Theatrical releases only. Caveat: Due to work/ timing, I don’t see a ton of award season releases. Alas.
(Note: This interview first ran in Hammer To Nail in February of 2014. It is re-printed here to preserve a personal copy. )
I love talking movies with Arnaud Desplechin. The care and artistry he puts into every one of his films creates a platform for deep analysis and conversation about his work, and he never disappoints. His new film Jimmy P: Psychotherapy Of A Plains Indian, which re-teams him with Mathieu Amalric and features a commanding performance by Benicio del Toro, has been somewhat misunderstood by American critics since its debut at Cannes last year. I sat down with Desplechin during his visit to the New York Film Festival last October to discuss the film and continue an ongoing conversation about his work, some of the finest in the modern cinema.
Back Row Manifesto: The first thing to talk about with this film is the book Reality And Dream: Psychotherapy of A Plains Indian by George Devereux. Can you talk about how you found this book and what inspired you to make a film from such an unlikely source?
Arnaud Desplechin: The book is in two parts. You have the very theoretical part in the opening chapters, but when I bought the book I opened it to the middle and I found these dialogues which, like Madelene says in the film, looked much more like a theatrical piece or a play than a psychological treatment. It was just the dialogues between the patient and the analyst and I thought it was fantastic because I realized you had this process of psychoanalysis presented verbatim, which is fairly unique in the history of psychoanalysis. And what I loved in reading the forward of this book was that it was not for some noble reason that we had this record, but it was for a very humble reason; these two guys were bored to death in Topeka, far from home the two of them, one being far from Montana and the other being far from New York, and so they had nothing to do but work together. And so, I fell in love with these two characters who are two outsiders, but who are very different, opposites; you have the “savage”, who is the shrink, and you have the very “civilized” man, who is the Native American. I loved this confrontation between these two temperaments and I thought it was fantastic material for a film.
BRM: This is not the first time you’ve dealt with psychoanalysis in your films. It’s almost a common thread; there are those great scenes between Catherine Deneuve and Mathieu Amalric in Kings and Queen, etc. In your films, mental health “issues” are used as a way to punish outsiders, to keep them separated from society.
AD: I guess it is a threat. To me, it is the threat of madness. Even if it is expressed in a comical way like in Kings and Queen where the character is not that mad but is very reasonable in an odd way, still, there is a threat. In La Vie Des Morts you have the question of whether this cousin killed himself through madness or some other reason, so it’s always a threat which is surrounding the characters; will they cross the frontier between mental health and mental disease? I guess it is something I have improved in my own life, you know, this fear of becoming “mad”, which is the biggest threat I can imagine.
BRM: What creates that fear in you? There is this tradition between artists and madness; a lot has been written about schizophrenia and the creative process…
AD: I can only answer this in a concrete way by referring to my films, not in an abstract way. It’s terrible because in this film, you have in Jimmy, who is simply suffering from headaches, simple headaches, but it starts to become more than that; he starts to lose his hearing, he starts to lose his vision and because of this he says, “I don’t know whether I am awake or asleep.” And then, the hospital says, “This guy is mad and you have to put him in jail.” All because of this one line he says. And suddenly, the guy can be declared mad. You were mentioning schizophrenia; a friend of mine, who is a psychiatrist, was explaining to me that from time to time he meets schizophrenic cases and he would warn them, “Okay, right now you’re stable, but I know, because I have studied, that you are suffering from schizophrenia. We can’t cure this. And this also means that one day, you will have an hallucination, and see, for example, a dog transforming itself into a devil or something way out. But don’t worry, it is because of your disease.” And I said to him, “Come on! Don’t worry?! How can you not worry about that?” (laughs) So, yes, there is a very thin line between mental health and illness.
BRM: And what about you in your day to day work? I don’t know what your process is in terms of your day to day writing, filmmaking, etc. When you are working on these stories, do you feel you have to personally grapple with that? Not that you might be ill, but you are grappling with that line in others…
AD: I think that it cures me. Life and jogging are curing me (laughs), because it is a very boring practice that I love. I love writing, which is a very long process and very dull and stern, but I love it because it brings me to reality. You have to work on the scenes and you have to make them spectacular. So, there is nothing mythic, nothing mad about the writing process or preparing a film; it’s all so practical, you know? That is my favorite moment in making a film—when you are creating and assembling everything during the prep, which is the dullest moment of the making of a film. But it’s my favorite moment because suddenly all of your ideas are coming to life, it’s very exciting. But it’s a very, very dull process before that, I think.
BRM: Another thread in this film that ties it closely to your previous work is the idea of family and this terrible obligation to his family that is haunting Jimmy—his daughter, his dead ex-wife, although he considers himself a widower, his sister. This is in all of your films, this struggle between someone struggling to be who they are fighting against who they feel obligated to be. In the book, these realizations about his sister, his mother help lead him to an understanding of himself. Can you talk about how you translated this into the film?
AD: This is what I found in the book as well. I was talking to Mathieu (Amalric) about this and I remember him telling me, “You will be in big, big trouble with this film. It’s a double portrait—it’s you as a mad shrink, but it’s also you as Jimmy.” So, he was perhaps asking me if I would identify myself to Jimmy or to him, the character of Devereux he was playing. I am not sure which he would have preferred, but the thing that I love with Jimmy is his fear of women. The fact that his sister is so nice, but she’s essentially fathering him—she’s not mothering him at all. She’s bringing him to the hospital, but in a very nice way, she’s putting him in jail. So, you have the threatening figure of the older sister, which is a thing I already filmed in La Sentinelle—I don’t know where it is coming from. Sure, I have an older sister and a younger sister, so I don’t know if I am thinking about my older or younger sister, but it’s something that I love.
