On-Line Diary: The Floating Film Festival
Today is the 80th anniversary of the Academy Awards and the beginning of my trip to the Floating Film Festival. More about that later. First I have to get to Los Angeles, see the awards and then make sure I’m awake at 3 am LA time to report on the show via phone and satellite for radio and television stations back home in Toronto.
So far things are going smoothly, save for a guy in front of my who has his seat pushed back so far that I am actually pinned into my chair, barely able to move. It does give me a good view of his dinner plate sized bald spot, but I am distracted from the vast hairless tracks of land in front of my face by the little girl sitting next to him whose running commentary includes remarks like, “I don’t feel sick yet, just really, really scared!”
This year there doesn’t seem to be the general excitement in the air regarding the Oscars. Perhaps it’s because of the writer’s strike and the uncertainty of the show happening, or perhaps it’s because if you combined the grosses of all the movies nominated in the marquee categories you’d barely have enough to cover the craft services budget on Transformers. There Will be Blood, No Country for Old Men and Michael Clayton may be great movies, and all three appeared on my Top Ten list for last year, but they didn’t exactly burn up the box office, so the buzz factor is kind of low.
I’m less excited about the whole thing this year, but only because I am convinced that I know who is going to win in the major categories, and because of my faith in my Oscar prognostication skills, the gold isn’t quite as shiny for me this year as it has been in years past. This year I tried logic instead of sentimentality or opinion to create my Oscar Pool entry. I took all the major film critics polls and combined that data with the Golden Globe winners and SAG winners and came up with a mathematical formula to determine who will win and who will go home empty handed.
Somewhere my grade school math teacher is laughing really hard to himself, dancing a jig with his slide rule at the idea of me coming up with a mathematical anything, but I think I have come up with a method that is as good as any to determine the winners. It’s numbers verses gut instinct, usually the kind of thing I hate, it’s way too logical for my taste, but I have taken such a beating on the Oscar Pools in the last few years by using my expertise and opinions that I thought I’d give practicality a try for a change.
Here are my picks and their percentages:
Performance by an actor in a leading role
Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood 50 %
Performance by an actor in a supporting role
Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men 60 %
Performance by an actress in a leading role
Julie Christie in Away from Her 70 %
Performance by an actress in a supporting role
Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone 60 %
Achievement in directing
No Country for Old Men Joel Coen and Ethan Coen 50 %
Best motion picture of the year
No Country for Old Men 60%
Now, I realize all it will take is for a few ancient actors to vote for their old buddy Hal Holbrook and my whole mathematical system will be thrown out of whack, but until 5 pm Pacific Time today, at least, I’m standing by my predictions.
As I sit on the plane writing this, the laptop literally resting against my chest because the guy in front of me thinks his seat is a Lazy Boy recliner, my thoughts drift to Dusty Cohl. Dusty, one of the founders of the Toronto Film Festival, the Canadian Walk of Fame and general man about town passed away just before Christmas. I’m thinking about him today because I’m on my way to the Floating Film Festival, a seven day festival on a cruise ship that will take us from LA to Mexico that was another of Dusty’s creations.
For those who don’t know he was a man who knew everyone and took great pleasure in bringing people together for friendship, business and often, just for fun. When he died in December I was asked to comment on his passing by several radio and television outlets. I didn’t really know how to sum up his life and accomplishments with just a soundbite, because his contribution to Canadian culture extends far beyond TIFF or the Walk of Fame or the FFF.
His genius was in putting people together who would go on to do great things. For me it is hard to pin down his legacy because we’ll never know how many shows got green lit, how many scripts go written, how many movies got made or how many good times happened because of Dusty’s influence. It is inestimable and the landscape of Canadian culture is going to be a little more barren and a little less fun now that he is gone. Hopefully his disciples, and there are many that looked to him as a mentor, will keep his tradition of collaboration and coercion alive. I didn’t know him well, but I feel like I owe him, not just for the chance to help program the FFF and cruise the Mexican Riviera for a week, but also for all the stuff he gave Canada, and Toronto in particular, that made it a better place.
This is kind of a vacation—a break from Toronto’s ice and snow at least—but I still have work to do. On Sunday I’m doing radio hits via my cell phone leading up to and during the ceremony. The radio hits and my bad planning got in the way of watching the Oscars at a friend’s villa at the glamorous Sunset Marquis Hotel in West Hollywood so I had to settle for the Hyatt Hotel bar in Long Beach. Not as chic, but they had big screens and lots of Stella Artois.
