We’ve reached the end. Six days in Palm Springs looking at a hundred or more short films. The judges now have to sit down and parse out who will get the awards. Some judges are better at this than others. Notes I took as one of those jurors in 2000 at the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival. 

Judges Attend The Annual Service At Westminster Abbey To Mark The Start Of The UK Legal Year

Aug. 6

Today is judgment day.

We met as groups in the Festival office beginning at 9 a.m. Jack and I sat in one booth with a VCR. Sharon and Andy took the conference room. Selise and Norman took the larger office.

Jack and I had already discussed out choices for documentary the evening before, so we had a good idea where we were going. But Jack, very generously had gone and viewed my choice for documentary another time.

“I looked at Esther, Baby and Me one more time this morning,” he said. “And I’m willing to change my mind on it. I’ll agree it is a documentary. It’s not a traditional one, but it does examine the filmmaker’s state of mind during his wife’s pregnancy, and although he gave her lines to learn and perform, I guess that is the only way you could film it.”

esther the baby and me 4

Note from 2016 — Decide for yourself; See Louis Taylor’s Esther, Baby and Me: https://vimeo.com/39118601

Jack surprised me several times with his generosity and willingness to consider other points of view.

Indeed, during the juroring process, he was always willing to negotiate and bargain and compromise. I take that as a sign of a very good juror. I also was willing to compromise. I think it’s the only way to do it successfully.

At any rate, we got through our choices in about a half hour and it only took that long because we stopped to view one of the films another time.

I conceded his first choice for documentary — The Sunshine, a straight documentary about the bums living in a Bowery flophouse — and he accepted Esther, Baby and Me as the second prize winner.

For Live Action 15 minutes and under, we both agreed on This Guy is Falling, although, if he had wanted to argue the point, he might have said it wasn’t really live action, since all the sets and backgrounds were computer generated. He didn’t so argue.

this guy is falling fire extinguisher

Note from 2016 — the film by Michael Horowitz and Gareth Smith explores what happens if the gravity switch is accidentally turned off. See This Guy is Falling: https://vimeo.com/347702

Our previous first choice, Echo, about a pair of holocaust survivors, one blind, the other deaf, fell gracefully into second place. Done.

In the conference room, Andy and Sharon had twice as many categories to go through: all the student films. It took them about an hour and they were done, too, with no rancor.

We waited and waited. I went out to the car and got a book. We watched a few favorite videos while waiting for Selise and Norman.

At one point, Fred Linch came into the booth with two videos.

“I’m going to have to cast a tie-breaking vote,” he said.

As head of jury, that was his job, although in six years of the festival, he had never had to actually do such a thing before. He watched two animations and finally made a choice. We heard a few grumbles from the office where Selise and Norman were arguing.

Another hour goes by. Fred comes in with another two films to cast another tie-breaker.

The voting was supposed to last from 9 to 11, if necessary. It took till 2 in the afternoon, because Norman and Selise didn’t know how to compromise and negotiate. They were both stubborn, although, as we found out later, it was mostly Norman who was the horse’s ass.

During the full-jury session to pick “Best of the Fest” from our selections, Norman blocked us, slowed us down and vacillated constantly.

“No, wait. Did I vote for Edge of Dusk? I meant to vote for … no wait, what were the choices?”

There were three choices, but he kept wanting to open it up to others, although no one else would have voted for them anyway, making the issue moot.

Over and over, Norman split hairs, argued points — all meaningless — and made us vote and revote. His notes were a salad of scrap paper with scribblings, in no particular order, so when he wanted to consult them, it would take him forever to find the note he needed, and then when he found it, it was no longer the point he was trying to make.

We were all pretty well exasperated by him, but finally drew the thing to a close.

Each judge was permitted to give one award to any film he wanted, no questions asked. Six “special merit” awards.

I gave mine to Titler, for the category, “Offensive in the Most Memorable Way.” In it a transvestite Hitler sings wildly obscene songs in various industrial settings. Note from 2016 — You can find it on You Tube, but I feel good taste and discretion recommends I not post it here.

After the five of us had done that, Norman came up with three possible merit awards and couldn’t make up his mind — more precisely, he couldn’t remember what they were. He shuffled notes, voted for one picture, changed his mind, no, wait, he went back the the first choice, but then, no, he found a third film and went with it, but wasn’t sure. We were beginning to form a lynch group.

Then Fred asked if there were any other films we should consider.

