Aspen Filmfest sees the light
September 18, 2008
ASPEN ” In “Any Given Sundance,” a Simpsons episode from the most recent season, Lisa enters a film in the Sundance Film Festival. When it is eventually screened in Park City, it comes as no surprise that the film, a documentary of the Simpson family, emphasizes the rougher side of life at 742 Evergreen Terrace, Springfield. In one scene, we are treated to the familiar sight of Homer with his hands wrapped around Bart’s throat. As Marge says after the premiere, “Call me old-fashioned, but I usually don’t like movies that humiliate our family in front of the world.”
The episode, as “The Simpsons” regularly does, captures the essence of how we perceive the world. In this case, film festivals are a repository for the edgy and difficult. For happy endings, moral uplift, and families that don’t regularly try to choke the life out of each other, there is the mainstream fare showing at the local googolplex.
“There is that tangent,” said Laura Thielen, executive director of Aspen Film. “Those independent, art-cinema films tend to be willing to take on the more challenging aspects of life, in a way that studios don’t. There are a lot of festival films with that tone: dark, serious, depressing.”
Thielen, along with her husband, George Eldred, who is Aspen Film’s program director, recognize the value of such films. Thielen calls them “important”; Eldred says “worthwhile.” But in assembling the lineup of films for this year’s Aspen Filmfest, the 30th edition of the annual event, they were struck by a different desire, and an alternate sensibility. Filmfest 2008, which runs Wednesday through Sunday, Sept. 24-28, with events in Aspen and Carbondale, is noticeably marked by an optimistic strain.
“One thing we set out to do with this festival is champion stories of hope,” said Thielen. “It’s not like we went through these titles and said, ‘OK, that’s hopeful, let’s book it.’ But going through a hundred films or so, we saw this thread.”
The Filmfest program was thus informed to an extent by the overall character of the films that were available. But Thielen and Eldred were also guided in part by a desire to turn against the prevailing tide, one that carries an increasingly despairing tone.
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“I think there’s this whole uncertainty thing in the media these times,” said Thielen. “We decided to play against that: These are uncertain times, so let’s celebrate these films that are affirmations.”
Thielen has occasionally offered the opinion that a certain film is simply too rough ” violent, dreary or devoid of hope ” to screen at Aspen Filmfest. Other times, she has presented these edgier films with mixed feelings ” recognizing the artistic value, but wondering whether Filmfest is the appropriate forum for such statements. Aspen Film’s programming team is sensitive to the environment that surrounds its festivals, and what plays well in a loud, crowded city doesn’t necessarily transfer to a small-town, resort environment ” especially in the thick of offseason, when the audiences are mostly local folks savoring the quietude.
“An urban culture is a culture of over-stimulation,” said Eldred. “A film in that setting has to really shout to be heard. It’s like being in a room full of iPods blaring ” to get through the din, you have to have an intense way of shouting your message.
“Here, you don’t need that. People aren’t attuned to that. You don’t have to pick messages that are stridently shouted.”
“I think the place of a festival is to entertain an audience, and engage an audience,” added Thielen. “And I’m tired of fear, and I’m tired of cynicism. In small doses, cleverly done, it’s great. But when I go to the theater, I want to see a good story.”
All that said, the stories being presented in Filmfest 2008 have not been scrubbed clean of challenging matter or complex characters. But the films often deal with these situations in such deeply reflective, even heroic ways, that they become hopeful, tender statements on life.
Two examples are the documentaries “Life. Support. Music.” and “Stranded: I’ve Come from a Plane that Crashed in the Mountains.”
The former, directed by Eric Daniel Metzgar, focuses on Jason Crigler, a New York City guitarist. Crigler had earned a reputation as a fine musician and person when one night in 2004, at a gig in Manhattan, the 34-year-old suffered a stroke. The next year and a half was a blur, and as Crigler says, he has been told repeatedly that being unaware of his circumstances was probably a blessing. Doctors feared that Crigler might die before his wife, Monica, delivered their first child, and if he lived, he would probably be severely disabled. But through the unflinching efforts of his family, and some inexplicable internal fortitude, Crigler recovers to the point of re-entering the Manhattan music scene. The story is conveyed with a lack of syrupy overview; director Metzgar wisely allows the action to speak for itself.
“Stranded” has equally grim circumstances. Gonzalo Arijon’s documentary reconstructs the 1972 airplane crash that left several dozen Uruguayans, mostly members of a rugby team, on a snow-covered peak in the Andes mountains. But the reflections on the experience by the survivors are routinely thoughtful and moving, turning what could have been a thin thriller into a penetrating meditation on death, perseverance and one’s relation to his fellow man.