The red carpet show was just as weird as usual. What exactly, were The Rock, Miley Cyrus and Steve Gutenberg doing walking the Oscar carpet? I thought the red carpet was for Oscar nominees, not people who will likely never win anything more than a fan favorite award at a country fare.
Great to see Sarah Polley on the carpet looking slightly bewildered as Julie Christie rambled on about Guantánamo and it was great to hear Ellen Page talk about her recent birthday by saying, “I had a couple of drinks. I’m not gonna lie.”
Low points included Regis Philbin calling Javier Bardem Xavier and Heidi Klum’s spray tan.
Things improved once Jon Stewart took the stage. He poked the nominees saying, “Even Norbit got a nomination, which I think is great. Too often the Academy ignores movies that aren’t good.” He also took a swipe at Away From Her. “It’s the story of a woman who forgets her own husband,” he said. “Hillary Clinton called it the feel good movie of the year.”
Apart from keeping the show running smoothly Stewart did something that I have never seen before. After Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová won for their song Falling Slowly from Once it was quite obvious that by the time that Hansard was finished his thank yous that Irglová was disappointed that she wasn’t able to speak before the music swelled and the show cut away to commercial. Stewart did the coolest thing by bringing her back and allowing her to say her piece.
“This is such a big deal,” she said “not only for us, but for all other independent musicians and artists that spend most of their time struggling, and this, the fact that we’re standing here tonight, the fact that we’re able to hold this, it’s just to prove no matter how far out your dreams are, it’s possible. And, you know, fair play to those who dare to dream and don’t give up. And this song was written from a perspective of hope, and hope at the end of the day connects us all, no matter how different we are. And so thank you so much, who helped us along way. Thank you.”
It was heartfelt, genuine and touching and probably the best moment of the night.
I remembered back to last June when I did a Q&A with Glen Hansard and the film’s director John Carney at the Regent Theatre in Toronto. Once the formal question and answer was over Hansard grabbed his guitar—the same one from the film and the Oscar show with the hole worn in the front from constant use—and played a number of songs, solo, from the edge of the stage. It was a great, intimate performance with the same kind of warmth and charisma that he shows in the film.
It was unplanned and loose. He called up a guy named Peter Katz from the audience to perform and then several members of the audience requested that Glen play Falling Slowly, the future Oscar winner.
“I can’t play it,” he said. “It’s a duet and Markéta isn’t here… although if you want to help me sing it I’ll give it a go.” Three girls stood at the front of the room with him and did a transcendent version of it, complete with perfect harmonies. Of all the Q&A’s I have hosted that one moment stands alone as a high point.
Back to earth… I must admit that my logical system of prognostication didn’t really work out that well. Tilda Swanton and Marion Cotillard were unexpected winners that threw off my calculations and sunk me in the two Oscar Pools I entered this year. Perhaps next year I’ll try runes or astronomy when making my predictions.
Over all the show was short, Stewart was funnyish and occasionally hilarious—two words for you, “Gaydolph Titler”—and although no Canadians took home awards there were some upsets, lots of pretty red gowns with pretty actresses inside them and did I mention it all came in under four hours.
Off to bed early to grab a few hours of sleep before getting up while it is still very dark to do a phone interview with EZ Rock in Toronto and then go to a studio in what turns out to be a dodgy part of LA to do a satellite hit with Canada AM about the Oscars.
MONDAY FEBRUARY 25, 2008
It’s not even six a.m. when they start off my Canada AM segment with a clip from last Friday’s show where I say something like Tilda Swinbton doesn’t have a chance in hell at taking home the gold. It’s a funny clip and Seamus O’Regan and I spend the rest of our time mocking my fortune telling skills. The coolest part of the experience, however, was sitting in front of the Oscar green screen.
I’ve seen it on television for years—the giant gold statues and red curtains—and it was very cool to share a screen with it this year. When I’m done I head downstairs to grab the limo back to the hotel. I find the limo driver crouched in the front seat with the doors locked. Like I said, it’s a sketchy neighborhood.
