Sunday, January 21, 2007

2007 PSIFF—Back From The Desert

Michael Hawley offers up his first dispatch from the Palm Springs International.

* * *

Getting there was not, as the saying goes, half the cheer. Our flight from San Francisco was delayed for well over an hour. And once we arrived in Palm Springs, it took our bags an hour to appear on the luggage carousel and then another hour went by waiting for our hotel shuttle. By the time we checked in, it was already late afternoon, and we still had to obtain our press passes and check out the venue locations.

With no time to settle in, we set off on foot from our home in Palm Springs, the perfectly clean and comfortable Shilo Inn at the northern end of Palm Canyon Drive, to see how long it would take to reach Tahquitz Canyon Way. Within blocks of the Tahquitz and Palm Canyon intersection were three of the five festival venues, as well as the luxury Hotel Zoso, home of the festival's hospitality suite and press office. The walk took over a half hour, a distance we would soon learn to traverse in minutes using the regional SunBus line 111.

Things were buzzing in the press office as the opening night gala was only hours away. Unfortunately, the photos we had sent the festival for our badges were nowhere to be found, so Polaroids were snapped and then laminated before they could even finish developing. The resulting ghostly images only vaguely resembled our fine, handsome selves. While waiting for the badges to be finished, I noticed a directors sign-in sheet. There at the bottom was Volker Schlöndorff's signature, which I was tempted to steal for my autograph collection.

The next order of business was to see how long it would take to walk from this area of town to the east, where the Camelot Theater and Palm Springs High School venues were located. By this time the sun had long set, and much of the walk along Tahquitz, Sunset Way and Baristo Road was borderline perilous, lacking both streetlights and sidewalks. Often the open desert stretched out alongside of us, and every time a pick-up drove by I pictured us being abducted by the goons in Bruno Dumont's Twentynine Palms.

It took us over a half hour to reach the Camelot Theater, forcing us to reconsider our deluded fantasy of being able to walk between our hotel and all the festival venues. Fortunately, the next day we learned about the free festival shuttle vans sponsored by the Palm Springs Spa Resort Casino. These vans operated every 20 minutes between 9 a.m. and 11 p.m., connecting all five venues, the Hotel Zoso and the Spa Resort Casino, and made it blissfully easy to experience the festival without a car. (Palm Springs Spa Resort Casino . . . thank you, thank you, thank you!) We retraced our steps back to Tahquitz, and knowing that the next 10 days would involve a lot of eating on the run, sat ourselves down to a leisurely meal at the elegant Blame It On Midnight restaurant before taxi-ing back to our hotel.

My first screening was at 9:30 the following morning at the newly renovated Palm Canyon Theatre. A home for local live theater productions for the past 10 years, the Palm Canyon is a brand new venue for the festival, and in fact, the film I was about to see was the first film ever to be shown there. The theater is intimate and features comfortable, if slightly cramped stadium-style seating, and the projection and sound were both excellent. The smell of new seats and carpeting filled the air, and locals marveled that the restrooms were now located inside the building.

All in all, I have to say that I was very pleased with the festival venues. My favorite was probably the Palm Springs Regal 9, where the majority of screenings take place. The auditoriums are reasonably large and comfortable with stadium seating (the only way to see subtitled films), and the festival staff and volunteers kept the multitude of passholder, ticketholder and rush lines running with friendly, military precision. In fact, on both weekends of the festival, uniformed "volunteers" from the nearby Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center were on hand to help with crowd control, tear tickets and hand out audience ballots. The nighttime temperatures were pretty cold, dipping in the 30s by festival's end, so it was especially nice that the theater provided outdoor heat lamps to warm up the waiting hoards.

Not far away from the Regal 9 is the Annenberg Auditorium, adjacent to the Palm Springs Art Museum. This is a very large, aisle-less room, but the screen is a comfortable distance from the front row, enabling one to sit alone with leg-room galore and an unimpeded view. There's also a decent café with seating both indoors and outdoors in a lovely sculpture garden.

On the other side of town was the Camelot Theatres, the festival's second most important venue consisting of one large auditorium and two smaller screening rooms. Constructed in 1967, there's no stadium seating here, but the pitch of the theaters is sufficiently sloped so that viewing subtitles is generally not a problem (especially if, like me, you run to get a seat on the aisle of the side sections). The Camelot also has a very nice café, with indoor and outdoor seating, and there's even a bar located upstairs.

