Eklund-Ward. Winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, The Fighter grossed $93 million in U.S. and Canada. In other territories, it collected $35 million, for a worldwide total of $129 million. Not bad.

In 2017, I wanted Yuri to have the best film festival experience ever, so it was off to the Sundance Film Festival. On January 20, we watched the premiere of Novitiate. Set in the early 1960s, it’s a story of the effect the Vatican II council had on the Catholic Church as seen through the eyes of a hard core, old-fashioned Mother Superior, Reverend Mother Marie Saint-Clair, played by non other, tough cookie with heart and soul, Melissa Leo. Just as the first time in 2008, I walked away from the screening talking for hours afterwards about the story, the writing, direction, its main characters, another superb performance. The rest of Sundance 2017 is part of another amazing story.

What makes this assemblage so consequential is the knowledgeable and competent festival directors’ and film programmers’ understanding for bringing together the elements and people allowing such remarkable projects to take shape. It can become quite the springboard of success for actors and the filmmakers adding positive reputation to the film festival. When it does happen, the festival director may feel the satisfaction of a seasoned matchmaker in their after parties and/or award events. Ultimately, creating opportunity for filmmakers is more important than just selling tickets for the bottom line. It makes for another great film festival experience.