Once back in beautiful downtown Long Beach the PTC (preferred traveling companion) and I seek out a suitably big American breakfast. We find a diner a few blocks away, and even though it’s a bit menacing looking—there’s a sign in the window that says, “Washrooms are for Customer Use Only. Please Do Not Ask,”—we go in. At the table next to us a woman is doing her hair and makeup. Deciding to stay despite the ambiance, we order two “ultimate” breakfast somethings. I make it about halfway through mine; she even less so. Somewhere a chicken weeps at the waste of her eggs…
After a long walk to burn off the “ultimate” calories we head to the boat, the Crystal Symphony. It’s like an apartment building laid on its side. It’s colossal and, dare I say it, titanic, even. Later I find out that the boat is 781 feet long, 99 feet wide.
Standing in the custom line we end up talking to quite a few people. I come to understand that this is part of cruise culture, it’s very friendly. Most everyone we talk to are Floating Film Festival veterans or “Floaters” as they call themselves. Some have come every single year since day one, others say they have only been coming for a few years, but would never miss it. Their enthusiasm is infectious. In addition to the endless food, the rolling ocean and luxurious surroundings, the people here seem to really love movies.
We get checked into our stateroom. I expected a tiny closet in the bowels of the boat, kind of like the below deck scenes in the Titanic. Instead we have a beautiful room—I’ve had expensive hotel rooms in NYC that were way smaller than this is—with great furniture and a fruit basket.
At 3 o’clock there is a reception in the Palm Court, a giant room with low bar tables and, most importantly, free flowing champagne. Now it is beginning to feel like a film festival.
Danielle McGimsie from e-Talk is here to do a story on the FFF and interviews me, director Barry Avrich and our special guest this year, Gena Rowlands. Danielle suggests that I am the only person she knows who would come on a beautiful cruise to the Mexican Rivera and then spend the whole time sitting in a dark room watching movies. I told her to have a look around. Everyone in that room was going to be spending most of their vacation in the dark.
At six the opening night film, Dinner Guest, a French farce starring Daniel Auteuil and comedienne Valerie Lemercier kicks things off in the Galaxy Ballroom, a large space normally used for live shows that has been converted into a movie theatre. With its pink plush seats and marble cocktail tables it more closely resembles a 1980s hotel nightclub, but the chairs are comfortable and the sightlines good.
After the movie—which everyone agreed was “cute”—we gather in the main dining room. It is a formal affair, although not so formal that we have to wear a tux—that’s tomorrow night. Tonight we’re seated with six strangers, all of whom are huge movie fans who spend the entire time discussing everything from the merits of the Oscar show to Marlon Brando’s best performance to how Julie Christie was robbed of an Oscar for her performance in Away From Her. Despite my virulent anti-schmooze stance, and complete lack of ability to make small talk, it goes well. Just as dinner approached the sea decided to show us who is boss and kicks up some huge swells. Later as the boat rocked I became acquainted with the wonders of Gravol…
TUESDAY FEBRUARY 26, 2008
It’s the first full day on the boat and I have become obsessed with how something this huge can stay in the water. There is nothing around us for miles except open sea—and, I imagine, the odd Kraken or two—so I have to have blind faith that the thing will stay afloat, but I don’t see how it is possible. Also, I wonder, where do they store all the food, the thousands of gallons of fresh water? I ask around and find out that we will use over 1 million gallons of fresh water and 36,000 gallons of fuel on this trip to move the 854 guests and 575 crew members on board.
I’ve never been on a cruise before, so before we left for Los Angeles I decided to embrace my inner cruiser and buy what I thought would be appropriate cruise wear. I wanted to fit in. I guess it worked. Today I saw an eighty year old man wearing the same pants as me. The only difference is, he had a walker and I didn’t, but other than that we were dressed pretty much identically.
Being on the cruise is quite something. Crystal is very serious about service, so much so that the experience of being aboard the ship is kind of like being in a small town where nobody ever says “No” to you. They are relentless in their desire to please and no request is too much. You want to make substitutions on the menu items? No problem! You’d like nineteen extra pillows and a helium stuffed comforter? We’ll be right there! No request is too much and the only time I saw a staff member with anything less than a smile on their mugs was during the mandatory life raft drill when a stern Austrian woman shushed my group, admonishing us for talking and laughing during the drill.
