Williamstown Film Festival Reaches Its Goals

Part One: Thursday and Friday Events

By: - Oct 23, 2012


As the five day, annual Williamstown Film Festival wound down with bagels and muffins before a brunch screening at Images Cinema on Sunday morning, we spoke with artistic director Steve Lawson.

For the first time the event was compressed from two weekends to a more compact Wednesday through Sunday format. “Overall our ticket sales are up slightly from last year. We had a sell out on Thursday at Images for Wolfram Hissen’s Dreamscapes featuring Berkshire based artist Stephen Hannock. The Friday event Knuckleball! at Mass MoCA was well attended and we came close to capacity at the Clark Art Institute for the program and discussion Richard Russo; Novel into Film.

It is estimated that the film festival had an attendance of 1,200. As film festivals go those are relatively modest numbers. Smaller, for example, than the more high profile Berkshire International Film Festival (Biff) which runs in the spring and straddles screenings in Great Barrington and Pittsfield.

In terms of intensity and quality, however, WFF is hard to beat. It is a dense festival that balances a focus on superb short films with a terrific selection of independent feature films. While most of them are premieres in the Berkshires, in general, Lawson has selected them through attending festivals such as Tribeca and Sundance.

During the year long interval between festivals Lawson travels to other events and spends months at home viewing a deluge of DVD submissions. Many, as board member, Joan Hunter, informed me during a champagne and chocolates reception at the Clark, are passed along for viewing and discussion. She commented that Arcadia the first feature by a WFF and Williams College recent alumna, Olivia Silver, she had seen that afternoon for the third time.

Another strong selling point for WFF is its success in bringing filmmakers and actors to the Berkshires for post screening discussions. Lawson proves to be a lively, accessible and informative host. He shared this function at times with board members and guests. Filmmakers who were unable to attend because of other commitments were seen via Skype and answered questions from the audience.

Condensing the film festival from two weekends to one ratcheted up its intensity. It also created more of a critical mass as out of town visitors and a number of the invited guests hung out for the extended weekend. They attended multiple screenings and social gatherings including several VIP dinners and receptions. There were numerous informal opportunities for networking.

We were in Vermont last week and missed the preview night of new and classic shorts on Wednesday. In the category of short films there is a competition for the annual Reeve Award. It comes in the form of an inscribed original, framed “palimpsest” landscape by board member Stephen Hannock. An original inscribed painting was also presented to Pulitzer Prize winning author, Richard Russo, who drove from his home in Camden, Maine to discuss his work, illustrated with clips, at the Clark.

Festivals are intense. For Astrid and myself it was flat out from Thursday, with a post screening party at Mezze, to those final bagels on Sunday morning. She engaged in extended political and cultural discussions with the German director Wolfram Hissen who hung out for the weekend. Astrid focused on the short films and will post a report on that unique aspect of WFF. I interviewed Top Chef and Hannock collaborator, Tom Colicchio, as well as one on one with the ersatz diva/ actress Jenn Harris who starred in Gayby. Those reports will follow our two part WFF summary. Prior to the festival we posted a three part interview with Hannock who stars in Dreamscapes.


Director, Wolfram Hissen

Producer, estWest films
Cast: Stephen Hannock, Georgia Hannock, Gary Tinterow, Sting, Trude Styler, Tom Colicchio and William Lauder
Running Time 37 minutes

At just over a half hour the director, Wolfram Hissen, has created more of a poetic impression of the artist Stephen Hannock and his work than a more conventional bio pic. The film is a collage of footage reduced from three years of following Hannock on the road attending an unveiling of his epic scaled Newcastle painting which was commissioned by his friend, the musician, Sting, for his home town. Both Sting, and his wife Trude Styler, comment on the painting and their ongoing relationship with the artist. There is also footage in the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art where two of his works are displayed. Hissen also visited Hannock at work in the studio, playing in the snow with his daughter Georgia, and dining overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice. Talking heads include curators and collectors as well as Top Chef and collaborator, Tom Colicchio.

Following the film there was a discussion which then moved on to Mezze. There Hannock and Colicchio described his work for several upscale New York restaurants including Gramercy Tavern, 11 Park Avenue and Colicchio & Sons. Mezze owner, Nancy Thomas, joined in the discussion and hosted the event.


ALL-Shorts Slot 1

Screening of: Abuelas, The Arm, Cadaver, Cataplexy, Glue, The Hipster and the Cat, Paraiso, Pluto Declaration, The Traveler MacWhirr, Voice Over.

There was a post screening discussion with Joshua Benson, the director of The Traveler MacWhirr.

Any Day Now
Writers: Travis Fine, George Arthur Bloom

Director, Travis Fine
Cast; Alan Cumming, Garrett Dillahunt, Isaac Leyva, Frances Fisher, Gregg Henry, Kelli Williams, Jamie Anne Allman, Don Franklin, Chris Mulkey, Alan Rachins

This marks a return to WFF by the director Travis Fine (The Space Between 2010). That remarkable film featured Melissa Leo as an alcoholic flight attendant taking on the daunting task of delivering a juvenile Omar,  played by Anthony Keyvan, when flights were grounded following 9/11.

The remarkable Any Day Now, which featured another troubled juvenile Marco played by Isaac Levya, proved to be equally astonishing and poignant. It won the Tribeca Audience Award for narrative feature.

Based on a true story, set in 1979 in Los Angeles, it conveys the heart wrenching attempt of hard scrabble, scruffy, Female Impersonator, Rudy, (played brilliantly by the always amazing Alan Cumming) to rescue the abused child Marco from his abusive, neglectful, junkie/ prostitute mother.

We first encounter Rudy and fellow impersonators peforming their lip-sync routine at an LA gay bar. There is an aha moment as we recognize Cumming, the lawyer Eli Gold from The Good Wife, and host of the PBS series Masterpiece Mysteries. If you think you know Cumming see this incredible performance and think again. Wow.

