Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly Premiere

Sorry it's taken me so long to post this given that I went to the premiere at the Academy theater two weeks ago. Again, my hook up was the industry-connected George Zaver, who's always a fun time.

It was the usual studio film premiere mix o'peeps that always seems to include a smattering of celebrities, some soon-to-be or almost famous, a handful of industry-famous (writers, directors, studio execs - nobody the general public can recognize), a lot of just plain ol' industry types (agents, assistants, etc.), legions of wannabes and good old-fashioned film fans. Not sure where I fit in. Perhaps the likes-to-sneak-into-catered-parties contingent, of which I'm sure there were more than just a few.

But I'm pleased to say I really liked the film a lot. Is it a masterpiece? No, but in this creative desert, it's really exciting to stumble upon an oasis of fresh ideas and real aesthetics. The film explores the experience of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the 42 year-old Editor-In-Chief of the french Elle Magazine after he suffers a devastating stroke that totally paralyzes him - save for a single blinkable eyelid. He winds up with what is called (in the film) "locked in" syndrome - where one suffers total paralysis, but the brain functions perfectly. Bauby ends up writing an entire book about his experience by code, using his blinking eye to tap out letters of the alphabet to an associate.

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The film takes a very subjective approach to the story-telling, utilizing those memoirs (from the book of the same name as the film) to bring us inside that experience as much as a film can. It cleverly steps out of that subjectivity at key times to create a jarring juxtaposition between what Bauby's experiencing and what those around him are experiencing when they see him and/or try to relate to him.

Artist/Director Julian Schnabel uses his estimable creative powers and visual prowess to give the film real aesthetic punch without ever losing hold of the dramatic energy. However, the film was introduced by the studio's head of distribution (forgot which studio) as being one of the most emotionally involving films he'd seen in a long time. I didn't feel that. Not that it wasn't emotionally affecting, it just kept a kind of distance from raw emotional energy - which I appreciated, for the most part. The film could easily have been gratingly mawkish, which would have been absolutely contrary to the beauty and clarity of Bauby's memoirs. Schnabel was an excellent choice for the film.

The acting is terrific over-all, as much as I can tell without speaking french (another good choice was to do it in french) - although there are a few self-conscious moments when his therapists are speaking to him...in actuality, of course, to the camera. The legendary Max Von Sydow is an exciting surprise (didn't know he was in the movie) as Bauby's invalid father. For me, the scenes with him are the most emotionally bracing in the film.

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My only (minor) quibble is that the film is so beautiful. Too beautiful at times. Many of the visuals seem too meticulously, and therefore self-consciously, designed. And practically every woman in it is drop-dead gorgeous. Although all of it is more than pleasant to look at, it unfortunately took me a bit out of the authentic energy of the film. But it's hard to complain too much about yummy french babes.

In the end, the film, for me, was less about Bauby's tragedy and more of a reflection on life in general and the various ways it can be perceived, experienced...and appreciated. Many of us are "locked in", somehow, even with all of our faculties - paralyzed by thoughts, memories, prejudices, dreams, fears. There is pain, but also a kind of poetry in each of our experiences. But also a way out...even in something as simple as the blink of an eye.

The after party was appropriately somber, but still celebratory with the lead actors in attendance. It had a nicer energy than a lot of these things. Maybe because there was no booze or food (just desserts) the obnoxious people left immediately. I spotted Joe Pesci to whom Julian Schnabel dedicated the screening. Why did he dedicate it to him? Hell if I know. Because he was there? I guess even if you are an art-star and formidable director, you can still be just a worshipping fan. I find that to be both very sweet and incredibly annoying in this celebrity-obsessed world.

Go see the movie.

Monday, November 12, 2007

AFM and AFI Roundup

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Yes, that's me doing my Stevie Wonder impersonation for George Zaver at AFM. He never seems to get enough of it.

What the hell is AFM and why should it matter to us indie filmmakers? Well, I'm not sure that it does for many of us. The American Film Market (AFM) was historically a global marketplace for B, C and sometimes Z grade films that did not have access to the extremely exclusive studio distribution pipelines. It used to be a wild, somewhat sleazy convention that attracted film sellers and buyers from around the world. However, AFM has raised its profile significantly over the years and has achieved a new level of respectability as evidenced by their formal relationship with the prestigious AFI Film Fest. However, sitting out by the pool, George and I did indeed witness a prostitute approach, flirt, negotiate and disappear with 60+ year-old market attendee - all in less than 5 minutes. Despite recent changes, business apparently still gets done at AFM quickly and dynamically.

So, how does it work? I'm not sure, actually. But it seems production companies (sellers) with all kinds of obscure names you've likely never heard of, buy suites on the second floor to display/sell films you'll likely never see to global distributors (buyers), who wander from suite to suite buying up product (as films are now often and accurately called). Meetings are generally arranged in advance. I suspect the buyers have their favorite sellers, from whom they tend to regularly make their purchases. I've been told that what sells to these global buyers is absolutely no mystery and as long as you can deliver a film that fits within their narrow parameters - it's money in the bank. And if you believe that, you're in for a lot of filmmaking pain and heartache.

Who knows why they buy what they buy, but they definitely do buy. Plenty of lowbrow stuff gets sold - with titles like "Hogzilla" and "Gag" inexplicably managing to earn a dollar here and there. But beyond the ubiquitous horror fare, the rest is kind of a mystery. That is why AFM is an important market for at least some indie filmmakers. Some of us make stuff that will actually sell here. But it's therefore important for us to understand how the global marketplace works - how films are sold, what kind of films are bought, how many are sold, who is buying them, and for how much money - so that we can have a more realistic understanding of how our films might perform in the global marketplace. And this information changes from year to year, so the market is a great indicator of global film purchasing trends.

