I am a lucky duck. Why? Because I live near Charlottesville, Virginia. And every year, around Halloween, the Virginia Film Festival comes to town. I don't have to go anywhere, I don't have to take a plane or find a hotel; this festival comes to me.
This year, I got to go to the opening Gala held at the Bayly Art Museum. Tickets are forty bucks a pop for the Gala, but if you go, you just might spot the Hollywood big-shots who've been invited to the festival. My husband won a pair of tickets to the Gala from a radio station, so we got to see how the other half lives, for a few hours, anyway.
You're supposed to get dressed up for this opening night wing-ding, so I dug out my one pair of high-heels from the back of my closet. I thought I looked pretty cute in my heels and black mini-dress until I got there and saw all those young, willowy blondes. Oh, well. I don't know where they came from.
After a visit to the wine bar, we headed straight for the food table, and we were not disappointed. There was an entire salmon encrusted with mustard seeds. And there were duck strips to be dipped in chutney. Kind of like a trip to Chik-Fil-A, but with a better class of poultry and deluxe dip.
We milled around looking for famous people and found other people milling around looking for famous people. I stepped out onto the front porch to watch Rip Torn being interviewed under a blinding television light.
As we watched the interview, we struck up a conversation with a woman who'd come to the festival from Washington, DC. She looked pretty normal -- she was fiftyish, had a New York accent -- but there was something a little creepy about her. I couldn't put my finger on what it was, until we got to talking about famous people and she confided in us that she had once stalked the Dalai Lama. I don't think there was anything sinister about it, but she stalked him, nonetheless, over the course of several days. I didn't dare tell her that the Dalai Lama would be visiting Charlottesville the following week.
I bet that would make a good movie: "Stalking the Dalai Lama."
Pretty soon, Rip Torn walked up the steps to the entrance of the museum. As he passed me, he smiled and said, "Hi." I considered telling him that I remembered him in Ben Casey, but I figured he probably remembered that, too, so what was the point?
We left the gala early, because we were due at the Regal Cinema on the downtown mall to see "Blowup." That's the Antonioni movie from the '60's that's like "Austin Powers," only serious.
I wasn't happy about leaving the gala while there was still wine and salmon left, but, after all, that's the point of the festival: movies.
And there were movies: old movies, new movies, experimental movies, classic movies. And people who know about movies and make movies come to Charlottesville (they take the planes and find the hotels) to fill us in on what went into making all those movies.
Over the next three days, I sprinted from one movie to the next. They were showing at three theatres in Charlottesville: The Regal Cinema, Vinegar Hill Theatre and Culbreth Theatre. There was no time for meals, so I'd grab a Snickers bar from CVS and eat it while jogging toward the next venue.
Someone with ready-made sandwiches and a push-cart could make a fortune during the film festival.
One of the movies I saw was "The Manchurian Candidate." Early '60s, Frank Sinatra, military brainwashing, assassination... It was great. And afterward, David Amram -- who composed the music for the movie -- spoke to us and answered questions. He told us that it came out shortly before JFK's assassination, and it was withdrawn right after the shooting, because the parallels were too disturbing.
On Friday, my husband, daughter and I went to the Culbreth Theatre to watch an evening of Charlie Chaplin movies, three short ones. I'd never been as impressed with his movies as I figured I was supposed to be, plus I'd really only seen snippets of them on TV.
But, at the Festival, there was a live, ragtime orchestra providing musical accompaniment to the movies, and sound effects too. It was wonderful. The place was packed, and everyone was laughing.
The next time I went to the Culbreth Theatre, it was packed again, and again everyone was in stitches, but the movie wasn't Charlie Chaplin's, it wasn't even a comedy, it was James Dean in "Rebel Without A Cause."
It was funny in the same way that "Airplane" is funny: As a send-up of the genre. Jim Backus had the Leslie Neilson role. In one scene, we were supposed to understand that Jim Backus was a hen-pecked husband. So, he was wearing a frilly, lace-trimmed apron, but not just over a shirt, he was wearing the apron over a suit and tie. That's just one example. This movie was a riot.
The best part, every year, of the Film Festival is the three-day, six-hour, shot-by-shot analysis of a movie.
This year, Roger Ebert was back to walk us through Antonioni's "Blowup." After a few minutes of opening remarks in front of the crowd, he takes a seat in the darkened theatre, wearing a microphone and holding a remote control for the video-disc machine, so he can stop and start the film, go backward or forward.
From his seat, he makes comments about the movie: how it was made, some background about the director, stories about the actors, or what the director is trying to accomplish by using a particular shot or camera angle.
The other element in this process is what Ebert calls, "Democracy in the dark." Anyone in the theatre can call out a comment or question. In "Blowup," people called out remarks about all the red-painted buildings and red cars that Antonioni included in his scenes of London.
One man in the audience remarked, more than a few times, on a photograph hanging on a wall next to the protagonist. The photograph looked to be a star, maybe the sun, surrounded by blackness. This guy kept calling out comments about the picture of the eclipse on the wall. Clearly, this was not an eclipse, it was the antithesis of an eclipse. There was no black disc in the middle, nothing obscuring the light. But this guy would not let it go. Lucky for him we were in darkness, and he was effectively anonymous, otherwise he would never live this down.
That's what Roger Ebert means by, "democracy in the dark." Anyone can say anything.
Telling that story makes me feel smug, like I'm so smart because I know what an eclipse looks like. So now, I have a confession to make. A few years ago, the movie we were analyzing was "The Third Man." That's that moody, film noir from the late 1940s with Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles. At one point, I called out what I thought was a straightforward, intelligent question. I spoke up nice and loud, so everyone could hear me, and said, "So, who was the third man?" In case you're not familiar with this movie, let me tell you, this is the single, dumbest question every posed during one of these shot-by-shot sessions. Until now, nobody knew who the idiot was.
The last movie I went to, on Sunday afternoon, was "Shadrach." It's based on a short story by William Styron, and the filmmaker was his daughter, Susanna Styron. I thought it was a lovely movie. Andie MacDowell is in it -- you know, the gorgeous Andie MacDowell -- and the character she plays does not have a flat stomach. Her stomach is soft and round, the way it's supposed to be after you've given birth a few times. That sight alone was worth the seven-dollar ticket price.
It's the story, told through the perceptions of a little white boy, of a 99-year-old former slave who has returned to what used to be the plantation where he grew up, in order to die and be buried there.
When it was over, both Susanna and William Styron appeared in person to discuss the movie. The audience was infested with graduate students and academic types who were very unhappy with William Styron because he didn't tell their stories, he told his story. These academics were looking for an exhaustive dissertation on slavery and its ramifications. They were disappointed because what they got was a good story, well told.
And that was the 1998 Virginia Film Festival. Lots of movies, lots of opinions. God bless America.
I went home and had my first real meal in three days, then collapsed into bed, exhausted, my head spinning with images from other people's imaginations.
It was great.