Friends: May 15, 2005 will long be remembered as Jackpot Sunday, one of my greatest days of cinema ever, a day I saw six films and six winners, something unheard of at any festival, even ultra-selective Telluride. I somewhat cheated by slipping in a market screening of Werner Herzog's documentary "Grizzly Man," which debuted at Sundance in January to rave reviews and is being distributed by Lion's Gate, meaning it will make it to at least a semi-commercial theater in Chicago. I try to resist films that I know I will have a chance to see in Chicago, unless they are being premiered in one of the competitive categories, but the allure of "Grizzly Man" was too much for me. Having spent a couple summers in Alaska, this film about a bear-lover who spent 13 years living amongst and filming the bears of Alaska before being killed and eaten by a bear had special appeal to me. I had been fully entranced by several days of full-page glossy ads in the trade papers of three bears in line approaching the Grizzly Man against a green expanse and Ebert's rave, "Brilliant! An astonishing portrait." I can not disagree.
But that was not my highlight of the day. Rather it was another market screening that my careful reading of the one-line blurbs of the 250 daily screenings unveiled. The movie was the German film "Hell on Wheels." "Screen" magazine's description was, "An inner view of the Tour de France from the perspective of one its participating teams." I would have sacrificed any of my choices for the day to see this. The film followed the German team Telekom in the 2003 race. It is Jan Ullrich's team, but not that year, as he was racing for Bianchi. I was relieved the film wasn't devoted to last year's race, as I would have had the distraction of looking for myself along the roadside. Instead in 2003 I was off in Iceland following The Tour on line, rather than in person. There was much that was just as I had seen and experienced, especially the flavor of the small towns and all the people along the route. This was a glorious two-hour immersion into the mostly unseen Tour--in the team bus and the rider's rooms and the director's car and even a montage of the racers pissing during the race, both on their bikes and off. This was the year Lance struggled to win and had to go cross country to avoid an accident and took a fall when his handlebar caught a musette bag of a spectator, all of which we get to relive, but the film concentrates on the German team and just pays passing attention to the race drama. There were only six of us in the small screening room.
For the first time since the festival began I didn't start my day at the Palais, as it was given up
to the latest installment of the "Star Wars" saga. Instead I saw "Room," a very fine small American independent film about the tormented life of a 40-year old mother and wife working at a bingo parlor in Texas at Christmas. She's further frazzled when her boss tells her he can only give her half her paycheck until after the New Year. She's in full-fledged crisis mode and takes drastic measures.
The Palais had recovered from "Star Wars" by 11:30 for the Italian film "Once You're Born" by the director of "Best in Youth," the critically acclaimed six-hour film that was here two years ago. The credits were panned against a prolonged tapestry that had a quick close-up of a bicycle that had me wondering if the director was pandering to his audience seeking their good will with this almost subliminal image or if he was paying homage to the bicycle. Since the film was a most agreeable and original story of a 12-year old boy lost at sea, I can give the director full approval for his use of the bicycle. The critics will most likely steal some of the drama of this story by telling what happens to the boy, but I won't.
My day was further highlighted by "Factotum" a Norwegian film on Charles Bukowski starring Matt Dillon. I had missed its earlier screening at the Director's Fortnight and was forced to see it in a less desirable market screening room. The reviews were so good I was not surprised to see a mob outside the small screening room when I arrived half an hour early, about the same time as Helen. We both started frantically searching the schedule for a back-up if we didn't get in. We gained some hope when the agent guarding the door announced, "No Press." Since there are 4,000 of them here, a greater gathering than for any event other than the Olympics and the World Cup, and just slightly more than for the Tour de France, that gave us some hope. The agent then announced, "Buyers first." As Helen and I edged towards the door various people slipped past us waving their credentials. Not all were accommodated, but most were. Helen knew her status as the programmer for Chicago's International Film Festival didn't carry much weight with such people, so she didn't even try to bluff her way in. But she looks respectable enough that the woman guarding the door reached for her pass around her neck to give it close inspection, but then just dropped it without saying a word. The woman held up letting any of us non-buyers in until the last moment in case any other buyers arrived, but she did let us in.
It is one of life's great moments to gain admittance to a screening you desperately want to see after giving up virtually all hope. So with that thrill there was no way we would not like this movie. Dillon offers a most convincing performance of a drunk/struggling writer, right up there with Mickey Roarke in "Barfly" and Ben Gazarra in an Italian version of Bukowski life. There is loads of witty dialogue and outrageous scenes to be mined from Bukowski's work, and this film, shot in Minneapolis, succeeds. Among the many jobs the Bukowski character is fired from is working in a bicycle warehouse.
My final winner for the day was "The King" starring Gael Garcia Bernal and William Hurt, who were both on stage for the film's introduction, though Theirry Fremaux, festival director, only gave the microphone to Bernal. This was another dark American independent similar to "Down in the Valley" about a teen-aged girl still in school who gets involved with an older guy who the girl's father has forbidden her to see. Bernal is magnificent as a sailor just turned civilian, and Hurt too is great as a preacher with a pair of mighty ugly sideburns.
After such a great day I can't wait for more.