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Guitar Villain: Coen brothers regular Peter Stormare enjoys himself immensely as the heavy in 'The Movie Hero.'

Festival Flurry

Cinequest adds William H. Macy to roster of Mavericks; 'The Movie Hero' opens 11-day film festival

By Richard von Busack

BRAD T. GOTTFRED'S The Movie Hero kicks off the 13th Cinequest, on Feb. 27 at the Cameras Cinemas, and while I have reservations about the film, I think it is an excellent choice for an opener. The Movie Hero certainly sums up the qualities of most of the American-made independent films on the film-fest circuit today; it displays zeitgeist with a capital Z. The Movie Hero satirizes the art of directing as a perhaps delusional act, justified by the prayerful hope that there's an audience out there for every movie made. Where else, but a film festival, is there hope of that faith being justified?

And who knows what the obsession to make movies has cost the people showing up for this year's Cinequest? Certainly, there's enough going on to take the festival out of the realm of a "trade show" (as critic Jonathan Rosenbaum describes Sundance). As always, actors and directors will be jetting in from L.A., New York and London: James Woods, Val Kilmer, Stephen Frears and Lupe Ontiveros.

William H. Macy is the latest addition to that distinguished list. Macy, who will accept a Maverick Spirit Award on March 8, needs no introduction to alternative-film fans. Like the late-period Edgar G. Robinson, Macy is one of the few character actors who can carry a film as lead.

A specialist in furtive, worried-looking characters, he has done terrific work in two films with dubious premises: Panic, where he plays a breaking-down hit man, and Focus, where he is bedeviled by anti-Jewish discrimination. Macy, who gives his most memorable performance in Fargo as the wrecked little auto salesman getting in over his head in crime, continues the cinematic tradition of tales of little men in big trouble.

Invisible Camera

The Movie Hero says much about the typical entry that turns up at a film festival--and almost only at a film festival. Blake (Jeremy Sisto of TV's Six Feet Under) lives in Hollywood, and the film is lit with the neon marquees of old theaters. Blake has just lost his girlfriend because of his one true love: cinema. She won't even stay to watch a final picture with him. "What if this movie held the answer to the universe?" he asks. Unconvinced, she walks out of the theater and out of his life.

In this crisis of faith, Blake prays to the screen: "Our movie, which art on screen, give us this day our daily film, and forgive us our bad choices, as we forgive those whose movies were bad to choose." The moment lies somewhere between blasphemy and cuteness, but it's heartfelt.

Blake believes that an invisible camera is following him, that his "audience" is begging to be entertained. The police arrest him after a tussle with the man he's convinced is the villain of the piece (Peter Stormare, hamming it up zestily). Blake is sent to a court-appointed psychiatrist, Elizabeth (Dina Meyer) and figures that she is the Love Interest in his imaginary movie.

As I write this description, I can feel the audience for such an effort getting smaller and smaller, like the circle of light shrinking in an iris shot. Maybe moviemaking is valid as a metaphor; we all struggle with our dreams. Many of us, when stuck in a tight spot, think of what our favorite stars would do: Meryl Streep or Curly Stooge. But the specifics of The Movie Hero are really attuned to the young filmmaker--the film-fest attendee, for example.

The movie's conception isn't so novel that no one will understand it. Gottfred's frame-breaking was anticipated in Godard's Breathless. But what's striking is that Blake's frame of reference is limited to the Blockbuster fare: Indiana Jones, James Bond, the Godfather movies.

Blake frets over being a movie hero, worries about his responsibility to be attractive, likable, proactive. Despite all the reflected glitter of Hollywood, there's no critique of the way Hollywood films shape our expectations. Blake (and Gottfred behind the camera) take it for granted that a film with a proactive hero, a reluctant heroine and a grubby villain is the only way to work. This is the most mainstream avant-garde film in memory.

Blake has a rival for the Love Interest, called the "Doomed Fiance" (old-movie fans would call him the "Ralph Bellamy," in honor of the too-nice actor who was always loitering around the heroine until she realized she really loved Cary Grant). Carlos Jacott plays the Bellamy; we know it as soon as he's described as "a critically acclaimed novelist." He's an elitist, hiss!

The critically acclaimed novelist gets into Blake's face, saying, "I hate the movies because they give people like you the right to speak." But what is Gottfred speaking of in The Movie Hero? That he has the technical ability to make a movie? That he's internalized all the Syd Field rules of screenplay writing? Blake, Gottfred's surrogate, admits that there is no conflict in his life; he's had happy relations with women; he has plenty of friends. His problem is, as he says: "How can my audience root for me if I have nothing to overcome?" I'd argue that what Gottfred's concerned about isn't self-expression. Blake/Gottfred's obstacle here is that he's plagued by the question "How can I sell myself? How can I shape myself better to sell this movie?"

Screenwriter John Gregory Dunne once wrote that the failed writers of his time went around saying that they were writing screenplays. It was easier to explain why they weren't making a movie, than to explain why they weren't writing a novel. But the latest technology in filmless film seems to take away even that reliable excuse. The DXD (Digital by Digital) wing of Cinequest (March 6-8) once again features executives from Sony, Apple and Panasonic explaining how the technology has improved in the space of a year. Who knows if this kind of "filmmaking" will triumph? Because it's so much cheaper, it probably will, despite the lack of visual beauty still not available to the digital medium.

Will a camera in everyone's hand be death to the ideal of the sacred, independent filmmaker? No one will keep you from the right to speak--it's just that the right to a listener won't be guaranteed. And having the technology at hand will be a sharp lesson to dreamers, who will learn that cinema isn't just one art but a nexus of arts--writing, photography, music, choreography and acting. And there are very, very few people who are good enough to get by in one of those fields, let alone all of them.

Once that's settled, the chance for a good time at the festival gets all the easier, hearing James Woods' wit or catching up on scandals and cocktails. That's not mentioning the cornucopia of intriguing foreign films, special programs, shorts and exceptional documentaries that I think makes Cinequest really worth attending. Between figuring out a way to sell the ones they've made, and ways to make the next one better, hopefully all the participants are asking themselves: Why are we making movies? What are we looking for?

Cinequest runs Feb. 27-March 9 in San Jose and Campbell. The Movie Hero plays Feb. 27 at 8pm at Camera 3 and at 8:30pm at Camera one in San Jose. A gala party follows at Blake's Steakhouse ($50). Call 408.295.FEST or check www.cinequest.org for ticket information. And watch for complete festival coverage in next week's Metro.

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From the February 20-26, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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