Original print: Leonard Maltin preaches the gospel of classic film
Beyond all the glitz and glam and celebrity appearances, there’s no better place to be a lover of film in its purest form than at a festival. Between the premieres and sneak peeks of future hit films before award buzz and marketing tactics dominate the conversation, the risky endeavors attempting to court distribution deals and the independent and short work that you may never have the opportunity to see projected onto a screen again, festivals are the ultimate destination for any true cinephile.
As much fun as the bright, sparkling exclusives are, film is an art form with a rich history that deserves as much acknowledgment as the newest blockbusters. It is in this spirit that the Virginia Film Festival welcomes noted critic and historian Leonard Maltin, who will serve as host, interviewer, curator and guest programmer for several special events at this year’s Virginia Film Festival. Maltin has played a significant role in the way many Americans view and discuss film, through his work on Entertainment Tonight as well as his groundbreaking annualized collection of capsule reviews, Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide. Maltin is also a passionate advocate for film history, frequently writing on the subject of classic films as well as serving as a member of the National Preservation Group.
As part of VFF’s partnership with the Library of Congress, Maltin will introduce two classic films at UVA’s Culbreth Theatre: legendary noir mystery The Maltese Falcon (Saturday) and racy pre-code milestone Employees’ Entrance (Sunday) on beautifully restored 35mm film. Both films are emblematic of their respective genres and resonate on three levels: as snapshots of different eras in filmmaking in both form and narrative, as the foundation on which much of what we love about films today is built and as timeless stories with lasting themes to be appreciated in their own right.
“If you’ve only seen The Maltese Falcon at home on a small screen, that’s fine,” says Maltin in a recent phone interview with C-VILLE. “But I think you will have an enhanced experience seeing it the way it was meant to be seen: on a big screen, in 35mm, in a darkened theater, surrounded by a simpatico audience, all those things together. And I hope that my introduction will put it into a context that will add to people’s appreciation as well.”
This series comes at an interesting time in film preservation, with studios seemingly throwing open their older property (the free-to-view Paramount Vault YouTube channel, 20th Century Fox offering rentals through iTunes). Through his public advisory work, Maltin is keenly aware of the delicate interplay between access to the general population and fidelity to the filmmaker’s vision. On the one hand, increased digital access is good for new students of film history and for areas without repertory theaters with the proper equipment to host films on their ideal format. Yet in artistic terms, it is only when a movie is viewed as the creators originally intended that its full impact is felt.
“There’s two levels of this,” says Maltin. “One is the actual preservation work, which is crucially important. And some people don’t understand this; they say, ‘Well, what do you mean, preservation? I have this on VHS, I have it on DVD.’ That doesn’t mean the film is properly preserved. It means there’s a copy that’s good enough to release on home video, but if the negative hasn’t been properly taken care of, the sound hasn’t been re-recorded, technical things, then as the home video media improve—like Blu-ray, let’s say—it’s not going to look so good or sound so good. Then the other level is that really, these films were always meant to be projected onto a screen. And if they aren’t projected onto a screen, something is missing. Something invaluable is missing. And that’s one of the reasons I’m so happy that I’m getting to introduce these films to an audience.”
Maltin views digital formats as “an alternative; not everybody’s interested in vintage films. Not everybody’s curious or open-minded about it, but I would say that there’s a great value. And it’s not every day you can see pristine print of these films on a theater screen with an audience. And that’s a particular value of the festival embracing this idea.”
“I could go on a rant about this—but it’s only movies that get called old. No one refers to that old Mark Twain book, Huckleberry Finn, or that old Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or that old Verdi opera,” he laughs. “But movies, because they’re kind of the stepchild of the arts—and some people don’t think of them as art at all—get a dismissive, ‘Oh, but it’s an old movie. I don’t like old movies. I don’t like black and white.’ I think it comes from the fact that movies are—and in fact, have always been—a form of entertainment for people and a form of escape for people. Nothing wrong with that. So I think, in a way, they’re kind of taken for granted [as an art form].”