We’re at sea all day today so there is little to do but eat and watch movies. Everywhere grinning staff members tempt me with pastries and tasty treats. The general rule of thumb is that you’ll gain a pound a day during the cruise. I’m shooting for two…
At the first screening of the day Richard Corliss made a funny and heartfelt tribute to Dusty Cohl that bears reporting. Corliss, a writer for Time magazine, was a friend of Dusty’s for many years and one of the original programmers for the FFF. He read a letter written by his wife, Mary Corliss who wrote, “For more than forty years I have been connected with film, working at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and covering film festivals from Toronto to Tehran. IN that time I have met more than a few movie stars so you may consider me an expert on the subject. I can testify that nobody had the star quality of Dusty Cohl. His swagger, his patter his passion for life; the cigars and of course, that hat, made him a unique larger than life big screen character and a forever friend.”
Like many of the tributes to Dusty, Corliss’s homage was touching but irreverent, but, unlike the other tributes, ended with a song.
Corliss went on to describe how Dusty had always encouraged him “be all I could be as a writer of bad song parodies.”
“I will now torture you with one of them. Meeting Dusty’s friends in Canada and meeting many of them on the Floating Film Festival I would often ask the question, ‘Are there any Gentiles in Canada?’ So I was inspired to pen this… (to the tune of O Canada) Oy Canada! Oy Vey and how’s by you…”
The song goes on to praise Dusty and other famous Jewish Canadians like David Cronenberg and Lorne Michaels before ending with a stirring “Oy Dusty Cohl and Mazel Tov to thee!” It was a show stopper and the kind of funny tribute I gather Dusty would have liked.
To cap off the tribute to Dusty a short documentary titled Citizen Cohl, made by festival managing director Barry Avrich, unspoiled before the main feature. As the video played you could hear laughter and muffled sobs in the assembled crowd, many of whom were close personal friends of Dusty.
The first film of the day, Snow Angels, based on a book by Stewart O’Nan and directed by David Gordon Green, is a riveting slice-of-life drama set in a small town involving Annie (Kate Beckinsale) and Glenn (Sam Rockwell) childhood sweethearts whose dreams of happiness didn’t work out quite the way they planned. Separated after the birth of their daughter, the main story focuses on Glenn’s increasingly unhinged behavior and Annie’s inability to completely let go of the image of what Glenn used to be. Ripe with great performances, Snow Angels is a taut and uncompromising look at the dark side of relationships turned sour.
Not exactly 10 am entertainment, but pretty much par for the course at a film festival; if you want sweetness and light, go to Disney World. I think people liked it, but no one would ever call this one “cute.”
Just as the bleak blanket of ennui from Snow Angels was starting to lift I went to see the four o’clock presentation of Frozen River. Again, not exactly what you’d call uplifting. Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is having a rough time. Her husband took off just days before Christmas, she doesn’t have the money for the final payment on her new double wide and all she can afford to feed her kids is popcorn and Tang. Like I said, things aren’t going well. She finds a way out when the chance to make some easy, but illegal money, smuggling illegal immigrants into the US across the St. Lawrence River, comes her way.
I think Frozen River really wanted to be a better movie than it actually is. Leo is good in the lead role, but she’s working against a backdrop of waken supporting performances and a clichéd story.
After the one-two punch of downhearted and dreary films I was looking forward to channeling my inner George Clooney by throwing on my tux and meeting the Captain of the ship at a reception in the main ballroom. I felt as thought I had been thrown back in time to 1955 Las Vegas. The men are all wearing tuxedos, the women long gowns. There’s a small orchestra playing on the stage while people dance the fox trot and the mambo on the dance floor. People are drinking champagne and cocktails. It has the kind of glamour that you usually only see in movies, and I wish I had more opportunity to wear my tux.
Later at dinner we sit with six new people and get the inside scoop on Conrad Black’s trial from a friend of his who was on the cruise. Later, still dressed in our tuxes we retire to the saloon to indulge in that manliest of pastimes, cigar smoking and after-dinner port drinking.
WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 27, 2008
Slept late after a night of cigar bars, sambucca with venture captialists and port with the owners of several Tim Hortons in Calgary. Up in time to grab the “late risers” breakfast buffet on the Lido Deck and get ready to go into Cabo San Lucas for the afternoon. All I knew about the place was that it was the home of Cabo Wabo tequila, it’s at the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula and that it would be hot. Sure enough, after a quick ten minute tender boat ride from the cruise ship to shore we are on land for the first time in days and the first thing I see is a Cabo Wabo sign.
