Notes From the Film Fest – Day Five

The turnout for yesterday’s 11:30 a.m. screening of THE ILLUSIONIST was tremendous and took even the Trustees Theater staff by surprise. With over 800 people in attendance, they wound up opening the balcony — something rarely done during daytime shows at the Festival.

Despite the maddening, selfish rudeness of folks who simply can’t go more than 15 minutes at a time without checking their cell phones (thus distracting everyone else within sight of their phone’s bright screens), the animated French film was a wondrous gem — albeit one with a meandering plot that cold probably have benefited from a bit of careful pruning.

I followed up my Tati fix with a 2:30 p.m. screening of TRUTH IN NUMBERS? an engaging and above-average indie documentary on the internet phenomenon which is — otherwise known as “the encyclopedia that anyone can edit.”

This gripping, investigative work travels along at a surprisingly fast clip and features tons of engaging interviews with both fans and critics of the internationally popular (some would say ubiquitous) website that purports to have democratized the act of curating and presenting both common and uncommon knowledge for the masses. Many may then be surprised to know that not only is Wikipedia often maligned by not only academics and scholars but by average folks for being routinely inaccurate (and thus essentially useless as a source worth citing when doing serious research on any particular subject), but among those in the know, there is widespread distrust of the motives and sincerity of the site’s founder Jimmy Wales.

In this film –the first of its kind to seriously investigate and profile the Wikipedia phenomenon– Wales comes across (even in his own interview segments) as not so much a benevolent philanthropist but rather a fairly self-absorbed opportunist who struck upon the idea for a free online encyclopedia written and edited by volunteers only when his idea for a similar site that could actually generate money failed. We learn that there are others who claim –seemingly truthfully– to have been intimately involved with the creation and naming of the site, who have subsequently left the company after disagreements with Wales over the quality of the information provided on the site, and who’ve since been written out of the Wikipedia history — much as there are scores of opinions and facts which are routinely deleted form the articles on Wikipedia, despite their veracity and importance.

The movie, which took over three years to complete, is an eye-opening glimpse at the deception which routinely takes place online when individuals are allowed to post content completely anonymously, thus eliminating any chance of being held accountable for their actions. It also delves into the cockeyed notion that somehow the mere act of being a learned and educated “expert” in a given field is to be held suspect, and that self-taught amateurs are somehow inherently more legitimate than those who have gone through the rigorous (albeit sanctioned by society) training required of degreed professionals, merely because those graduates are somehow part of “the system.”

In a very real way, it’s the same kind of reverse elitism that fuels the “Ignorance Is Power” branch of the Tea Party and foments blind, ego-centric mistrust of authority and/or the educated. This is not to say that TRUTH IN NUMBERS? exists solely to bash Wikipedia. The “fact” is that there is much about the website and its ethos that is given praise in this generally even-handed documentary. Yet the inner workings of the Wikipedia hierarchy (which the site’s founder downplays the mere existence of) is quite rightly used as a near perfect encapsulation of our societal shift away from valuing institutionalized learning and knowledge and toward pontification and punditry without a strong basis in verification. This film should at the least be required viewing for anyone who regularly uses to learn “facts” about anything. Which, according to the statistics given in this film (which I can only assume are true and correct!) makes up the overwhelming majority of the online world.

My day closed with the 7pm award ceremony honoring the internationally acclaimed publicist Bobby Zarem, who was born and raised in Savannah, but made a name for himself in the ’70s as perhaps the most revered and innovative “hype master” the U.S. entertainment world has ever seen.

An icon of both Hollywood’s and New York’s pop-culture scenes, Bobby helped more stars’ careers than can be easily estimated, and his brazen, outside-the-box approach to public relations fundamentally altered forever the way that work is done today. Beloved by stars of stage and screen and relied upon for decades by the top movie, TV and publishing firms as the go-to guy for creative and memorable launch parties, premiere events and just all-around networking, he’s famous for his quick wit, salty language, encyclopedic memory and deft touch with the swelled-head crowd.