Increasingly, whether through studio pressure or financial constraints, many independent cinemas have disused or even discarded their old equipment in favor of digital projection. “It’s a real concern, because the remaining repertory theaters, or most of them, cannot survive with only 35mm. They can’t do the series, the comprehensive series that they might want to do. And some of the studios don’t have the prints. So they’ve had to adapt and use both formats.” Yet, Maltin maintains, “Access is crucial. And then we have to have the desire of the access. How many young people coming up have the curiosity to be seeking out these things? That’s another question.”
Maltin will also be hosting screenings of Bill Plympton’s animated comedy-drama-fantasy Cheatin’ (Saturday) and Maggie Greenwald’s underseen ode to turn-of-the-century Appalachian folk music Songcatcher (Sunday), as well as in-person interviews with the films’ directors. Many will be familiar with Plympton’s work (see page 21), if not his name. In addition to his own celebrated films I Married a Strange Person!, Idiots and Angels and a myriad of shorts, Plympton has created music videos and advertisements that are no doubt seared into the memories of a generation. “He’s a very buoyant kind of guy, and very enjoyable to listen to,” says Maltin. “And how many people are there in any form of filmmaking who have such an instantly recognizable style? If you look at a frame of his work, you know it’s his.”
Greenwald’s Songcatcher, released in 2000, follows a professor of musicology who studies an Appalachian community that, due to its isolation, has kept alive centuries-old traditional folk songs from England. While pursuing her work, she confronts her own prejudices while growing to see this community as more than a quaint accident of history. Along the way, Greenwald tackles issues as timeless as cultural schism, shifting attitudes regarding sexuality and—an issue close to Maltin’s heart—the preservation of historical and cultural legacy for subsequent generations. “It’s a film that not enough people saw. And I think it’s a beautiful piece of work. Having Maggie Greenwald for Songcatcher is very meaningful to me, because I think she’s a highly underrated filmmaker, whose work deserves to be better-known—demands to be better-known. I’m very excited she can be there.”
Maltin’s much-read Movie Guide published its final edition last year, but he maintains an active online presence at Leonard Maltin.com, which features his many reviews and essays on film history, and he can currently be seen discussing new releases on the ReelzChannel.
With one eye fixed on the present and one on the past, Maltin’s message of valuing films equally—as entertainment and as art—is an important one in the age of changing formats and the unsure future of digital intellectual property rights. But even with as much as there is to love about movies, for Maltin, it always boils down to culture and community. “I’m looking forward to meeting people [at VFF]. I love interacting with people at festivals. That’s one of the things that I enjoy about festivals. And I love preaching the gospel of classic films.”
Clocking in: Behind the scenes with Jeff Wadlow’s Adrenaline Film Project
Each fall, Jeff Wadlow visits his hometown to lead the 72-hour filmmaking blitz that is the Adrenaline Film Project. The annual competition enlists approximately 10 teams, each writing, casting, filming, editing and finally screening a film during the Virginia Film Festival. A filmmaker himself, Wadlow is the founder of the project, now in its 12th year.
“One thing that was really seminal for me was attending Roger Ebert’s shot-by-shot reading of Citizen Kane [at VFF] when I was in seventh grade,” says Wadlow. As a result, Wadlow felt indebted to VFF, which led him to join its advisory board in the early 2000s as he was beginning his filmmaking career. Soon after, and coinciding with the 2004 festival’s theme of “Speed,” Wadlow pitched his idea for Adrenaline to the VFF director at the time, Richard Herskowitz. “It was just supposed to be a one-off project to go with the theme, but it was a big success,” Wadlow recalls. Based on that, Herskowitz made Adrenaline an annual feature.
Reflecting on his career as a filmmaker, Wadlow says, “It all went hand in hand. I was emerging as a professional filmmaker while I was encouraging others to pursue their dream of becoming professional filmmakers.” Certainly, he has found success in the decade since his 2005 theatrical directorial debut, Cry Wolf. You might know him from Kick-Ass 2 and Never Back Down, or the buzz around his upcoming feature, The True Memoirs of an International Assassin. However, Wadlow has never allowed that to distract him from Adrenaline. And when Herskowitz later moved to Oregon, he urged Wadlow to launch Adrenaline at the University of Oregon as well.