“I’ll allow up to two more merit awards, if you think they deserve it. But only two. I’ll leave the room and you decide what you want.

I nominated Tex, the Passive Aggressive Gunfighter. Everyone agreed it deserved an award.

Note from 2016 — Tex, The Passive Aggressive Gunslinger, by Brian Sawyer, features Bob Balaban as the deadly desperado who never needs to draw his gun. See Tex: https://vimeo.com/14837389

tex 3

Sharon nominated a slender little slapstick animation film. Norman had three or four — he couldn’t make up his mind which.

Selise joined in. One of Norman’s films was a socially aware film about child abuse. As she was an officer in the group called Women in Film, she jumped right on it.

When Fred came back, we wound up having to vote to see which of the films would get the awards. Tex came in first, so he passed.

To make Selise happy (we didn’t care about Norman), we agreed to give an award to the child abuse film. Sharon was very upset, because, she said, “No one understands animation. This film is very good. I know how hard it was to do it. Awwwwwww.”

Jack jumped to it.

“I’m going to change my choice. For my unchallengable choice for a merit award, I’m going to go with Sharon’s animation. My film already won another award.”

Here he was again, building consensus. Sharon was very mollified.

So, that is how it all ended. The best film didn’t win best of show, but the film that did win was very good. Jack and I had bartered and were satisfied with our awards. I managed to squeeze a special award in for Titler, Andy and Sharon were happy with their choices, and Fred’s choices for Norman and Selise’s two first-place awards were perfectly acceptable.

That is the way it is as a juror. You hope to come out not being embarrassed by the jury’s choices. We did. If the best films in any one juror’s opinion didn’t prevail, at least the second choices of all averaged out and we all came away satisfied.

Even Norman was finally satisfied.


We are winding down now at the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival and the actual judging has begun. These are notes I made as a juror back in 2000 and I hope they give some sense of what it was like. 

TV camera and reporter

Aug. 5

I was interviewed by the TV crew at the hospitality suite.

“I’ve seen a lot of very good movies,” I told the camera, with its light glaring in my eyes. “And no dogs. The quality level has been surprisingly high.”

“What about the filmmakers,” the camera asked.

“They ask, ‘Have you seen my film?,’ but of course, what they really mean is, ‘Did you like my film?’ ”

What I really meant to say is, when they ask, “Did you like my film,” what they really mean is, “Did you like ME?”

What I did say to the camera was, “Artists are so needy.”

The jurors symbolically bought lunch for the filmmakers today — the Festival paid for it, but we were there to “serve” it, which really meant just being there as the food was eaten. TV crews came, piles of Mexican food in drifts on the tables were gobbled up.

The filmmakers mainly talked to each other; they speak the same language. The jurors mainly spoke to each other for the same reason.

“I expected to be bothered more by the filmmakers,” I mentioned to Andy Friedenberg. “Fred said they would be on us all the time.”

“I thought so, too,” Andy said. “They must have gotten to them before it started and warned them not to talk to the judges.”

Nevertheless, a number have come up and looked at my judge’s neck tag and asked with the faces of puppy dogs if I had seen their films.

“That film is in my category,” I would respond.

“Have you seen it yet?”

“It’s in my category.”

It must have driven them nuts.

“Have you seen my film?,” another asked.

I parried, asking him which film it was. I was only looking at professional films and I thought he might be a student, which would get me off the hook.

“Are you student or professional?,” I asked.

“Well, I’m not enrolled in any school, so I guess I’m a professional.”

I thought, that’s a perfect way to define professionalism.

Jack Ofield

Jack Ofield

We started the day with breakfast with Jack. He explained how he got from arctic Canada to San Diego, beginning as a painter planning a career selling gallery art, moving on to scenery painting in local theaters, moving up to directing local theater, thence to a special program for local theater people at the Canadian Film Board, where he learned from Norman McLaren, then on to a life in TV documentaries and to a position as filmmaker in residence at Sand Diego State University.

“I don’t know anything about teaching,” he says he told them.

“A professor took me aside and said, ‘Do you know how much we work? We get three months off for summer, we teach three or four classes a week. The salary is fantastic and they’re offering you tenure. Are you nuts?

“So I took the job.”

We talked over the documentaries. His choices were diametrically opposed to my choices. The two films I voted for were both questionable as documentaries, but I figured, if the Festival accepted them as documentaries, it wasn’t up to me to second guess them. Besides, the films I liked were rich with the sensibilities of their makers. Personal films with distinct points of view. When you finished with them, you got the feeling you knew something about the men who made them.