There is also this thing that always fascinates me and it’s a hidden motif for Jimmy: his bad relationship with his mother and not speaking about her. It’s like the opening lines with Devereux; the shrink is guessing the Native American word for this, and he says, “Your mother was a manly hearted woman?” So, there is this very severe mother, plus this contradiction that while she was severe, she also had intercourse in front of Jimmy after the death of her husband. You have this discourse coming from women for Jimmy and he has to recover from that, so we have this scene where he is listing all of his traumas, which I think is very important, because we see him making some kind of progress.
But then, you have this scene that is in the book and a scene I really love; it’s probably the deepest reason for me to adapt this book. It is where Jimmy gives an almost novelistic account of his life, saying, “This is the way I lived and this is the long story about Jane” (his ex-wife). At this point in his psychoanalysis, Jimmy is allowed to be his own narrator, able to tell us the “novel” that he has been through and in that sense it seems to me he is very close to Thomas Hardy’s characters, feeling that they have been cursed and suddenly being able to explain their experiences in the form of a novel of which they are the heroes. So, it’s very heartbreaking, he thinks, “I fucked up everything and this is how it happened.” You have this massive novel appearing in the middle of this film. But I don’t think it’s necessarily the deepest session he has with Devereux, it’s just the one time he is allowed to be his own narrator. Period. I am sure that five years later, he will have a different way of expressing the “novel” he has been through, but at this moment, this is the way for him to recount his own story.
BRM: And in the film, there is no great “revelation” that he discovers through this narrative act that allows him to feel he has overcome his past, it is just telling the story—the process is the cure.
AD: It is something I worked a lot on with the co-writers, because it’s something that annoys me in films dealing with psychoanalysis, the idea of revelation. Am I too atheist to believe in any form of revelation? I guess I am. I don’t think that one day, I will go to a shrink, I will say one line, and suddenly I will realize, “This is what I’ve been through!”—a hidden trauma or whatever. I don’t think this exists inside of me or of any character, something hidden that comes to light and suddenly, you are cured. I don’t believe in any revelation or magic tricks. I think it’s just a process. So, how to avoid this in the script, without the big moment, the tears? It’s not that I don’t like it; I do like it in other films, but I don’t buy it for me or my films.
BRM: How do you feel audiences have received that? People are so conditioned to expect that moment and this film refuses to give it to them.
AD: I guess they respond to it because the film is surprisingly sweeter and more gentle than the “sturm und drang” of many of the films that deal with psychoanalysis. And the film does have a revelation in it, during his relapse, when he starts having his headaches again and then he’s cured because, as the doctor tells him, he will have relapses all his life. And that’s the cure, the fact that this is his life and life will happen to him. Headaches, love, boredom—it will all happen and now that he can face that this is his life. That is his cure. That’s his revelation.
BRM: This is the second film you’ve made in English, another adaptation, this time a French writer writing in English, and while the film focuses on the dialogues, the book itself begins with an entire ethnographic study that traces, in a very political way, the treatment of Native Americans by predominantly white American culture. That is addressed in the film in a more subtle way. How did you weave these two things together in the script?
AD: The book is very elliptical, because you really have to piece together the chronology of events, as they are so interrelated and told through dialogues, ethnography, etc. It was a challenge for us. For example, the book tries to hide Jimmy’s identity, so it refuses to identify his tribe, but we wanted to know who he really was, which tribe, so we had to uncover that he was a Blackfoot from Browning, Montana. In the book, he tells us Jimmy’s mother lived near the grave of a popular writer, so of course, we had to find the grave, and that allowed us to find Browning. You also mentioned a French writer writing in English, and so we knew that Devereux’s wife had to have a great influence over the text because his English was worse than mine (laughs). So, I started by doing the adaptation in French, and then using the book, we translated that, but I didn’t want to do it like Esther Kahn where we simply translated the French script into English; I wanted to adapt the script with a co-writer, so Kent Jones came on with me.
It was so lovely; I sent him a rough draft of it, I had not done the ending, there were gaps here and there, it was unfinished. It still felt French and that I had to find the right language for it, that made it feel American. So, I sent it to Kent and said, “Could you help me find a writer you think could understand the period and the script?” and I mentioned I was on deadline. I didn’t hear from him for a day and a half and I was thinking, “Come on, this guy was supposed to be my friend!” And then I got a very short e-mail back saying, “You might never forgive me, but I had to do this…” and he attached the whole script that he had adapted and re-translated. So, I assumed that was a proposal from him, and that’s how we undertook the second step of making the script together.
As for the politics of race, Kent really was the one, this is a very American kind of thing. Kent showed me The Exiles, which I didn’t know, but is a film that just broke my heart because it was pre-1967, and the goal was not to take pride in your roots, but to assimilate. The dream was to become Elvis Presley. So, Jimmy had this shitty life before the treatment and after, and it’s a big part of the book, he still had a tough life. The politics didn’t change, but dealing with the fact that his life will be tougher than a Caucasian life, that’s part of the cure. So, we looked at The Exiles, I looked at John Huston’s Let There Be Light which, again, being French, I didn’t know this film…
BRM: Did you look at Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which also drew heavily on Huston’s film?
AD: For sure. It was fascinating to me, the difference, because you have two characters dealing with words, but in The Master, you have a magician. In my film, Devereaux is not a magician, he is not a shaman, he wants to be equal with his partner, he doesn’t want to be “The Master.” But The Master is fantastic, you are depicting a relationship where they are demonstrating how to empower someone, and in Jimmy P., it has nothing to do with empowerment. It’s really about friendship. But the influence of Let There Be Light, I just loved it.
BRM: No one I know has more passion for American cinema than you, and I know shooting this film in Topeka (where the original story took place) was a priority for you, but you never were able to shoot there. How was your American filmmaking experience and what did you take from it?
