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The late Gore Vidal was a lot of things—playwright, screenwriter, novelist, man of letters, historian and political commentator. Nicholas Wrathall’s documentary Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia gives a look at all those facets of the late author’s life in detail.

All of three of the Palm Springs International Film Festival’s screenings of The United States of Amnesia sold out. During the Thursday, Jan. 9, screening at the Palm Canyon Theatre, there was not an empty seat in the house. After nine months on the film-festival circuit now, The United States of Amnesia deserves a wider release.

Another publication’s review of the film stated that there were many surprises in the film; however, fans who have read both of Vidal’s autobiographies—–Palimpsest and Point to Point Navigation—won’t find many surprises. His feuds with William F. Buckley, his split with John F. Kennedy over foreign policy, and his arguments with Truman Capote and Norman Mailer are all well-documented.

The 89-minute film, showing Vidal throughout his life, is a detailed production.

“The documentary was five or six years in the making,” Wrathall said during a recent phone interview. “I always found him to be a very inspiring writer. I was very interested him as an intellectual—someone who was outspoken against the general media’s representation of things.”

The documentary starts shortly after the 2003 death of Vidal’s longtime companion, Howard Austen. Vidal is seen visiting the resting place of Howard in a cemetery in Washington D.C.; it’s also where he would be buried next to Austen after his death in 2012, at the age of 86.

The story of his childhood follows. Vidal was born into a life of privilege. His father, Eugene Vidal, was in the aeronautics industry, and tried create a line of planes that were easy to fly. His mother, Nina Gore, was an alcoholic. Vidal was later raised by his grandparents, Nina Belle and Thomas Gore, a Democratic U.S. senator from Oklahoma who was also blind.

“He had a difficult time as a child,” Wrathall said. “His parents divorced when he was very young; his mother was drinking a lot; his father was absent a lot because he was working in the airline industry, so for much of his childhood, he was brought up by his grandparents. As a child, his main influence was his grandparents. His grandfather was a quite famous senator; as a blind man, (his grandfather) put himself through law school. He opposed America’s entry into both world wars, and was very outspoken.”

While Vidal was born into the American establishment, he eventually spoke out against it. In the film, he is seen telling a group of people standing in an unemployment line during his failed U.S. Senate run in California in 1982: “It’s socialism for the rich, and free enterprise for the poor.”

Vidal was known for his staunch left-wing political views, anti-war activism and intense criticism of President George W. Bush. However, Vidal said he believed he was a conservative in the old sense of the word.

“I wouldn’t call him a conservative,” Wrathall said. “I’d say if anything, maybe you could say republican with a small ‘R,’ meaning a republican in the old sense of the word. He believed in the republic in America; he believed America should be focused more on taking care of its own and not expanding and empire-building. He didn’t believe in getting involved in Central America, and he didn’t believe in getting involved in the Middle East. I think he was anti-imperialism, and he was one of the first to coin the phrase ‘American empire.’”

Wrathall talked to Christopher Hitchens about Vidal shortly before Hitchens’ death in 2011. Hitchens is also seen in the film attending a release party for Point to Point Navigation in 2006.

“Gore was sort of a mentor to Hitchens,” Wrathall said. “They were once friends, and then, of course, they had a falling out. Right before they had a falling out, Hitchens made sort of an abrupt right turn into support for the Iraq War, which Gore saw as a real abomination and a traitor to his roots. He cut him off and didn’t want to speak to him again after that point. When I filmed that footage of the release of Point to Point, Hitchens was there in the room at the reception, and Gore sort of brushed him off.”

After the death of Austen in 2003, Vidal had to leave the mountaintop villa they shared in Ravello, Italy, because he was becoming more immobile. He returned to America and settled in Los Angeles, and some have said that the last years of his life were his best politically, as he took on the Bush administration and educated the public about what he saw as the end of our habeas corpus rights via the Patriot Act.

Vidal is shown in his old age being asked about what kind of legacy he wanted to leave behind. He answers very slowly: “I could care less.” That’s fitting for a man who said a long time ago, “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.”