Jack, on the other hand, chose more traditional documentaries.

“I’m just not sure your films are documentaries at all,” he said.

We argued back and forth, in a good natured way.

“When the Maysles brothers began,” I argued, “there were plenty of people who didn’t think what they did was documentary, either. The camera changed the course of the action they filmed. People acted differently because they knew the camera was running. Now, we have no trouble with them. You complain that the film I love has people in it who are acting, and therefore they can’t be considered documentary. But what they act is the only way to show what was going on inside the head of the filmmaker. It is accurate and factual to the interior life of the filmmaker, and that is what he is making the documentary about. You can’t stick a camera in his ear and see what’s going on in his head. You have to show it metaphorically. That is what the recreations and fictionalized scenes do. They can’t show mere fact, so they attempt to show truth.”

Jack wudn’t having any of it.

At any rate, I finally offered a compromise. We could give first place to his choice if he would allow us to give second place to my choice.

Agreed.

We didn’t discuss our other category in depth, because we had both not seen all the entries yet. But based on what we did say, we won’t have such a difficulty agreeing on a winner.

Carole and I went to the office after breakfast to watch the day’s films in my category — professional live action films 15 minutes or under.

There were some very good ones.

As we were watching I heard someone enter the office and talk to the receptionist.

“Are you a filmmaker?,” the receptionist asked.

“No, but my son is,” she said.

Back in the year 2000, it is day 4 of the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival, for which I am one of six jurors. These were my notes at the time. 

MST3K

Aug. 4

Each day is a constant challenge to organize. The films I need to see to judge are scattered through mixed programs, some of which overlap. To catch up on the films I miss in the theater, I have to go to the Festival office to see on video. But sometimes the time it takes to watch the videos cuts into the next theater session, meaning I have to catch up all over again. It is a never-ending task. At the end of today, I have seen 74 films to judge, and many more outside my categories. By the end of the festival, I will have seen 91 of them.

I am becoming glazed over with short films. I can hardly tell them apart anymore. Sensitive guys learning to be gay, assertive women learning to be shallow, lesbian grandmothers teaching their grandchildren how to be themselves, men in flophouses learning to wear gold lame.

I should say something about the other jurors. We met at the beginning of the festival, but because we are seeing different categories, we rarely come across one another now. Except when we meet at the Festival office and jockey for video stations to watch films. The stations are prioritized. Jack Ofield likes the one in the carrel, separate from everyone else. Only one can sit and view films there.

The largest screen is in the east viewing area. It is usually chosen first by whoever is there. It is a mini theater and many can pull up chairs and watch.

A conference room down the hall has a small TV with a built-in VHS player. The chairs in that room are hard and the lights a little glary and the video player has no remote, which means we cannot pause during the credits to read something.

Finally, in the back of the office is the dubbing station, used by the Festival staff to copy tapes. The set is tiny and only plays mono sound, so some tapes sound like crap in it: You only wind up hearing one track of the stereo sound.

jack ofield 1

Jack Ofield

Jack is in my category, but he is an odd squirrelly fellow with shaggy hair. He’s about 60, I would guess, and is here with his wife, although we never see her. She has the car, so Jack is always bumming rides from here to there. He has a kind of lost look in his eyes and so far has been very good at not tipping his hand.

He has a PBS show called The Short List and obviously sees a lot of shorts. He also teaches filmmaking at San Diego State University.

We talked briefly about the Documentary category today, since we saw the last of them. It sounds as if his tastes are wildly different from mine and we agreed to meet for breakfast to discuss the category. He really liked the flophouse film, which I thought overlong and rather ordinary. We’ll have to see how it goes tomorrow.

sharon wu 2

Sharon Wu

Sharon Wu is a film instructor at the California Institute of the Arts and has been a judge at Palm Springs for at least 4 years now. A recidivist.

Every time we have gone to the office to watch videos, Wu is there. It seems as if she must watch all the films on tape. She is about 40 and just had a baby, which she calls the first baby of the Palm Springs Short Film Festival. She is well liked by all and a genuine regular.

Selese

Selise Eiseman

Selise Eiseman is director of programs for a group called Women in Films. She is married and a mother, thickly built and seemingly humorless, although I haven’t really had enough exposure to her to say that with assurance.

