Leaving us no time to catch our breaths after the Austin City Limits, Pecan Street, and Cinematexas festivals, our little city is graced next with the Heart of Film Screenwriters Conference and Austin Film Festival, unofficially kicked off by a screening (co-sponsored by the Austin Film Society) of Jonathan Demme's new film, The Truth About Charlie.
I visited the Austin City Limits Music Festival, though within a couple of minutes I remembered how much I dislike outdoor shows in the middle of the day. Let me make it clear that this is no criticism, but personal preference. It was exciting to see Zilker Park transformed into a huge music-festival area. Outside of getting in at the gate, everything was amazingly well-run and functioning smoothly. The music I heard was great; it's just that large crowds and too much sun are not my cup of tea. I was with the 12-year-old and a friend of his. Since it wasn't soul, funk, punk, or rap, they weren't averse to leaving early.
In Ken Lieck's column ("Dancing About Architecture," p.59), he quotes some of the ACL brain trust as saying it hasn't been definitely decided that there will be an ACL Fest next year, but everything I saw and heard argues that there will be one. Look for this event to become huge over the next few years.
When the Heart of Film Screenwriters Conference/Austin Film Festival began nine years ago, it was the first major event honoring screenwriters in the country. Most of a decade later, even though numerous imitators have popped up, including in L.A. (where you would think they would have an edge just by being home base to the film industry), it is still the best. I attribute that to the Austin film community -- writers, directors, crew, audiences, bookers, etc. -- as much as to HOF/AFF's careful planning and quality content. The Austin Film Festival has provided consistently strong programming. This year, they offer a full slate of both heavily anticipated and as-yet-unknown works. Included in the schedule are Secretary, which has attracted substantial critical attention, and Standing in the Shadows of Motown, chronicling the largely unheralded Funk Brothers who drove most of those Detroit hits. Eagerly awaited in my household is Lost in La Mancha, a documentary on Terry Gilliam's disastrous attempt to film Man of La Mancha. Gilliam is one of the younger Black's favorite directors. This is supposed to be a gut-wrenching work, detailing the crash and burn of Gilliam's planned grand cinematic adaptation, an effort that a couple of decades ago also sank Orson Welles.
The Truth About Charlie, Academy Award-winner (The Silence of the Lambs) Jonathan Demme's new film, will be screened at the Paramount as kind of an unofficial kickoff for AFF. There are still some tickets left for the screening, which benefits the Austin Film Society and the AFF's Kids 'N' Film program (in which my son has participated); call the Paramount or Star Tickets for details.
Read Marjorie Baumgarten's interview with Jonathan Demme this issue ("Something Wild," p.51) to get some background on the film (this is a teaser for a longer interview that will run when the film opens). The Truth About Charlie is a remake of Stanley Donen's classic Charade, which stars Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, and Walter Matthau. Demme's effort -- beer, back streets, and sleazy tango bars to Donen's champagne and palaces -- stars Mark Wahlberg, Tim Robbins, and the truly marvelous Thandie Newton.
I've read a lot of crap on the fanboy Web sites about this movie, chiding Demme for remaking a classic and complaining that Mark Wahlberg is no Cary Grant. This misses the point. Demme is a filmmaker with impeccable credentials; he obviously didn't remake this classic to cash in on any built-in audience identification, in the manner of a Charlie's Angels, Scooby-Doo, or Mission Impossible. He commented to me that if he were doing a faithful remake, he would have cast George Clooney in the Grant role, ô la Ocean's Eleven. Charade is clearly a film he has thought about and admired a lot, and took it as a filmmaking challenge to riff on its thematic, visual, and narrative territory.
It is difficult today to realize how sophisticated and witty a thriller Charade was when it was released in 1963, and the impact it had on the audience. Often misremembered as an Alfred Hitchcock movie, though it is more loving to its characters than any Hitch film, Charade was startlingly sophisticated. A ballet of double-, triple-, and quadruple-crosses, nothing in the film is as it seems, and nobody, except Hepburn's character, is who you are led to believe they are. I saw it at a movie theatre in Lakewood, New Jersey, where we used to spend summers at my grandmother's house. I remember it as one of those film experiences where you walked out of the theatre and the world looked different and the air smelled different than when you entered. It wasn't just a good movie, it was fresh and remarkable. Donen was an American director who made almost European films (Two for the Road) before most of us had seen anything but American works. Although older than I, Demme had the same experience.
Watching the film a couple of years ago, he began to think about remaking it, as much to give Thandie Newton a star-making showcase as for any reason, he claims in the Baumgarten interview. I think it was more than that. Charade is all about meaning and mystery, a perfect metaphoric vehicle for modern times. Demme has remade it for a more densely cynical and far less naïve time, though the new effort is just as joyous. Imagine a musician being criticized for reworking and rethinking a favorite song. Here we have a cinematic master reimagining a classic, moving in the opposite direction from its debonair hipness to a streetwise maze of complex morality.
Ultimately, though complicated, Charade was simple. The Truth About Charlie is never simple and always surprising. After the seriousness of The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, and Beloved, this is a return to the sly, culture-loving wit of such Demme works as Citizens Band, Melvin and Howard, and Something Wild. Marge asked if I would compare it to The Last Embrace, a faux-Hitchcock work and notable Demme failure. Charlie is so much more fun, loving, playful, visual, and optimistic. Sure, it nods toward Donen and Hitchcock (deceit and confusion being the territories that master owns), but this is pure Demme. It's not just that he loves all the characters (think of how Robert Altman usually has disdain for all his), nor just his passion for the Paris of both the imagination and film history; it is his sense of filmmaking as an inherently redeeming act. One of the fanboy complaints is that the film lacks the sparkling dialogue of Donen's work. Were they asleep watching it? In a recent New Yorker review of Sunshine State, David Denby complained that writer/director John Sayles didn't trust the camera, so he had characters and dialogue spell out everything. Demme is a director deliriously wedded to the camera: This is a film of puns, wit, and style, commenting on our morally and ethically challenged times, but more often than not, it is the cinematic texture that is so explosively sophisticated. What a pleasure it is to watch a filmmaker who so completely trusts his work and world.