Wrathall, on the other hand, does care how Vidal is remembered.

“Gore was an incredible intellectual and a very multifaceted person, given he wrote novels, screenplays essays and plays,” Wrathall said. “He was a provocateur, pointing out the problems of the world and being brave enough to speak the truth. I don’t think that many people are willing to do that, and he did it all his life. Many of the things he’s shown in the film saying in the ’50s, ‘60s and ‘70s are still very current. He was very much ahead of his time.”

For more information, visit www.gorevidaldocumentary.com.

Published in Previews and Features

It was Day 5 of the 2014 Palm Springs International Film Festival, and I wanted to talk to the leader of the festival’s critically important volunteer team.

Of course, this was not the best time for Rochelle Koch to take a few moments to chat with a pesky reporter. To put it mildly, she was kind of busy.

However, Koch, who is in her third year as the PSIFF volunteer coordinator, seemed happy to take some time to chat about her “wonderful team.”

“It’s my volunteer family, is how I refer to it,” said Koch (pronounced “Cook”), who comes across as a focused bundle of energy. “‘Our Volunteers Are The BEST!’ is what I put on my business card and on my emails—and it’s the truth.”

Festival director Darryl Macdonald was also happy to take a few moments out of his busiest week of the year to share his perspective.

“The volunteers’ contribution to the festival’s success is invaluable in every way,” he said. “This is one of the top three festivals in the U.S. in terms of attendance, with well over 130,000 attendees last year. So the manpower needed to support 15 screens showing films from early morning until well into the evening each day, the number of hands needed to deal with hundreds of filmmaking and press guests in town, coming and going throughout the festival … there are just so many fronts where extra hands and brains are needed that it is utterly true that without our volunteers, there is no way we could run a festival of this size or pursue the kinds of ambitions we have.”

Remember how we mentioned that Koch is kind of busy? Well, we were putting it mildly.

“I have over 3,500 shifts to cover at the five screening venues and various events over the 11 days of the festival,” she said Koch. “The main responsibility for myself and volunteer assistant coordinator David Gray is to manage and schedule volunteers, and making sure all of our shifts are covered when volunteers have to cancel their commitment, because life does happen.

“So out of our standing database of more than 2,000 registered volunteers, we have between 700 and 800 working at this festival—and we couldn’t do it without them. They’re wonderful people from all walks of life—a CEO to a dishwasher in a restaurant. They’re from different nationalities and different races. That’s what, I think, gives us our strength.”

The volunteers are organized into 19 active teams: Theater Operations, Transportation, Balloting, Special Events, Black-Tie Gala, Guest Services/Hospitality, Concierge, Credentials, Film Society, Film Review, Front Desk, Merchandise, Office, Opening/Closing Night, Street Team, Village Fest, Volunteer Department, Interpreter and—last but not least—the Lead Team, which supervises the Theatre Operations and Ballot volunteers.

“We rely on them to take care of everything from taking tickets at the door, dealing with customers at the merchandise outlets, (and helping) our guests in the hospitality suites, to travel support. Literally, we have volunteers who drive into Los Angeles to pick up filmmaker guests and drive them to Palm Springs,” Macdonald said. “There is not a single front of the festival that volunteers are not an integral part of.”

Few people realize that the Palm Springs International Film Festival volunteer effort is a year-round affair.

“We have a volunteer corps which helps out in the office year-round, and there’s a preview screening team made up of 16 volunteers that help us critique submitted films as they come in,” said Macdonald. “… We also do the Palm Springs ShortFest each June. It’s the largest short-film festival in North America, and last year, we got over 3,400 entries. So we’ve put together this crew of programming assistants from our volunteer corps. These are people who have long been immersed in film who help us with the grading process by actually watching the films and then recommending which films move forward in the process. It literally takes five or six months even for this group and our staff programming team to watch 3,400 films.

“I’m not entirely sure that some of us wouldn’t be wearing inch-thick glasses or be locked in a booby hatch somewhere, bouncing off of rubber walls, if it wasn’t for the help we get from our volunteers.”

