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Palm Springs International Film Festival, 1999

do not panic     It's pretty zany: the typical audience at California's Palm Springs Film Festival, which I recently attended, were 70-year-old Republican retirees in bermudas and white sneakers, just off one of the town's 99 golf courses. The films got too much for a few blue-noses, who complained about the vulgarity and obscenity. Mostly, these septuagenarians were pretty tolerant, braving subtitles, strange foreign languages, and sexual couplings, and politely applauding some of the worst American independent films imaginable.

     Everyone wonders: what happens to the thousand movies which get bypassed by Sundance? More than a dozen, the Very Undistributed, landed on their heads at Palm Springs, inexplicably screened. Me, I just kept avoiding twenty-something filmmakers who hoped I'd publicize them in the Phoenix. What would I write about? Their so-called movies are extended TV sitcom pilots about vapid post-college types looking for Mr. and Ms. Right.

     Californians made almost all these silly pictures. Am I prejudiced? The two indies I liked best came from New Englanders. Martin Guigi's farcicalWedding Band all takes place at a Jewish-Italian marriage in New York, but it was shot in Guigi's home town of Burlington, Vermont. Independent Congressman Bernie Sanders does a funny, guest-turn monologue as a reform rabbi who, mid-benediction, gets fatally distracted by his anger that the Dodgers deserted Brooklyn.

     The Week That Girl Died, directed by Concord, Massachusetts native Sean Travis, is a sometimes affecting, nicely acted story about a bunch of working-class friends who live in a New England port town. The end credits place the filming in Narragansatt, Maine. There's no such spot! Echo Park and the fishing town of San Pedro stood in. "It's all photographed about LA, and every shot is an inch away from a palm tree," Travis explained, amused by the deception. "Naragansatt was the beer we drank, growing up summers in Maine."

     The late Sono Bono started this Festival ten years ago, when he was Palm Springs mayor, and his celeb buddies willingly put in their appearance. Even this year, with Sonny gone, the stars came out, though only for the $400-a-person tribute to John Travolta and Debbie Reynolds. They skipped the movies.

     Somehow, Wayne Eric Boyd, a local Palm Springs man with cinema ambitions, squeezed into the expensive tribute and shook Travolta's hand. I met Boyd when he arrived at my motel from Aztec Rent-a-Car, where he works between film projects. As he drove me to pick up an auto, he talked excitedly about his written, directed, and starred-in first feature, One More Shot, playing in the Fest. Based on his life as a college wrestling champion trying to make the Olympic team, One More Shot is, he said, "in the Rocky and Karate Kid kind of mold. In my movie, there's no drinking, not one cussword, not one killing. We don't blow up one building. Also, I quit drinking. I learn to pray. Not many films have such a positive message."

     True. Boyd is a heck-of-a-nice-guy, so I go see his movie, and watch him wrestle on the screen, not only other grapplers but a 600-pound bear. At the end of One More Shot, he's on his knees in the locker room talking to the Lord, and there's a soundtrack song imploring, "Don't Give Up Your Dreams."

     Wayne Eric Boyd, I hope you find an enterprising distributor. One More Shot is a tiny movie which would be enjoyed in every small town in America. In the meantime, Boyd has finished a draft of a second script, which he described to me as "another feel-good story, which begins with an alcoholic father who has lost his son, the light of his life."

     A young filmmaker at Palm Springs told me he had been approached there by Boyd, who told him, "I've got a script that's 120 pages. If you can get it down to 90, I can put it in Travolta's hands."

     The best of the Palm Springs Fest? A gentle millenium comedy, Extraordinary Visitor, about John the Baptist landing today in the colorful fisherman's town of St.John's, Newfoundland. It's the first feature of John W. Doyle, 51, who had studied to be a priest, and jokingly calls his film "my revenge against the Church for taking the best years of my life."

(January, 1999)


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