And yes, it is hot.
It was nice to be on dry land, but every now and again a wave of motion would wash over me as if I was still on the boat. It makes you walk funny and feel like you are drunk, but without the work of actually having to drink booze. I’m told Johnny Depp used this idiosyncratic walk in the Pirates movies when Captain Jack Sparrow was on land to show that he had spent most of his life on the sea.
The harbor front area in Cabo has been built up in the last couple of years and, while nice, is really touristy. I didn’t come all this way by land and by sea to eat at Ruth’s Chris Steak House or shop at Chanel, although I was fascinated by the big hotel at the base of the dock, called, I kid you not, The Taco Inn. Later we see a tatoo parlor called The Spunky Monkey with the most obscene store sign I have ever seen in public, outside of some strip joints in Northern Ontario and a bar called, appropriately enough, The Hangover and another store called Redrum (spell it backwards and it is a weird choice of moniker). I also notice that the street signs in town are sponsored by Dos Equis Beer. Al the signs have the street name and beer logo prominently displayed. I wonder if only people over 19 are allowed to walk the streets.
We spend the day walking through the older part of town, eating at an authentic Mexican restaurant (what other kind would there be in Mexico?) and shopping. I’ve always been fascinated by the Day of the Dead art and was lucky enough to find an out of the way shop that specializes in traditional Mexican masks and art. I bought a diorama of a skeleton Elvis, complete with white jump suit and guitar standing in a box stage emblazoned with the words, “Elvis… Has Left the Building.” Other pop culture tributes included a “Bone… James Bone” spy piece, Marrowlyn Munroe and James Dean skeleton figures. They’re quite unusual, but I love my new Elvis piece and the way it mixes pop culture with the traditional Mexican art.
Walking through the streets I pick up a copy of The Gringo Gazette, a newspaper for tourists, with an eye catching photo of a man in a snow storm on the front cover. Underneath the photo it says “Not Cabo San Lucas.” Amen to that.
I’m presenting the movie Chop Shop tonight at 10:30. It was programmed by Jim Emerson, of The Chicago Sun Times, but he was unable to come this year so I have volunteered to chat it up before the screening. I saw it a couple of years ago at another film festival and liked it’s free form, slice-of-life story about a twelve-year-old’s desperate attempts to make a better life for himself and his sister in the downtrodden Willet’s Point neighborhood in Queens, New York.
There isn’t a story as such, but there is real humanity on display, and the kind of social consciousness usually only associated these days with the films of Ken Loach. Barry introduced as “the guy who you’ve seen walking around the ship who looks like Steve Allen.” I was always more of a Jack Paar man myself, but I won’t quibble.
I hoped people would like it and ended my spiel with, “This is a really great film, and I know you’re going to enjoy it.”
Boy was I wrong.
People hated this movie with the white hot burning fever not felt since the opening night of Plan Nine from Outer Space. It literally cleared the room, with one woman loudly declaring “I don’t like this,” as she stomped out. By the end of the film only a few of diehards are left. I’d like to think that people were just tired from a day in Cabo and a late start for the movie, but deep down I know they hated the movie and I feel I’m going to have to spend the next couple of days explaining the movie to irate Floaters.
My first presentation at the FFF was a bust, and I hope that the good folks won’t hold it against me and boycott the movie I am presenting later in the week. I go to bed tired and feeling slightly paranoid.
THURSDAY FEBRUARY 28, 2008
At breakfast this morning I was so convinced that people were going to chastise me for presenting Chop Shop that I sat with my back facing the aisle so Floaters walking by couldn’t see me.
Today’s port of call is Mazatlán, the “Pearl of the Pacific.” Accoring to Wikipedia “Mazatlán is the hometown of Pedro Infante, one of the most popular actors and singers of the golden years of Mexico’s film industry… and was well regarded by film stars such as John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and others of their generation as a sportfishing mecca.”
More than one million people visit this small city every year, but unless I missed something, I can’t imagine why. Perhaps I still had a Chop Shop rejection hangover, and wasn’t in the mood for the place, but I found it to be mostly rundown and dirty, and while we had a great cheap lunch and saw some beautiful tile work, there isn’t much here that grabbed me.