Andy Friedenberg is a shaved headed guy who is director of the Cinema Society of San Diego. He seems jolly and connected. He reminds me almost dead-on of Evan Handler on It’s Like… You Know.

andy friedenberg

Andy Friedenberg

(Outdated reference note from 2016: Handler was a regular on many TV shows more recently, including Californication and as Alan Dershowitz on American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson. But if the ref is too arcane, let’s just substitute Howie Mandel.)

Finally, Norman Gerard is a producer, writer and director of films. He talks like an industry insider, and is quickly dismissive of anything that seems to him to be a demo tape for an actor, suspicious of anything done on video instead of film, and he has that slightly curdling quality of the inappropriately intimate — you know, the kind of guy who calls me “Dick” the first time he meets me, or like the waiter who tells you his life story.

norman gerard

Norman Gerard

Fred Linch is the jury-meister, and is always lining us up with parties to go to when we have no time, or interviews with reporters who never call or get-togethers with filmmakers and studio people when I have to be at a screening. He is big bellied and jovial, with a gravelly baritone and — as I mentioned before — one missing front upper tooth that he seems unaware of.

I’m sure I must seem just as odd to them, always coming to screenings or office viewings with my wife. Carole and I are pretty close to inseparable. I rely on her taste and judgment, but I think the other jurors are perhaps a bit dismissive of her, telling her places she might like to visit while I judge films. Shopping malls and spas — you know, girl things.

Little do they know Carole.

Day 3 at the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival in AD 2000, and the jurors are beginning to be a little bleary-eyed. 

eyes have it

Aug. 3

By the end of the day, I’ve seen a cumulative total of 56 movies.

The process is interesting. The first day, you have nothing against which to judge the movies you see. You don’t know if the film that was pretty good is in fact the best movie of the festival, or if it will turn out to be in the bottom half.

By the second day, you’re beginning to get a good idea what the general run of film is going to be like. And by the end of the day, the deluge of film is beginning to blur together into a single gigantic epic instead of a machine gun of individual shorts. The similarities link together and you see all the pretty, ambitious, miniskirted, black haired, shoulder-padded career women turn into a single type. All the scruffy, unbathed, snotty-nosed begging children turn into a single caricature. All the rock-playing, layabout, scraggle-haired skinny boyfriends become one.

I have sat in a dark theater from 8:30 in the morning and on some days, don’t get out of the dark until nearly midnight. The crowd is mostly insiders — filmmakers and distributors — and they applaud each others’ efforts so no film goes unappreciated. When the maker of one of the screened films is present, he or she is introduced before the program begins and asked to make a few appropriate comments. Most thank their mothers.

The way the judging is set up, we have three pairs of jurors. Two handle all the student films. The next two handle the animation and all the films longer than 15 minutes. Finally, Fred Ofield and I handle all the documentaries and all the live action films under 15 minutes.

The 250 movies entered in the festival are screened in the main theater in programs of 6 to 8 or 9 films in 90 to 120 minute segments, each attendable by the ticket purchasing audience as if it were a single feature.

The programs are built around themes. One program features children, another features gay themes, another looks at crime films. One program is ghost stories and another is experimental. That means that films from each of the five categories (student, animation, documentary, more and less than 15 minutes) show up in each program, making it necessary for all the jurors to attend all the programs.

Luckily, there is a way around this problem, and the problem of overlapping programs, when we cannot be in two theaters at once. That is that we can view videos of the films in the Festival office.

The very first afternoon, we had to set up a dozen or so videos, just to catch up with the films shown the first day, before the jurors actually arrived.

Today, we looked at another 9 films trying to catch up with stuff we couldn’t get to, and even at that, we didn’t finish before closing time. We did manage to see the videos of the films that would be shown tonight, so we worked it to get an evening off. We’re getting worn.

There have been a healthy number of bad films. A few so bad that me and Fred would look at each other and silently hold our fingers to our noses.

“That one was a complete waste of film,” I said of one.

When I mentioned to fellow juror Norman Gerard that his category, with the longer than 15 minute live-action films, seemed to have better films than our category, he just said, “grass is greener.”

I’m sure he had his turkeys, too.

Yet, the level of proficiency has been quite high. Few films suffer from technical incompetence. Most look gorgeous.

The problems are not generally technical, but a lack of something to say. All that technique is used to imitate the cliches of Hollywood, or used for a good idea that the filmmaker never takes anywhere. It dies on the vine.

