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Palm Springs International Film Festival, 2000

do not panic     I assumed that my 1999 guest visit to the Palm Springs International Film Festival would be my first and final one after I wrote negatively in the Phoenix about a fest drowning in dubious American indie films. No, I was invited back for 2000. Surprisingly, Palm Springs organizers agreed with my criticism: those last-year independents were terrible. They would try to alter the Fest's focus, and for the better. "We pulled back on American films because we can't compete with Sundance at the same time," Jennifer Stark, Associate Director of Programming, explained to me. "We decided to put together our own unique package."

     This is what we got in January 2,000: (a) - an all-star panel of international filmmakers (cosponsored by Variety magazine), featuring Milos Forman (Czech Republic), Hector Babenco and Carlos Diegues (Brazil), and Pedro Almodovar (Spain), discussing the problems of getting non-Hollywood films into theatres (b) - a shift of emphasis to world cinema, including about twenty new Italian movies, surely more than any festival in the world (c) - a showcasing of films from about the globe, from the Phillipines to Nepal, which are the official Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film (d) - a cinematography three-day meeting, in which many of the greatest camerapersons on earth met informally to discuss film preservation, the digital revolution, and the challenges to Hollywood by Denmark's Lars Von Trier and the Dogma devotees.

     I was won over. Where else could I have a chat with Subatra Mitra, the octogenarian cinematographer of Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali and Aparajito, flown in from Calcutta?

     But would the Palm Springs audience - mostly sun-and-golf-and Gerry Ford retirees - go along with the shift to insider film issues and to so much foreign-language cinema? "Absolutely," Stark said. "Probably 50% of our audience are local. If we didn't have that kind of homegrown support, our festival would have a difficult time."

     Stark proved correct. Predictably, a theatre was packed for ancient Kirk Douglas, who made a halting appearance with Diamonds, his new Miramax picture, noting "I did it after I had my stroke. I thought I would never make another movie again until silent movies came back." But the senior folks were there in numbers also for, for example, Bishonen... Beauty, a Hong Kong picture about male hustlers chosen by Danny Acosta, Palm Springs' newly appointed Gay and Lesbian Programmer. Interestingly. one of the highest rated films in an audience poll was among the creepiest and most challenging: After the Truth, a German film imagining Nazi doctor Josef Mengele still alive and returning voluntarily home for an Eichmann-style trial.

     Now, several quotes to ponder from the lively International Filmmakers panel. Hector Babenco (Pixote, Kiss of the Spider Woman): "There is nothing to say in Latin America about the Hollywood invasion. We lose little by little the capacity for rebellion. I never say our audiences don't like our movies, but they have lost the habit of enjoying our movies since 90% of the films shown are American films. Our house has been taken over, and we sleep in the back yard... And the world doesn't want Portugese or Spanish films the last twenty years except those of Pedro and Bunuel. It's very sad for American audiences, not to know who we are."

     Milos Forman (Amadeus, Man on the Moon). "In American moviemaking, entertainment comes first, and soul-searching second, if at all. In Europe, soul-searching comes first, entertainment comes second, if at all."

     Pedro Almodovar (Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, All About My Mother). "I'm not talking about Happiness, American Beauty, or The Ice Storm, but what concerns me is that reality seems to be banned here, from American movies. Reality here is television. This is very scarey to me. When I made Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down!, people here asked me if the actors were really fucking. Well, I don't know if they were, under the sheets, but of course it should be believable! It's a physical lovemaking scene!"

     Almodovar seemed bemused that in the USA the demand for reality is switched from the arts to the confessional private sphere. "A reporter from The Village Voice said, 'Pedro, can you tell me the name of your boyfriend?' I was shocked. Where is the respect? How dare he ask me that? The reporter said, 'There was an article about you in Vanity Fair and there was nothing about your sexuality.' Who cares?"

     To underline his point, Almodovar shook hands with the panelist next to him, coming on as a spill-all American: "Hi, I'm Pedro! I'm gay and single! I'm available! And my grosses last week were $3,000."

     At the conclusion of the panel, the jovial Spanish filmmaker was presented one of three International Filmmakers Awards for this week in Palm Springs (the other List "A" winners: Catharine Deneuve, Zhang Yimou), and he joked with the audience about how to pronounce his oft-mispronounced name: "In Italy, they say Almodovar, and I don't correct anybody, but it's actually Almodovar. It's Arabic, and they were conquerors. Not to say that I'm a conqueror!"

(January, 2000)


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