AD: Well, we didn’t get to shoot in Kansas because the original hospital was destroyed. During the writing, I thought it would be foolish for me to worry about making an American film or not making one, my task was to stay in a small office in Paris and to write the material, which was so abstract. I had to transform it into something more cinematic, build the strings that would connect the writing to these dreams and memories and create something for the cinema. I didn’t want to do anything too exotic. Really, truly, each day I was saying to the French co-writer that we have to recall that this is just like a doctor in Roubaix treating a patient. I’m not speaking about something exotic, I am speaking about my own life.
That said, I thought it was important to send someone to give me information about the locations in the story, so I sent a friend to take some photos and go through the archives in Topeka, to meet the last living people who knew Devereux. Then they went to Montana, to see what was there, and I always asked them not to send me exotic details, but very practical details.
I have this fear of exoticism, I think it is dangerous. I think it is a another way to see, but not for me. I was never thinking, “I am making an American film.” I mean, I’m French and I was coming in with Mathieu, who is like my brother in cinema, so we couldn’t pretend, like Devereux, that we were American. I’m not pretending anything, so I think the film has one step in America, one step in France and one step in Puerto Rico (where Benicio Del Toro comes from). So, I feel the film is a mixture of influences and roots. It becomes a mix of identities, in the end.
BRM: In this film, it’s really George who is the outsider. He’s a revolutionary in a lot of ways, an outsider to science, to medicine, to America, his faith. Mathieu took this and made a bright, eccentric character out of this, but how did you conceive of George? You earlier mentioned you consider him “the savage”…
AD: There is also an opposition between the two characters concerning the question of identity, which I loved the first time I read the book. It’s in the opening lines; as soon as Devereux arrived in France, despite being Jewish, he was baptized. He transformed himself from a Jew to a Catholic, and then from a Catholic into a nothing, from a Hungarian to a Romanian, from a Romanian to French, then moved from France for a time to Vietnam, and from there he became American. He was always trying to escape into assimilation through shifting his identity. In an odd way, he was always using masks to disguise himself, yet here he is recommending to his friend Jimmy to recognize his own identity, that Jimmy should be proud of being Native American. But I always want to say to Devereux, “Come on, you’re saying that when you are hiding the fact that you’re an Eastern European Jew!” It’s very strange.
But it’s also quite moving; one of them is dreaming he is no one—there was a line from The Odyssey we wanted to use that we ended up cutting from the film, which, when they ask Ulysses his name he replies, “I am no one.” In the film, there is this motif of the hidden name; Jimmy’s hidden name is his Native American name. So there is this conflict of trying to escape identity and the quest to recognize identity.
I don’t think there is a better way to be in life. I guess I am always trying to escape my own identity, but I also think recognizing who I really am can be good, too. The opposition between these two things… to phrase it in a brutal way, I always think of when I started the script, I wanted to depict the conflict, so I said to the producer, “This is a film about a bad Jew who is meeting a bad Indian. They want to assimilate to America and are refusing their own identity.”
BRM: We’ve discussed masks before in your work, it is a prevalent theme in all of your work, something that always seems to attract you. What do you think, on a creative level, fascinates you about masks, about hiding identity?
AD: I guess it brings me back to Philip Roth. I don’t think that I exist. Very deeply, I don’t think that “I” exist. I have values, characteristics, but I think, fundamentally, what makes me a human being is my attempt to try to look like a human being. But I don’t think in the morning that I wake up a human being. I think I wake up as nothing, and during the day, I am trying to construct myself and to present myself as a human being, using different kinds of masks to appear as “something” when actually, when I wake up, I’m just a baby, crying and desperate.
BRM: Who do you think you are at that primal moment of waking?
AD: Something unformed. After that, I try to assemble myself and think, “What does a decent human being do in this circumstance?” So, I try to be decent, I try to make a decent self, but I don’t believe there is one truth that is “myself.” I guess that I am a series of characters that I am impersonating.
A big smile and a raise of the eyebrows, as if to say “..how about THAT?”, brings an end to our interview.
The online summary of Arnaud Desplechin’s Nos Arcadies (Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse) (very rough translation):
“We remember Paul Daedalus, the hero of How I Got Into an Argument … (my sex life) by Arnaud Desplechin. The future professor of philosophy is not done telling his tale– he returns to the big screen to tell his three greatest memories of youth. Paul Dédalus had a life before becoming a neurotic thirty-something Parisian; his childhood in the north, his family life punctuated by the violence of his brother Ivan, and delusions of his mother. Paul remembers his taste of intrigue, living the life of a spy back when Russia was still called the Soviet Union, and the threats of a stranger to whom he offered his identity. Paul remembers the end of adolescence, the carefree holiday with his friends, his relations with his cousin and sister. And Paul Dédalus remembers his arrival in Paris and his crush on Esther…”
So just the odd return to La Vie des morts, La Sentinel, and Comment je me suis disputé… (ma vie sexuelle) then? This may be the my most anticipated movie of the past twenty years. I think I may need to fly to Cannes just for the one screening?
For the past decade, I have worked at the Sarasota Film Festival in Sarasota, FL.
This year’s festival, the 16th edition, ended in April, with a full slate of 252 films: shorts, foreign films, independent films, non-fiction films. Movies we were proud to show. The festival was my tenth as the person in charge of programming the films, my sixth with a more active role in helping shape the festival from an administrative perspective.
When I was hired in 2004, the festival was coming off of a difficult year, facing problems that stemmed from the decision to host the festival in late January, at the same time as Sundance and Slamdance, and to require World or U.S. Premieres for competition films. I was brought on based upon my work as Programmer at the Nantucket Film Festival, and asked to come in and reorganize Sarasota’s film program. The festival hired a film programming consulting company at the same time, as a hedge, just in case I was not a good hire. I did my best. We screened Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings & Queen in competition (it lost to Danny Boyle’s Millions), hosted musical performances by Bob Mould, Ted Leo and The Pharmacists, and DeVotchKa, we added films like Jem Cohen’s Chain to the program. I scrambled to try to figure out how to contextualize these personal passions, quickly learning I was in a community that seemed more than willing to embrace new things, if only given the chance.