Even with two Adrenaline competitions on opposite coasts per year, Wadlow remains committed. “I’ll never give it up,” he says. “I’m going to drop everything to do it.” He’s only missed three of the 18 Adrenalines that have taken place, and Wadlow says, “I’ve personally been involved in 180 short films.” It’s an estimate, based on the average number of teams involved in each competition. Multiply that by the individual team members and you get a sense of the project’s impact.
Adrenaline is designed to be a safe space, with Wadlow and fellow mentors supporting and guiding the process for writers, directors and actors. “I’ve never had a team not complete a film,” he says “We surround them with an incredible staff that won’t let them fail.” Wadlow is quick to admit that he also learns from Adrenaline. “It’s a chance for me to formalize my process,” he says. “When you’re forced to communicate your process, it makes you analytical about your own method.”
He also learns how to continue improving Adrenaline based on feedback from each competition. In the past, that input has led Wadlow to bring in Erica Arvold and her casting company to augment the casting process. This year brings further growth, including a database of available composers plus a workshop with a renowned acting coach. “I think the most impressive thing is that Jeff really cares about these filmmakers and about these films,” says Arvold. “His mind is so focused on Adrenaline all the way through.”
Screenshots: Top choices from the film festival program
With so many important, entertaining, enlightening films at this year’s Virginia Film Festival, choosing which selections to prioritize can be a fun but daunting task. While there’s no “right” itinerary to take in everything that VFF has to offer, here are some suggestions.
Director Todd Haynes’ winning streak continues with Cannes favorite Carol, based on Patricia Highsmith’s groundbreaking 1952 novel The Price of Salt. Rooney Mara plays Therese, an aspiring photographer who becomes enamored with an older woman, Carol. Mutual admiration blossoms into genuine love at a time when society was not accepting of same-sex attraction. Uncharacteristic for its time, the novel depicted same-sex relationships in an unabashedly positive light, and Haynes’ thoughtful and attentive direction crafts a film worthy of its source material.
Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, whose La grande bellezza took home the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, continues to make waves with his second English-language feature, Youth. Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel star as lifelong best friends who reflect on a life of accomplishment while on vacation in the Swiss Alps. Yet with pride in their life’s work comes the realization that their best days have already passed them by, and what comes next may only be disappointment. Youth is bitterly funny and frightfully moving with a universality that transcends its premise, and is one of VFF’s must-sees.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
One of the most definitive organizations in modern political history, the story of the Black Panthers comes alive with Stanley Nelson Jr.’s documentary Vanguard of the Revolution. Nelson does an exemplary job of summarizing the narrative of the party, which is as sprawling and layered as the 1960s, covering the party’s origins, aspects of its platform, the Draconian COINTELPRO crackdowns and its living legacy in the world of activism. Though the full story of the Black Panthers and the members who defined it is far too large for a single film, for those seeking a primer or introduction, Nelson’s documentary is an ideal starting point.
Wherever one’s personal tastes may fall, consider stepping out of your cinematic comfort zone with a pair of technically innovative films from abroad: Gust Van Den Berghe’s “tondoscope” debut, Lucifer (Belgium/Mexico), and Sebastian Schipper’s single-shot, Victoria (Germany). Lucifer tells the story of a fallen angel and his impact on a small Mexican village, while making use of a brand new lens built specifically for the film that gives a circular, appropriately otherworldly feel to this supernatural tale. Victoria follows a young woman and her friends in Berlin who go from partying to robbing a bank in real time. Shown in a single, unbroken shot, Victoria’s conceit avoids coming off as a gimmick, effectively conveying how quickly everything can change with no warning at all.
For an artist who has been banned from leaving his home country or even making movies, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has made three excellent films in secret since this sentence was handed down in 2010 and shows no sign of slowing down. With Golden Bear winner Taxi, Panahi continues the ground laid by his fascinating documentary of his house arrest, This Is Not a Film, and covertly produced Closed Curtain, offering a unique and eye-opening depiction of life in Tehran. The film follows Panahi, posing as a taxi driver, who engages in stunningly candid conversations with his passengers, sometimes affirming the regime’s poor record yet shattering the image of a population cowering in terror.
