Here's looking at you, Virginia Film Festival

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When Flynt finally got back to work, he continued to grow his $400 million media empire from a golden wheelchair.

The man in the golden wheelchair

Larry Flynt regrets nothing, or at least very little

After Larry Flynt was shot in the spine by a sniper—a neo-Nazi who had been offended by a spread featuring interracial sex in an issue of Hustler magazine—he spent a decade recovering. When Flynt finally got back to work, he continued to grow his $400 million media empire from a golden wheelchair. The golden wheelchair is sort of a metaphor for Flynt’s life: He calls lowly hardcore porn “a serious form of expression,” talks about it as if it were a fine wine, and spent years of his life in America’s most elevated halls of justice fighting for our right to consume it. Some people make lemons out of lemonade; Flynt gold-plates the weaknesses of the flesh and serves them to the masses. 

Flynt’s transition from humble beginnings to publisher and defender of First Amendment rights is the subject of director Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt, which gets the 15th anniversary treatment at this year’s Virginia Film Festival. Flynt himself is one of the festival’s most esteemed guests—we hope he arrives in the private jet that’s so prominently featured in the film—but it is not his first time in town.

The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression hosted a talk between Flynt and an unlikely acquaintance, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, in 1997. The pair butted heads when Hustler ran a fake Campari ad that included a Q&A with Falwell detailing his first sexual experience—it claimed that Falwell had sex with his mother in an outhouse, as a goat stood nearby. Falwell sued for libel and character defamation. “The Reverend Falwell knew what he was selling, and I knew what I was selling. I think we respected one another. That was a very long and protracted court battle,” Flynt said of the landmark case. “And I won.” (Falwell, for his part, took a special pride in having forced Flynt to spend $2 million in legal fees on the way to that victory.)

In the film version of his life, the Larry Flynt character is played by a sleazy Woody Harrelson. In an amusing bit of irony the real Flynt makes a brief cameo as the judge at an early obscenity trial who sentences Harrelson-Flynt to 25 years in prison. These are some of the film’s most charming moments: Flynt in his wheelchair wearing an American flag as a diaper; his outrageous responses to simple questions from a prosecutor. “Milos was helpful enough to include us in the process, and I think it’s a better film because of that,” Flynt said.

But eventually we see Flynt chastened by the seriousness of his task, which amounts to crusading for the most disgusting, abhorrent things imaginable so that common people don’t have to worry about their right to be far less offensive. “I wouldn’t advise anyone to behave the way I did in court over the years, but you’ve got to understand…It seemed like I had been dragged through most of the courts, and Alan [Isaacman, Flynt’s lawyer played by Edward Norton in the film] and I were fed up with it, and I just had the attitude that, if they’re going to treat me like a gimp, then I’ll just act like one.” 

Was he pleased with the way he was represented in the film? “Yes, but it’s because I understand Hollywood. When they make a movie they want to focus on the most bizarre, outrageous aspects in order to sell tickets, to make it a commercial hit,” he said. 

Courtney Love plays Flynt’s wife, Althea—his only one in the film, but his fourth in real life—who develops a nasty drug addiction, contracts AIDS, and drowns, tragically, in the couple’s hot tub. 

“A lot of the movie is very embarrassing, but that was my life. So I’m not complaining about that,” he said. “Definitely, I had a lot of fun, and a lot of it is really sad, and really disturbing, and horrible. It was almost 10 years that I was recovering from a gunshot wound.”

Today, Flynt says his battleground in the fight for First Amendment rights is continually shifting. “Censorship may not apply to a magazine or to a film, but there’s other forms of censorship that are just as pervasive,” said Flynt. “We’re defending a young woman in Texas who was having a Tupperware party, but she was really selling sex toys. She was arrested simply because it was a phallic symbol. There’s a lot of states that have laws against anything that resembles the phallic symbol. Some of the laws are absolutely juvenile.” 

In the film, and in real life, Flynt brought Hustler into the national spotlight by publishing photos captured by an Italian paparazzo of Jackie Kennedy Onassis sunbathing nude.

Today he remains interested in cutting religious leaders and politicians down to size. He recently offered the disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner a job at Hustler; he offered the accused homicidal mom Casey Anthony $500,000 to appear nude in the magazine; and he’s released a $1 million query for anyone with a steamy tale to tell about Texas Governor Rick Perry. Flynt also released a book this year co-authored with a Columbia University professor called One Nation Under Sex, which explores how the sexual predilections of world leaders have influenced domestic and foreign policy. Of course, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings get high billing. “I wanted to see if I could find that the big sex scandals have been around since the founding of the nation, and surprisingly I did,” he said.

Here’s looking at you, Larry.—Andrew Cedermark

Fest Five

Our critic’s take on this year’s must-sees

You know it’s a fine festival when you feel vaguely annoyed because there’s more good stuff to see than time allows. Try breaking it down by category! (Individual recommendations included; substitutions may apply.)—Jonathan Kiefer

THE BUZZ MOVIE

Lars von Trier’s Melancholia may not be as inherently sensational as his “gynocidal,” genital-mutilating art-horror flick Anti-christ, but it comes with some alluring baggage of its own. Namely, the director’s “I’m a Nazi” gaffe at Cannes, and advance word that this might be the pinnacle of Kirsten Dunst’s career (her performance in the film, that is, not the look on her face when he said that). If nothing else, it looks sumptuous, ecstatic and very strange. Melancholia is not just a feeling, by the way, but a planet on a crash course with Earth. 