Only a select few can claim to have been a part of the now finely tuned PSIFF volunteer effort from the beginning.

“We have three wonderful volunteers—Dee Thomas, and Sidel and Lionel Weinstein—who come out every season, and they’ve all been here since Sonny Bono started this festival 25 years ago,” said Koch. “And they are all such neat people.”

Of course, these three will be among the honored invitees to the annual post-festival “thank you party” for the volunteer staff, at which Macdonald and festival Chairman Harold Matzner will show their appreciation.

“When compared to all the various film festivals in the country, our volunteers have a wonderful reputation for being the friendliest and the most helpful, since they know film themselves, and they know what they’re doing,” said Koch. “All of our volunteers do a wonderful job, and they’re great ambassadors for Palm Springs.”

Those interested in becoming a PSIFF volunteer should visit the website at www.psfilmfest.org/society/work/volunteer.aspx. People who register will be contacted via phone by a volunteer representative.

Published in Previews and Features

A semi-local film made its world debut on Saturday, Jan. 4, as part of the Palm Springs International Film Festival—and 3 Nights in the Desert may very well go beyond the festival circuit, thanks in large part to its strong cast.

Three friends—Travis (Wes Bentley, The Hunger Games), Anna (Amber Tamblyn, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) and Barry (Vincent Piazza, Boardwalk Empire)—were once in a band together. Their birthdays are all within three days, and after not seeing each other for years, they decide to meet in the desert at Travis' home for their 30th birthdays. Travis meets Barry at the train station; on the drive to Travis’ home, Barry expresses discomfort about the fact that Anna will be coming.

Anna and Barry seem to have moved on after the band’s breakup. Barry is married and a tax attorney in Seattle; Anna is enjoying a successful music career as a dream-pop artist. Then there’s Travis—living in a makeshift house in the middle of the desert.

A specific event in their past haunts all three of them. Travis has a big scar on his neck and a limp; Anna and Barry discuss how Anna did all she could for Travis—only giving a hint about what really happened.

After a bonfire discussion (that includes a lot of masturbation talk), Barry and Anna find themselves being led to a cave by Travis. Travis claims that when you enter the dark cave, all of your desires will come true. Anna goes in first and comes out frightened. Barry enters next, and emerges basically unaffected.

After a moment in which the three former bandmates sing one of their songs together, the film becomes a deep, dark roller-coaster ride down memory lane. All is revealed about what tore them apart—and Travis’ real reasons for bringing them together.

3 Nights in the Desert is an intense psychological drama. Thanks in part to deep dialogue, the film never gets dull or falls flat during its 90-minute runtime.

During the post-screening Q&A session, director Gabriel Cowan, screenwriter Adam Chanzit and Piazza talked about filming 3 Nights in the high desert, near Lancaster. Amber Tamblyn—who was snowed in and could not make it to Palm Springs—also took part in the Q&A via Skype from New York.

Chanzit said he felt the desert was the perfect place for the story.

“I like the remoteness of the desert,” Chanzit said. “I really wanted these characters to exist kind of outside of time and space. … I really like the idea of them being isolated.”

For more information, visit www.facebook.com/3nights or www.naafilms.com/#desert.

Published in Reviews

Through a partnership of Palestinian director Sameh Zoabi and Search for Common Ground founder John Marks comes Under the Same Sun, set in the near future in Israel and Palestine.

The Palm Springs International Film Festival was the site of the film’s West Coast premiere on Saturday, Jan. 4, with both Marks and Zoabi on hand for a discussion of the movie. Before the film started, Marks addressed the audience.

“You might find this film to be a fantasy, but the idea is to understand this could happen with the right leadership,” said the founder of the nonprofit organization that seeks to end violent conflict.

A Palestinian businessman, Nizar (Ali Suliman), and an Israeli businessman, Shaul (Yossi Marshek), have a secret business meeting in France. Shaul owns a solar-power company and is pitching the idea of selling solar panels to Palestinians, due to the actual facts that Palestinians get the vast majority of their electricity from Israel, and that areas near Israeli settlements often don’t have electricity.

