came here to prove that you don't need a Hollywood baseline of $30 million to make a film," American director Jon Jost told a rapt audience at the Thirtieth Annual Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in July. "I believe in making a film because you fucking want to," said Jost, who shot 1993's Frame Up for $40,000.
Jost, who has long had an interest in Eastern European history, said he came in support of the industry here, which is struggling under a 180degree shift from government censorship to market-economy censorship. Competition with Prague's new Zlaty Golem (Golden Golem) Film Festival a month earlier also added to the air of concern. Particularly problematic was the loss of its coveted "A" rating to Prague despite Karlovy Vary's status as a world-class festival. With the rating goes first pick of new films.
Although Karlovy Vary Festival Foundation President Jiri Bartoska saw the new competition as a welcome challenge, he still had hard feelings based on bad blood. Until last year when Antonin Moskalyk left his position as Executive Manager of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival to become the President of Zlaty Golem, he was Bartoska's colleague. While Zlaty Golem was generally regarded as a modest success, Bartoska's bitterness was evident: "Zlaty Golem showed that the idea of organizing a film festival in Prague was wrong, because the city has d07ens of other cultural events that weaken the strength and purpose of the festival."
To some extent, Bartoska's observation held true. With the exception of Karlovy Vary's world-famous spas, the town's focus was the festival. Specially commissioned lampposts modeled after film canisters stacked atop one another were scattered across town like a Dr. Seuss book come to life. Barrandov Studios decorated the festival's hotel headquarters, where people sipped coffee on high-glam 19th-century divans and drank cocktails in squat, pea green leather chairs reminiscent of celluloid detective offices.
The festival, in only its second year of private funding, devoted an entire portion to Czech filmmakers as well as documentaries, former festival winners, and independent filmmakers. Features came from Canada, China, Scandinavia, and Bra7il, providing what some considered a wider scope than Zlaty Golem.
Western audience members complained that older independent releases such as Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train were out-of-date. The purpose behind the selection, however, was to screen releases with limited to no previous distribution in the Czech market.
Where Zlaty Golem had Meryl Streep, Karlovy Vary had Mia Farrow. The opening night audience fawned over Farrow, looking fabulous at 51, as she made a late entrance with an entourage of her extensive family. Missing in the celebrity count was cult director David Lynch, who cancelled only a few weeks before. New filmmakers, such as Lodge Kerrigan, Kal Ng, and Kelly Reichardt showed up, while the more established directors featured only sent their regards.
No festival would be complete without festival rats, that strange assortment of film junkies who have never made a picture or done any real work in the field. One rat spent IS minutes trying to convince a director that Quentin Tarantino is still an independent filmmaker, despite his Hollywood megabucks backing. Another, wearing a carefully orchestrated Roger Ebert outfit, deliberated over his ticket choices for nearly an hour, during which he was told off by people in four different languages.
As usual, sex and violence were overdone in almost all the films. A fine example was the festival's trailer, which appeared before every film. A flapper kisses her lover good-bye before descending into a spa bath. Nude and alone, she is suddenly interrupted when a film crew barrels in. She turns coyly to the camera, ingratiatingly bats her eyes and swims away slowly, giving the camera maximum exposure. What passed for cute on first viewing became insipid with endless repetition.
When asked why sex and violence were so prominent, many filmmakers gave generic responses. Kelly Reichard's film River of Grass was one of the few to avoid violence as a crowd-pleasing gimmick. With a narcotics officer mother and a detective father, guns were a significant part of her young life, she said. When asked whether the gun in her film was meant to symbolize her father's "gun," Reichardt replied "No," with an absolute deadpan expression and added, "It was my mother's gun."
The Shooter, an American-Czech production shot in Prague last fall, made its world premier at the festival, What might have been a decent spy thriller on paper was painfully flat on the screen. Lead-man Dolph Lundgren's acting was characterized by vacant expressions throughout the film. While American directing and funding made Shooter a triumph for the expanding Czech film industry, the only reason to see it are for Prague's familiar haunts and residents, used as extras.
The Danish-German-Swedish Riget (The Kingdom), described as the European Twin Peaks, takes place in a Copenhagen hospital built on a swamp as a temple to science, In the basement a young doctor makes a miniature graveyard dedicated to all the botched operations the staff has covered up, and the elevator shafts are haunted by the ghost of a little girl. Using dingy, rust-tinted lighting, grainy film stock, and video surveillance camera shots, photography director Eric Kress crystallizes the dread one feels when visiting a hospital. What comic relief there is, is dark. Riget does not fall neatly into any category, but Lynch admirers will appreciate its uncanny beauty.
Canadian Atom Egoyan's Exotica connects his characters through a schoolgirl's murder and her father's inability to recover from the trauma. In the highly artificial, jungle-green atmosphere of a strip club, the father self-administers sick, inadequate therapy, ritually watching the "schoolgirl" dance at his table. Complementing the well-crafted story is the film's attention to design: the actors move as if in the iridescent glow", of fish aquariums.
Jost's Frame Up had particular relevance at the festival with its parody or American cinematic archetypes. Dumb and dumber protagonists Beth Ann and Ricky lee expose the culture's banal underside in diners, seedy motels and, of course, on the highway. Beyond sheer comic value, the film is worth seeing for its rule-breaking editing techniques. In one scene, the backdrop changes from thrift-store beach paintings to every visually repulsive motel interior imaginable, in a driving scene, Jost lets the camera run on the two characters for approximately ten minutes without an edit. While Beth Ann equates sex with Harlequin Romances, Ricky Lee's pornographic imagination reminisces at length about an ex-girlfriend's "atomic pussy." The scene works because of Jost's ability to turn it back on the audience you laugh at them, but subsequently squirm in embarrassment because you enjoyed such lowbrow humor.