Over the first few years, thanks to our friends in the filmmaking community and the hard work of my programming colleague Holly Herrick, who joined me as a programmer in the autumn of 2005, we began to see the seeds of something special begin to sprout at the festival. Sarasota became a place for filmmakers to meet, to become friends, and to launch collaborations that bore some pretty significant fruit. It became about community, both locally and among independent filmmakers.
There are so many of these stories to tell, but I can’t help thinking of people like Alex Karpovsky, who brought The Hole Story to Sarasota for the 2005 festival (again, my first) and Jon Hyrns, who was the subject of Dominic DeJoseph’s Johnny Berlin that same year. Alex met Jon at the festival, and the two went on to make Woodpecker together.
In 2006, Holly and I programmed a small movie set in Florida called Cocaine Angel by a first-time filmmaker named Michael Tully. We’ve shown all of his films since, because I really love his movies. Or I think of Mary Bronstein, whose amazing film Yeast screened at the festival in 2008, where she met a young, local filmmaker and actress named Amy Seimetz who was attending for the second time with her short We Saw Such Things (was it her first time? I know Amy was in Goran Duckic’s Wristcutters, which played the 2006 festival. Did she come? Her family? Time blurs experience… ), which she co-directed with James Ponsoldt. Mary, James and Amy went on to make Round Town Girls together. And then many, many other films. Amy’s Sun Don’t Shine played the festival. James returned with The Spectacular Now.
Dozens of others brought films, and wanted to come back. They have all been incredibly generous in their support of the Sarasota Film Festival. We programmed Craig Zobel’s Great World Of Sound, and got the privilege of showing Compliance. We had David Lowery and James Johnson with us to show Some Analog Lines, then The Outlaw Son, and then St. Nick. We had a ton of people join us for Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes The Stairs. Ry Russo Young came, and then brought us Orphans, then You Won’t Miss Me, and then Nobody Walks. Greta Gerwig came with Hannah. Last year, her collaboration with Noah Baumbach, Frances Ha, closed the festival at a screening for over 1100 people. I met Mickey Sumner through her work and count myself among her biggest fans. We hosted Lena Dunham and Alicia Van Couvering with Tiny Furniture. AJ Schnack brought literally all of his work to us, and we loved it, and showed as much of it as the calendar would allow.
I got to honor Robert Altman at one of the greatest award ceremonies in the history of the festival. I got to salute Werner Herzog, Liv Ullmann, and Barbara Kopple at the festival. I got to tell Mariel Hemingway how much her work in Woody Allen’s Manhattan meant to me. Jeremy Renner attended four years in a row and became one of our greatest advocates. I watched him sing an incredible version of Night Ranger’s Sister Christian at a particularly memorable karaoke night. He was followed by Stanley Tucci and Steve Buscemi who, working with Wren Arthur at Olive Productions, gave the festival the gift of their support. Steve, Stanley and Wren even allowed us to do a staged reading of Oren Moverman’s screenplay for Queer, which saw Patti Smith opening the event with an invocation in honor of William S. Burroughs. Later that night, Patti played a 75 minute set with Lenny Kaye, the music crackling out of a crummy PA set up on the second floor of a local tapas restaurant. Of Montreal played a show at the festival, and we set up a free “glam make-up” station. Everyone got made-up.
We were lucky and honored to host the World Premieres of films like Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel, Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act, Robert Greene’s Fake It So Real, and Onur Tukel’s Richard’s Wedding. The U.S. Premieres of films like Matt Wolf’s Wild Combination, Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild And Lovely, and Tom Gilroy’s The Cold Lands. Filmmakers and distributors began to trust us and to see the festival as a place for ambitious, independent work. This year, Jason Momoa world premiered his film Road To Paloma with us. Now, he might be playing Aquaman in the new Superman vs. Batman movie. We closed the fest with The One I Love, all thanks to Radius-TWC believing in us. Elisabeth Moss and Charlie McDowell came to the festival with the film. It was a thrill to meet them and share their work.
Somehow, all of these things grow into other things. Filmmakers make new films, new filmmakers make first films, the community grows, the festival moves forward.
Over the course of this decade, the film industry has changed dramatically. In 2005, we supplemented our 35mm projection with DigiBeta, the highest quality digital standard at the time. Then HDCam came along. Then DCP. In 2012, we showed our last 35mm print. The number of film festivals has grown exponentially as well, with so many of my colleagues putting on great events, each with their own role in the lives of these films and filmmakers. And of course, Sarasota itself went through an enormous transformation.
In January 2008, I attended a panel at Sundance where IFC Films announced a partnership with SXSW to use that festival as a VOD launch for some select new films. I was skeptical of how day and date would work for festival screenings, but we tried an experiment, showing Matthew Newton’s Three Blind Mice at the festival after it had debuted on VOD. The audiences came en masse, and it really forced us to re-think what VOD meant for the festival’s programming model. It was a big shift.
In April 2008, we held what had to be our biggest festival ever. We honored Charlize Theron at a typically massive Tribute Dinner event during the festival, closing that year’s edition with her film Battle In Seattle, about the violent confrontation between the Seattle police and anti-globalization protesters. That spring, I learned from the organization that the Sarasota Film Festival was carrying a massive deficit. There was no guarantee of a next paycheck. Big changes were made to the organization’s structure, including our then Executive Director exiting the festival. At that time, a large portion of the festival’s cash sponsorship budget was made up of long term agreements with real estate companies and developers. They evaporated. In the autumn of 2008, as the festival looked toward its 11th edition carrying the uncertainty of a big debt, the bottom fell out of the local real estate market. Sponsorship dollars dried up. Individual giving was way down as people scrambled to protect their assets. The Board of the festival stepped in to completely overhaul the festival’s budget and expenditures and to work on a long term solution to the festival’s deficit.