The theme in “Pressure Cooker” is not exactly new in documentaries. The film, by directors Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman, examines the limited options in the inner-city; here, in a predominantly black Philadelphia high school. The novel aspect is that the way out is not sports or music, but culinary arts ” specifically, a cooking competition that awards scholarships to top culinary schools. But what really sets the film apart is the women who oversees the program at Frankford High ” Wilma Stephenson, an autocratic and often severe woman whose methods are easy to take sides with.
“She’s a surprising character,” said Thielen. “She’s someone who’s devoted her life to helping these kids. And she treats them like professionals, and expects them to act like professionals.”
Given the names attached to it, viewers might expect something smug and mocking from “Religulous.” The film features comedian/commentator Bill Maher engaging people about their religious views, and is directed by Larry Charles, best known as a writer for the bottomlessly narcissistic “Seinfeld,” and as director of the fiendish “Borat.” But Charles says the movie is an honest effort at letting people examine their beliefs, a process that has had a lasting effect on him.
“I could make ‘Religulous’ for the rest of my life,” said Charles by phone from Los Angeles. “Because it puts me on the ultimate journey, to find out what we’re doing here. I have a million questions, and it put me in touch with people’s deepest beliefs.”
“People who think it’s going to be lampooning religion are in for a surprise,” said Thielen. “There’s food for thought there. It definitely delivers a message.”
Several narrative films likewise start with people in severe circumstances, and trace their upward climb to an elevated state. The opening night film “Flash of Genius,” based on actual events, stars Greg Kinnear as an inventor pitted against Detroit automakers to get credit for his creation, the intermittent windshield wiper. The Russian film “Traveling with Pets” focuses on a woman having an unexpected, middle-age awakening: “You start off thinking it’s going to be grim, this babushka, living that hard life,” said Thielen. “But it’s like a flower that opens up. It’s a woman who’s dealt a difficult circumstance, and where she eventually brings herself.”
And in “Ballast,” set in the Mississippi Delta, it is a suicide that ultimately brings a struggling black family closer together. The film earned first-time director Lance Hammer an award for best director at the Sundance Festival.
“It starts off abrupt, kind of shocking,” said Thielen. “But the film is really quiet, really subtle, about what happens to these characters. It’s grace. It’s not a real happy ending, but you see this light at the end of the tunnel.”
Thielen and Eldred noted there are also films that address real-world issues. “Crimes Against Nature” is based on Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s book about the dismantling of the Environmental Protection Agency and the disastrous effects on the natural world. Two Israeli films ” the partly animated documentary “Waltz with Bashir,” and the drama “The Lemon Tree” ” look at the country’s struggles and wars with its neighbors. But they are generally in the same realm as another film, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” which points toward a better future.
“It’s a grass-roots women’s peace movement that changed the course of history,” said Thielen of “Pray the Devil,” a documentary set in Liberian politics. “Talk about inspiring and talk about life-affirming.”
Other films to be screened include the French film “A Secret,” about a teenage Parisian learning about his parents’ experience during the Nazi occupation; “The Brothers Warner,” a documentary about the creation of the Warner Bros. studio by Cass Warner, grand-daughter of Harry Warner; the Uruguayan comedy “The Pope’s Toilet”; the French drama “I’ve Loved You So Long,” starring Kristin Scott Thomas; and the exclusive Colorado showing of “Peter Pan,” screened from a new print in honor of the 55th anniversary of the animated classic.
Also, the amiable “How About You,” set in an Irish old-age home; “Teddy Bear,” by Czech director Jan Hrebejk, whose “Beauty in Trouble” screened at last year’s Filmfest; and “Tootsie,” the 1982 comedy classic directed by the late Sydney Pollack, who was honored with Aspen Film’s 2002 Independent by Nature Award.
Filmfest will also screen a Surprise Film, and two Sneak Previews of English-language films currently making the film festival rounds. And Oscar-winning composer Dario Marinelli will appear in a Music in the Movies program, featuring clips of the upcoming film “The Soloist,” Marinelli’s latest collaboration with director Joe Wright.
Expected in attendance are Mark Becker; Jason Crigler; Cass Warner; Angus Yates, director of “Crimes Against Nature”; and Gini Reticker, director of “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.”
Aspen Filmfest 2008 runs Wednesday through Sunday, Sept. 24-28, with events in Aspen and Carbondale. Full program details at aspenfilm.org.