Shortly after the two men begin their business venture, Israeli and Palestinian press get wind of it—and both men face opposition from their families, friends and their fellow citizens.

The two men then take to social media in an attempt to change the situation. In a fictional series of events that follow, Israel and Palestine fall under the proposed two-state-solution—and there is eventually peace between the two countries, thanks in large part to the efforts of the two businessmen.

Yes, the film is a fairy tale, of sorts. It proposes the idea that good intentions and good business can change the world—even in an area with deep-rooted issues like the Middle East. However, this fairy tale does have some truth behind it: Social media has helped build the blueprints for change in other Middle Eastern countries, most notably Egypt. Perhaps such a thing could happen, but as they say: It’s only a movie.

Before the Q&A session, John Marks explained how the filming process shared similarities with the business relationship of the two lead characters in the film: It was a collaborative effort. Zoabi was not allowed into Israel, for example, so he led the scenes in Palestine, while another crew filmed on the Israeli side.

“We became experts in how to make a film in the Israeli and Palestinian territories,” Marks said.

Zoabi said he made an effort to show both perspectives in Under the Same Sun.

“Working with different crews was also part of the process for me, and I was always trying to push everyone to see the two sides of the story,” Zoabi said.

The Q&A session that followed the film was decidedly intense. The film received loud applause from the audience as the credits rolled—but not everyone was clapping. Some audience members sat with arms crossed, and even looked agitated; that agitation came through in some of the questions.

“I’m curious whether the propaganda changes to fact—so I’d like to know: What is propaganda, and what is real?” one woman angrily asked Marks and Zoabi regarding the assertion that some Palestinian areas near Israeli settlements don’t have electricity.

Marks, a Jewish-American, responded that the Jewish settlers in the West Bank often don’t allow nearby Palestinians to have electricity or running water in their villages. “It’s an occupation, and it’s arbitrary; they act in arbitrary fashion, and it’s usually due to security reasons. Occupation is never a good thing,” Marks said.

Another man heckled both Marks and Zoabi over their failure to explain why there is a wall between Israel and Palestine, and chided them for not offering details about the First Intifada, a Palestinian uprising against Israel which began in 1987. The filmmakers responded that the film was made for those who already know the basic history and reality of the conflict.

One woman criticized the filmmakers by telling them that there would never be peace due to the fact that Palestine does not acknowledge Israel’s existence.

However, not all audience members expressed such hopelessness. One man asked the Palestinian and the Jewish American a question I had myself: Can the peace depicted in Under the Same Sun realistically happen?

“A lot of people say that something needs to be done,” Zoabi said. “Well, we have the politicians controlling everything, and that voice that something could be done and should be done—I try to visualize that it could be a possibility. I’ve seen it happening … where individuals take matters into their own hands in Palestine and Israel. I think it will end up being like this soon, hopefully. Who does that? How do they do that? The film gives us an idea of that possibility.”

Under the Same Sun is a visionary film that presents a real possibility for change and a brighter future. Zoabi is an up-and-coming director who proved that he can pack an emotional and social message into a 75-minute film. We’ll likely see more of him in the future.

For more information, visit lamafilms.com/movie/under-the-same-sun, or www.sfcg.org/programmes/jerusalem/index.html.

Published in Reviews

The Palm Springs International Film Festival kicked off over the weekend with some of the fest's biggest events.

On Friday, Jan. 3, the Opening Night Gala Screening, featuring the film Belle, took place at Palm Springs High School. And on Saturday was the biggest event of all: The Black Tie Awards Gala, at the Palm Springs Convention Center.

Here's how the Los Angeles Times described the awards affair:

The Palm Springs International Film Festival gala or, as Tom Hanks called it, "This little, intimate, Sonny Bono rec-room chicken dinner get-together for two-and-a-half-thousand people," took place Saturday night. Meryl Streep picked up an award. So did Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts, Bruce Dern and Matthew McConaughey, among others.