THE LOCAL INTEREST

There is much to be said for the cosmopolitan privilege of seeing the world while actually sitting on one’s ass in a cozy dark theater not far from home. How astonishing, though, that the same venue might also grant the privilege to glimpse the rich culture of one’s own community with fresh eyes. To this end, the fest has several fond documentary portraits to choose from. In Preacher, to take but one example, director Daniel Kraus reintroduces Charlottesville Bishop William Nowell of the New Covenant Pentecostal Church, whose highly amen-worthy choir will perform at the screening.

 

 

 

THE ONE YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO ALREADY HAVE SEEN

Classics, new classics, non-classics: It’s hard to keep up. Is it fashionable now to adore Robert Altman or to be over him? Either way, it’s not like you’ll ever actually get around to renting his 1971 western McCabe & Mrs. Miller, with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie as a gambler and a madam who go into business together at the turn of the century. But that’s fine, because the best way to make a nest in this thick atmosphere of intimate Leonard Cohen songs and Vilmos Zsigmond’s muddy, smoky cinematography is to see it on the big screen.

 

 

THE ONE FOR WHOSE OFFICIAL RELEASE YOU JUST CAN’T WAIT

A Dangerous Method seems well-packaged to delight. Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud, Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, and Keira Knightley as the woman who influenced both men’s lives and work. That’s already enough, but throw in director David Cronenberg, the oddball auteur of The Dead Zone, A History of Violence, and Eastern Promises, and it’s hard not to get, um, psyched. Which brings us to…

 

 

THE HEAD TRIP

Astute readers may by now have noticed a predilection here for intellectual and aesthetic enrichment. Well, why not? The real fun of a film festival is in how it elevates the day-to-day moviegoing experience. For instance, it is not every day at the cineplex that one comes upon a “stylized, idiosyncratic retelling of the history of mass migration to post-war Britain through the suggestive lens of the Homeric epic.” But that’s what’s on offer in John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses, an experimental, allegorical mashup of music, literature, and luminous archive-footage imagery. How bittersweet it is to enjoy that arty oddity that might not otherwise ever make it to a theater near you. The headier, the better.

 

 

The National Film Registry was created by Congress in 1988 as a means of preserving films that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” The Library of Congress selects 25 such works each year and stores them at the Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation in Culpeper, just 45 minutes north of town.

Exposing the archive

Library of Congress series was Kielbasa’s pet 

Over a year ago, as the Virginia Film Festival was gearing up for what turned out to be the most successful run in its 24-year history, Jody Kielbasa was already looking ahead to 2011, with an ambitious plan for widening its scope. “One of the things the Festival had been doing in the years before I was brought on as director in 2008 was to screen a lot of classic films,” he said. “I wanted to shift the focus to more contemporary films. Basically, we were aiming to screen the latest and the best films in any given year. But, I also wanted to include classic films, only in a more focused way.”

By almost any standard, Kielbasa succeeded in the first part of his plan. Last year’s Festival opened with a sold out screening of one of 2010’s most talked about films, the Darren Aronofsky psychological thriller Black Swan, which went on to earn Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, and won Natalie Portman the Oscar for Best Actress. This year, on November 3, the 2011 VFF kicks off with another highly anticipated film, Oscar-winning screenwriter and director Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, his first since the widely acclaimed 2004 dramedy Sideways

But Kielbasa has also come up with a way to implement the other facet of his vision—namely, to create a coherent program of classic films. Under the banner of “Turner Classic Movies and The Library of Congress Celebrate The National Film Registry,” the Festival will feature screenings of Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973); the 1926 Buster Keaton silent The General; Robert Altman’s oft overlooked McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971); John Huston’s epic 1948 Humphrey Bogart drama The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; and, from 1944, the Oscar-winning National Velvet, starring Elizabeth Taylor as a 12-year-old steeplechase contender.

The title may be a mouthful, but the program’s premise is remarkably, if rather ingeniously, straightforward. The National Film Registry was created by Congress in 1988 as a means of preserving films that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” The Library of Congress selects 25 such works each year and stores them at the Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation in Culpeper, just 45 minutes north of town. So Kielbasa was simply tapping into a nearby resource for some of the best films in the world.

“I went on a tour of the facility about a year and a half ago,” he said. “It’s built into the side of a mountain, and it used to be a bank vault where they stored gold bullion during the Cold War. If you can picture that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where the ark is stored in that government warehouse, that’s kind of what this place is like. There’s also a preservation room where technicians restore damaged films, sometimes literally working with a scalpel on one frame. It’s a fascinating process, and you can see how it’s done on These Amazing Shadows, a new documentary about the Packard Campus that we’re also screening as part of the Festival.”

Festival director Jody Kielbasa.

