Inside a film festival: Part 3

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.

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