The highlight of the trip to Mazatlán was a visit to the beautiful Teatro Angela Peralta. Legend has it that in 1883 revered Mexican opera singer Angela ‘The Nightingale of Mexico’ Peralta was scheduled to perform in the city’s premier showcase, the Rubio Theatre. Upon her arrival she was met with adoring fans that carried her to her hotel. Touched by this show of affection Peralta performed did an impromptu performance from the balcony of her hotel. The tragic part of the story is that just days later the singer died of yellow fever contracted in the boat that brought her to Mazatlán. She never got the chance to perform in the lovely theatre, but the townsfolk named the place in tribute to her, erecting a plaque which commemorates her unfortunate end.
The theatre didn’t fare much better than poor Miss Peralta. According to the Mazatlán city website, “In later years, the theater was turned into a movie theater, then a vaudeville stage, a boxing ring and eventually a parking garage! Finally, in 1975, a hurricane hit Mazatlán and destroyed the inside of the theater. Standing in ruin for years, the theater began a restoration in 1987, and re-opened in 1992.”
Today it is a splendid example of the Neo-Classical style of the era and is still in use as a working theatre. The day we go through a modern dance troupe are rehearsing on the stage. Upstairs some rather dramatic signs tell the story of the theatre’s restoration. My favorite caption shows a tree growing amid the ruins of the theatre and reads, “A gigantic wild Ficus tree sprang up from the middle of the shattered stage, dwarfing the surrounding walls and making this space look like a ruined dollhouse.” Another says, “When restoration was finally undertaken in 1986 the place looked like a thirties movie set for a plane crash in the jungle.”
We get back to the boat sun stroked and crazy from the heat and miss the four o’clock screening of the new Errol Morris documentary Standard Operating Procedure.
At dinner we sit with the guy whose company built the Toronto subway and the 401 highway. Turns out he’s a movie fan and his grandson just completed the producer’s course at the AFI in Los Angeles.
After dinner we’re off to see the 10:30 screening of OSS 117: Nest of Spies, a spoof of James Bond movies presented by thehotbutton.com’s David Poland. This boat is so large it has two screening rooms, one we have been using during the day and a fully equipped theatre that is used for later screenings. Tonight we’re in the Hollywood Theatre, an ersatz art deco movie palace that holds about 150 people. The audience tonight is in full vacation mode, they’re talking moving around and generally making a lot of noise. The movie is funny in a quirky kind of way with a few genuine laughs, but the restlessness in the bleachers annoyed me.
FRIDAY FEBRUARY 29, 2008
We spent a rare February 29 in Puerto Vallarta, a small resort town that became famous after John Huston and Richard Burton shot Night of the Iguana there. Huston fell in love with the place and built a home on the remote Las Caletas beach and another house in town. Huston’s children Angelica and Danny share his love of the place and are the founders and patrons of the Puerto Vallarta Film Festival.
Night of the Iguana isn’t the only Hollywood connection, however. Parts of Predator were shot there (apparently director John McTiernan lost quite a bit of weight during filming because he was afraid to eat the local food) and more recently Ben Stiller staged a fight with a sea lion at the Sea Lion Adventure of Vallarta Adventures for his film The Heartbreak Kid.
It’s a picturesque tourist town, with shops (the most unique of which was the Rolling Stones Leather shop whose logo is the famous Rolling Stones lips with the addition of bulging eyes) and restaurants dotting the main drag on one side with beach on the other side. Along the boardwalk that snakes through town there are really beautiful, but really unusual bronze sculptures. Resembling something out of a Terry Gilliam movie, these art pieces are vaguely disturbing alien looking faces perched atop chairs at various look out points. Very strange, but quite excellent.
After a couple or pineapple cocktails at the excellently named Daiquiri Dick’s we head back to the ship to catch a special screening of the John Cassavetes’s film Opening Night. Made in collaboration with our special guest Gena Rowlands, Opening Night, which could easily have been called Actress on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, or maybe even Actress Under the Influence, is pure Cassavetes—uncompromising, raw and brilliant. In it an actress (Rowlands) suffers emotional upheaval in her personal and professional life after a fan accidentally dies after asking for an autograph.
