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Taos Talking Picture Festival, 1998

     What sounds more enticing than a long weekend film festival in Taos, New Mexico? But no one imagined for the Taos Talking Picture Festival an unseasonal blizzard, which, for two grim days, transformed the sunsoaked adobe village into igloo-town. In fact, Taos matched depressingly the snowed-in northern New Hampshire visible in Paul Schrader's adept rendition of the 1989 Russell Banks novel, Affliction. The Nick Nolte-starring film, which will be released this October, was probably the biggest coup for the Taos Fest, just in its fourth year.

     "This is a very faithful adaptation of the novel," said screenwriter-director Schrader, introducing the showing. Long ago, he'd thumbed through Affliction in a book store, immediately awestruck by the opening line, "This is the story of my older brother's strange criminal behavior and of his disappearance." That's the voice-over beginning of the film.

     Nolte, who is wonderful, had signed on from the beginning to play Wade, the cursed-by-life schnook protagonist.But Affliction only got made when Nolte finally agreed to come way down on his Hollywood acting price for the chancy project, and when shooting was switched to rural Quebec for the low Canadian dollar.

     "What advice would you give a young screenwriter?" someone asked Schrader. "Spend the first five years of your career networking," said the screenplay author of Taxi Driver. "If that's too humiliating, quit and become a real writer."

     Schrader, the dark-and-difficult cineaste of Blue Collar, Comfort of Strangers, Patty Hearst, Hardcore, was also lured to Taos to receive the 1998 Howard Hawks Storytelling Award, named for the filmmaker of Bringing Up Baby and The Big Sleep. I was honored to write the program note for the Award, and said in part about Schrader, "No other significant American filmmaker has never sold out. Not once. Schrader's simply incapable of Pollyannaism, of consorting with John Grisham, of going soft with Robin Williams, of making one for the studio, one for himself. They're all for himself."

     What's unique about the Taos Fest is its avowed multiculturalism, especially its commitment to forwarding Native American cinema.There was a tribute to a Vancouver-based native filmmaker, Loretta Todd, who unveiled Today is a Good Day, a bio of the late Cree actor, Chief Dan George, star of Little Big Man. The most popular showing at Taos was Chris Eyre's Smoke Signals, an enormously moving Native American road movie about two young Couer d'Alene natives, Victor and Thomas, who leave their Idaho reservation for Arizona to recover the dead body of Victor's father.

     Taos was good enough for D.H. Lawrence, for nearby flying saucers landings, and for Dennis Hopper to shoot some of, and edit, Easy Rider. But this Northern New Mexico village is surely hicksville for Smoke Signals's distributor, Miramax. In another Fest coup, mighty Miramax was leaned on by the native cast and crew to allow a two-showing sneak in Taos of its precious June release. Happily, the Fest chose Eyre for its coveted Land Grant Award, a nonpareil annual festival prize to a filmmaker of five acres of prime desert land on Taos Mesa, near the spectacular Rio Grande gorge.

     "Chris has a pressing engagement out on the Mesa," Smoke Signals actor, Gary Farmer, explained of the missing filmmaker at a screening."He'll be your new neighbor in Taos." Farmer joked, " We Natives are trying to convince him to turn into a reservation, where we all can live."

     The friendly, accessible Taos Fest occurs just long enough after Sundance that it can be a discovery ground for a new batch of American independents, including mistaken Sundance rejects. Journalists and distributors take note! I was especially taken by Vermonter Jay Craven's A Stranger in the Kingdom, a dense, complicated, ambitiously acted regional drama about racism in rural New England, and Juliane Glantz's black comedy debut feature, Wilbur Falls.

     Glantz, a Western Mass. native, wrote Wilbur Falls at 20, directed it at 21, as she graduated from film school at USC. She's now 23, with a husband and a baby, and she's that precocious young talent whom producers should rush to: Wilbur Falls, frothing with energy, ideas, and directorial imagination, is a genuine calling-card movie: she's ready!

     Wilbur Falls was inspired by Glantz's informing Californians about life back home in Becket, population 1500. She told me, "I lived up the street from an axe murderer, the pizza parlor was in someone's basement, you bought milk from the local policeman." In 1997, she took her script to the Sundance Festival and stopped everyone there with her pitch: "It's a dark comedy set in Massachusetts, where I'm from, about a girl in high school who seeks revenge on this jock and accidentally kills him."

     She snuck into a Sundance foot-massage party (!), met a producer there who said, "Yes," then turned out shaky. Wilbur Falls was taken over by Las Vegas investor David Delman, who bankrolled it himself. Glantz shot it in, and around, Becket. A Massachusetts miracle.

     Glantz's next project? A film based on the love letters of Nathanael Hawthorne and Herman Melville!

(Boston Phoenix, April, 1998)


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