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Out damn spot! An old theme with new meanings binds the Santa Fe Film Festival

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By Roger Snodgrass

Out damn spot!

An old theme with a hundred new meanings binds the Santa Fe Film Festival.

Three days into the five-day Santa Fe Film Festival, I got a handle on what the event was all about this year.

Not that 250 films, each little spark flying in a different direction, can be summed up easily without a trace of subjective wrangling, especially when one has only seen a small fraction of the work.

I didn’t realize until later the obvious fact that a theme by definition would have to be there at the beginning and suffused throughout.

As Santa Fe resident and veteran actor Allen Arkin said during a panel on acting Friday, there is a zone that one is only able to reach by “deep dedication and devotion to something,” that leads to “an exalted experience as close to being connected to the universe as you can get.”

When just about everything starts connecting, you would think it’s a signal that you’re “getting there,” or so it was for me.

So much blood

The first film I saw on Wednesday night was “Sunshine Cleaning,”  directed by New Zealander Christine Jeffs and starring the prolific all-American strawberry blonde Amy Adams of “Junebug” and “Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day.” Always cute as a button, Adams plays Rose Lorkowski with rising British star Emily Blunt as her sister Norah. Connecting in, who else but Arkin himself, played their father Joe, a salesman.

Rose is a single mother desperate to make more money so she can send her precocious son to private school. She’s stuck in Albuquerque, the quintessential down-and-out capital of the free world. It’s a town that happens to be big and violent enough to have a sufficient number of murders and suicides and thus support a niche business for coming in after CSI has finished their work and cleaning up the blood and guts.

Sunshine Cleaning, the name of the company Rose starts with her inept sister, is in the “biohazard removal business,” as Rose describes it, with a little spin for some upper caste ladies in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights.

So that was the theme. Cleaning the mess up afterward.

“What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account?” says Lady MacBeth in Shakespeare’s castle at Dunsinane. “Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”

Call it what you wish, that’s what it’s all about these days, but of course I didn’t realize it until I got a little deeper into what the mess was.

Messes old and new

Two other actors appeared on the panel with Arkin. One was Giancarlo Esposito, a Special Honored Guest at the fest, making his directorial debut with “Gospel Hill,” a film about a black community being driven out of their homes for a golf course development. The other participant was James Cromwell, best known as a character actor. He was nominated for an Academy Award for a supporting role in “Babe,” in 1996, and has been, as they say, in nearly everything, including most recently playing George H.W. Bush, the father, in Oliver Stone’s current biopic “W.”

Cromwell talked about Stone’s influence on his interpretation of that role, especially how to interpret his relations with the son.

“He told me I had to get rid of the politics,” Cromwell said, “but it was almost impossible to get rid of my attitude about the ‘schmuck.’”

Hmm. Were we talking about the mess again here? I believe we were, although he also talked about his colleague Josh Brolin’s successful effort to find something likeable about the guy.

He said one lesson for actors was, “You got to like your guy.”

Cromell’s current film, “A Lonely Place for Dying,” shot at the old penitentiary outside Santa Fe, had its world premier Thursday in the Southwest Showcase category of the festival.

Despite a superb performance as a Russian KGB agent by Ross Marquand and a perfectly serviceable cameo by Cromwell as a publisher in a phone booth, the not-quite finished movie seemed unlikely to be a big hit.

But in the sense that it was trying to scrub up another big mess – about the CIA and the KGB, and old ghosts from the Cold War and the Vietnam era – I made the connection.

The morally equivalent agents on each side join forces to save their own lives against the twin monsters who made them. Torture and mentions of “water boarding,” verged on well-known contemporary messiness.

Cromwell, too, plunged back into political mode when he talked about the film as an example of a new paradigm, home-grown stories that didn’t cost an arm and a leg to make but could maybe pay for themselves on the Internet

“I think the paradigm in Hollywood is dying, like our financial system and our planet,” he said. “There are systemic flaws that we haven’t dealt with.”

The new films, the independent wave, with a little less celebrity hype, represent a whole new way of telling stories.

“Nobody has a solution in the films coming out of Hollywood,” he noted.

A kind of a solution offered itself in the last film I saw before sitting down to sum up the festival Saturday morning.

One’s own mess

The only reason I could think for the title of “Cake Eaters,” a jewel of a drama seen Friday in the Fest’s Independent Spirits series, was that it might have been a very subtle reference to the pre-revolutionary insult ascribed to Marie Antoinette: “Let them eat cake.”

Subtle would be appropriate, for this was hardly about a revolution, but rather about a butcher (Bruce Dern) and his two unpromising sons (Aaron Stanford and Jayce Bartok).

True, the story takes place during tough times, one son works in the school cafeteria, the other has brought home a new record album from his absence in the big city that has sold 13 copies, five of which were bought by a relative of a member of his band.

The young men are overcoming the death of their mother and deep family grievances. One of them meets Georgia, a gorgeous 15- year-old girl in the throes of Friedriech’s Ataxia, a tremulous degenerative muscle disease.

A movie directed with a deep sensitivity by Mary Stewart Masterson about the sexual messes we make for ourselves and the salvation of sexual healing, it was in perfect harmony with the dominant political and economic overtones of the festival and the moment.

I’d say those filmmakers truly have their bases covered and their antennae wiggling out there.