Last night’s 7 p.m. event at the Savannah Film Fest was –in totality– one of the more memorable evenings I’ve ever spent during the 13 years this festival has been in existence.
It began with a packed house (bristling with a palpable energy) awash in expectation of the arrival of the guest of honor, Sir Ian McKellen. Considered by most to be perhaps the greatest living Shakespearean actor alive today, but known best worldwide for his spellbinding star turn as Gandalf the wizard in Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS Trilogy, Sir Ian is famous for his wit, candor, grace and his fierce and outspoken activism on matters of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered rights.
For some reason, last night’s introduction of the honoree was handled not as is usual, by SCAD President and Co-Founder Paula Wallace, but by Savannah Film Fest Executive Director Danny Filson, who delivered what essentially amounted to a fawning –if obviously heartfelt– love letter to McKellen, heaping not only copious praise on his cinematic and stage achievements, but occasionally approaching crush-letter tone by waxing poetic on, I don’t know exactly. The glorious essence of his very being?
After a well-compiled and edited video profile encapsulating standout scenes from many of Sir Ian’s films and videotaped stage plays, the honoree appeared from behind the Trustees Theater’s stage curtain and strode across the stage with the calm and collected air of a man who seems almost preternaturally comfortable in his own skin. A wave of deafening applause roared for some time while he walked upstage, massive trophy in hand, to gesture and nod in acknowledgment of the crowd and the honor bestowed upon him.
His short acceptance speech began with the admission that the very first person from Georgia he ever met was President Jimmy Carter (whose name garnered a surprisingly healthy amount of applause as well), and it turns out the occasion was a stage production of AMADEUS in which Sir Ian was starring. Seems President carter and the First Lady chose that performance as their first public appearance following the news he had lost his bid for a second term as President. It had been several days since the Carters had been seen, and according to McKellen, their presence at the theater that night drew more applause before the show than even an acclaimed production such as that one could earn by the time the curtain fell.
Sir Ian spoke plainly and kindly of the generosity and hospitality he had been shown during his few days in Savannah, and remarked with a laugh that it seemed as though this was in reality the Bobby Zarem Festival, a remark that drew both applause and a smattering of knowing chuckles from those who have long been aware of just how much the famed publicity icon has had to do with growing this modest Southeastern college event into a well-known Hollywood schmooze-fest.
Following Sir Ian’s brief remarks, we were treated to an advance screening of BLUE VALENTINE, an intense and claustrophobic tale of young love gone bad starring the phenomenally talented Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams (both of whom received an Executive Producer credit for this film) and directed by art-film and documentary wunderkind Derek Cianfrance. In development for twelve long years, the script –which reportedly went through a whopping 66 rewrites– is a minor masterpiece of stark, unsettling realism. Arranged in overlapping dramatic arcs, the stories of the two leads’ background, courtship, marriage and, ultimately, separation are told in both real-time and flashbacks, which some viewers at BLUE VALENTINE’s previous festival screenings found hard to follow, but which seemed very straightforward to me.
This is a tough film, to be sure –especially for anyone who has gone through a demoralizing and emotional breakup– but it’s also a rarity in today’s U.S. cinema: a narrative drama that teeters on the brink of feeling like a documentary, without aping the traditional documentary approach. So bare and open are the performances by most all the actors that at times they became almost transparent.
The only glaring misstep in the film is a highly stylized closing credits sequence that is COMPLETELY out of place with the look and feel of the entire rest of the film. It’s an impressive sequence, but coming directly after what many will feel is an abrupt and ambiguous final scene, its appearance is beyond jarring — it threatens to overwhelm and minimize the entire movie which came before it. I have no idea what compelled the director to make this choice, but if one were to remove most of the titles and credits from that dazzling sequence, it would make an absolutely phenomenal trailer.
Sadly, this film will likely be seen by hardly anyone in a U.S. theater. That’s because, in one of their infamously perverse and nonsensical decisions, the MPAA Ratings Board (a shadowy and secretive group of censors who operate without oversight and never answer for their seemingly arbitrary decisions) has slapped the movie with the kiss of death: an NC-17 Rating.
Reserved supposedly for none save for the most egregious examples of overly graphic or (near) pornographic filmmaking, it functions in reality essentially as the long-abandoned X Rating did. Meaning that virtually no legit theaters will agree to screen NC-17 films, and the vast majority of newspapers refuse to run ads for them, even though anyone over the age of 17 is allowed to attend (yet no one under 17 may be admitted, even with their parents as guardians). After viewing this movie I can only conclude that this is some sort of sick and cruel joke. There is virtually no violence of any sort in this film, save for a couple of brief fistfights. There are only three explicit sex scenes, only one of which is even remotely explicit. There are however, some intense arguments between the lead characters –one of which takes place during one of the aforementioned sex scenes– that are dark and depressing.
And so, the same untouchable and anonymous ratings board that allows vicious, needlessly cruel, torturous odes to violence and murder such as HOSTEL, SAW and HUMAN CENTIPEDE to receive R ratings (and thus be widely promoted to impressionable teenagers who pony up millions upon millions of bucks to see violent anti-social fantasies on the big screen), decrees from on high in the vaguest of terms that BLUE VALENTINE’s “one scene” of “Emotional Brutality” renders it inappropriate for viewing by anyone under 17, regardless of their maturity level, or whether to not they see it alongside their parents?
The sex scene in question is NOT erotic. It is NOT overly graphic. It is NOT violent. You know what it is? It’s awkward. And it’s sad. And it’s cold. And it’s very, very real.
The moral of this story, folks, is that the powers that be in Hollywood don’t trust you to be able to process something that actually relates to the way you probably live your own life. They’d rather keep you distracted by red corn syrup and exploding tanker trucks.
Do yourself a favor, and do everything in your power to see this impressive and accomplished piece of filmmaking on the big screen. You may not “enjoy” it, but you’ll likely be the better for allowing its images and commentary on modern American life into your heart and mind.
I closed out the night with a round or two of drinks at HangFire, followed by a lengthy and vibrant discussion on Stanley Kubrick’s love of both Napoleon and Steve Martin, the reluctance of both John Travolta and Tom Cruise to simply come out of the closet for once and all and the evils of Scientology with documentarian (and Art-car champion) Harrod Blank, actor and raconteur Robert Ross and photographer Adrienne Dickerson in the ballroom of The Mansion on Forsyth Park, where the official Film Fest after-party was held. Toward the end of the night, Sir Ian McKellen dropped by to make an appearance and was swarmed by partygoers (but mostly by SCAD students) eager for an autograph or a photo with the legendary actor, most of which he obliged graciously.
Having been aced out of a planned interview with the man earlier in the day due to him running behind schedule, I seized the moment to chat with him about David Lynch and the art of accidental haberdashery. Real Talk.
Tags: Blue Valentine, Bobby Zarem, Savannah Film Festival, Sir Ian McKellen
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