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    From the documentary Born Rich. in Hamptons Film Festival 2003
    From the documentary "Born Rich."

    Endless summer

    The Hamptons Film Festival helps ease eastern Long Island from summer glitz back to autumn obscurity with a mix of high-profile releases, small independents, celebrity visitors and local color.


    When the Hamptons International Film Festival descends — as it has for the past decade — on the East End of Long Island, townies must come to terms, for a long weekend, with the return of summer, for better or worse. With a single, lingering panning shot, the businesses on East Hamptons' main drag rev back into high gear, putting together one last call sheet for the year's final location shoot: a frenzy of activity over the festival's five-day duration. Extras — film mavens, helmers, gawkers, hangers-on — populate Main Street from the town windmill to Guild Hall, which doubles as theater spectacle with a circus-like interior alone worth the price of admission ($10). Cut to Babette's on Newtown Lane, healthier than the average catering truck with its endless supply of orange smoothies and tofu scramble. Fade in to an evening shot: the Independent Feature Project's wrap party, where Lucy Liu is rumored to be mingling in the barn-like hollow of the Star Room in Wainscott, three miles east of film central and stuffed to the rafters with New Yorkers unfazed by the duck-fed country bouncers.

    Oct. 22-26, 2003, in East Hampton, N.Y.

    Related links: Official site | Born Rich (HBO) | Screen Door Jesus | Intermission | Mes Enfants Ne Sont Pas Comme Les Autres
    This is a regional festival, more county fair and less hunting ground than Cannes, Sundance, and even Telluride, those older, more sophisticated gathering places for hungry distributors in all shades of black. Acquisition deals and/or Miramax executives are not unheard of at the HIFF, but the vibe is less business, more treasure. During the only time of year when the gold of Hamptons' leaves give the ocean azure a run for its money, indie filmmakers compete neck and neck for awards, including the coveted Golden Starfish. Aside from the invaluable publicity (who'd turn down a full-page photo in the ultra-glossy Hamptons Magazine?), the winner receives a goods and services kitty of $180,000 towards his or her next project. This year, an overstuffed burrito of a film called "Screen Door Jesus," written and directed by Kirk Davis, nabbed the prize.

    Let's start with that and work backwards.

    "Screen Door Jesus" takes place deep in Texas, where Christianity is even more pervasive than the overgrowths of wisteria overhanging every front porch. The title refers to the mirage of a praying Jesus on an elderly neighbor's beaten-down screen door. To say the movie has an ensemble cast is wishful thinking: the main character count figures somewhere in the mid-teens, making the whirl of unconnected storylines initially difficult to grasp. The characters — most notably the frisky screen-door owner (Cynthia Dorn) who tries capitalizing on the phenomenon and the devout grandmother (Anjanette Comer) who baptizes her grandchildren without their parents' permission — are largely quirky and memorable. Starfish or not, the film suffers from a more serious malady: the sheer number of subplots means no character gets developed to any satisfaction, making the over-ambitious venture seem more like a made-for-television trifle. Although the faith-based scenarios are titillating, the movie lacks the lush, physical beauty and/or sheer cultural intrigue of similar fare ("Monsoon Wedding" comes to mind).

    Worshipers in Screen Door Jesus. in Hamptons Film Festival 2003  
    Worshipers in "Screen Door Jesus."
    Multiple subplots were in no short supply at this festival. Colin Farrell ("Phone Booth") might get top billing in a raw Irish fairy tale called "Intermission," but he's hardly the lead by far. The movie's narrative center is John (Cillian Murphy), a dreamer who breaks up with the girl he loves, Deirdre (Kelly McDonald), to test her feelings. As with most cinematic dispensations of "love, interrupted" (Preston Sturges' 1941 "The Lady Eve" being a great example), the "intermission" comes to an eventual halt. Predictable or not, the journey is a complete delight. Unlike in the higher-profile "Screen Door," the movie's deft pacing takes time to introduce its character's quirks, even if they are designed to gross the audience out in the tradition of "Trainspotting." (The unexpected opening sequence, which I won't give away, is a great example, as is the sight of an unhinged police detective played by Colm Meaney urinating on Colin Farrell's shoes).

    "Mes Enfants Ne Sont Pas Comme Les Autres" ("My Children Are Different") has just two subplots, which are not only linked by blood ties and a common character who moves between them, but also by substantive similarity. The burgeoning rift between a talented teenaged cellist (the beautiful âlodie PeudepiĆce) and her demanding cellist father (Richard Berry) is juxtaposed cleverly against the historic rift between the girl cellist's grandfather, a well-known French conductor (Maurice Garrel), and his conductor son (Mathieu Almalric), also the girl's uncle and the father's brother-in-law. History repeats itself — maybe.