There were some good lines in the films.

A small girl at a train station watching the odd behavior of the people around her says, “Deep down, there’s an explanation for everything. Trouble is, you can never get deep down.”

An aging blond model is asked about how full her clothes closet is and says, “I don’t change my clothes, they change me.”

In another film a former drug dealer and ex con becomes a father and tells us, “I was the poster child for the anti-father, and I’ve always kind of liked that about myself.” He changes.

A woman who lives in Japan for a few months is bewildered by the culture and its contradictions and hypocrisies, and finally decides she is limited to “seeing through the keyhole that is my own experience.”

Another woman’s idea of excitement is the “high-risk perfectly executed one-nighter.”

There is a good deal of cleverness and wit in these films, although too many of them peter out in the second half. And considering they are all under 15 minutes, that is a mighty quick petering. Interesting set up, no payoff.

Seeing the videos all afternoon freed us up to travel around Palm Springs in the evening.  There are a gracious plenty plastic surgery offices in town. Some cosmetic dentistry, too. And at least one office that promised “biological age reversal.” Whatever that is.

As far as the city goes, it is almost like a science fiction movie. Palm Springs in August is a ghost town. Shops are closed, restaurants are closed. We have trouble finding a place to eat. The Hyatt Regency, where we are staying (at the Festival’s expense) is empty. We can walk around the lobby and listen to the great hollowness.

palm springs hyatt

Yet, at every Festival event, the people ooze from the woodworks. Hundreds show up for the screenings. Hundreds hang around the “Hospitality suite” in the shopping center, where filmmakers hawk their films to the industry. And on Thursday evening, Palm Canyon Road is decked out in a street fair, with food booths, rides, radio station promos and craft tents. Thousands of people walk up and down the pavement getting temporary tattoos and eating tacos and ice cream cones. Bands play music and kids take pony rides. Where did all these people come from? This afternoon, you could have shot a bazooka down mains street and not have injured a fly.

It is almost like a Twilight Zone episode, the transition is so mysterious. Ghost town — bustle and hustle. Where do they go in the daytime: Shopping centers are closed. The shopping mall next to the hotel is vacant. We walked up and down the street on Tuesday evening trying to find a place to buy some bottled water, and everything was closed up. It was like a university campus during spring break.

Tomorrow, we’re scheduled to begin looking at films at 8:30 a.m. The question now is if we’ll be able to survive the next 50 films.

It is the second day of the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival in 2000 and I am one of six jurors looking at dozens of shorts, of varying degrees of eptness and ineptness. Four more days to go after this one. 

palm springs post card

August 2

Breakfast at 8:30 with my fellow jurors and Fred Linch. We are introduced to the “juror wranglers,” who will follow us around and make sure we do what we’re supposed to. They will make sure we don’t miss any of our films.

Because screenings began yesterday — we didn’t know it; we weren’t told — we had to catch up on a few films, so after lunch, we drove to the festival office to watch videos of them. When we got there, juror Jack Ofield was already watching. We went through a quick dozen of them and managed to finish in time to get to the 5 p.m. program at the theater.

I won’t go over the films individually here, but I should note a few trends. It seems that short films are for short people. Over and over, the films were about talented and sensitive children and their loutish parents. It seemed a film couldn’t go by without an adult punching, slapping or otherwise bruising a quiet, sensitive youngster. Some of these films were good, some middling, some bad. But the theme pervaded.

There was a lot of street begging, too.

Another thing I noticed is that short films are slower than features. Although they follow less action and their plots are more compact, the camera will follow an action endlessly, letting us savor every millimeter and moment. Where a mainstream film will cut from one significant action directly to another, avoiding the transitions as needless upholstery, the short film will pretty well pass up the important action — often too complex or expensive to film — and concentrate on the transition, letting the camera linger excruciatingly over the character rising from his chair and walking step by painful step all the way over to the door, grab the door handle, turn it a full 140 degrees, slowly, with every creak of metal, and open the door, finally walking into the next room, closing the door behind him. The main part of the scene, however, is likely to be played out elliptically.

We see a lot of waiting in the films, too. Rain falls and we wait. The elevator is paged and we wait. Life in short films is full of waiting. Pensive, portentous, meaningful waiting.

