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Hamptons International Film Festival - 1999

     With its juried competition for American independent films, the Hamptons International Film Festival in East Hampton, New York, has been poised, though shakily, to become an East Coast challenge to Sundance. This October came the break-through. The recently appointed Directors of Programming, the fifth in the troubled seven years of the Fest, finally got things rolling right.

     "The two Lindas' as they are known - capable co-programmers Linda Blackaby and Lynda Hanson - presided over a successful Hamptons Festival in which: (a) The Golden Starfish Fiction Film prize for best feature went, as it should, to probably the best non-Hollywood indie so far in 1999, Eric Mendelsohn's Judy Berlin. (b)The general level of American independents programmed was, if not revelatory, consistently decent, a showcasing of promising talents. I saw five non-Hollywood features of merit, which, for my three days there, was a more-than-ample amount.

     The Fest even managed a little coup with the world premiere of Just Looking, a likable 1955-set comedy proficiently directed by Seinfeld's Jason Alexander. The story is a Jewish Summer of '42. Lenny, 14, exiled from his Bronx apartment and forced to spend the summer with his relatives in a Catholic Queens neighborhood, finds solace by falling in love with a dreamy, mid-20s nurse (Gretchen Mol).

     "We needed a Duddy Kravitz, a Bronx Jewish kid with a life inside him," Alexander told the audience about the casting of Ryan Merryman as Lenny. "But we checked the five boroughs and couldn't find anyone. Kids today are dark, like Leonard DeCaprio. Meanwhile, we had this video sent us from Oklahoma, and it just sat there." One day, getting frantic as principal shooting was fast approaching, they shoved it in the office VCR. "Ryan had put himself on videotape, in his own kitchen, with his mother reading off-screen lines. We said, 'Let's get him here, fast!' A Catholic boy from Oklahoma! We put him with a dialogue coach, and converted him to a Jewish lifestyle."

     Who is the potential audience for Just Looking?

     "I make no bones about the fact that I think it's a harder sell than the usual film," Alexander said. "Initally, I thought the only audience was people my age and over. We don't know how to make a trailer. If we show only the more serious stuff, the kids won't come. If we show kids talking about sex, adults will say, 'Kids talking about sex.'

     "But I feel this film has a little angel above it."

     For now, Just Looking is without a distributor, a plight shared with many American films at the Hamptons. "When is your film opening theatrically?" was an audience question at practically every screening. "I wish I knew!" was often the frustrated reply of the filmmaker.

     The movie at the Hamptons which seems perfect for grabbing by an enterprising distributor is I'll Take You There, written and directed by Adrienne Shelly, indie fav as an actress in Hal Hartley's The Unbelievable Truth and Trust. Shelly has forged a dandy contemporary screwball comedy, with Ally Sheedy, Bringing Up Baby-zany as an unstoppable lunatic force of fast-lane l'amour fou, taking to the highway to rescue a depressed divorce (Reg Rogers) from mooning over his yuppie ex-wife.

     I also appreciated Money Buys Happiness, three days and nights in the harrowed lives of a Tacoma, Washington, couple on the verge of a marital breakdown. It's the third feature by a filmmaker original, Seattle-based Gregg Lachow, a 1982 American Studies graduate of Harvard who was editor of The Harvard Lampoon. Lachow is co-founder and director of the performance group, Run/Remain. His wife, Megan Murphy, has starred in all three of Lachow's movies. She's an enthralling screen presence in Money Buys Happiness as the lost spouse.

     "I bet you don't know what film has virtually the same story as yours," I challenged Lachow and Murphy, when we talked on the streets of East Hampton. Eyes Wide Shut. In both, a suddenly estranged husband and wife with a child go their separate ways on sexual/spiritual nighttime journeys. Which is better? Eyes Wide Shut is formally a thousand times more sophisticated than Money Buys Happiness, but Lachow cuts Kubrick for humor and humanity.

     None of Lachow's three films have distribution. This is the reality in 1999: distributors are getting very picky and ornery about American independents.

     I was standing at the Fest discussing an independent shown there, the crowd-pleasing, Chicago-set The Opera Singer, when a baby-faced young woman (a high-school student?) interjected that The Opera Singer "had no thru-line," and that she had walked out in the middle.

     Who is she? "That's the new person in Acquisitions at Fine Line Films," I was whispered to. "She's very smart... and very focussed."

(October, 1999)


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