Film festivals, once purely dedicated to exposing new talent and pushing the boundaries of cinema, have in recent years become shills to the domestic and international marketplace. Larger venues, such as the LA Film Festival, The Toronto Film Festival, and even Sundance, once considered the artistic role model for the many others that followed in its wake, are now, by and large, showcases for studios and major indy producers looking to make deals or promote their latest big-budget release. Thus, it is still up to smaller film societies, even one with a Hollywood pedigree as illustrious as the Backlot, to live up to the essential mandate of any good festival: give the kids a break, and allow films that don’t fit into easy marketing paradigms a shot at making their mark.
The Backlot Film Festival is dedicated in part to preserving the filmmaking legacy unique to Culver City, which, it might be said, is kind of like preserving the legacy of horses on a horse farm. Culver City is still a thriving film center, with Sony Studios and other large-scale production facilities and filmmakers well-ensconced within its city limits, so reminding the public that Culver City is still, in essence, part of Hollywood seems like a fait accompli, with or without the Festival. Still, as an aide memoire of the halcyon days of the Hollywood studio system and the prodigious talent that worked therein, the archival and historical aspects of the Festival were certainly entertaining for both the avid cinephile and casual moviegoer.
The Festival opened with a tribute to renowned composer/producer Arthur Freed that was lovingly crafted by his grandson Stephan A. Saltzman. Freed’s filmmaking credits at MGM read like a movie musical greatest hits list: An American in Paris, and Gigi (both won Best Picture Oscars), The Pirate, Cabin in the Sky, Showboat, and Singin’ in the Rain, among many others. Often in collaboration with Nacio Herb Brown, Freed wrote many songs that are now part of the classic American songbook: “You Were Meant For Me”, “You Are My Lucky Star”, “Singin’ in the Rain”, “Meet Me in St. Louis”, and “On the Town”, to name but a few.
For you film freaks out there, the tribute contained several fascinating anecdotes about The Wizard of Oz. According to Saltzman, it was Freed who actually produced the film, not credited producer Mervyn Le Roy. Le Roy wanted to cut all the music because he felt it slowed the pace of the picture. Freed went to studio head Louis B. Mayer and argued to keep in one song: “Over the Rainbow.” Mayer finally capitulated, and when the song won an Academy Award, Freed was elevated to producer with his own creative unit, and the rest, as they say, is the stuff of Hollywood legend.
The festival continued with numerous programs of shorts, student films, documentaries, and features from all over North America and as far as Australia. Notable entries included J. Neil Schulman’s Lady Magdalene’s, starring the ever-beautiful Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek fame. Schulman’s first feature is an offbeat, sexy comedy set in a Nevada brothel that lampoons the IRS, Homeland Security, and Al-Qaeda, among others.
The festival’s most controversial offering was OJ is Guilty…But Not of Murder, a documentary by noted investigator William C. Dear, which posits a meticulously crafted theory that Simpson was innocent of the infamous twin murders, and that he stood trial to protect a suspect still overlooked by the LAPD and the others major players involved in prosecuting the case.
Winner of the Arthur Freed Student Film Award, Dandelion, a lovely, computer-generated animated short depicting a little girl’s relationship with her mystical grandfather is the kind of little gem one always hopes to unearth at small film festivals. In a few short, nearly wordless minutes, filmmaker Jackie Liao creates a sense of awe, mystery, and a poignant bond between the two characters that is both emotionally affecting and visually arresting.
Of the feature films, Train Master, a “kids film” about a legendary train mechanic/engineer at odds with the soulless corporation that gobbles up the local railroad for whom he works, was disappointing despite the engaging performances by the children in the cast. Train Master, written, produced, and directed by Phil Bransom and shot in his Oregon stomping ground, is a picture one really wants to root for, as its connection to its homegrown roots are clearly in evidence. But mawkish, stiff acting, disjointed storytelling, and an intrusive, melodramatic musical score that often literally drowns out the actors, ultimately hamstring the film. Even Randall S. Timmerman’s finely wrought cinematography cannot mask this well-intended movie’s amateurish shortcomings.
The festival drew to a close with a star-studded tribute to the work of comedic icon Carl Reiner, whose TV and feature film work was featured throughout the festival. Along with contemporaries such as Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Jerry Belson, and Larry Gelbart, Reiner helped create the lexicon for American comedy, and few can rival his talents as a writer, director, producer, and actor. Carl’s son, noted director Rob Reiner (Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally) gave the keynote speech. Reiner, now in his mid-80s, still spry and sharp as a knife, proved himself to still be a world-class raconteur, and more importantly, a proud papa who spent more time effusing over his children’s achievements than his own.
Celebrities who turned out to honor Reiner included Michelle Lee, Stella Stevens, and Penny Marshall. Also in attendance were Dick Van Dyke, and Rose Marie, original cast members of Reiner’s seminal The Dick Van Dyke Show, a now-elderly duo that made this reporter smile with wistful nostalgia. (Morey Amsterdam RIP)
In addition to filmed tributes, many of Reiner’s colleagues including Billy Crystal, Mel Brooks, and Carol Burnett sent congratulatory telegrams. Steve Martin’s brief missive was by far the funniest: “I regret I cannot be with you to share this event, but I’m next door having dinner.”
This year’s Backlot Film Festival did an admirable job of staying true to its mission to honor its local origins, while at the same time, however uneven the filmmaking, giving young and regional talents a well-deserved chance to strut their stuff.
For additional information, call 310.204.6920 or go to backlotfilmfestival.com.
The 2008 Backlot Film Festival Award Winners and Honorees
Best Feature (tie)
Yesterday Was a Lie
OJ is Guilty – But Not of Murder (The Overlooked Suspect)
Best Short Film
Arthur Freed Award:
Best Student Short Film
Thomas Ince Award
Founders AwardZev Yaroslavsky