In between these two events, my wife and I had our first child, a son.
Since 2008, the Sarasota Film Festival has been operating on less than half of its 2008 cash budget, and we haven’t missed a beat. That is all due to the festival’s Executive Board, especially Board President Mark Famiglio and Executive Board member Sharyn Weiner, as well as our former Managing Director Kathy Jordan, who did an incredible job of holding the festival together through these difficult changes. Without their leadership and fiscal discipline, as well as their faith in the value of the organization, I have little doubt that the 2008 festival would have been the last. This type of restructuring is never easy; I know I have made sacrifices as we worked our way toward a healthy economic situation. So has the staff. But the Board has always supported the organization by putting money in the right places; supporting filmmaker attendance, making sure our technical presentation is world class, and investing in partnerships that leverage films into the needs of the community. I have no doubt they will continue to do this important work as the festival moves forward.
If you asked people in Sarasota about the story of the past ten years of the Sarasota Film Festival, about what defined the last decade, I am not sure what they would say. I don’t think many of the names and milestones I mentioned above would come up. Maybe a few films they saw and loved? Something they hated? All of this behind the scenes work is essentially irrelevant to our community, as it should be. People just want a great festival. We did our best to make sure that happened.
But Sarasota is a unique community, with its own intrigue and culture, its own diverse opinions. I know what I’ve heard, though. I’ve heard it argued that the festival is a superfluous event that trades on “glitz” and has no substance. It’s just for rich people. It’s not elegant enough. I’ve heard that film is not on par with the “real” arts that are supported by major donors to the ballet, or the symphony, or the opera, or the numerous theater companies that dot the Sarasota landscape.
We had people who worked with us leave and take our ideas and start them up at other local institutions, raking in money. We partnered with organizations that learned from us and decided to stop partnering so they could do their own thing. We found we could not partner with other groups who didn’t seem able to map their goals to our own. Other local film festivals started up. Film programs began. Some continue. Some are gone. Sarasota was going to be the new Hollywood. We got dozens of emails a week telling us how consultants can show us the way to do things better. You stay quiet and focus on your work.
Some enjoy talking about which films we chose not to show, as if our curatorial choices were suspect. Or political. I’ve heard the festival can’t be trusted. Some like to spin the festival’s good work into a negative headline. You don’t have enough celebrities. You have too many celebrities. The parties seem scaled back. The parties are too lavish. We’ve never heard of these guests attending the festival. We’ve never heard of these films. You’re showing too many films. The program seems smaller this year. Things were better under previous management. Each year is “better” or “more substantive” than previous years. It’s a small community. That is its charm and appeal. You wish everyone knew what they had in front of them. Instead, you rinse and repeat.
Through all of it, I have never backed down from showing films I thought were important. For me, that means thematically challenging, formally ambitious, aesthetically beautiful films that challenge an intelligent audience. I’ve seen audience members seethe with rage coming out of a film they hated, only to head to the lobby and get back in line for the next film and then hate that one, too. This year, I had a scholar from overseas try to dress me down in front of a small crowd, asking me if she could join the festival’s screening committee so she could look at the criteria for selecting films. When I asked her about her interest, it turned out that she wanted to know why I programmed so many bad films that she absolutely hated. Zing! Saw twenty films, hated them all. Stray Dogs? Manakamana? These were not real movies. They did not meet the standard of true art, which was to uplift the audience. All of the films we showed were grim. Negative.
You smile. You endure it. You wonder why she didn’t get tickets to any comedies or romances. You await the arrival of the 21st century.
And yet, I know there are literally tens of thousands of people who love the festival, love the organization, and they have never hesitated to take chances, to try new things, to support the festival in the best way possible; by attending the films. By getting their friends to come with them. By spending beautiful, sunlit days inside dark movie theaters, surrounded by strangers. Each and every one of them has, at some point, said hello to me or given me a passing smile, a frown, their thoughts on the films, the festival, what we do well, what we could improve.
This is the Sarasota audience. The reason I was able to work in Sarasota for a decade was because of them.
Programming for them has been absolute heaven. Film programmers know the feeling of sharing a film they love with an audience and knowing that they are responsible for helping make a connection. I had that experience literally thousands of times, all because an audience of film-loving, generous, open-minded people decided, for their own private reasons, to support the festival. They trusted our curation. They believed in us. In me. It is like no feeling on earth. I am eternally grateful.
Outside of the festival bubble, my life has grown increasingly more complicated. During my time working in Sarasota, I got married, I had two amazing sons, and I stayed rooted in Brooklyn, my home, where my life and time have grown more and more focused. In the end, my role as a father and husband have eclipsed my ability to make trips back and forth to Florida, to pay for incredibly long hours of child care, to miss my boys’ milestones, to not be there at the end of the day for weeks and then months at a time. I turned 43. I was spending a lot of money to cover the cost of travel, for the privilege (and it was) of working a thousand and more miles away from home. Trying desperately to be a good dad and a tolerable husband. In Brooklyn, we rent a small apartment that I’ve been in for almost 12 years. I work from a small desk in my small bedroom. Outside my window, days go by. My boys want a puppy. We’re treading water. Years go by, and faster now.