Across the street and around the block from the Camelot is the cavernous auditorium of the Palm Springs High School. There are three or four screenings a day here, and it's also the venue for both Opening and Closing Nights. The best thing I can say is that it's generally uncrowded and the screen is humongous.

Humongous is actually a good word to describe the Palm Springs International Film Festival, now in its 18th year. As I mentioned in my preview entry, there were 254 films screened this year, all but eight of them features. I managed to see thirty-five in nine days, which represents a meager one-seventh of what was on offer. The team that puts on the festival is to be congratulated for how smoothly it runs things. I was very impressed that all of the screenings I attended began exactly on time. Festival volunteers introduced most of the screenings, unless talent associated with the film (director, producer, writer, actor, etc.) was in attendance, in which case the film would be introduced by a programmer. In all cases, appropriate warnings were issued about cell phones etc., and as often as not, audiences were told not to check phone and e-mail messages during the films, something I really appreciated. Nothing takes my mind out of the film I'm watching quicker than a blast of blue light in a dark theater. And a few of those introducing films were kind enough to ask the audience to "let the actors do the talking," advice that was heeded by most, but unfortunately, not all.

It was generally my experience, however, that audiences at this festival were pretty well behaved. And very enthusiastic! Waiting in line, sitting in a theater, riding in the shuttle van . . . people seemed compelled to discuss what they'd seen, with friends and strangers alike. And they all wanted to know what you'd seen and what you'd recommend. Of course there were times when you'd have to just smile politely as the lady next to you raved about the new Roberto Benigni film. Or hold your breath as the man behind you declared that he'd just seen the worst film in all his years of attending the festival, which of course turned out to be the film from Romania you thought was a masterpiece. But at least he was curious enough to go and see that film in the first place.

The major difference I noticed between this festival audience and the ones I'm used to in the Bay Area was the age difference. The Palm Springs audience is noticeably, well . . . much older. I'm 53 and can't remember the last time I felt so comparatively young. I lost count of the number of festival-goers I interacted with who were attending though Elderhostel programs. Is it any wonder that Frownies are one of the festival's Platinum Sponsors ("Are You Ready for YOUR Close-Up," the on-screen ads crowed). There was even a Frownie Award given at the end of the festival to the actress with the best close-up (Missi Pyle won for the film Mojave Phone Booth).

Speaking of awards and glamour, I guess I should make some mention of the other Palm Springs Film Festival, the one of black-tie galas and red carpets . . . the one that may as well have taken place in another solar system for all it showed up on my festival radar. Each morning I would be pick up The Desert Sun and see the photos of Brad Pitt, Kate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, Morgan Freeman, Sydney Pollack, Sissy Spacek, Laurence Fishburne, Alan Arkin, Philip Glass, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Todd Field, Jennifer Hudson and think, gee, I'm glad these folks are here to bring in the publicity and big bucks, because I'm sure it's not coming from ticket sales to the film from Yemen I'm about to head off to.

And finally, a few words about the city of Palm Springs itself. This was my first visit here, and the image I had in my mind was much tackier than the reality of what I saw and experienced there. To my surprise, much of Palm Springs is very charming. Each morning I looked forward to seeing the sun on the mountains to the west as I walked down Palm Canyon Drive to my first film of the day. I was also surprised by the amount of open space. Wide expanses of undeveloped desert could be found practically in the middle of town. There was no proliferation of fast food restaurants and chain stores, at least in the areas of town I visited. The food I ate there varied in quality . . . most of it decent, none of it great, with the exception of the chicken noodle soup at Sherman's Delicatessen & Bakery. This soup became my life blood as I battled a nasty chest cold from which I'm still recuperating. The weather was certainly interesting. On one hand, we experienced a few still, balmy days with temperatures in the '70s. One day, however, near gale force winds blew huge clouds of desert dirt around, and walking down the street became a game of Dodge the Plunging Palm Fronds. Nights ranged from comfortably cool to downright freezing. There was even a little rain. Something for everyone, I suppose. But it all added up to an experience I see myself enthusiastically wanting to repeat next January for the 19th Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Next up: The Films.

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