In general, the foreign entries are less trivial than the American ones. The American films tend to be about the peeves of young Americans, their boyfriends, girlfriends and parents, all miffed at each other. Or they are about nothing but rehashed feature film ideas: ghost stories, superheroes, action adventures, all concocted out of previously-owned plot material. Characterization is brief and sketchy, pretty much borrowing “types” familiar from other films.

The American films have a tendency to be flashy, slickly made and banal. The European and Latin American films seem to be more concerned with actual life, not life as learned from the TV screen.

As we left the theater to go and grab a quick bite for dinner we passed a man on a cell phone making a deal in the parking lot. He held his briefcase in the same hand as the phone and it wagged off one side of his head like a giant Dumbo ear.

“I welcome your energy,” he said.

Dinner was at a health food restaurant. Carole had the carrot shaving and alfalfa sprout burrito and I had the avacado and lettuce quesadilla. It was said to be quite nourishing.

Meanwhile, a man came in and looked at their magazine rack.

“Do you have the Yogurt News?” he asked.

Bergman DeathWe had to rush back to the theater for the 8 p.m. showing of Jewish documentaries, mostly involving the holocaust. Scary looking stuff, but the real winner was a film called King of the Jews, which took a very personal look at the image of Jesus as seen by a young Jewish boy who was deathly afraid of Jesus. It was all made up of clips of family films and old movies, set to the music of Bartok and Arvo Part. It made me cry. It gets my vote for best documentary. At least, so far.

There was also a Brazilian short about Bergman’s pasty-faced Death looking for his next appointment in a bar and having a drink with a suicide. It was a scream, with a paunchy Death and a couple of absurd deaths.

We got back to the hotel by about 11 p.m. in time to go to bed and wake up for the next day’s haul.

I wrote a fair share of movie reviews as a critic with The Arizona Republic. Because of my interest, I was chosen in 2000 to be a juror at the Sixth Annual Palm Springs International Short Film Festival by event  director Fred Linch. I recently rediscovered the daily notes I made during my sojourn in Palm Springs, and will post them over the next several days. 

palm springs night

August 1, 2000

I am a juror at the Sixth Annual Palm Springs International Short Film Festival and I’ll be seeing something like 250 films over the next five days.

The festival is the largest international short film festival in North America, a title that I notice is worded quite explicitly, with a lot of loopholes.

Nevertheless, opening night festivities are crowded with about 400 people. Some are jurors, like me. Others are presenters, even more are filmmakers and industry flacks. There are corporate sponsors and a sizable army of hangers on. You recognize them by their heavy makeup and garish black costumes. One fortyish woman in black capri pants looked as if, not counting her silicone, she must have weighed 80 pounds. Counting the silicone, I doubt I could have picked her up. Her chest rose like twin balloons, held down by twine. If she had inhaled too sharply, I think her chest would have strangled her.

The event began with the usual procession of officials making slack jokes and applauding each other. The city councilman congratulated himself, and then everyone else he knew, either personally or by reputation. The schoolkid who designed the poster was applauded and given a prize check. The jurors were identified from the podium. We had to stand and let ourselves be known. Later this proved amusing.

line to enter theater

After the ceremonies, we watched five short films, all rather on the longish side, but probably worth seeing. Then the lights came up and we all exited the theater and joined the buffet in the parking lot.

Lines formed everywhere for the tiny Mexican burritos, the tiny enchiladas and the baby-size tacos. Drinks were a couple of bucks and they were going fast.

There were only a few tables and chairs, and they were full, so we walked around with our plates in our hands, popping chicken wings into our mouths and licking the grease off.

One young man with a handful of promo cards shoved one in my hand.

“You’re that judge, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I guess I am.”

“Well, make sure you see this film.” He slapped one of the cards in my empty hand. “Riddle of Ararat,” it read. “World premiere of a film by Robin Simmons, produced by George Adams.”

“Is an ancient volcano at the center of the earth’s land mass the hiding place of Noah’s Ark?,” is said, rather longishly for a catchphrase.

“Ararat,” he said. “It’s in northern Turkey.”

“I know where it is,” I said. “And now I know where the movie is, too.”

“What? Oh. Yeah.” And he turned away looking to slap a card in another juror’s mitts.

People were lined up being interviewed against the marquee by TV cameras and their attendant microphone pointers in red blazers. One after another, camera lights went on, microphones were pointed, trenchant comments were made and lights went off.

An older woman passed by and saw my neck tag.

“Oh, I better not mention it to you. You’re a judge.”

“Oh, it’s OK,” I said.