I wish I had that information to impart to you now about this year, but I didn't do enough investigating. I only went one day and was too busy people-watching by the pool and eavesdropping in on hilarious conversations where people engage in serious dealmaking over film titles like "Bloodlust In Heaven 2".

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It's expensive to go up into the suites and poke around. A single day pass is over $200 and a 2nd half market pass is about $300 - which is the best deal. But it's worth it for the education you'll receive - if you ask the right questions. Of course, a lot of people just hang around downstairs in the lobby, by the pool or in the bar - and manage to get plenty of deals done.

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For my part, even though I didn't do all the investigating and/or deal-making I would have liked, I did manage to score a list of all the foreign buyers at the market from a super-secret contact who shall forever remain nameless so that they do not become jobless. I'll share it with whomever of you asks me for it.

Now, on to AFI Film Fest.

Let me just say to you now that I love this festival because it is a world cinema fest that programs some amazing films. Well, at least I can say that about the documentaries and the films coming from outside the U.S. The buzz I caught about the smaller American fiction indies, was, unfortunatley, not good. Anyway, Christian Gaines, the festival director is a great guy and the regular staffers like Shaz Bennett, Jeffrey Winter and Jon Korn are all wonderful people who do an amazing job with the fest.

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And I actually like the whole tent city thing at the top of the Archlight parking structure, although I heard a few whiners grousing about it for no clear reason. And the films screen at the Arclight theaters, which are among my favorite screening venues. And apparently attendance was up dramatically this year and that is heart-warming news to anyone who loves the fest and world cinema.

I was there doing the Kodak Connect program, which earns me a ProPass where I get to see any movies I want and hang out in the Cinema and Music Lounges (sorta...story in a bit) - although it doesn't get me into the Opening/Closing/Centerpiece Galas. That stuff is for the real bigshots, apparently. I'm a slightly-bigger-than-little-shot, I'm guessing. Anyway, I was deeply appreciative to be associated with the fest.

The Kodak Connect program is like film industry speed-dating where filmmakers meet with an eclectic assortment of film professionals - Producers, distributors, film organization representatives, publicists, fest programmers, consultants, etc. - and try to forge a meaningful connection in 10 minutes....or at least glean some quick, but sage advice/direction. These brief affairs are hit and miss as some of us Kodak Connect industry peeps have very little, if anything, to offer some of the filmmakers. But that's as it should be. All of the filmmakers are doing different kinds of work and are at different places with their films and in their careers.

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Across the board, all of the filmmakers I met with were focused but personable and, over-all, a pleasure to meet with. I hope I was of use to them. At least some of them. And hope I can be of use to some in the future, too. At least a couple were of use to me. For instance, I met the Puerto Rican producers behind "Manuela Y Manuel" who told me about whopping 40% tax credits (that's like a cash rebate) being offered to filmmakers by the Puerto Rican government and offered to help navigate that landscape should I come across a project that is appropriate to shoot down there.

Afterward, I planned on sticking around to see some films, but was dog tired from much heavy drinking the night before. I walked into the empty Music lounge to lay down a couch and catch a few quick z's. However, three volunteers where hanging out in there doing nothing in particular. One surly punk among them rudely told me that it was closed. When I pressed the point and told him I just needed to lie down for a bit, he became even more surly and rude. I finally left suggesting that politeness might be a useful tool for the work he's doing, but he snarled at that suggestion then accused me of removing the sign saying the lounge was closed. In my youth, I would've just knocked him out then grabbed a sandwich. In my 30's, I would've got his name and ratted him out. But I'm old. And I have a blog. Simply writing this is enough for me. I will also add that, in general, a few too many of the volunteers at tent city were too much like bouncers with an attitude. And having exclusive parties in plain view of the cinema lounge (parties staffed by said bouncers with attitude) added to the tension and unpleasant energy.

But who cares? The movies are most important and I managed to squeeze in a few....my two faves were "4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days" - lazily referred to by myself and others as "4-3-2". It's a gritty, dogma-style (I know, maybe too many of those around - but this is one to catch) chronicle of an illegal abortion in communist Romania that is starkly and affectingly told. It had, what was for me, one misstep, that only hung me up a bit and which I will not reveal to protect those who will see the film. But if you're curious about my secret feedback, send me an email. Secret feedback aside, however, it was an amazing film.

My other favorite was "Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project". Is it a great movie? No, not really. But it is an entertaining and sweetly sentimental profile of a cutting-edge comic, a culture and a historic period in entertainment. But most of all, it's just one of those films that defy cinematic analysis because the subject is so charming/compelling. I didn't grow up a big fan of Don Rickles. But he's grown on me over the years and his brand of insult humor is not only funny as hell (more often than you'd think), it's a jarringly honest and cathartic social experiment that challenges the way we see ourselves. And deep down, you always knew he was a mensch.

Of course, I ended each screening with a trip to the Cinema Lounge, which seemed to grow in popularity as the fest wore on. Still, too many refused to dance, but it did start to have a nice party vibe in the last days I visited (at least it did after nightfall), in spite of the bouncers.

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My general opinion, if you care, is this: AFI rocks! If you didn't go this year (or previous years), get yer butt there next year. And AFM is a necessary evil that can be fun and informative (and maybe even profitable) if you have the right mindset. Make some time to get there, too.