Son of Saul
As the remaining Nazi war criminals die from old age, the narrative of World War II and the Holocaust has shifted from the top-level cabal of bigoted fanatics at its center to the lives of regular people forever affected by their atrocities. Son of Saul, the feature film debut of Hungarian director László Nemes and winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes, follows Saul, a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz who is a member of the Sonderkommando, a unit of Jewish prisoners who were forced by threat of death to dispose of the remains of Jews murdered by the Nazis. There, Saul sees the body of a boy he believes is his son, and attempts to save the body and ensure a proper, though clandestine, burial. Sober in both tone and mission, Son of Saul is an unflinching, gripping depiction of courage and defiance in the face of unthinkable horror.
Though “family film” has come to mean 90 minutes of distraction for kids, VFF has set aside Saturday as Family Day at the Betsy and John Casteen Arts Grounds, an entire day to celebrate all that can be great about entertainment that both kids and adults can enjoy. With the event featuring a selection of Pixar’s short films from 2007 to 2012, a screening of touching family classic Babe, the return of the Young Filmmakers Academy and interactive workshops for kids interested in a future of film work, anyone wanting to instill a love of all that movies can do in their children should stop by.
Writer and a fighter: Larry Kramer’s normal heart
Larry Kramer has had his finger on the pulse of what it is to be a gay man for the past 50 years. His 1978 novel, Faggots, and its depiction of the partying, promiscuous ’70s made him a pariah on Fire Island. His play, The Normal Heart, captured the fear, anger and heartbreak as a mysterious fatal disease decimated the gay community in the 1980s.
However, it’s his work as a gay rights activist that may be the first thing that pops into people’s mind. Kramer is the founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. He also founded the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power—ACT UP—a group that used civil disobedience to protest the lack of funding, research and treatment for people with AIDS in the ’80s. Its first demonstration blocked rush hour traffic in New York in front of the Food and Drug Administration, the agency Kramer believed was dragging its feet in coming up with treatment for the HIV positive.
“I have no idea how many times I’ve been in jail,” Kramer told C-VILLE via e-mail because of difficulties hearing on the phone. “Less time than I’ve been in hospitals, I’m afraid.”
In 1988, Kramer discovered that he had hepatitis B, was HIV positive and in dire need of a new liver. Mount Sinai Hospital refused to put him on its organ transplant list because people who were HIV positive were considered poor candidates for transplants due to their projected short life spans. Kramer became the poster boy for AIDS/homosexual discrimination, and after news reports that he was dying, he received a new liver in 2001.
It’s “still in good shape, I’m told,” he says.
He says his writing and his activism feed each other. “AIDS gave me my subject matter that set my creativity on fire,” says Kramer.
Growing up Jewish in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Kramer has been an atheist since he was a teen. “But being Jewish has made me fascinated in how we have been eliminated during so much of history, just as gays have,” he says. “I write about this to a huge degree in my new book.”
That book, The American People: Volume I, isn’t the first time he’s observed parallels between Jews and gays. During the AIDS epidemic, he wrote 1989’s Reports from the Holocaust: The Story of an AIDS Activist.
It’s been more than 30 years since acquired immune deficiency syndrome was first observed, and a diagnosis of human immunodeficiency virus infection is no longer a death knell—Kramer has been HIV positive for 27 years. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled states cannot discriminate against gays who want to marry, but assessing the changes he’s seen in his lifetime is not a question Kramer likes to answer.
“We still are not a unified united population, so I don’t think that enough has changed to congratulate ourselves,” he writes. “There is still much work to do. That AIDS is still a plague after 35 years proves how powerless we are.”
The 80-year-old makes his first trip to Charlottesville for the Virginia Film Festival screening of the documentary, Larry Kramer in Love and Anger, and for An Evening with Larry Kramer, both November 8.
Kramer says his husband, David Webster, was “heartbroken” he was turned down to study at the University of Virginia, and went to Columbia instead. Webster, an architect, has been here often and is very knowledgeable about the area’s history, says Kramer. “He knows all about Charlottesville and Jefferson, etc.,” he says.
During the inevitable Q&As with Kramer, here’s a tip about a question he hates: How would you like to be remembered? (C-VILLE asked anyway so you won’t have to.)