“Oh, nothing,” she said. “I’m the filmmaker’s grandmother and I want everyone to know how wonderful he is.”

A young man in a white shirt with no collar looked at me funny.

“Aren’t you one of the judges?”

“Guilty.”

“Which one did you vote for?” he asked.

I looked puzzled. This was the first night. We hadn’t seen any of the entrants yet.

“I mean, you are one of this year’s judges, aren’t you?” he asked.

“Yes, but we haven’t seen the films yet.”

“Then how can you judge them?”

“We’ll be seeing them over the next week, then we’ll judge.”

“But I thought you already saw them.”

“No.”

He looked at me like I obviously didn’t know what I was talking about and that unless I told him the truth about which film I voted for, he wasn’t going to waste his time with me. He didn’t and left, disappointed.

A blond woman in a black dress introduced herself.

“I’m from Scottsdale,” she said. “I read your reviews in The Arizona Republic. But what I want to know is why doesn’t Phoenix have a film festival?

“We do.”

“We do?”

“There is the Scottsdale Film Festival. I was a juror for it, too, earlier in the spring. At Scottsdale Community College.”

fred linch ast scottsdale film fest

Fred Linch (left) at the Scottsdale International Film Festival

“I must have missed it.”

Meanwhile a radio station DJ was blaring very loud music all across the parking lot and making market-savvy interjections between the songs.

It was beginning to wear on us, so we went back to the hotel.

When we got to the lobby Fred Linch was sitting at a stuffed chair just outside the bar waiting for some friends. Fred is beginning to look a little too much for his own good like what Rod Steiger became. He also has one upper front tooth missing.

He reminded me about the jurors’ breakfast the next morning and told Carole, “There’s a really good discount mall at the edge of town, just take Palm Canyon Road out of town past the I-10 junction and go a couple of miles beyond to the Indian reservation. It’s the greatest discount mall. Bigger than the Fashion Square in Scottsdale.”

Earlier in the evening, he had told Carole she wouldn’t be seeing much of her husband in the next five days.

In both cases, our teeth shriveled for the obvious dismissal of Carole as a mere wife, whose interests must lie in shopping or something else more trivial than the movies we important people were going to watch.

So, we rode the elevator up to our room, enjoyed the air conditioning and prepared for bed.

Forrest City Arkansas

Travel writing is so unbearably perky. Resorts are wonderful, restaurants are heavenly. In most such writing, even traffic jams are quaint. As if the entire planet were one big Club Med, full of martinis and masseurs.

But travel isn’t really like that. Despite the best propaganda from the nation’s chambers of commerce, often travel is bad food and lumpy beds. There is rain and mud, closed museums and long, hot queues. And with endless miles between destinations, one is often forced to choose interstate highways, which are endless miles of boredom. An interstate in Kansas doesn’t look much different from one in Vermont: just a closed off view of trees and crown vetch.

And so, you suffer soggy, cold fried chicken, motel mattresses with valleys running down both sides, showers with water that smells like a dead opossum, gas station restrooms smeared with grime and tar and perpetually wet floors, and occasional automobile breakdowns, flat tires or the anxiety of passing a sign that says, “next services 235 miles.”

What is all the more astonishing, and seldom written about, is that it is frequently the miserable portions of a trip that are most memorable. Surviving them can strengthen the bond between travelers the way surviving a war bonds veterans.

And when we reminisce, it is often as not about the night there were no motel rooms to be had, or the day the transmission fell out in Death Valley.

I call such occurrences “adventures.” We had many adventures during the 1980s, when my wife and I were both teachers and had long summers off. Each year, we packed up the car and set off on cross-continental trips. The first, in 1982, covered 10,000 miles in two months. If I recount a few of those adventures, we cannot hold it against the places where they happened. Times have changed. Some we have revisited and had a great time, even if our first impression was somewhere below the level of dismal.

Nathan Bedford ForrestTake Forrest City, Arkansas. It is now more than 30 years since we came to that benighted place in the flat floodplain farmlands just west of the Mississippi River. We had traveled some 600 miles that day, from western North Carolina and were too exhausted to go further.

