An Upstate State of Mind

Day One at the Woodstock Film Festival

A still from 3 Américas
A still from 3 Américas

Everyone loves the Woodstock Film Festival. That's the sense you get, anyway, when arriving at this picturesque little Catskills town that proudly bills itself as a "colony of the arts." Here, there are no red carpets, no velvet ropes. The town's only permanent big screen venue, the Tinker Street Cinema, is a modest white clapboard building that used to be a church. You're more likely to see visiting celebrities queuing for bagels at the town bakery than flying by in a limousine.

The festival's motto is "fiercely independent," a banner it's carried with pride since its launch in 2000. "In the beginning, we didn't really have much competition because we were so unique," says festival director and co-founder Meira Blaustein. As the festival circuit has grown, Woodstock has retained its niche as a place that celebrates thoughtful, provocative filmmaking, even as it's grown itself: 2,500 submissions and 150 screenings this year, up from 250 submissions and 75 screenings in 2000.

And so I'm here to sample the wares: 12 films, two panels, various schmooze-a-thons packed into four days – the typical festival smorgasbord. This year, there's a lot of programming that references the 1960s, including Brett Morgen's Chicago 10, about the 1968 protests at the Democratic National Convention; Todd Haynes's out-of-the-box biopic of Bob Dylan, I'm Not There, and Noah Buschel's Neal Cassady, about Jack Kerouac's close friend and muse. Dylan, of course, famously lived in Woodstock in the late 1960s, discovering it years before the 1969 pop concert (which was actually held 70 miles away in Bethel) put the town on the map.

The first day offers rich pickings: three world premieres of narrative features that have little in common except their shoestring budgets. But first, in the morning, I catch Laura Dunn's documentary about the effects of aggressive development on the city of Austin, Texas, The Unforeseen. This film clearly has some money behind it – Robert Redford and Terrence Malick are listed as executive producers – which explains the delicate and expensive-looking animations showing the growth of suburbs and razing of farmland around Austin.

Dunn traces Austin's development since the 1970s, when it was lauded as a place where "the cowboys and the hippies are getting along better than anywhere else in the world." Alas, the good vibes didn't last: with suburban sprawl came serious environmental damage, and the result was a heated standoff between developers and environmentalists. Chronicling all of this in painstaking detail, Dunn makes no bones about her agenda (it could be summed up as "development is bad for children and other living things") but she does makes some effort at balance. There's a poignant interview with Gary Bradley, an Austin developer who lost everything in the Savings & Loan crisis of the late 1980s, and who comes across as a fundamentally decent guy.

Unfortunately, Dunn never explores more sustainable alternatives to the big, bad development projects, and the film suffers from an excess of earnestness. (There are a few too many Malick-like close-ups of waving wheat stalks and water drops on branches.) My neighbor in the audience, who outs himself as a former developer from the Bay Area, grouses that the film is "long on criticism, short on solutions" and reluctantly, I have to agree.

América Campo, the 16-year-old heroine of Cristina Kotz Cornejo's astonishing 3 Américas, would love to live in the Austin suburbs – or anywhere far away from her hot-headed, controlling uncle in Boston. A troubled teen (she's lost both parents) América is also a pain in the ass: she scowls, lies and shoplifts compulsively. When a domestic dispute results in a tragedy, América is sent to live with her grandmother Lucia in a poor suburb of Buenos Aires. Here, the gloomy teen has to cope with deprivations that go way beyond her grandmother's frostiness: there's no indoor toilet, the refrigerator constantly breaks, and her peers, forced out of high school by poverty, scavenge the streets for plastic bottles to recycle.

The film is beautifully shot, and the screenplay is a marvel of minimalism in which every word matters. As América, newcomer Kristen Gonzalez gives an utterly compelling performance, her smoldering temper perfectly offset by the bone-weariness portrayed by veteran Argentinian actress Ana Maria Colombo. If the story has a somewhat predictable arc – two prickly, difficult women gradually come to care for each other – it's handled gracefully and with infinite subtlety. Kotz Cornejo based some of the narrative on her own experiences as a teen, and in the post-screening Q&A she described how she had to resist a producer who "wanted me to change the script to include tango, because I didn't want to be that clichéd." Luckily, she succeeded: the film is a cliché-free zone, and a richly nuanced character study.

Neal Cassady, Noah Buschel's sophomore feature, traces the opposite trajectory: a man who starts life with potential and optimism only to become a caged animal. Famous for being Jack Kerouac's buddy and the inspiration behind his On the Road character Dean Moriarty, Cassady (played by Tate Donovan) lived his life under that shadow. We see flashes of the charm that made him so compelling to Kerouac and others, but for the most part the film focuses on Cassady's middle age, when he became a driver and performing seal of sorts for Ken Kesey's drug-addled band of Merry Pranksters.

Cassady's widow, Carolyn, has excoriated this film, saying that it is "based on false myths, disoriented, with no continuity, development, plot or purpose." Those are harsh words, but they're not entirely unjustified – the film has a rambling, addled quality that can't all be ascribed to the drugginess it's depicting. Here and there are some sharp, amusing scenes, like the one in which Kerouac comes off as prissy at a Merry Pranksters party because he won't take drugs – then later collapses in an alcoholic stupor in a bar. But without more glimpses of the brilliant minds these two men had—one brought to literary greatness, the other wasted—it's hard to care about the dissolute characters on screen.

It's nice to end the evening on a lighter note, and Jonathan Blitstein's Let Them Chirp Awhile hits the spot. This tongue-in-cheek comedy, which is getting its world premiere here, follows the fortunes of two twentysomething male friends in the East Village as they struggle with love and the need to find an authentic creative vision. Scott, a musician, is feeling hemmed in by his live-in girlfriend, while Bob, a budding screenwriter, is too indecisive to plunge fully into writing or seduction. Another friend, Hart, is a prolific hack whose 9/11-themed play has just won a major prize, and whose ambition is matched only by his lasciviousness.

Needless to say, shenanigans ensue – there's mucho bed-hopping, angst, and a subplot involving the loss of a dog owned by a former girlfriend-turned-full-time-lesbian. It's a coming-of-age story with familiar elements, but Blitstein manages to make it feel fresh and original despite obvious nods to Woody Allen and Richard Linklater. After the screening, Blitstein describes the process of making the movie on a shoestring – giving the actors clothes from his own wardrobe, shooting in his and his girlfriend's apartments. According to festival co-founder Meira Blaustein, the film came to Woodstock through open submission, with zero word of mouth. "These are the kinds of films you look for as a festival director – the hidden gems," she says. Amen to that.

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