Aspen Filmfest celebrates the independent spirit | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Filmfest celebrates the independent spirit

Stewart Oksenhorn

It is a broad range of elements that makes up the program for Aspen Filmfest’s 20th annual festival.

There are classic old films – a new print of the Hitchcock thriller “Notorious,” to be presented by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich – and there is one ancient film, “South,” an Antarctic travelogue shot during a 1914 expedition. There is a retrospective of the films of Aspenite Bob Rafelson, whose directing, producing and writing credits include “Easy Rider,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “The Last Picture Show” and “Mountains of the Moon.”

New Voices, a new segment of Filmfest, includes eight films by directors making their feature-length debuts. Recent acclaimed films from Cuba and Kyrgyzstan will give Aspen audiences a look at the wider world. And there are a handful of new American films – “Snow Falling on Cedars,” from David Guterson’s best-selling novel; “Guinevere”; and “American Beauty” – to be screened in Aspen before being put into wide release.

Tickets for Filmfest go on sale today at the Wheeler Opera House box office. Tickets for the downvalley segment of Filmfest, presented at the Crystal Theatre in Carbondale, also go on sale today, at Carbondale’s Sounds Easy. Filmfest runs Sept. 22-26 in Aspen at the Wheeler, and Sept. 24-26 in Carbondale.

What unites the 23 films that make up the program is the independent spirit with which the films were conceived and made. The films are not intended as Hollywood studio blockbusters, distinguished by big stars and enormous budgets. Instead, they are marked by a focus on character and craft, story and setting.

Heading the list of character-driven films are two works – 1972’s “The King of Marvin Gardens” and 1970’s “Five Easy Pieces” – written and directed by Rafelson. (Also being screened are Rafelson’s 1990 film “Mountains of the Moon,” a historical tale of Sir Richard Burton’s 1880s search for the source of the Nile River; and “Head,” a surrealistic look at pop culture starring the Monkees and co-written by Jack Nicholson.) Both “The King of Marvin Gardens” and “Five Easy Pieces” star Nicholson in intense, often uncomfortable dramas, where familial relations spin out of control.

“If you look at these films when they came out, you see the focus on character, not a plot-driven narrative, but a narrative focused on exposing and developing a character,” said Aspen Filmfest executive director Laura Thielen.

For a look at an exotic setting, in an almost unimaginable time, there is “South.” The 90-minute film, restored last year, documents the 1914 journey by Sir Ernest Shackleton and his 27-man crew on the Endurance, as they set out to be the first to cross Antarctica by way of the South Pole. When the ship became trapped in ice, cinematographer Frank Hurley was ordered to abandon his film and equipment. Instead, Hurley plunged into the water, rescued his footage, and continued to document the two-year voyage.

“We have a tendency, especially in film, to think about, `What’s today’s news?’ ” said Thielen. “But it’s so important to look back and see where film came from.

“Like with `South’ – nowadays, people take a digital camera everywhere they go. But `South,’ it’s amazing that they were taking footage of Antarctica.”

Directors making their first features will be celebrated in the New Voices portion of Filmfest. The films range from “Beshkempir – The Adopted Son,” by Kyrgyzstan director Aktan Abdikalikov, to “American Beauty,” by director Sam Mendes, fresh off his notoriety for directing the sensual play “The Blue Room” on Broadway, to “Pop and Me,” a nostalgic traveling documentary about the father-son relationship.

“When we put together the program, we don’t program by theme, but by what we like,” said Thielen. “But New Voices was a deliberate choice. When we started out 20 years ago, and focused on independent films, we were showing a lot of new directors. It was important for us to go back to our roots and celebrate the new talent on the horizon.”

While films from the United States and England dominate the Filmfest program, two films will bring exotic locales into view for Aspen audiences. “Beshkempir – The Adopted Son,” the first film to come out of the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, is premised on the custom of offering a weaned baby to an infertile couple. “La Vida es Silbar (Life Is to Whistle),” by Cuban director Fernando, is a look at romance and repression in contemporary Havana.


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