The city was named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan and a notorious Confederate cavalry general during the Civil War. Today, I’m sure the town — for to call it a city is to inflate a civic brag — is much nicer now, with better accommodations and eateries, but when we stopped there, it was a sorry, forlorn town, in every particular on the wrong side of the tracks. We stopped at the D&M Motel, now long out of business, if my Google search is right, which was advertised as “the best in the state.”

sanitized for your protectionThe cracked concrete parking lot, with crabgrass poking through didn’t tip us off. The crazy old crone who was “concierge” didn’t give it away, either. I suppose our first real signal was when we got to our room, that underneath the paper “sanitized-for-your-protection” band on the toilet seat, a cigarette butt and a raft of soggy ashes floated in the water.

We needed to eat before turning in, and when I asked the hotel keeper for a dining recommendation, she told me, “If it’s just good old fashioned eatin’ yer after, I guess the best is the Blue and White Cafeteria. If ya want barbecued beef, then Barbecue Pete’s … no, wait, he was closed down by the health board. Yeah, I guess the Blue and White. It’s where we always go.”

The restaurant was a cracked stucco building next to a railroad bridge. We were the only car in the dirt parking lot. When we were seated, our booth had a view, through the flyspecks on the window, of the railroad embankment.

Three obese middle-age trailer-park renegades were dolled up in waitress uniforms and one took the pencil from behind her ear and stopped chewing gum long enough to bring us menus and greasy glasses filled with water. I removed a hair and took a slug, stared at the menu and tried to choose something non-toxic.

I forget what I ordered, but whatever it was, the flies loved it.

But even after this repast, I believe the concierge was right. After driving through the town, I believe the Blue and White was the best place in town. I had no reason to assume there was anything better on down the road and we had already driven 600 miles, so we did our best to sleep discovering to our itchy discomfort that the room had already been rented to a national convention of fleas. Too tired to complain, we slept and scratched.

Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Celebrates Its 75th Year

A few years later on another trip we were in the upper Midwest, headed from the North to South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore. After a long day’s drive we looked for a motel only to discover it was the weekend of the Sturges Rally, and tens of thousands of motorcyclists had converged in that quadrant of the state. We steered slowly through Sturges in between large bearded men in sleeveless leather coats and biker chicks in jeans and boots, and among the thousands of shiny choppers leaning beside the road chock-a-block like schools of fish. We stopped at one motel and a very helpful concierge laughed a kindly sort of “what-fools-they-be” chuckle but phoned around to see if any other hostelry might have a chink in the wall they could rent to us. No luck. He finally found a place; it was a hundred miles away, off to the northeast from town, down endless state highways, well off any beaten track and well out of the itinerary we had so lovingly planned. Exhausted as we were, we wove our way back out of the invaded territory and its armies of bikers, and into the back of the back of beyond. We found when we got there, there was one single room left. We took it, slept in it, and felt grateful that the water coming out of the tap only smelled necrotic.

Rising storm, I-40 Texas

Another time, we camped near Shamrock, Texas, just off Interstate 40. It was one of those industrial campsites filled with RVs, with a laundry and camp store in the center. That evening a violent thunderstorm blew up. Before it hit, our neighbor, who had been there for a week, told us that the previous day, a tornado had ripped through the area. Did marvels for our confidence. When the storm came full, our the floor of our tent began to wobble like a water bed and the whole thing began to luff wildly. We were actually afloat in our tent. Then, we were airborne in the tent. We knew we had to get out, but when we did, the tent began to fly off. I held onto it as it gained altitude, and over my head, it tore back and forth like a kite out of control. The rain did not come down in drops, individuated, but more like Niagara Falls, a sheet of water.

Shamrock, Texas

My wife ran to cover in the brick laundry while I wrestled the tent to a draw as it got caught in the sheet metal roof of a concrete picnic table. I joined her in the safety of the building. All the campers were there. Babies were crying, newlyweds were feuding, old people were remembering the storm of ’47. As the worst of it passed those in camper-vans began to return to them and we went back to our car. I managed to disassemble the tent, and stow it. We got in the car and tried to sleep in the seats. It was misery.

Eventually, we gave up and drove into town looking for a motel and found one open at 1 a.m., with an office aromatic with curry. We woke up the concierge and got the last room, half hidden by a tool shed. Inside, the floor was covered in a none-too-clean grass-green shag carpet that not only sat on the floor like a bad toupee, but actually continued up the wall for three feet, like a hairy wainscoting, and also continued up the sides of the bed. We were soaked, our clothes were soaked, the car was soaked, the tent was a jumble of nylon and tentpoles puddled with water. But we slept well. We didn’t have to deal with any of it till the next morning.

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