Now in its eighth year, the Woodstock Film Festival (October 10-14) comports itself less like an unruly preteen and more like an institution which has slid quietly into a dignified middle age. That is to say, lurching metamorphosis is not a hallmark of the event that turns Tinker Street into a crunchy version of the Rue de la Croisette once a year. The goals and values of WFF, established from the start, are merely reaffirmed year after year, to the delight of unreconstructed lefties, veteran counterculturists, and musicians who seek a liberal oasis from the surging conservative madness in our midst. If there is any whiff of chaos still clinging to the proceedings, it springs from misbehaving microphones at speaker panels or occurs among lines of ticket holders that snake out into the street for a buzzworthy screening.
Co-founders Meira Blaustein and Laurent Rejto continue their benevolent reign over this cineaste empire—she alternately genteel and anxious, he in an unruffled state of bliss. Their fellow programmers Ryan Werner, Tom Quinn, and Michael Lerman have helped concoct an overstuffed schedule of narratives, documentaries, shorts, and animated films to play in venues from Hunter to Rosendale. While WFF clearly has no Sundance envy—their sponsors remain modest, the opening night party at New World Cooking is no Cannes bacchanal—the festival continues to deliver films that have dazzled at other leading competitions. This year, Blaustein and company have hit a high point on that count.
The opening night coup is The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by artist-director Julian Schnabel (Basquiat, Before Night Falls) which garnered him the Best Director prize at Cannes this year. Unavailable at press time for viewing, the film is based on the real-life memoir Le Scaphandre et le Papillon by Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor in chief of French Elle. A stroke at age 43 transforms the imperious man into a living corpse, the victim of locked-in syndrome. The haunting, hallucinatory aspect of this story is an ideal match for Schnabel’s collagelike approach to filming.
The closing night film, also not available in advance, already has critics honing their knives for the loopy premise alone. I’m Not There by Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven, Safe) offers a meditation on the many lives of Woodstock’s erstwhile resident Bob Dylan, played by several actors, including Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Christian Bale, and Heath Ledger.
While the naming of the winning films often seems beside the point, festivalgoers enjoy the Maverick Award, the annual selection of an individual whose personal activism complements a body of work featuring some sharp message films. Recipients have included Woody Harrelson, Barbara Kopple, Tim Robbins, Mira Nair, and Steve Buscemi. This year’s recipient is Christine Vachon of independent powerhouse Killer Films, who’s produced such gems as Infamous and Boys Don’t Cry. The Trailblazer Award, honoring indie film behind the scenes, will be given this year to Ted Sarandos, chief content officer at Netflix, for his work promoting niche and small production films via the DVD subscription service.
WFF 2007 will feature a line-up of 150 films (including eight world premiers), panels, concerts, and parties, as well as a technological innovation: a showcase of high-definition films at the Bearsville Theater. The Woodstock Film Festival remains a cultural highlight of this or any other Catskill season.
For a complete schedule of films and special musical events, and to order tickets for screenings and panels, visit www.woodstockfilmfestival.com.
Selected Film Reviews from WFF 2007
(* indicates critic's choice)
Chris Bowman, Director
The flat, even tone of this tale of a good-natured, obese loser named Tracy Orbison should seem familiar; the film was produced by Jeremy Coon, who produced 2004’s Napoleon Dynamite. But while Dynamite grated with its one-note lead character—sorry, Jon—American Fork benefits from the big-hearted lead, depicted by Hubbel Palmer, (who also wrote the wincingly funny screenplay), and William Baldwin as a narcissistic acting coach.
Chris Eska, Director/Writer
A tale from Mexico that, gratefully, does not include the narrative pyrotechnics of Babel, Amores Perros, or 21 Grams. Jaime (Pedro Castaneda) is a Mexican campesino, a field worker now in late middle age and unemployable. When his wife dies, Jaime is left alone with his widowed daughter-in-law, Lupe (Veronica Loren). Together, they travel over the border for shelter with Jaime’s married children, striving for middle-class assimilation and embarrassed by their father who hews to old Mexican tradition. The fitful progress of Jaime and Lupe unfurls with a lyrical ease, and issues of aging, familial responsibility, and racism are touched on with grace, rather than with a dull thud. Castaneda and Loren radiate enormous, understated dignity.
The Cake Eaters
Mary Stuart Masterson, Director
A tale of broken lives and redemption in a Hudson Valley town (in this case, Catskill). Co-producer Jayce Bartok wrote the script and plays the prodigal son, a failed rock star whose return unsettles this sleepy world. At the center of this gallery of eccentrics, Kristen Stewart plays a high school girl suffering from a terminal nerve disease, intent on cramming life’s peak moments in her remaining years. Aaron Stamford is her hangdog suitor, and veteran scene-stealers Elizabeth Ashley and Bruce Dern make this film a sentimental favorite.