Editor’s Note: In a town this size, there is no place to hide

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Jeremy Irons in The Mission. Image courtesy of Warner Brothers. Jeremy Irons in The Mission. Image courtesy of Warner Brothers.

I’ve had a couple encounters in the past week with what friend and sometime contributor Jim Barns likes to call the small town department. When I first moved here for the job and wrote something that piqued his interest, Jim would write to me from the small town department and explain the connection between two people, the back story of an issue, or relate some anecdote of his that overlapped with the one I had told.

Anyway, last week for the first time I had a very sudden realization that I’ve been here long enough to become the subject of one (or more) of those stories, that whatever anonymity I’d enjoyed in my arrival had melted away in a hundred triangulated conversations.

It put me in mind of the John Prine song “In a Town This Size”: “What you do and what you think. What you eat and what you drink. If you smoke a cigarette, they’ll be talking about your breath.”

Now this isn’t that small a town. If you read this column much, you’d know I’ve lived in Kyle (pop. 846), Sylva (2,435), and Rhinelander (7,735). But Charlottesville (43,475) at its smallest manages to combine the nosiness of a Southern Presbyterian grandmother with the transactional awareness of a D.C. socialite, so it shrinks up fast. What you need in a town this size is an outside audience every now and then, the chance to shine up and put your best feet forward together.

Which brings me to the Virginia Film Festival’s 25th anniversary, the subject of Larry Garretson’s feature this week. I see Jody Kielbasa on the Mall quite a bit and it was fun to get updates from him (sometimes just a bemused grimace) as he put this year’s program together with his team. It’s even more fun to watch the town gear up for one of its most beloved events. It’s a big year for film in Virginia (Lincoln), but it’s always a big year at the fest because the film industry comes to us.

The first movie that really gets to you is like the first wave you catch. It changes you. Mine was The Mission when I was 11 years old. Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack; Jeremy Irons, Robert DeNiro, and Liam Neeson’s ensemble performance; a pure morality play hitting me at my most morally righteous moment—it made me want to study Spanish and change the world. I remember the narrator, ostensibly the Jesuit Father Luis Altamirano, evaluating the tragedy of the story arc and the hollow absolution he gets from the cynical regional governor that “the world is thus.”

I think people really get down to their best work in life the minute they stop hoping the world will turn out like someone promised it would, and start believing it’s what you make it. But someone’s got to make the promises first, which is what filmmakers do. Altamirano’s response: “No, thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it.”

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