I am interested to see that Ms. Rowlands came to the screening and stayed for the whole film. Not too unusual I guess, except that I would have thought it would be painful for her to watch a film co-starring her late husband of thirty-five years. “As an artist I love him,” she once said of Cassavetes. “As a husband I hate him.” Maybe she’s just here for the art.
There is time to grab dinner before the Q&A with Ms Rowlands so I head back to the stateroom to change. I am not a small man, but today, for the first time I noticed a passing resemblance to John Goodman when I looked in the mirror. When I get back on dry land it’s diet time.
The conversation with Gena Rowlands was moderated by George Anthony, the former Sun entertainment writer, current CBC executive and biographer of Brian Linehan. After a slow start the two began to click and she talked openly about Cassavetes—“Once he fell in love with directing,” she said, “he cared nothing about acting.”—told a funny story about Bette Davis and said that after she did her Emmy winning role as Betty Ford that the former first lady was “polite enough not to say anything bad about my portrayal.”
She was gracious, and even took a few questions form the audience, including one from me about her first Cassavetes movie A Child is Waiting. Cassavetes lost final cut of the film to producer Stanley Kramer who changed the ending. The temperamental director immediately disowned the movie. I asked how she felt about the film.
She told me some anecdotes about the making of the film, which used mentally challenged child as cast members. During the making of the film Cassavetes worked with these kids and got several of them, who hadn’t spoken in years, to speak. “It was a miracle,” she said. She went on to describe the difficulties with Kramer and the fist fight—“John popped him”— which ended the working relationship between director and producer.
“We had just come up from New York. I don’t think we had ever heard the fact that the director didn’t have the final cut. To us it was an assumption that he did. We found out the hard way. So there was a great deal of controversy about that. On the other hand I thought the picture was pretty terrific from either point of view. I liked John’s better, but I didn’t hate Stanley’s.”
By the time Ms Rowlands left the stage it was well past midnight and well past my bedtime.
SATURDAY MARCH 1, 2008 and SUNDAY MARCH 2, 2008
Arr Mateys! We’re at sea for two days without a speck ‘o land in sight. There’s nothin’ but water everywhere you look and the seas be rough out here in the open ocean.
I spend some time sitting in the main lobby watching the other guests try and walk upright and the boat lurches to and fro. They’re like Weebles; they wobble but they hardly ever fall down. Watching people try and maintain their balance (and dignity) get old fast so I head for the screening room for a morning of short films and one documentary.
Bruce Kirkland of the Toronto Sun has programmed a nice selection of shorts which have been running before most of the main features. Today we see the Oscar nominated I Met the Walrus. When it played at Sundance the program book said: “In 1969, a 14-year-old Beatle fanatic named Jerry Levitan, armed with a reel-to-reel tape deck, snuck into John Lennon’s hotel room in Toronto and convinced John to do an interview about peace. Using the original interview as the soundtrack, this narrative tenderly romances Lennon’s every word in a cascading flood of multi-pronged animation.”
It’s really quite remarkable, doubly so when you realize that it is the director Joel Raskin’s first film fresh out of school. I have socks older than him, which probably says more about me than him.
The main feature is Gotta Dance, a work in progress from director Dori Berinstein. It’s a charming doc about a group of senior citizens who become overnight sensations as the first ever hip hop dance squad for a major sports team. It’s a crowd pleaser and gets a couple of applause breaks during the film. Afterward Dory takes questions from the audience.
Next up was possibly a FFF first, a film made by an alumni of the festival. A young man named Jonah Bekhor produced a short film called The Butcher’s Daughter as his final project for the AFI. He has ambition, I’ll give him that. For a student film the production value is exceptionally high—it’s a period piece, has jibs and steady-cams—and character actors that I recognized from series television and movies.
With a plot that owes a debt to David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, The Butcher’s Daughter tells the story of a young girl who grows up quickly when she learns that her father has a shady and violent past. It gets a rousing round of applause and later wins the Best Short Film Award.
At two o’clock George Anthony and Barry Avrich do an engaging interview and Q&A regarding George’s book, Starring Brian Linehan. It’s a best seller in Canada already where Brian’s legend for being the most prepared interviewer ever still has people’s interest. Gena Rowlands is there, and speaks about Brian in glowing terms and calls the book one of the best celebrity biographies she’s ever read.