After a short, gushing induction speech from SCAD co-founder Paula Wallace –who thanked Bobby profusely for being the behind-the-scenes catalyst for the massive success that the Savannah Film Fest has become, thanks to his unfettered access to most anyone of import in Hollywood– a short video profile of his life and career was screened, and then Zarem himself was introduced. His heartfelt acceptance speech (which threatened at times to become tearful with emotion) touched on his own youth as a sickly child in Savannah, and of his dreams that his own hometown was somehow transformed into Hollywood, filled with movie stars and filmmakers, for that was where he’d rather have been.

While Wallace had remarked in her speech that after all these decades, Zarem, who has recently moved back to Savannah to live full-time, had finally helped turn his home town into a modicum of Hollywod for the one week each year that this film fest is held, Bobby explained to the crowd that rather than her thanking him for helping to make this festival a recurring success, he actually wished to thank her for allowing him to finally turn his childhood dream into a reality by introducing so many world-famous entertainers and creative artists to his fair city.

In a show of support for Zarem’s amazing life and continuing career, the festival handed out upwards of 1,000 black baseball caps to those entering the sold out event, each embroidered with “I (heart) B Z”, a clever play on the unforgettable “I (heart) New York” ad campaign which Zarem had concocted and which helped revitalize that city. Everyone was asked to don those caps before Bobby came out to accept his award, and then gladly stood in his honor for a group photo of the entire Trustees Theater awash in a sea of matching caps as the 73-year-old legend made his way offstage to thunderous applause.

It was a touching moment, and a most unusual one. How many times do you think a PR guy has ever received one –let alone two– standing ovations from a sold-out theater crowd? It’s unheard of, and a testament to his lasting influence and his quite out-of-the-ordinary status as a star in his own right.

That moment was capped by the surprise announcement that with Bobby Zarem’s assistance, the “Director’s Choice” for the night (a tradition at the Savannah Film Fest where an as-yet-unreleased –but major– film is given a special advance screening, yet remains unnamed till showtime) would be Robert Redford’s just-completed feature THE CONSPIRATOR, which had been shot in Savannah last year. To say the crowd went wild at the news would be an understatement.

The screams and applause had barely died down before the lights dimmed and the film began. Unfortunately, I must admit that THE CONSPIRATOR was a bit of a mess. Shot in a dim, gauzy haze which resembled a BBC-produced episode of MASTERPIECE THEATER, it was little more than a cliched courtroom drama gussied up in period clothes and set against the backdrop of the Lincoln Assassination. Despite decent if not occasionally impressive performances from leads James McAvoy and Robin Penn, the dialog was at times chuckle-worthy and slipped repeatedly into modern-day dialects and speech patterns and, in a supporting role, Justin Long (the “Mac guy”) gave Keanu Reeves in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA a run for his money as the most unbelievalble “dude” ever to appear in a period piece.

The standout actors in the film wound up being on screen for a combined total of about ten minutes. Stephen Root (best known as NEWSRADIO’s station manager Jimmy James or as the voice of KING OF THE HILL’s Army barber Bill Dautrieve hit a home run with his bit part as a gullible drunkard who allows himself to be coerced into giving false testimony against Mary Surratt (Robin Penn), the mother of Lincoln’s murder conspirator John Surrat (played, in the film’s most embarrassingly sub-par performance by newcomer Johnny Simmons), and the too-rarely-seen John Cullum (a Tony Award-winning thespian best known as Holling Vincoeur on the fondly remembered TV series NORTHERN EXPOSURE) makes a searingly memorable cameo as a judge.

I predict a middling theatrical release for THE CONSPIRATOR, followed by a quick path to VOD and DVD. Still, a nice surprise by the film fest, and the added surprise of the film’s three producers, plus actors Robin Penn and James Badge Dale appearing onstage immediately following the credits to praise Bobby Zarem and publicly thank Savannah and its inhabitants for their copious support and help in the making of the film was a nice touch.

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