What’s in a name?
September 20, 2006
Jazz Aspen Snowmass was taken to task earlier this month when its Labor Day Festival failed to attract the monster names of years past. Jazz Aspen executive producer Jim Horowitz explained that several bigger acts – Paul Simon, the Black Crowes – were lined up, only to have the deal fall through.Across the hall from Jazz Aspen’s offices at the Red Brick Center for the Arts, Aspen Filmfest has had few such worries. True, Aspen Filmfest 2006, which opens Tuesday, Sept. 26, and runs through Sunday, Oct. 1, is notably short on big names. The one genuine movie star on the program, Harrison Ford, won’t be appearing onscreen, but onstage; Ford will be the recipient of the Independent by Nature Award in a Sept. 30 event. The biggest name actors actually to be seen onscreen include Laura Linney, Julie Walters and Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley in the “Harry Potter” films), all of whom are clustered in the comedic family drama “Driving Lessons”; Gretchen Mol, who appears in the romantic comedy “Puccini for Beginners”; and Helen Mirren, the durable British actress who stars as Queen Elizabeth II in the closing film, “The Queen.”Even behind the scenes, the name recognition is low. The most recognizable director in this year’s Filmfest is Stephen Frears of “The Queen,” whose filmography includes such delights as “Dirty Pretty Things,” “High Fidelity” and “The Grifters.” Two of the biggest names on the Filmfest program – John Lennon and the Dixie Chicks – turn up not as actors or filmmakers, but as documentary subjects.
None of which gives Laura Thielen, Filmfest’s executive director, too much concern. Aspen Filmfest – whose tag line over its 28-year existence has been “Independent by Nature” – is not built on star power, but on the possibility of discovering the little-known. Thielen enjoys having Harrison Ford – the biggest star in cinema history, if one goes by box-office receipts – to draw attention. But she is likewise pleased that Ford is an anomaly, and that Filmfest doesn’t have to chase after the blockbuster films, actors and directors to attract and please its audience.”You always want a couple of anchor pieces. If you don’t have the festival equivalent of a tent-pole, how do you get people in the door?” said Thielen, who has been director of Aspen Filmfest since 1995. “But I’m not driven by that. I find it refreshing to have a festival that features a lot of ‘first feature’ and documentaries.”Put the emphasis on a lot. True Stories, the documentary segment of Filmfest, takes up seven of the 21 film slots; New Voices, dedicated to directors making their first feature films, gets another four slots. Documentary filmmakers not named Michael Moore generally are not household names. And first-time feature directors don’t usually attract established stars.Thielen, however, is more concerned with quality than name recognition. “The bottom line is great films,” she said. “Interesting films. Films that resonate with us.”Small, but mighty
Of course, the film medium differs greatly from the concert business, which translates into vast differences in how film festivals are booked, as opposed to music festivals. Massively popular music acts are in short supply; massively popular films are replicated in abundance, with prints being sent to most corners of the globe. If Jazz Aspen doesn’t bring a Neil Young or Bob Dylan to the valley, Neil and Bob aren’t coming here. (Unless Belly Up flexes its increasingly strong muscle.) If Aspen Filmfest doesn’t program the latest work from Martin Scorsese or Paul Thomas Anderson, that film will eventually make it to the Isis and Movieland. And if Filmfest draws 400 people to one of its smaller films, that’s a good showing. For Jazz Aspen, 400 people at one of its festival dates means it may no longer be in business.So film festivals, from their beginnings, were intended as showcases for movies that might have passed under the radar. The bigger festivals now include blockbusters and high-profile prestige films, which go a good way toward generating publicity and income. The Toronto International Film Festival, Thielen points out, features some 350 titles. “Maybe 50 of those have a celebrity factor, but 300 are people you’ve never heard of, places you’ve never been to,” she said. “What you hear about, when they cover Cannes or Toronto, is the celebrities. But it’s a foundation for newer voices.”Aspen Filmfest has remained a small festival. The festival hasn’t expanded considerably in size in years. (The organization has grown in other ways. Its Shortsfest, an early spring event, has become one of the most notable festivals of short films; Filmfest has also expanded its Academy Screenings program and its educational offerings.) Filmfest is still presented in the quiet fall offseason, and is aimed at a local audience.That audience wants it to stay that way. Perhaps unique among local festivals, Thielen doesn’t feel pressured to program more attention-grabbing fare. There are, to be sure, higher-profile films she tried to snag for this year’s festival: “Marie Antoinette,” directed by Sofia Coppola and starring Kirsten Dunst as the 18th-century French queen; “Volver,” the latest by Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. But Thielen knows her audience will get a chance to see those films when they get a wider release. Some of the films shown at Filmfest may never hit a big screen again in Aspen, or even in the U.S., outside of another festival screening.