Coming home to Brooklyn after this year’s festival, with a decade of hard work under my belt, it just felt like the right moment to work with Mark Famiglio to call time on my work in Sarasota. I feel like I’ve built everything I could, I’ve given my heart and soul to the festival and to the organization. The festival is in a great position for new choices, new ideas, new blood. There is an identity we’ve worked hard to build, but curation is a matter of making choices. I don’t feel anyone should feel beholden to what we’ve done in the past. I know that the organization will continue to thrive without me. No one is bigger than the festival, least of all me.
A few years back, Holly married Michael Tully, who she met at the festival. His was the one of the first films we programmed at Sarasota. We’ve been friends ever since. He even lets me write and interview filmmakers for his website once in a while. Holly left Sarasota in late 2011 to join the Austin Film Society and expand her programming work, collaborating with Richard Linklater (#Upgrade). I got to work with Caley Fagerstrom, an amazing programming coordinator who has blossomed into an incredible programmer in her own right. I was lucky to work with Magida Diouri, who has outstanding taste and is an excellent programmer. This past year, I found a way to work with Ina Pira, a fantastic programmer with whom I love working and who I know will continue to do great things.
I feel like everyone at the Sarasota Film Festival created a small place in the world to help foster all of these things in our own, small way. We annoyed people, we made people happy. We made friends, we lost a few. We showed a lot of movies. Thousands. Together, we built a reputation for The Sarasota Film Festival as a place for emerging artists to call home, for adventurous programs, for the insane cultural dissonance of our parties, for late night beaches, for fun. We sang karaoke at a motel with hourly rates. We showed people the power of the Bahi Hut Mai Tai cocktail. Sarasota meant community and defying expectations, with incredible audiences who believed in us.
I could not be more proud to see all of these artists blossoming in the world. To see the growth of the festival. To have known and worked with so many amazing colleagues. To have met so many people who love film as much as I do.
I look back on all of these things and it is beyond my wildest dreams to have been a part of it.
It has been an absolute privilege.
He was my favorite American actor.
Photos from the The Invisible Woman Press Conference
Wednesday October 9, 2013
The New York Film Festival
Walter Reade Theater
New York, NY
Ralph Fiennes and Joanna Scanlan
It’s Halloween time, need I say any more? This is one holiday that is all about atmosphere, and I am a big fan of setting the proper mood, so please follow this recipe before reading the rest of this post:
…. As a preface, Mussorgsky’s Night On Bald Mountain from Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Give a look…
Play this very loud!
…. Turn the lights very, very low… lower… lower…
…. Make yourself a nice, warm glass of apple cider. Add something stronger if the spirits move you.
…. Scan the room… Is anyone there? Hello? Sorry, I thought I heard something…
Everything set? Ok, there are a few films that I really think deserve a special mention around Halloween, films that deal with fear, fright, and scare the pants off of me. You’ll notice some glaring omissions (Suspiria? Nuh-uh), but to each his own. In honor of 2012, try one of these twelve films for the long, scary nights of the Halloween season. You’ve probably seen them before, but they’re still scary good!
12. Dead Ringers by David Cronenberg (1988)
It Hurts Just To Look: Elliot Mantle’s tool set from David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers
This one is for the ladies. I have no idea what drugs David Cronenberg takes for recreational purposes, but oh, what I would give to have been a fly on the wall when he pitched Dead Ringers to Twentieth Century Fox…
“Ok, here’s the idea: Twin gynecologists, one dominant and one submissive, trade lovers. Slowly, they develop a co-dependent drug habit which coincides with their development of extreme gynecological tools and botched procedures…”
Cronenberg loves the concepts of penetration and body modification, but nothing he has made is scarier than his use of this theme in medical, and reproductive, circumstances in Dead Ringers. Few movies in history have dangled impending horror more deftly than the moment when Elliot Mantle (one of two roles played by Jeremy Irons) goes to pick up the gynecological tools he has had made. If you can watch the revelation of those tools and not be filled with dread for the film’s remaining run time, well, you’re made of stronger stuff than I.
11. American Psycho by Mary Harron (2000)
It’s Hip To Be Square: Christian Bale in Mary Harron’s American Psycho
That’s right, American Psycho. Wanna know why? Because if you want to see the model upon which the current economic crisis was built, there is no finer cinematic example. This movie is a hilarious and dignified transcendence of its source material (the novel, not the Regan administration), and it also is very, very frightening. Frightening because it is a perfect excoriation of greed, selfishness, and ego run amok; it shows the invisible, moneyed yuppie class for what it truly is. Highlights abound, but Christian Bale’s delivery of nonchalant insanity like “Sorry, I have to go meet Cliff Huxtable at the Four Seasons” and his menacing monologues describing the glories of Whitney Houston, Phil Collins, and Huey Lewis and the News are terrific fun.
I STILL Can’t Get A Table At Dorsia…(100% NSFW)
But at its core, this might be the most politically relevant horror movie of the past decade. Politics have always been at the core of horror films, and with all the debate about “corporations as people” raging in the country right now, no movie distills the psychopathy of corporate “personhood” any better than this one. Of course, you could just watch Fox Business Channel or CNBC and get the same level of insanity, but why not at least have some fun?
10. Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens by F.W. Murnau (1922) and Nosferatu by Werner Herzog (1977)
The Face: Max Schreck in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu
If you EVER doubt Murnau’s mastery of the cinematic form (and how could you?), I suggest a double feature of Sunrise and Nosferatu. The best vampire movie of all time, Murnau’s Nosferatu is a lesson for all film fans in how to generate fear purely in images. The first time I saw Max Schreck’s Count Orlock slowly rising from his grave was in the Bowie/Queen video for Under Pressure; it scared me then, but that was only a small sampling of the horror that awaited when watching the film itself.
As an added bonus, give a look at Werner Herzog’s remake and marvel at Klaus Kinsky’s performance in the role Schreck made famous. Kinsky is so committed to the part, it seems as if he is about to eat everything on screen (including the scenery). Herzog’s remake doesn’t attempt to tonally match Murnau’s film, but then again, how could it? Instead, the film has an oppressively formal feeling that delivers a tension all its own.
