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CRITIC AT LARGE

Movie Time in Monterey

February 23, 1988|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

MONTEREY, Calif. — Wherever on Earth humankind gather in the darkness to watch the big silver screen, there is the possibility of a film festival. The global count must now run into the hundreds.

Here on the peninsula where it seems a pity to be indoors on a brilliant and cloudless day, Monterey has just concluded its second annual film festival.

In the way of all the film festivals, it served two functions. It brought together a number of films the locals might not otherwise have had a chance to see, and it justified a lot of lively partying, always a major enthusiasm on the Monterey Peninsula.

The two functions did not always overlap. Many of the die-hard film buffs were too preoccupied with seeing the movies to make the parties, and the organizers and the volunteers were too busy with logistics and the parties to get to the movies. It is often so.

But both functions coalesced around the slim, erect figure of James Stewart, who received the festival's Life Achievement Award from Clint Eastwood at a $150-a-ticket banquet Sunday night. He drew a standing-room-only press conference crowd Sunday afternoon and respectful stares wherever he went.

"Film festivals are a reminder that the film business is doing very well, thank you," Stewart said. "That's a very welcome thought to anyone who's been in it 50 years and made a life's work out of it."

Stewart remembered that his father, who ran a hardware store in Indiana, Pa., never quite reconciled himself to Stewart's being an actor. "My mother would take him to the last showing of my movies at the Strand Theater there in Indiana, after the store closed at 9. Then he'd call me and talk about 'em. I could always tell just what point in the movie he'd fallen asleep. He finally always said the same thing, 'Try to make the next one a little better.' "

A retrospective of Stewart's films drew sizable crowds to the triplex Lighthouse Theater in Pacific Grove, the principal venue for the festival screenings.

But there was heavy attendance as well for the exotic foreign films, one of which was a spectacularly fine new French-Albanian co-production called "Broken April." It deals with the attempts of modern officials to break the primitive blood feuds in the mountains of Albania, which make the Hatfields and the McCoys seem like pacifists. Beautifully shot amid scenery of austere grandeur, it is a dramatic glimpse at a little-known and rarely seen piece of the world.

The lobby of the Lighthouse was abuzz with Russian, spoken by students and faculty from the nearby Defense Language Institute who had come to see a strong selection of recent Soviet films, including Eldar Shengelaya's satiric "Blue Mountains" and "Believe It or Not," a farcical reworking of folk tales that is charming, innocently bawdy here and there and very funny. It is the work of Sergei Ovcharov, who was a festival guest.

The festival did not recruit its executive director, a local theatrical producer named Mikel Pippi, until three months ago and there was a certain air of improvisation bordering on chaos. Prints did not arrive. Credits were scarce or non-existent on the films that did show. Roger Vadim's "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" arrived in a print without subtitles. Apparently only half of a program of Soviet animation was shown. One of the three shorts, "The Island," about a shipwrecked man being visited by all the evils of civilization, was a teasing reminder of the visual and literary wit the Soviet artists are capable of.

Despite its shaky-legged youthfulness, Monterey has developed a sister-festival relationship with Deauville, whose mayor, Mme. Anne D'Ornano, was present, along with the Deauville festival's American representative, Ruda Dauphin.

Monterey imaginatively programmed a selection of Spanish-language, Latino-themed films in nearby Salinas, including a showing of "The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez," in the presence of its producer, Moctezuma Esparza, who is now producing "The Melagro Beanfield War."

Celebrities attending the festival and the Stewart tribute included Doris Day and Joan Fontaine, who are on the festival's honorary board; Sam Elliott and Katharine Ross, Sheldon Leonard, Sue Ann Langdon and Ben Gazzara.

The parties were splashy and enjoyable, and a Friday night bash alternated square-dancing and Russian folk-dancing and song. The parties also help underwrite the festival, which as yet has no major corporate backing.

But what Monterey proves is that the business of film festivals is finally film. Foreign, domestic, old, new, borrowed and possibly even lightly blue--although none was--movies are what create the excitement and justify all the rushing about.

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