“The feedback we got after Filmfest last year, people expressed a clear appreciation for the documentaries, the foreign films, the smaller films in general,” said Thielen. “If people are going to have a festival experience, they want to see things they wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to see.”Sticking to its original mission has worked in Filmfest’s favor. An audience has been cultivated that shares the organization’s interest; neither is looking for movie stars and big-budget extravaganzas, but for interesting alternatives.”This has been true of this festival for 25-plus years,” said Thielen. “With the core audience, there’s a trust: ‘I don’t know these films, but there’s a willingness to try, to go on an adventure.'”Even those hoping for a star turn in the Surprise Film should look instead to the multiplex. Thielen is mum on the film’s title, but says it “comes from a place people don’t know a lot about. They have a lot of opinions about it, but they don’t know much about it.”Star power
In film as in music, popularity is relative. Though Jazz Aspen took some knocks for booking such headliners as Kanye West and LeAnn Rimes at the Labor Day Festival, no doubt a good number of fans were thrilled by those appearances. Some filmgoers will be disappointed that Filmfest didn’t include “Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny” in its program, but lined up to get tickets to the latest film by Barbara Kopple. Or Jennifer Westfeldt. Or Radu Mihaileanu. Or Susanne Bier or Adrian Belic. None of them are glossy magazine celebrities, but all carry some weight among cinephiles.Documentarian Barbara Kopple first gained notoriety in 1976, when “Harlan Country, U.S.A.,” her exploration of Kentucky mineworkers taking on a powerful mining company, earned an Academy Award. Kopple earned fans from another corner of the film world with 1997’s “Wild Man Blues,” the unexpected profile of Woody Allen. Kopple’s latest film, with co-director Cecilia Peck, is “Shut Up and Sing,” which follows the country group the Dixie Chicks following their 2003 onstage denouncing of President Bush. The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival two weeks ago and has its U.S. premiere here, which Thielen calls a coup for Aspen Filmfest.(Another documentary about the political side of a pop singer, “The U.S. vs. John Lennon,” also screens at Filmfest. The film, focused on the antiwar activism of the late Beatle, is co-directed by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld, whose previous work has been primarily in television.)
Jennifer Westfeldt was the co-writer and co-star of the charming romantic comedy “Kissing Jessica Stein” (which had one of its first screenings in Aspen, at the 2002 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival). Westfeldt is the writer and co-star of another romantic comedy, “Ira and Abby,” which earned the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the Los Angeles Film Festival. The film co-stars Robert Klein, Fred Willard, and local actress Judith Light.”Live and Become” is the follow-up to Romanian-born, French-based director Radu Mihaileanu’s “Train de Vie,” an award-winner about the inhabitants of a Jewish village devising an ingenious escape from the Nazis. Here Mihaileanu, the son of a Communist Jewish journalist, returns to a Jewish theme: “Live and Become” follows a Falasha, an Ethiopian Jew relocated to Israel during the African famine of the mid-1980s. The film has earned top prizes at festivals in Vancouver, Berlin and Copenhagen, as well as a French César Award for best original writing.The Danish team of director Susanne Bier and screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen follows 2004’s acclaimed “Brothers” with another drama of family turmoil. “After the Wedding” trails Jacob from India, where he heads an orphanage, back to Copenhagen, where he confronts the unexpected consequences of past relationships.Adrian Belic’s entry is “Beyond the Call,” a documentary of three men, straight out of Middle America, whose common hobby is delivering aid directly into the world’s most troubled spots. The film earned the Grand Prize at Telluride’s Mountainfilm. Belic’s last film was the Oscar-nominated “Genghis Blues,” about the American singer Paul Pena’s journey to the central Asian region of Tuva.Additional Filmfest presentations include the Cannes award-winner “Ten Canoes,” featuring a cast of all Australian Aboriginals; “Starter for Ten,” a British coming-of-age tale set in a posh university in Margaret Thatcher’s England; “God Grew Tired of Us,” a profile of three Sudanese boys in America that earned two top Sundance awards; “Jesus Camp,” a documentary about a summer retreat for young Evangelicals; and “Days of Glory,” a French war tale about the North African soldiers who fought on the side of France against the Nazis.