In the audience is a handsome not quite yet out of the closet Assistant DA, Paul, played by Garrett Dillahunt. You will recall him from the comedy series Raising Hope. Again we see a very different side of the actor as a handsome straight looking guy falling for a low rent drag queen. After a quick bj in the parking lot, improbably, it’s love at first sight.

Within a few days, yes it’s true, they shacked up. But only after Rudy storms into his paramour’s office after being snubbed. The blow out raises eyebrows as Rudy is introduced to co-workers as a visiting “cousin.” Yeah, right.

The deception doesn’t last long as Paul is fired. He is pressed into the legal struggle to serve as guardians for Marco while his mother serves a long prison term. They manage to get her to sign papers to keep Marco from falling into the oblivion of foster homes.

Fighting through the courts they encounter, not just the formidable legal system, but the prejudice of an era before later strides for gay rights. Through harrowing twists and turns they loose Marco. She is reclaimed by an uncaring mother as a part of a deal to get out of jail as a means of foiling the efforts of Paul and Rudy to provide a loving home. Rudy's former boss plays a key role in the foul play.

Marco is pushed out into the hall as his mom turns a trick in a flea bag hotel. Clutching his doll the severely retarded youngster sets out to find the only people on earth who truly love him. Abandoned and desperate he was found dead several days later under a bridge.

It was a small item buried in the newspaper. Rudy sends the clipping with notes to the judge, DA, and others involved with denying them the opportunity to care for the child that the world had abandoned.

In a stunning finale, Rudy, the former female impersonator, has now secured a twice weekly gig as a cabaret singer. Paul had helped make that happen by producing and sending out demo tapes. Rudy's riveting rendition of the song Any Day Now will break your heart as surely as it did mine.

Who knew that Cumming has such passion and talent as a singer?

Following the film there was a Skype dialogue with the director. We had to leave to rush to an overlapping screening of Painter; Caio Fonesca at Mass MoCA. Realizing that we would have seen only half of the film, after the drive from Williamstown to North Adams, we opted for home and a dinner break.

Writers/ Directors; Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg
Producer/ Writer, Christine Schomer
Cast: Tim Wakefield, R.A. Dickey, Charlie Hough, Jim Bouton, Wilbur Wood, Phil Niekro
Running Time, 85 minutes

This baseball documentary, Knuckleball!, which screened in the Hunter Center of Mass MoCA, is a quite different project than Joan Rivers a Piece of Work by the team of Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg and Christine Schomer which was featured in the 2010 Berkshire International Film Festival.

Yet again they bring technically superb production values to an exploration of that rarest of conundrums, a floating, maddening, twisting and turning pitch, the at times impossible to hit knuckleball.

Knuckleball pitchers are made not born.

On those rare occasions when a pitcher turns to this specialty it is as a last resort and act of desperation to save or prolong a conventional career. Unlike the high velocity of a fastball, which can quickly blow out an arm or end in Tommy John reconstructive surgery, the pitch seemingly thrives as athletes grow older and weaker.

Because the concept is to float the ball with no spin the low and slow approach means that a weak and skinny, or old and busted down, pitcher can sustain a career into their remarkable 40s.

Tim Wakefield, one of the stars of this film, was the oldest player in the game when he retired from the Red Sox during the 2011 season. He spent much of his last year chasing win number 200 and trying to pass the Sox records set by Roger Clemens and the legendary Cy Young.

As every Sox fan will recall all too vividly, on any given start in the rotation, Wake was ether unhittable or throwing the equivalent of batting practice. The knuckleball is a genie in a bottle that can thrill or infuriate managers and fans alike.

Over the years there have been so few masters of the madcap pitch that the players prove to be a closely bonded, exclusive fraternity. We learn that they are remarkably generous in passing along trade secrets. Right now those skills are represented by the 2012 Mets, 20 game winner, and Cy Young Award candidate, R.A. Dickey.

It is one of those awesome, hard luck then success stories. We watch as Dickey, his wife and former high school sweetheart, bounced around through years of cheap motels, the minor leagues and winter ball. It is only in the past couple of years, well past his prime, that the pitch has become more than a fluke earning him a megabucks contract as the ace of the Mets staff.

The film proves to be the baseball equivalent of a feel good, shaggy dog story. They are the basset hounds of American’s game.

One of the close knit fraternity, Jim Bouton, author of the controversial book Ball Four, and a Berkshire Resident, was on hand for the post screening talk back. Grabbing a ball out of a bucket he demonstrated the grip.

It’s actually more about a grip with finger tips than the eponymous knuckles. That was demonstrated when Dickey described splitting a fingernail and consuequently getting shelled out of a game. The idea is to thrust or punch the ball forward with low velocity and no spin. It’s path to the plate is entirely unpredictable. The catcher uses an oversized glove. Fouls and passed balls are a part of the mystique.

Either a knuckleballer uses the pitch exclusively or mixes it up keeping a batter off key with the occasional fastball or changeup. Dickey has mastered the skill of pitching the knuckleball with a variety of speeds to further confuse batters.

It’s hilarious to watch the power hitters and sluggers flail away striking out or connecting for fly balls and soft outs through back to the mound grounders. It was great fun, as a Sox fan, to see the accursed Yankee captain, Derek Jeter, sucking wind while twisting his knickers.

With a huge grin Dickey related how he "owns" Jeter.

But then there are those all too familiar knuckleball games with "way back, way back, outah here."

Short of peanuts and cracker jacks this film is a winner as we sit through another World Series and wait till spring training with the truly pathetic Red Sox and over the hill Yankees.

Hey Jim, just as you say, Knuckleball Four.   

Part Two