      Toni Collette and Gotaro Tsunashima in Japanese Story. in Hamptons Film Festival 2003
      Toni Collette and Gotaro Tsunashima in "Japanese Story."
    "Mes Enfants" is quintessentially French: in its elevation of passion as a character, in the absolutist pronouncements and denunciations that tumble so casually — and really pretty winningly — from the characters' lips, in the subtle, unrushed gradations of plot, like a riverbank unfolding from hard caked mud. And something not seen as often, at least in the Hamptons: the idiosyncrasies of Old World musical aristocracy. By passion I don't necessarily mean l'amour (although the film, being French, certainly has a bit of that); passion for music figures heavily, along with the characters' varying attitudes toward their chosen profession. Kudos for the realistic musical simulations.

    Even quieter still is the Australian "Japanese Story," in which Toni Collette is a geologist whose unapologetic xenophobia dissolves in a cloud of bright red dust when she falls in love with a Japanese visitor (Gotaro Tsunashima). Road movie, love story and travelogue are twisted into one compelling heap through the desert of Western Australia: it's a fresh story of a late coming-of-age, and actress, actor, and scenery are all good to look at, and better to savor. But by the second or third time the theme song repeats itself (about two-thirds through), the movie's internal mystique becomes overwrought. The cultural sentiment — the synergy created in combining the world's most uptight nation with its second-most mellow one (New Zealand must take first prize) — is clear, but the movie fails to advance beyond it, and the resulting inertia robs the movie of a larger dose of poignancy.

    "Kitchen Stories," Norway's entry into the Foreign Language category of this year's Academy Awards, links two cultures that are a little more closely aligned: Norway and Sweden. Cultural synergy doesn't figure into the equation at all; the story is a highly personal one about bachelorhood, porridge, and friendship, replete with absurdist visual gags, Scandinavian double entendre, and an intricate denouement that frankly skipped past some base presumptions and lost me along the way. If you prefer strange, beautiful drama, I'd still recommend the film.

    But if I had a Golden Starfish to award (based on the six movies I saw), I would have bestowed it on Jamie Johnson's documentary "Born Rich." Unprecedented access to the old-money generation currently coming of age (Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson coffers, begins the movie on his 21st birthday) is not even half of what makes this documentary great. These kids — both admirable and reprehensible — are young and candid enough to lend thought-provoking insight to the "poor little rich kid's" special conundrum, and the universal search for the meaning of life. Ivanka Trump — alternately blond and brunette — reveals her unabashed pride in the family name, her visions for her own property development career. An even bigger fish — S.I. Newhouse IV, suffering from a late bout of acne and a lower lip pout approaching the size of Conde Nast — talks about his passion for fencing, his campus living situation, his friends. Johnson cleverly contrasts generations-rich offspring with European aristocracy and New Money progeny. (Does the name Bloomberg ring a bell?) I came away thinking hard about the inheritance of entitlement.

    Kitchen Stories. in Hamptons Film Festival 2003  
    Kitchen Stories.
    The festival also pulls together some high-profile films due shortly in area theaters and smaller independents, including some homegrown Long Island products. In the first category, the adaptation of Philip Roth's "The Human Stain" will be released at the end of the month, starring Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Gary Sinise, Anna Deveare Smith and Ed Harris. And another outstanding prospect is "The Triplets of Belleville," a dazzlingly hand-drawn French animation that's a couple months away. In the festival's "View from Long Island" category, "Local Angel — Theological Political Fragments" features director and Long Island artist Udi Aloni's art projects, and Jesse Moss's provocatively titled "Speedo" follows local auto mechanic Ed "Speedo" Jager from the island down to the pits of the demolition derby championships in Florida.

    By the way, Lucy Liu and bejeweled trees aside, I saw not a single celebrity (I'm sure they were there). I live out here, and was only too glad to take advantage of the festival encore for locals (an extra day of screenings) at the East Hampton United Artists on Monday, October 27. Our streets washed clean with rain, the people in black had gotten their fill and gone home, replacing voices and cell phone conversations on our ambient soundtrack with the chirp of birds and crickets, the rustle of trees and falling leaves. In this case, there was nothing as sweet as post-production. We had our private Hamptons again.

    OCTOBER 27, 2003

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