Masquerades: The 14th Virginia Film Festival

Edward Hermann, Kirsten Dunst, Eddie Izzard and Joanna Lumley in The Cat’s Meow.
Photo credit: Lions Gate Films

Masquerades: The 14th Virginia Film Festival
October 25-28, 2001
The University of Virginia, Charlottesville

In the eight-odd years I have been attending the Virginia Film Festival (VFF) in Charlottesville, Virginia, what has consistently impressed me most is the wide spectrum of events, all of which are loosely centered around a particular academic theme — this year, masquerades. Not just a group of unrelated premieres and appearances by stars, the Festival features classic and experimental films, discussions with screenwriters, producers, make-up artists, and directors, film lectures, an annual shot-by-shot workshop (hosted every other year by critic Roger Ebert), and forums designed to impart advice to future filmmakers. This year, the event has also given birth to the three-week “Fringe Festival,” a series of exhibits and performances in music, dance, poetry, and visual art, also touching on the Festival’s overarching theme.

In fact, one of the reasons a relatively small festival like VFF manages to draw big names year after year — including Anthony Hopkins, Gregory Peck, John Sayles, Sydney Poitier, and Robert Mitchum — is that it blends entertainment and analytical rigor. Unquestionably, the Festival also benefits from its location at the University of Virginia, where it can take advantage of the school’s drama department, division of continuing education (VFF’s sponsor for the last eight years), and faculty to host discussions and provide resources. It also tends to attract a certain type of film lover. Introducing the new Peter Bogdonovich film, The Cat’s Meow, Variety critic Godfrey Cheshire argued that VFF is “a real cinephile film festival,” thanks in large part to Artistic Director Richard Herskowitz. George Mason University professor and Indiewire critic Peter Brunette agreed when he wrote last year that VFF audiences “are the most intelligent I’ve seen at any festival, bar none.” Simply put, the Festival has something for everyone, and its audience takes film seriously.

This year’s line-up was arranged by daily sub-themes, including “acting as masquerade,” “con artists, imposters, and other fakes,” and “race- and gender-benders,” Herskowitz explained in a press statement. Appropriately, the Festival placed special emphasis on the careers of actress Gena Rowlands, primarily known for her work with her late husband John Cassavetes, and indie writer/director Henry Jaglom. Both artists were available to reflect on how the craft of acting and directing compares with the roles we play in everyday life. (Unfortunately, Jaglom had to participate via audio hook-up, as he made a last-minute decision not to risk traveling to the east coast.)

Rowlands introduced screenings of several of her films, including Gloria (“The most devil-may-care film I’ve ever made”), A Woman Under the Influence (“My favorite film, from an acting point of view”), and Love Streams, her final collaboration with Cassavetes. She struggled to precisely interpret her films, however, saying that it is difficult for her to pick apart films that are so intense and personal. “They’re all very close to me,” she said. “I’m often very surprised with what critics write about them.” Although she turned 71 this year, Rowlands’ acting career is still thriving, with her having completed work on four film projects this past year alone, including two for Showtime. Not surprisingly, she said she gravitates as a moviegoer toward independent films about relationships and expressed concern over the lack of depth in mainstream film today. “It’s as if it’s a different medium,” she lamented.

Jaglom might agree, given that his improvisatory directorial style was reportedly influenced by Cassavetes’ work, particularly his film Shadows. The Festival focused on his films about the theater and acting: Venice/Venice, Last Summer in the Hamptons, and Deja Vu, which was accompanied by a reel of excerpts from his current work-in-progress, Festival in Cannes. Perhaps his most self-reflexive film, Venice/Venice follows an American director (played by the director himself) premiering his latest work at the Venice Film Festival. There he falls for a French journalist who is disturbed by the disparity between her image of him as a film maverick and his penchant for self-promotion. In the post-screening discussion, Jaglom expounded upon the way women have been “messed with by films,” how their romantic fantasies have been shaped by movie myths. Instead of exploring traditionally male themes of war, sports, and power, Jaglom said, women’s movies are themselves a form of masquerade — “the adventure of romance forced to go internal.”

Also on tap at the Festival was director-producer-actor Sydney Pollack, there to introduce and share stories about the making of the gender-bending classic, Tootsie (1982), and to lead a fascinating shot-by-shot workshop on his 1969 film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Director). The film documents a grueling dance marathon during the Great Depression, in which contestants dance for months on end in exchange for food and a place to sleep. Pollack described the challenges of shooting on a single set in widescreen — a process he described as “a nightmare” — and his creative solution to capturing the circular sequences, which he filmed on roller skates with a primitive camera. He also reflected on the collaborative process of filmmaking, as well as the position of U.S. cinema in the world: “We do tend to denigrate what we do here as pop culture… but every year, there’s a few films that achieve the status of art,” he said. “Most of the time, when filmmakers set out to do high art, they get pretentious. It becomes art sometimes by accident.”

The jury is still out on the artistry of VFF’s 60-plus regional film premieres, however, which included Bogdonovich’s The Cat’s Meow (with a post-screening discussion by screenwriter Steven Perros); Ben Hopkins’ fantasy, Nine Lives of Tomas Katz; the 2001 Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winner, The Believer (Henry Bean’s controversial story of a Jewish neo-Nazi — postponed from its scheduled September 30 premiere on Showtime); Benjamin Smoke, a portrait of a transvestite musician (with directors Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen); Cassavetes’ documentary, A Constant Forge; and the still-unfinished Mark Johnson production, Goodbye, Hello (a post-screening discussion with writer-director Brad Silberling concerned which scenes would likely be excised or shortened), starring Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, and Holly Hunter.

Set amid the gorgeous fall splendor of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Virginia Film Festival year after year remains an all-around classy production. Smoothly run and showcasing many lost gems (like Tod Browning’s The Unknown, with live musical accompaniment by Philip Johnston and the Transparent Quartet) and experimental films and videos (Mark Rappaport’s Imposters and the Slamdance and Image Film Festival hit, The Accountant), the Festival is just large enough to attract interesting headliners and small enough to maintain its accessible, hometown feel. In fact, my only complaint is the Festival’s timing. Held each year during the University’s Parents’ Weekend, the Festival’s visitors have plenty of time to admire the foliage from their cars while caught in the congested Charlottesville traffic. (Due to the influx, hotel reservations need to be made months in advance.) Fortunately, parking on the Downtown Mall and at Culbreth Theatre is cheap and plentiful, and the charming college town is home to a number of fine restaurants and shops — more than enough reasons to venture to Charlottesville for next October’s Festival.