I’ve seen the other two films programmed for the rest of the day—The Counterfeiters and My Winnipeg—and while they are both great I decide to take the rest of Saturday off and enjoy the weather and the ice cream on the Lido Deck.
Strange celebrity story of the day: Richard Carpenter of The Carpenters, as in Top of the World, Superstar and Rainy Days and Mondays was in the casino last night. I didn’t see him, but David Poland swears it is him. Poland also has the Todd Haynes film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, the infamous short film Haynes made in 1987 with Barbie dolls cast in all the major roles. The film is available as a bootleg on the net, but hasn’t been officially released due to a grocery list of lawsuits filed by everyone from the Estate of Karen Carpenter to their music publisher to Mattel.
Sunday is pretty rocky on the ship and I end up spending most of my time in my cabin reading and gulping down Gravol. I’m presenting the closing night movie, which sounds much more important than it actually is. The film is The Life of Reilly and I think this crowd will love it, I’m afraid though, that no one will come because it’s at 10:30 pm, after dinner and just hours before we’re disembarking.
Here’s the speech I wrote: “The late Charles Nelson Reilly was a Tony Award winner, an Emmy nominee and a Broadway director but will always be best remembered as the slightly tipsy, pipe smoking panelist on the 70s afternoon show Match Game. In Life of Reilly, the touching and hilarious adaptation of his one man show Save It for the Stage, the actor reveals a creative depth and sincerity only before hinted at in his television and film work.
“Shot with high definition hand held cameras at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood in what would become his final stage appearance the film begins with stories from Reilly’s troubled childhood.
“’Eugene O’Neill would never get near this family!’ he says with perfect comic timing, breaking the tension built by a series of autobiographical anecdotes about life with a bigoted mother and alcoholic father. It’s his ability to shift the tone of the monologue with just one well placed line or facial gesture that gives Life of Reilly much of its oomph.
“Dressed casually, he roams the stage, a lion in winter, recounting his miraculous escape from a 1944 circus fire; studying acting with Uta Hagan (with Jason Robards and Hal Holbrook as classmates); his innumerable visits to The Tonight Show and the time he put a snobby guest in her place by accurately and powerfully reciting a monologue from Hamlet on Carson’s stage. It’s a masterful performance that suggests that he was underused and underappreciated as a serious actor.
“The stories are by turns sad, funny and poignant, but no matter the tone, are never less than compelling and illuminating. Almost fifty years after an NBC executive told him, “They don’t let queers on television,” you can still hear the hurt in his voice, but also the determination to break through the prejudice barrier that kept openly gay men off the airwaves.
“Of course Reilly proved that executive wrong—he says during the height of his 1970s fame he once counted his name on 56 entries in one week in the TV Guide—and in the process became a groundbreaker for gay rights. His sexuality never defined him as a performer, but nor did he hide the fact that he was gay. He was simply Charles Nelson Reilly, take him or leave him.
“Charles Nelson Reilly passed away in May 2007 just as Life of Reilly was starting to make a buzz at film festivals all over the world. It’s a shame we won’t have any new CNR performances to marvel at, but I can’t think of a more dignified tribute to him than this heartfelt but well etched portrait that reveals new sides to both the artist and the man.”
It’s good stuff, but as I feared there were only a handful of people in the room for the screening. Unlike Chop Shop, however, the few that showed up stayed and liked the movie, so for me, my first FFF ended on a high note.
MONDAY MARCH 3, 2008
Leaving a cruise ship to fly home to another country is a multi-step process that for us began very early in the morning with a visit to American customs. Then off to breakfast. Then off to pick up our bags which had been collected the night before. Then off to a shuttle which took us to a hotel for lunch and then, finally, to the airport. We see Pride & Prejudice’s (and former Bond girl) Rosamund Pike at the Wolfgang Puck restaurant at LAX and then had an uneventful flight home.
The Floating Film Festival is probably the most casual film festival I have ever been to, but don’t mistake casual for haphazard or uninteresting. The films we showed ranged from mainstream to provocative; we had an Oscar winner and at least one film everyone hated (Chop Shop, in case you’ve forgotten) which I think is a must at every film festival. I was thrilled to be a part of it and still managed to get a bit of a tan even though I sat in the dark for most of my vacation.