Inside a film festival: Part 1

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.

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