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Sex Scene

The 2004 Mill Valley Film Festival reveals a few naked truths--and a whole lot more

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Film festivals can tell us a lot about the state of the cinematic art, and possibly the reigning social attitude, merely by an examination of how each new festival hangs together. Except for those festivals organized around a very specific theme--science fiction/ horror movies, gay and lesbian movies, movies made for under $1,000 by recovering alcoholics from Fresno--the average film festival strives to be a vast salad bar of eclectic thematic subjects, origins and cinematic styles. That said, one cannot help but notice while skimming the program listing of the average film festival that certain mini themes frequently appear and a large number of films do seem to fall together into topical groups.

Consider last year's Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF), which included The Barbarian Invasions, Japanese Story, Sylvia, A Family Undertaking, My Life without Me, Pieces of April, Mystic River, The Station Agent and Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, all of them about people dealing with death. The mortality theme was pronounced enough that many attendees began affectionately referring to the event as "the Mill Valley Death Festival."

For the 2004 MVFF, running Oct. 7-17, the organizing Film Institute of Northern California has put together a first-rate lineup of over 100 films, shorts and special screenings, only a handful of which deal overtly with death and dying: Johnny Depp's whimsical Finding Neverland, William Hurt's Blue Butterfly, the satirical football and capital-punishment comedy Death and Texas and the buzz-inducing Purgatory House, in which a group of teen suicides are sentenced to eternity in a hellish halfway house.

A perusal of this year's films reveals other small filmic groupings of similar subject matter. There are music films (Blues Divas, The Grateful Dead Movie, The Nomi Song, Timbuktoubab and the closing night blues documentary Lightning in a Bottle); films that were either made in the Bay Area or made by local filmmakers (notably the youth-directed compilation of shorts titled Barbie, Frankenstein and Friends featuring the hilarious antibiography Michael Patten's Life by Novato high school junior Michael Patten); and animated films (the piratical French adventure Black Mór's Island, Bill Plympton's ghoulish Hair High and The Dark Side of the 'Toon).

Oddly, the festival also features not one but two films dealing in part with . . . college admissions officers: Melissa Painter's Admissions (starring Six Feet Under's Lauren Ambrose) and P.S., in which admissions officer Laura Linney discovers that an incoming freshman (Topher Grace) is the reincarnation of her long-dead high school sweetheart (which actually qualifies this film for the death-and-dying subset).

What does this mean? We have no idea. But whether it means anything or not, one can't deny that films, like celebrity deaths and election season lies, do tend to come along in breathtaking clusters.

"It's interesting how that happens," agrees film producer Gail Mutrux, whose producing credits include Quiz Show, Nurse Betty and Donnie Brasco. "I remember a few years ago, the year of In the Bedroom and Monster's Ball and a few others. That was the year we all got to see movies about families dealing with the death of a child. There was just something in the air."

So what's in the air now?

"Well, coming out of the Toronto Film Festival," she replies, "it looks like we're about to see a lot of films that deal in some way with sex."

Bingo.

A glance at this year's MVFF lineup--one or two offerings of which were also unveiled earlier in Toronto--reveals that sex and sexual politics is the new death and dying. For 10 stimulating days, the MVFF will be treating us to a whole range of films that take a look at issues of sex, sexuality, gender identity, male-female, male-male and female-female relationships. One notable entry is the film that Mutrux will be bringing to the festival. The sure-to-be-controversial Kinsey, starring Liam Neeson and Laura Linney (hey, here's another trend) tells the story of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, who set out in the late 1940s to scientifically categorize adult sexual behavior with the same clinical inquiry afforded plants and animals. Directed by Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters), the film is magnificently done, and though a little bit over-earnest at times, ranks as one of the most provocative and daring films of the year. It's already raising the hackles of certain Kinsey-unfriendly media watchers.

"A lot of politically conservative people still blame Kinsey for the sexual revolution, and, of course they don't like that the sexual revolution even occurred," says Mutrux. "These are the same people who believe there shouldn't be sex education in schools, which came about, one could argue, because Alfred Kinsey showed that there was a need for sexual education. Anyway, that's just the political side of it. The movie's also very entertaining."

No argument there. Then again, what's not entertaining about a middle-aged, bisexual entomologist with a statistically larger than average penis who surrounds himself with handsome researchers (occasionally offering full frontal nudity) and sets out to take thousands of sexual histories from a wide cross-section of Americans? The cast is great (especially Linney, who plays Kinsey's remarkably durable wife), and the story is told with an astonishing amount of period detail, much of which sets up the exact flavor of sexual repression, along with all the misinformation and sexual superstition that existed before Kinsey's Report. What surprised Mutrux about the film, which she spent eight years trying to bring to the screen, was the reaction it received from the ratings board.

"The MPAA gave us an R rating," she proudly states, "and they did it very quickly. We really were expecting to get an NC-17, and we were preparing to have to go in and argue with them, but they didn't give it an NC-17. In fact, they told us they actually learned a lot from the movie. Can you believe that?"

Along with Kinsey, the festival includes Vera Drake, the latest work of art from Mike Leigh (director of Naked, Topsy-Turvy, Secrets and Lies, and the subject of his own MVFF tribute event on Oct. 12). The film, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, follows a saintly English abortionist (the luminous, Oscar-destined Imelda Staunton) in the 1950s.