9. Poltergeist by Tobe Hooper (1982)
There Is Nothing Scarier Than An Evil Clown: Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist
As a child, and clearly childhood has a profound influence on my list making, no movie fucked me up more than Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist. Is there a sequence in this movie that did not make me shit my pants in fear? The killer clown? Check. The trees coming through the window? Check? The woman peeling her face off in the bathroom mirror? Oh my God.”They’re heeere…” Ahhhh!
I can’t really talk rationally about this film, which is my favorite in the “ghost story” genre, because it has left such a huge impression (okay, scar) on my psyche. I think I saw Poltergeist four or five times in the theater, and it scared me to death every time. I’ll never move to suburbia.
I also think this movie is rather under-appreciated as a horror film; because of Steven Spielberg’s involvement perhaps, or because it made shit loads of money, or because it was so accessible to children when it was released and focuses on childrens’ greatest fears– the idea of being separated from our parents and testing their love for us. Will mom and dad come through? Poltergeist puts our innermost fears to the test in a big budget frightening ghost story that I have a hard time watching to this day. Love it.
8. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre by Tobe Hooper (1974)
This Will Not End Well: Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the best of the 1970’s horror films, which puts it near the top of this list by default; the 70’s redefined horror for all time, bringing intensity and graphic violence to the service of low-budget, independent filmmaking. After Night Of The Living Dead set the bar, films like Last House On The Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre took the disillusionment of the flagging counter culture, its assumptions of innocence and idealism, and put it through the meat grinder of cynicism. For this alone, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is something of a masterpiece; the film works both as an allegory for the end of an era and as an unfathomably depraved story of the worst family in history. Sure, it also launched an entire genre of films that demonize uneducated rednecks, but that sin is more than absolved by the potent urgency of the film, whose violence comes tortuously slowly and then suddenly, without warning. The triumphant psychopathy of Leatherface at the end of the film, swinging his saw as he dances in that 1970’s sunlight, lens flares exploding on the screen, remains one of the images that has haunted my dreams for decades.
7. The Silence Of The Lambs by Jonathan Demme (1991)
You Covet What You See Every Day: Jodie Foster in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of The Lambs
This film is the only one on this list to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, which tells you all you need to know about the power and accessibility of this movie. I took a screenwriting class once where a student proposed a serial killer film and the instructor replied “We have Silence Of The Lambs. How will you surpass it?” (which, terrible teaching, but also, true.) For me, the film is the perfect thriller that takes a dark turn into the realm of horror not with Hannibal Lecter, but with Buffalo Bill (played with devastating perfection by Ted Levine), the film’s main target and its most terrifying character.
Yes, Anthony Hopkins’ rationalism and psychoanalysis is scary for those suspicious of intellectuals (or those who don’t want to be eaten by one–I could write a book on how this character panders to American anti-intellectualism, but I’ll save that), but it is Clarice Starling’s pursuit of Buffalo Bill that drives the film onward and hurtles it toward its amazing conclusion. As much as I want to find something not to like about this movie, and there are so many things that should drive me nuts, it does absolutely everything right. I can’t watch it without being sucked in every time. By the time Clarice rings the right doorbell and dives in to Bill’s world, there is nothing that can pull me away.
6. Halloween by John Carpenter (1978)
The Shape: Michael Myers Haunts John Carpenter’s Halloween
All hail the king of the slasher films. Any horror movie list that does not feature John Carpenter’s genre defining Halloween is essentially worthless; this is the blockbuster that forced studios to invent their own ultra-violent killers, the movie that put the audience behind the murderer’s mask, the movie that picked off over-sexed but otherwise innocent teenagers one by one. The score? A classic. The killer? That white mask will forever be etched in the memory of everyone who saw the film. The heroine? Jamie Lee Curtis at her “scream queen” defining best.
What stands out for me, though, is the way in which Carpenter establishes the tension, using Michael’s slippery presence in slow driving cars, behind bushes, in backyards and schoolyards to set the atmosphere for what is to come. And when it does come, the movie shifts into an entirely new gear, quick and deadly. I was tempted to put in my other favorite Carpenter film, The Thing, here but Halloween remains first and the best.
5. Night Of The Living Dead by George Romero (1968)
Guess Who Doesn’t Die First?: Duane Jones in George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead
Night Of The Living Dead makes the list for its place as the transformative horror film; there are the movies that came before, and there are the movies that came after. It was also an incredibly transgressive response to the era of free love and Vietnam; graphic cannibalism, an African-American hero, a child murdering her parents and zombies, those apathetic American ciphers, all made a huge impact on horror storytelling while describing the state of world.
There are so many amazing aspects to the film’s story– the non-existent budget, the fact that the distributor naively allowed the copyright to lapse, which inadvertently put the film in the public domain– but ultimately, it is an utterly frightening template for a million films to come. There are better zombie films, but none as important or as primal as this definitive movie.
