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The Palm Springs Film Festival; or, What I Didn't Do at Sundance
by The Ultimate Dancing Machine

Nestled inside a rocky canyon, like some incongruously posh sci-fi encampment on a hostile alien world, Palm Springs is a quiet, affluent community two hours away from Los Angeles. Just outside city limits, you can see rows of what look like giant fans sitting off the highway--generators of some kind--their three-pronged pinwheels spinning hundreds of feet off the ground. Road signs warn of high winds. I’m glad that Palm Springs has the fans and the high winds, because otherwise there would be no action at all in this town. As George was the Quiet Beatle, this place is the Quiet Festival.

I arrived expecting a more or less, you know, festive atmosphere, this being the site of the Palm Springs International Film Festival (Jan. 9-20, 2003) and all. What I got was a scene reminiscent of one of those old sci-fi movies (something about this place suggests future-shock similes) where the population of Earth inexplicably vanishes overnight. Almost no one was out on the street as I drove through the main strip, which was optimistically decked out in huge banners and similar regalia. Where the hell was all the action? Where were the overpaid execs fighting tooth and nail over the latest hot indie property?

The answer, of course, was obvious: Sundance.

Somehow I’d forgotten that Palm Springs is a retirement community--specifically one whose population is largely composed of Hollywood retirees. Palm Springs is where all the successful studio hacks literally go to die. Ninety-seven-year-old Bob Hope lives here. That’s why it looked like I was the only person under forty-five in town, including the volunteer crew. The hipness factor in this place is close to non-existent.

It became clear soon enough that I wasn’t going to enjoy much of the ambient buzz associated with the big-name festivals. Not to say that Palm Springs didn’t have celebrity cachet. After all, it had been founded (in 1990) by Sonny Bono. After all, it has its own Walk of Fame, just like the one on Hollywood Boulevard, except in Palm Springs the stars in the sidewalk are spaced much farther apart and they’re dedicated to people like Howdy Doody’s mom.

I will say this, though, about the Palm Springs fest: the movies kicked major ass. Granted, I saw only a fraction of the 200+ films screened, but what I saw was largely first-rate. Hell, this festival beats anything for no-frills moviegoing. If you just want to see films, they got ‘em here.

Palm Springs has what cliché-addicted journalists call an “international flavor”: no fewer than 45 foreign-film Academy Award entries were shown, as were a fair number of non-Academy movies.

Highlights in this category included Iran’s Ten, which no one but me liked; Hukkle, a truly bizarre Lynchian effort from Hungary, which, again, everyone else seemed to hate (heard in line: “Whatever you do, don’t watch Hukkle”); France’s To Be and To Have, a warm documentary about a rural schoolteacher; Oasis, a misfit romance from South Korea featuring a career criminal and the severely disabled woman he falls for; and The Man Without a Past, from Finland’s Aki Kaurismäki. This last film is tremendous, a black comedy that somehow manages to be both bleak and inspirational. It has already won the Grand Prize at Cannes, and at Palm Springs it received the International Critics Prize. Probably Kaurismäki’s best movie to date, it could easily take the Oscar.

In all honesty, it’s partly my fault that Palm Springs looked pretty vacant to me during my stay. A few celebs were spotted in and around town during the fest. I use the passive construction “were spotted” because I personally didn’t see them. I have a near-perfect record of being in the wrong place altogether when the Hollywood elite is around, and true to form, I was nowhere to be found when Salma Hayek allegedly appeared for the screening of Frida.

Also in town was director Christopher Nolan (Memento), here to receive something called the Visionary Filmmaker Award. Missed that, too. They also handed out a bunch of Career Achievement awards; these went to Franco Zeffirelli, Michel Legrand, Mace Neufeld, and Lynn Redgrave. Ditto. Finally, Stephen Daldry and Stephen Frears each carted home an International Filmmaker Award. I think I was at Hamburger Hamlet when that happened.

I also missed the entire Bollywood series, which to me is no great loss. But because of overlaps in scheduling, I was forced to pass on two of the choicest curiosities on the program: a musical from Iceland and a women-in-prison flick from--get this--Iran.

I was hanging around the lobby when an actor starring in a festival feature almost got into a fistfight with a crusty old volunteer who wouldn’t let him enter the theatre--this was, sad to report, the gossipy high point for me of an otherwise sleepy festival scene. But there’s something to be said for the meat-and-potatoes approach of Palm Springs. I saw good movies here. When you watch four or five quality films in a row, it’s hard to fall into despair over the state of movies today: people really are making solid pictures, all over the world, and it’s our fault entirely if we’re too busy watching Kangaroo Jack to notice.


The International Critics Prize (FIPRESCI Prize): The Man Without a Past (Mies vailla menneisyytta) (Finland), directed by Aki Kaurismäki

(Awarded to “Best Official Foreign Language Film of the Year”; chosen from the field of Oscar submissions screened during the festival.)
John Schlesinger Filmmaker Prize: Broken Wings (Israel), directed by Nir Bergman

(Awarded to “Outstanding Debut Feature”; honorable mentions were India’s Rahul Bose for Everybody Says I’m Fine and France’s Christian Caron for The Girl from Paris)
Audience Favorite Award: OT: Our Town, directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy

(Runners-up, in descending order: The Magdelene Sisters, directed by Peter Mullan (UK/Northern Ireland); A Peck on the Cheek, directed by Mani Ratnam (India); Touching Wild Horses directed by Eleanor Lindo (England/Canada); Nowhere in Africa, directed by Caroline Link (Germany); Bánk Bán, directed by Csaba Kael (Hungary); Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, directed by Karan Johar (India); Spellbound, directed by Jeff Blitz (USA), Small Voices directed by Gil Portes (Philippines); and Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, directed by Aparna Sen (India).

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originally posted: 01/26/03 13:35:55
last updated: 12/31/03 08:51:39
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