Palm Springs, California, where I live and this blog originates is getting to be the home of the phrase “Film Festival.” The big one is the first two weeks of January and it is called “The Palm Springs International Film Festival.” I have written about it and other festivals that call this resort city home. It seems that about every week there is a festival of some kind. Just a week or so ago we had the Native American Film Festival. This past long weekend (Thursday through Monday) we had the American Documentary Film Festival. I think if one retires in Palm Springs, one could have his or her total retirement filled with and about Film.
This latest film festival was organized four years ago by a group of dedicated film makers, most notably Joel Douglas, the youngest son of actor Kirk Douglas and brother to actor Michael Douglas. Their first celebrity centerpiece was Oliver Stone. This year it is Peter Bogdanovitch. He kicked off opening night with a documentary film of his followed by the usual and expected Q and A. According to the local newspaper, it was a sterling event for one and all.
I had wanted to go to the opening night showing at the Native American Film Festival a couple of weeks back because they showed a documentary concerning a very outspoken male to female transgender person. I unfortunately missed it but hope to catch it sometime somewhere else.
If one is going to become a Festival jockey in Palm Springs, I think you must be retired or have a lot of free time—not to mention a healthy bank account. Entrance fees to festivals I’ve noticed keep going up every year and are no giveaway. Therefore, at this present festival—The American Documentary Film Festival, I limited myself to seeing only two films. I am sure there were others quite worthy of viewing but I had to keep an eye on my wallet.
I am intrigued by documentary film making. To me, it is writing with a camera. With a real documentary, you don’t rehearse, you don’t have people having to stand in certain places, and perform in certain ways. You don’t write their dialogue for them. Basically one is supposed to be getting a pure slice of life. Some succeed at this much more than others.
I have watched many documentary films on TV as well as via Netflix. One of the best I have seen recently was on Netflix and it was called PRISONER OF PARADISE. This documentary chronicles the life of Kurt Gerron, a German Jew who rose to prominence as an actor and director in prewar Germany. You all know him because he played the guy in the top hat who was the MC at the club where Marlene Dietrich performed in the well known 1930 film BLUE ANGEL. All his European friends in Hollywood tried to get him to leave Germany and join them in Tinsel Town. He refused because he was sure he was so well known and loved in Germany that the Nazis dared not lay a hand on him. He was quite wrong as he ended up being put to death in a concentration camp the last day the “baths” and crematoriums were used. A fresh reminder that we should never forgot what happened to all those six million people who perished. Each for sure had a story that would have made a great documentary.
At the documentary film festival this week, I saw two film. The first was JESUS TOWN, USA and the second was PRISONER TERMINAL.
JESUS TOWN, USA. This could be called “American Fellini” in that it zooms in on some pretty unusual people, who obviously believe that others unlike themselves are all going “directly to hell.” The background for all this falderal is the annual passion pageant depicting the life of Jesus which takes place in Lawton, Oklahoma. A viewing of this film will easily explain why Oklahoma is one of the reddest Republican states in the nation. These people here “pray it out with Jesus” over their casting dilemmas and anything that pops up in their daily lives whether it be bowling or which candy bar or burger to buy. Just ask Jesus.
This spectacle began in the 1930s and in the olden days drew over 200,000 people. Many citizens of Lawton have been performing in this pageant for almost half a century—this includes Darlene who plays the Virgin Mary. Nowadays, their audience is down to a handful. The people of the town who operate this show are convinced they are winning souls for Jesus. “Lots of people out there are going directly to hell and it’s our duty to save them.”
The crux of the film is that after years and years of playing Jesus, the principal performer retires. The community has to go into great deliberation over who will now play Jesus. With all sorts of talks with Jesus himself, God and their people who have played biblical characters for up to 50 years, they come up with a very unlikely candidate. The new Jesus is Zack, a round-faced, chubby young man with a Whataburger and Slurpee habit. The town goes into rehearsal and things look like they’re running along just fine. That is until Zack is invited to go bowling with the young man who is playing the disciple Judas. Zack lets it slip that he isn’t a Christian at all. He converted to Buddhism the previous year. He had been working at the hospital and ran into a Buddhist priest administering to some Japanese tourists who had gotten sick.
Judas tells his grandfather who says that all Buddhist and “them foreign types” are all going to go directly to hell. This calamitous news travels fast and the town has a prayer meeting at the church. . They go into deep talks with the real Jesus over if it is possible for a Buddhist to play Jesus. . Could the Passion Play have a Christ who wasn’t a Christian? Would the people of the area come to see a Buddhist Jesus? Did they run Zack out of town? Was the Passion Play somehow saved? For answers to these burning questions, look for JESUS TOWN, USA soon on Showtime.
PRISONER TERMINAL: The Last Days of Jack Hall. This 40-minute documentary is made by a very talented film maker by the name of Edgar A. Barens from Chicago. This film was up for an Oscar this year and after having viewed it, I wish it had won. It is an excellent film and Edgar does do a great job. It is hard to watch at time but this is what make it great film making.
This is an inspiring and deeply moving documentary. It is filmed in a prison and concerns the last days of an 82-year old prisoner whose life is slowly ebbing away. He is a decorated veteran of World War II who could not adjust to civilian life because he had witnessed too much death and suffering. He turned to alcohol and drugs and ended up murdering the drug dealer who caused the death of his son. He is at the end of his years but through an unusual program in his prison is allowed to die with dignity . He is cared for by orderlies who nurture Jack, bathe him and stay with him until his dying breath. It is all beautifully done and a testament to how men who have murdered become the men they thought they could never be.
This film is just plain beautiful. No other way to describe it. I had the opportunity to meet the film maker of this documentary. We sat together at the showing of JesusTown USA. He is a very likable person and his good qualities are quite evident in this film. If you have HBO, you can view this film now.
So there you have it until the next Festival. Just looked up the schedule and Palm Springs has the FILM NOIR FILM FESTIVAL and the INTERNATIIONAL SHORT FILM FESTIVAL coming up soon. Can you believe it?