And though they were all seated within a few feet of one another in the airport-hangar-sized Palm Springs Convention Center, these Hollywood stars were more or less allowed to eat their pot-roast dinner in peace.

That's because Bono was in the house.

That's Bono, the singer from the Irish rock band U2, not Mary Bono, the widow of another singer named Bono—Sonny, the man who started the film festival 25 years ago when he was mayor of Palm Springs.

The Independent was there; here are just a few pictures from the events. And watch CVIndependent.com all week for more coverage of the festival. Enjoy!

Published in Snapshot

Twenty years ago, I covered my first Palm Springs International Film Festival.

The PSIFF was a much more modest event back then, and that year, the star of the festival was Sophia Loren. I remember it well—since she kissed me before a sea of cameras! She did it after I publicly asked her to send a message of peace to my country, the war-torn Yugoslavia.

Then and there, I fell in love with Sophia—and the festival, too.

In 2002, I was invited to a special event celebrating the 90th birthday of Loren’s husband, famed producer Carlo Ponti, with their son, Carlo Ponti Jr., conducting a symphony; their second son, director Edoardo Ponti, was also in attendance. I believe Spencer’s Restaurant owner Harold Matzner underwrote the event.

Matzner’s a Jersey fellow and a longtime PSIFF chairman. Following the event, I went to see him at his office, and we came up with an idea for the next PSIFF: Matzner was going to pay to bring an entire symphonic orchestra, with conductor Ponti Jr., to the fest! The orchestra was going to perform “Lara’s Theme,” from Dr. Zhivago, a movie produced by Ponti Sr. The idea was that Sophia Loren would give a lifetime achievement award to her hubby, and Edoardo Ponti would show his new movie at the fest.

It didn’t happen, because Ponti Sr. fell ill.

It takes a lot to run a film festival, including loads of money, and the PSIFF has long depended on the hefty help of its wealthy supporters. The Palm Springs International Film Society’s grand dame, the late Jackie Lee Houston, hosted so many events for the fest that it’s hard to count them all. The city of Palm Springs has pitched in, too; hey, the mayor, Steve Pougnet, has even been employed by the festival to assist in bringing in the dough!

Aside from money, the growing film fest needed star power—and, again, a lot of it. The fest’s most connected publicist, Ronni Chasen, steadily delivered the stars to the fest for a decade. Shockingly, Chasen was shot to death in 2010. According to the reports, Chasen was shot four times by a convicted felon while she drove her Mercedes on Sunset in Los Angeles. Later, the man who allegedly shot her killed himself during a standoff with the police. (There are many conspiracy theories about her tragic end, of course.) The festival offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to the capture and conviction of the perpetrator. The PSIFF is run by a nonprofit organization, so Chairman Matzner, once again, footed the bill.

But, as they say, the show must go on. Nowadays, the PSIFF—going into its 25th year—appears to be a well-oiled machine, with exclusive sponsors and record attendance. Still, by film-festival standards, the Palm Springs fest is fairly young; after all, the Venice Film Festival just celebrated its 70th year.

Though the PSIFF often has some Best Foreign Language Film Oscar buzz attached to its image, when it comes to popularity, the PSIFF lags behind the Tribeca fest, founded by Robert De Niro, as well as Robert Redford’s Sundance fest. The fact is, the star-power of the movie icons serves their festivals well. Here, the PSIFF was founded by the late Sonny Bono, in order to bring movie glamor back to Palm Springs. I’ve covered film fests in destination cities such as Rio and Bangkok, and little Palm Springs can’t match them in terms of glamor and image.

The tradition and reputation of a film fest matters. The legacy of a film fest matters. But what matters most are the films: Despite the tycoons and the big stars, a film festival is really about the movies being presented—and the PSIFF always offers a top-notch selection of films. And those films are what attendees will remember the most.

That’s a wrap!

The Palm Springs International Film Festival takes place Jan. 3-13, 2014. Most films are $11 or $12. For more information, including pass information and a complete schedule, visit www.psfilmfest.org.

Published in Previews and Features

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