4. The Exorcist by William Friedkin
A confession: this movie never really scared me all that much. Even as a child, the pacing of the film, the way in which the exorcism itself was carried out, it just felt really rushed and without much depth. We never really got to know Linda Blair’s Regan other than as a helpless child, which strips this story of its emotional stakes for me. But over the past year, watching the film again, I was struck by how deeply I was moved by Jason Miller’s performance as Rev. Damian Karras, the young priest struggling with his own doubts about his faith. I identified deeply with his reluctance to get involved too deeply in the film’s central crisis, until he must at last act; his decision to absorb the possession at the end, that sacrifice, was profoundly moving this time around. I feel like I have been misreading this movie for way too long, always in it for a good scare when, essentially, it represents one of the most interesting onscreen representations of faith I have seen, let alone in a Hollywood movie (God bless you, 1970’s)…
The film has rocketed in my estimation and while it still provides the goods (especially when it works on a subliminal level), I think it has become one of the most important horror films for me, a film that is truly transgressive for its portrayal of religious faith, a transgression that seems to deepen as the years go by…
3. Alien: The Director’s Cut by Ridley Scott (1979)
In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream: Ridley Scott’s Alien
Ridley Scott’s career is, for me, divided into two sections; Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma And Louise and Black Hawk Down (yay!) and everything else (bleh!). People often forget about Alien when thinking about horror films, probably because the film is set in outer space and therefore has been classified as sci-fi. Also, the franchising of the film’s titular monster has only detracted from the reputation of the original film. Let me tell you, when the digitally-projected Director’s Cut of Alien played at the Union Sq. Cinemas a few years back, it scared me shitless all over again. This is one instance where the ‘Director’s Cut’ has resulted in a superior film; the pace is slower, which allows the tension to build and the audience time to explore the insanely creepy sets. There is no movie with better design.
It also features a revolutionary heroine, removing horror’s unfortunate trope of women as screaming victims in favor of the proactive badass. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley would come to define the genre, bringing women into the horror/action fold in a whole new way; Linda Hamilton in Terminator? Carrie Anne Moss in The Matrix? The entire oeuvre of Angelina Jolie? All of them are indebted to Ridley Scott who, despite some films that don’t work for me at all, has proven to be a true feminist and deserves praise for changing the roles of women in these films. But no matter what your opinion is of the film’s gender politics or which edit you prefer, this movie is a masterpiece of tone and storytelling. The dinner scene alone will live forever. Makes you wonder how this man could possibly be the same guy who made Hannibal…
2. Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock (1960)
The Eye: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho
True story: At my mother’s 40th birthday party (sometime in the mid-1980’s), a friend of hers she had not seen in decades took to the podium to tell a story of their friendship from 25 years prior. In 1960, the two teenage girls went to see Psycho and they were completely freaked out by it. The next morning, while my mom’s friend was taking a shower, my mom grabbed a knife and snuck into the bathroom, tearing open the curtain and scaring the absolute shit out of her terrified friend. Twenty five years later, the friend was still unable to shower with the curtain closed. That story is not a testament to my mother’s perverted teenage sense of humor (who hasn’t pulled the Psycho gag or had it pulled on them?), but instead to the power of Hitchcock’s movie, which remains a definitive film in the genre.
Most Influential Scene Of All Time?
Not only was it influential in its use of editing and camera (how many of the shots from the film have been stolen? what other movie has endured a shot-for-shot remake?), it remains plausibly terrifying some 51 years later. Hitchcock’s perversity and fetishes are in wicked form here and if the movie doesn’t top my list (it’s not even the best Hitchcock movie), it must come near the top of the discussion because it is an utterly incredible piece of filmmaking made by a master of the form. If only there were another film or filmmaker that could top it… oh, wait….
1. The Shining by Stanley Kubrick (1980)
Oh, Danny Boy: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining
This is the scariest movie of all time. Period. End of discussion. I think of The Shining as one of those fortunate, perfect moments when an artist’s technique and his chosen subject matter converge into a flawless harmony; this story of a family wrenched apart by a nervous breakdown in a haunted hotel was seemingly written specifically for Stanley Kubrick’s camera. Of course, it wasn’t (Stephen King reportedly dislikes Kubrick’s version), but this movie is an absolute masterpiece. Call me a charlatan, but I think it is Kubrick’s best movie, and that is saying something. Of all the films on this list, it is one film where the camera, slowly prowling around the Overlook, is the most frightening character in the film; it’s as if Kubrick himself is the evil soul of the hotel, showing us precisely what we fear. I could list the shots that will live forever, but i might just have to recite the entire film; the elevators, the twin girls, the sound of Danny riding that Big Wheel across the carpets and hardwood floors, the axe going through the door of the bathroom, the chase through the maze, the haunted ballroom, the corpse in the bathtub, and on and on. The atmosphere of dread in this movie is unfathomably great; no one has come close to duplicating the tension achieved with Kubrick’s simply gorgeous cinematographic style.
Perfection (scene ends at 1’59”)
I will never forget the first time I saw this movie. I can describe the sofa I was sitting on when those elevator doors spilled blood, the color of the blanket I used to hide my eyes when the dead woman sat up in the bath tub, and the memory of sitting bolt upright for the film’s final 30 minutes. I hate to sound fucked up, but I CAN’T WAIT until my kid is old enough to watch this with me. I plan on spending the whole time just watching his face. On a primal level, the idea of the family turning in on itself is utterly terrifying, and this film is the most frightening vision possible of that most intimate of fears. The definition of cinematic horror; a perfect film as far as I am concerned.
Bonus Selection: My Favorite Horror Movie Sequence
The film is not on the list, probably because I saw it too late in life, but Ti West’s House Of The Devil (2009) features my favorite horror movie sequence of all time. Why? It is a perfect representation of the horror tropes of my youth and it is simply a great use of cinematic tension (sound, the editing, earphones blocking out the dangers lurking in the house, the nonchalant dancing a counterpoint to the horror behind the doors, etc). And those camera moves; straight out of the 1980’s playbook! I can’t help but get giddy. Of course, the whole thing hinges on that cut to the black basement, looking up the stairs, the sound suddenly changing to an external reading of the headphone music; this is just brilliant work. It comes at a point in the movie that has been defined by slow, creepy silence, then suddenly, the Sony Walkman (yes!) comes on and a whole new tone is established, equally troubling, with a wink and a smile as well. I just love this sequence, so as a parting gift, here it is. Turn it up! Happy Halloween!