“I would like my writing to be recognized for its excellence, rather than its controversy,” he says. “I am usually reviewed as a loud-mouthed activist, not as a good writer.”
Fans of his 1969 Oscar-nominated screenplay for D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love would disagree.
Drawn to distraction: Bill Plympton’s rebellion with a colored pencil
If the Disney Corporation is the safe superego of American animation, then Bill Plympton’s films are its id. As animation conglomerates strive for non-threatening family fare, Plympton’s work remains rye and utterly adult, with berserk sexuality, ridiculous violence and amorphous physiology as his trademarks. Plympton’s iconoclastic films, including The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger and Santa, the Fascist Years, mark him as a true independent in an increasingly corporate medium.
Film critic Leonard Maltin, who will moderate a Q&A with Plympton at a screening of Plympton’s 2013 film Cheatin’ at this year’s Virginia Film Festival, says “I’ve been a Bill Plympton fan for decades, since he first dipped his toe into animation. I appreciate the fact that his films are so distinctively his. I can’t think of another animator whose work represents a unique style of cartooning the way his do. One look and you know whose film you’re watching. Add to that a wild and crazy sense of the absurd and you have an irresistible mix of ingredients.”
While major studios employ armies of technocrats to craft slick, “realistic” mega-budget CG spectacles, Plympton, 69, eschews computers, and hand-draws approximately 40,000 individual frames for each of his stylized feature films. His cartoons’ sublime, raw, crafted feel adds a human dimension that computers can seldom equal, and although they’re labor-intensive, Plympton’s films cost a tiny fraction of the majors’.
“The film Cheatin’ cost about $400,000 and that’s the budget times one thousand of a Pixar film—$200 million, $300 million,” says Plympton. So, it really is one-one-thousandth of the cost of a big-studio film.” And creating that massive outpouring of artwork for his cartoons “is a pleasure,” Plympton says. “It is so relaxing, so fulfilling, so amusing to draw these characters every day—that they can do really nasty things, bizarre things and dreamy things, and it’s like playing God. And if you can play God for a day, it’s very entertaining.”
As with many successful artists, life can sometimes get in the way. “My problem is, I’ve got to stop drawing and take care of business and do contracts and watch my studio and deal with boring stuff…I almost wish I’d get arrested and thrown in jail because then I wouldn’t be distracted by my drawings,” says Plympton. “I’d be able to get so much more work done.”
Thirty years ago, when Plympton abandoned his illustration career to focus on animation, he was warned that he was entering into a dying medium. Instead, he created an extraordinary niche: His meticulous animation has been lauded since his Academy Award-nominated debut, Your Face (1987). Plympton’s output has been prolific, garnering him two Academy Award nominations, two Palme d’Or nominations at Cannes for Best Short Film and countless other animation awards. He also became a fixture on MTV and animated a Kanye West video, “Hear ’Em Say.” All within a dying medium.
Despite the long list of achievements, Plympton’s sophisticated, acidly funny work has generally been more welcome in Europe. “In America, anyway, animation is strictly a children’s medium,” he says. “And that really offends me—I mean, why can’t America watch cartoons for adults? I’m talking about in movie theaters, not ‘South Park’ or ‘Family Guy.’”
Plympton sees his latest work as an opportunity to change domestic attitudes. “So my goal in making Cheatin’ is to change America’s mindset that animation is just a children’s medium. Not only that, but also the idea that computer animation is the only kind of animation that people want to see. That really bugs the hell out of me, too.”
Ironically, despite how wildly his work differs from major studios’, Plympton doesn’t slip into predictable indie versus corporate diatribes. “I think that How to Train Your Dragon is a masterpiece,” he says. “And Toy Story 3, I was so emotionally involved in that film.” And though some call Plympton “The Anti-Disney,” it’s a misnomer: Plympton adores Walt Disney’s films. “Although Disney wasn’t an animator,” Plympton says, “I wouldn’t be here today without Disney. He was such a genius.”
