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.
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.
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.
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.