Once Kielbasa had established a relationship with the Library of Congress, he approached the folks at Turner Classic Movies to help in the selection process. And TCM weekend host Ben Mankiewicz is coming all the way from Los Angeles to introduce each of the films. “It’s hard for me to turn down an opportunity like this,” Mankiewicz said. “It’s a job that’s hard to mess up. You’d have to be really inept to speak about any of these films and not have people want to see them.”

All five films were chosen with a specific purpose in mind. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and The General its 85th. National Velvet fit the bill for the Festival’s “Family Day,” and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was actually restored in-house at the Packard Campus. But with Badlands Kielbasa pulled off a major coup. The film’s star, Sissy Spacek, and her husband, longtime Malick art director Jack Fisk, live in the Charlottesville area, and both have agreed to be on hand for the screening.

“To the best of my knowledge, this is the only film festival program of its kind,” said Kielbasa, who’d clearly like to see it become a regular feature of the VFF. “I’ll give you a famous Bogart quote: ‘This could be the start of a beautiful relationship.’”—Matt Ashare

 

 

Movies about riot grrrls carry the rock doc load at this year’s film fest.

RIOT GRRRLS VS. LARRY FLYNT

The marquee for this year’s Virginia Film Festival features big-shot names like Oliver Stone and Larry Flynt, but when it comes to music documentaries, the underground rules.

Perhaps as compensation for Flynt’s presence, riot grrrls get the most screen time, with three films related to the feminist punk movement. From the Back of the Room looks at women’s roles in 30 years of DIY punk, eschewing the riot grrrl label for a more open conversation about gender, music and other social issues. In the true DIY spirit, director Amy Oden shot the film with a borrowed camera and raised funds by throwing benefit shows. Interviewed in From the Back, feminist electro-punks Le Tigre are the stars of Who Took the Bomp?, a tour doc that follows them as they perform for ecstatic audiences on four different continents. The third film, Women Art Revolution, focuses primarily on feminist art, but includes an original score by Carrie Brownstein, of popular riot grrrl group Sleater-Kinney and, more recently, the superb Wild Flag.

Rock dudes, fret not! The festival didn’t forget you. In The Other F Word, musicians such as Blink 182’s Mark Hoppus, Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea share the experience of being punk rock dads (Spoiler: Flea cries!). Such familial reflection contrasts sharply with Better Than Something, which examines the short but prolific life of garage rocker Jay Reatard, nee Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr. Dropping out of middle school and starting his recording career at 15, the Memphis musician spent half his life churning out great songs and playing raucous shows, right up until his tragic death at 29. “He was almost like this Elvis-type figure, but angrier,” remarks Shermon Wilmot of Memphis’ Shangri-La Records.

The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground, the only non-rock feature, presents the Yiddish folk group as they travel the world, win a Grammy, and deal with the drama of a faltering record industry. Local talent gets some love, too. Alchemy of an American Artist offers a raw portrait of artist and musician Christian Breeden, and We Are Astronomers captures rock quartet Astronomers as they move from basement to recording studio to stage.

So, sure, The Descendants will probably live up to the buzz, and new Cronenberg and von Trier films are always a treat, but don’t miss this rare chance to see some great music docs. You can wait and ask Sissy Spacek about Badlands when you run into her at Whole Foods.—John Ruscher

 

 

The Casons pose for a family photo.

BIRTH OF A FARMER’S MARKET

There aren’t a lot of films about families that make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. Most celebrate the “dysfunctional” or the just plain “messed up.” But Director Doug Bari’s documentary Growing Up Cason is a rare example of a film about a family “that actually makes it work.”

Growing Up Cason tells the story of seven brothers and one sister who were born and raised in Depression-era Charlottesville. When World War II broke out, all seven brothers went to fight in the war, and, remarkably, all seven returned home safely and married hometown girls. Four of the brothers founded the Charlottesville City Market.

Bari and his wife are the innovators behind Doug & Judy Productions, a company that produces digital memoirs for families. He says he first met the Cason clan at their family reunion, a century-old gathering of between 150 and 200 Casons. He was immediately enamored of their rare conviviality. “They just got to grow up in this really nice atmosphere with friendly people. Even though they were really poor, they always had a ton of stuff to eat because they lived on a really big farm…as one of the guys says in the movie, ‘We didn’t know we were poor.’”

In learning about the Casons, Bari also gained insight into a way of life in Charlottesville that is slowly eroding. “These people are telling you stories about walking to school in bare feet and really doing it… The house doesn’t have any electricity, no plumbing, all the kids have all these chores that they do, but somehow they all stick together and they all do the right thing for the most part.” 

Elaborating on this bygone way of life, Bari said, “One of the guys said Charlottesville was always a jewel, and he was really right about that. It’s the way I felt about this place when I came here. But they got to live it without distraction.”

Bari takes a genuine interest in other people’s stories, in capturing their histories. “You have a story. I have a story. Everybody’s story is unique…people will talk about themselves if you open the door the right way.” And each person’s story comes with a different message. With the Casons, Bari hopes that viewers of his film will realize “that life isn’t as tough as you think it is. And that, if you have your priorities straight, it can get you an awful lot of stuff and you’ll come out O.K. on the other side.”—Sarah Matalone 

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