Director Richard Eyre's Stage Beauty is set in the early 17th century, when women were still forbidden to perform on the stage. Billy Crudup stars as an actor famous for his portrayals of women, whose life is upended when the king abolishes the prohibition against women actors. With women free to play female roles, there is no longer a need for his specialty, and his entire professional and sexual identity are challenged as he has to learn how to play a man as convincingly as he once played a woman.

A few more sexual politic highlights include Antares, an entertaining, sexually explicit Austrian drama exposing the messy lives of three couples in a Viennese housing community. Paul Cox's Human Touch follows the sexual reawakening of a young music teacher, whose chilly life starts to melt when she begins posing nude for a famous photographer, and Nicole Kassal's astonishing drama The Woodsman prompts Kevin Bacon into giving the best performance of his life as a convicted pedophile attempting to rebuild his own life after 12 years in prison.

Also of note is Allison Berg's Witches in Exile, a mesmerizing documentary about the Kukuo Witch Camp in Northern Ghana, which examines the gender discrimination that has sentenced thousands of women to refugee camps as accused witches, and the surprising culture they create together.

Like we said--there's something to appeal to everybody's tastes.

Surely, Dr. Kinsey would approve.


As with all film festivals, scheduling is hectic at the MVFF. The best way to follow screenings is on its website (www.mvff.com). Note: due to remodeling of the CinéArts Seqouia Theater, all films scheduled for that venue will be held at San Rafael's Century Regency 6 (280 Smith Ranch Road). 925.866.9559.


Ego Strip

Josh Kornbluth's 'Baby' premieres at MVFF

Josh Kornbluth is excited.

He is excited that actress Laura Linney will be at the Mill Valley Film Festival. "I've been in love with her ever since that movie she made with Mark Ruffalo," he says of You Can Count on Me, "the one with the title no one can ever remember." He is excited at the possibility of hanging out with Dustin Hoffman, about whom he reveals, "He kinda likes my work, and he evidently used to read a transcript of Red Diaper Baby to his family at dinnertime." And he's excited to meet director Mike Leigh who, he shrugs, "is probably not that excited about the idea of meeting me."

So it's not, you know, a sexual excitement, though Kornbluth isn't ruling that out as a near-future possibility. What's stirred the conspicuous enthusiasm of the famous Berkeley-based monologist (Love and Taxes) and filmmaker (Haiku Tunnel) is the sudden realization that the world premiere of his new film--Red Diaper Baby, a live "concert" version of Kornbluth's very first show--will be playing alongside a whole passel of high-profile films, many of them dealing with the subjects of gender, sex and sexuality.

"Oh, it's an honor to be connected with sex in any way," he says, "at my age especially. So that's really cool. But then, Red Diaper Baby is a perfect fit for this year's festival because it does have a very explicit 20-minute sex scene in it. Now, the fact that I'm the person standing there alone onstage in front of a filmed audience describing this sexual encounter, I realize, makes it somewhat less titillating to contemplate, but Red Diaper Baby is a coming-of-age story, so of course, that means sex. So my movie will fit in. Really well."

Red Diaper Baby couples the story of Kornbluth's slapstick sexual awakening with memories from his unorthodox upbringing among a community of passionate New York communists. His late father, who raised him to become the leader of the American communist revolution ("That didn't work out, did it?" Kornbluth winks), is a central figure in Red Diaper Baby and is part of the reason why this show, more than all the others, is the one he felt most protective of as it went through various stages of adaptation for the big screen.

Kornbluth, citing a desire for "real control" over any filmed versions of his autobiographical material, explains that he's divided his one-man shows into two categories: those in which he was more or less the same age he is now, or close enough to get away with portraying himself accurately in a narrative film, as he did in the Sundance hit Haiku Tunnel; and those monologues that recall an adolescent or otherwise far-too-youthful Kornbluth, a vision of himself that he'd rather take to film as a monologue, describing the time rather than bringing in an actor to attempt some sort of impersonation.

"These monologues, these memories, are the essential DNA of my life story," Kornbluth says, "so I think I want those stories to be preserved and presented as, you know, what they began as: solo pieces. I'm very pleased with Red Diaper Baby, the movie. Actually, I'm kind of over-the-moon about it. It turned out just like I dreamed it would." The film will be granted a limited theatrical release (it opens at the Smith Rafael Film Center a week after the festival) and then will run on the Sundance Channel before being released on DVD and video. If nothing else, Kornbluth sees the film as an important personal artifact.

"I feel like, you know, if my arms and legs should start to fall off now," he says, "there will be this permanent record of what I was like in performance, a record of me performing, with my arms and legs, before I became, you know, the rolling-ball monologist. But my arms and legs feel fine, so don't worry."

Glad to hear that. But let's get back to talking about sex.

"'Little Fucker' was my father's nickname for me when I was little," Kornbluth points out, a fact that is brought hilariously to life in the movie. "And I always felt that, in order to lead the revolution, as he told me I must, I needed to somehow become a Big Fucker. Maybe that's part of what helped the movie get into the Mill Valley Film Festival.

"Usually," he laughs, "sex doesn't help me much in the movie industry, but maybe this is one occasion where it did."


Red Diaper Baby, with in-person appearances by Josh Kornbluth, director Doug Pray and producer Brian Benson, screens on Friday, Oct. 15, at 6:45pm at the Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael. 925.866.9559.

--D.T.

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From the September 29-October 5, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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