Plympton’s Cheatin’ cleaves closer to work that he cites as inspirational, such as Bob Clampett and Tex Avery’s films and Yellow Submarine (1968). The film’s plot sprang from an askew romance Plympton once had. “About fifteen years ago, I was dating this girl and it was true love, I thought this would be the love of the century,” he says. “We moved in together, and after about two months, we were ready to strangle each other. And yet I still wanted to have sex with her. I thought that was a very curious relationship to have these two opposite emotions coexist in the same relationship. So I thought I would make a film about this couple who loved each other so much but yet [are] still trying to kill each other. I thought that would be a very entertaining movie.”
As festival-goers approach his films, Plympton says, “I think the most important thing is that I’m an independent animator and I am surviving as an independent and it’s possible these days to make your own film without going to big corporations or big studios. And that’s what I want to talk about.”
Doeville, directed by Kathyrn Pasternak, kicks off the Virginia-connected lineup by telling the story of eccentric deer farmer Gail Rose, who calls the Shenandoah Valley home. The film offers “insights into the lives of all small farmers, their joy and struggles, and their passion for their work,” says Pasternak. The uplifting tale hones in on the personality of Rose, who carries on the unpredictable life of a deer farmer as a promise to her late husband.
On the environmental bill for Virginia films is Rappahannock. Directed by Oscar-nominated Bayley Silleck, it captures the history and cultural significance of the Rappahannock River watershed, dating back to pre-colonial society, and examines the environmental issues it faces in the 21st century. “We have seen firsthand the way films like Rappahannock inspire audiences to get involved with environmental issues,” says conservationist Woodie Walker, who will lead a discussion following the screening.
Coming Through the Rye, Elemental
What do a coming-of-age story to hunt down J.D. Salinger and an 11-minute short on matters of the heart have in common? Virginia filmmaker Eric Hurt, who acts as director of photography for Coming Through the Rye and is the director of the short film Elemental, which screens before The Lady in the Van. Hurt compares the two working roles in terms of stress, creativity and emotional connectedness.
Working as head of visuals for Coming Through the Rye, a tale of a 16-year-old in 1969 struggling to fit in at boarding school, “offered a lot of creative freedom without some of the stress that comes with directing,” Hurt says. “My focus can be narrow and I have instant feedback on how the scene will look and feel since it’s lit right in front of me.”
Directing both the cast and photography for Elemental, which delivers a simple message while employing the use of magical realism, differed greatly from writing.“I’ve never been able to separate the visuals from the story,” explains Hurt on why he shoots films that he writes and directs. This proves especially true in his cinema short, which was inspired by a family situation. “As a director you definitely take your work home,” he says. “It’s all you think about and you’re much more emotionally invested.”
Personal stories define the documentary Southeast 67, directed by local filmmaker Betsy Cox. The movie combines raw footage and photographs with present-day interviews of African-American students who were heavily affected by the crack cocaine epidemic in Washington, D.C. Cox was drawn to the story “not only for the amazing resiliency demonstrated by the kids in the face of overwhelming odds, but for the wisdom they bring to those experiences now as adults.” The narrative spans two decades to reveal the struggle of attempting to realize the dream of a college education while coping with the reality of an environment riddled with violence, poverty and addiction.
Return to Cuba
Ross McDermott’s documentary Return to Cuba is a visually dynamic film sponsored by LOOK3 that began as coverage of a group of world-renowned photographers following in the footsteps of Walker Evans, who shot a documentary in Cuba in 1933. The project developed into an intricate film that offers a unique perspective on the complexity of the cultural landscape in Cuba. “We certainly live in a more visually inundated culture with the bombardment of photographs, TV and movies,” says McDermott. “It’s interesting that Evans’ work from Cuba remains relevant in the 21st century, while the book he was sent to illustrate has faded from history.”
Charlottesville’s Sister Cities Commission partners with VFF for the episodic piece Daydreaming, set in Prato, Tuscany. Terri Anne Di Cintio, co-chair of CSCC, explains that the film is “made by filmmakers from our Italian sister city of Poggio a Caiano,” and that “Sogni di gloria [the film’s Italian name] celebrates the region.” The Italian work tells a tale of friendship and faith through the lives of two men named Giulio and is followed by a discussion with director Patrizio Gioffredi, screenwriter Lorenzo Orlandini and director of photography Duccio Burberi.