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If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Thessaloniki

Critic John Anderson goes around the world in eight film festivals

March 26, 2006|John Anderson | John Anderson was film critic for Newsday for 15 years. He is the coauthor of "I Wake Up Screening," to be published next month.

The Hamptons festival is both a symptom and a victim of the craze for movie festivals that has swept every 'burb from Temecula to Bangor. The more festivals, the shallower the pool of available films. It's like major-league baseball: Every time an expansion team is added, the quality of play diminishes. It can't help but be such, especially when you're bidding against something like Sundance, the New York Yankees of film festivals.

Sarasota, Florida

Back in the early '90s, the Sarasota French Film Festival was a decadent little event; you saw two movies a day and dragged cases of Mumm's out to the beach at night, where revelry and hilarity ensued. Since the French bailed out, the festival--now the Sarasota Film Festival--has had a tough time. Two years ago, the jury opted not to give out awards, deciding the films were too uniformly bad to recognize. ("If they'd burned the film," said one juror, "at least they would have produced heat.")

Last year, however, the quality of the films at the late January/early February festival was first-rate and the organization was top-notch. There's still too much money around to avoid the suggestion that dilettantes have taken over the projection booth (or are at least breathing heavily outside it), but good film gets shown despite the mall location and the fact that the locals are going to see movies they otherwise wouldn't watch at gunpoint.

Sarasota is a golfers' and boaters' paradise, and while museums are a vacation cliche--and there's probably a joke to be made about film festivals being circuses--the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art is a diversion worth taking. Established on the 66-acre estate of the Ringlings of Ringling Bros. fame, the museum holds treasures from the couple's own collection as well as traveling exhibits. "Waking Dreams: The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites" is a recent installation. It also houses the Circus Museum, a trove of memorabilia that includes Howard Tibbals' "American Circus," a model re-creation covering 3,800 square feet.

Cannes, France

Judging a film festival does not necessarily come down to a question of good or bad. It's like a therapist, or a bra--it's all about fit. One person's mousse au chocolat is another person's Hostess Sno Ball. Consider two of the biggest festivals in the world. They couldn't be more different. But then they serve at different altars.

The Monday after the Sunday that ends the annual Festival de Cannes, the famous little town on the French Riviera suggests something out of "The Day the Earth Stood Still." The masses have pulled out, the overpriced restaurants (not so overpriced, considering the food) seem bereft and the streets have been hosed down. Then, usually, it begins to rain. The most fashionable film festival in the world has come to a close, again, and Cannes has to revert momentarily to being a somewhat sleepy little port city that began the millennium by supporting Jean-Marie Le Pen.

The fact is, very few come to Cannes for the pleasures of the city, although it is a gloriously beautiful place, the weather is generally sublime and they have the best pizza in the world. But for those festival days in May no place is more chic. No place is more congested with stars. No place is the focus of more flashbulbs.

Which may explain why the biggest stars don't stay there during the festival--no, they stay at the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes, which, depending on traffic, is a 30-minute or four-day drive from the Croisette in Cannes. This often requires journalists to make the schlep to see Nicole, Clint or Lars von Trier, should they be lucky enough to have been granted an audience. Sitting on the terrace at sunset--which any visitor can do, provided they purchase a cocktail--is something not to miss.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Consider Amsterdam the anti-Cannes. Few cities are such gems of Western civilization, with a concentration of world-class art, world-class people, world-class pot laws (one can get high just walking down the street). Yes, there are problems--the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by a militant Muslim in 2004 is often cited as evidence that Amsterdam can no more elude real-world horrors than can any other place. But during the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, held this year in late November and early December, the low-glamour content is balanced by the elegance of the city itself, the seriousness of the films and the enthusiasm of the people.

And their sense of humor. Visiting the Amsterdam Historical Museum, where a survey of the city's art was being held two years ago, I collared a curator who was very helpful in directing me to the Anne Frank House. It was only a few blocks away, but it seemed, via Dutch street signs, to be light years away.

"Don't worry," he said, "if you get lost, ask anyone for directions. Everyone speaks English."

"Oh," I said, trying to be blithe, "it's like New York: Everyone there speaks Dutch."

"Well," he countered, "at one time that was true."

I laughed as I walked off to Frank's house, and thought that, unlike Cannes, IDFA is a people's festival. And that is perhaps the most crucial distinction to be made among film festivals: Are they held under circumstances where the business of film eclipses both art and humanity (as it often does at Sundance or, especially, Cannes)? Or do they celebrate film and people, and do so in a place where one would just as soon be, even if the cinema had never been invented?

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