A film festival shouldn't be the cultural equivalent of a speakeasy, with only people "in the know" aware of its existence. But for the Palm Beach International Film Festival (PBIFF), that's the way it seemed this year: Just two weeks before the fest was set to begin, its website still was not updated with the list of titles to be screened. "Check back in March," I was told when I clicked on "Schedule" three weeks into the month.
Such are the problems that can plague a volunteer-run, nonprofit arts institution in this cash-strapped economy. Randi Emerman, the festival's executive director, reveals that its budget is just $100,000 — a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to the resources at the disposal of major festivals.
But rest assured, the show will go on. The festival will enter its 18th year starting April 4 and feature 26 world premieres and eight U.S. premieres from at least 18 countries, playing in four Palm Beach County theaters. The lovely Illeana Douglas and screen veteran C. Thomas Howell are among the stars who will make appearances at some of the parties and screenings. Here's an in-depth look at two of the most anticipated films at the festival, with quick takes on five others:
• "This is a doughnut," David Lynch, the oddball auteur behind Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, and Twin Peaks, says at the beginning of the documentary Meditation, Creativity, Peace. He's holding one such partially chewed sphere of dough while standing in front of a mobile canvas in his painting studio. It's a classic opening line — up there with "Call me Ishmael" from Moby Dick — but, while sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, this doughnut is not just a doughnut. It's a metaphor for transcendental meditation.
A Florida premiere for PBIFF (screening at 6 p.m. Saturday, April 6, at Muvico Parisian in West Palm Beach), Meditation, Creativity, Peace was filmed from 2007 to 2009, when Lynch toured 16 countries in Europe and the Middle East, addressing film students about the subjects in the film's title — especially transcendental meditation, the soothing, purportedly nirvana-achieving method of spiritual enlightenment pioneered by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I didn't know Lynch was into this New Age stuff, but it doesn't surprise me, given the abstract nature of his cinema, a cerebral oeuvre built on dream logic and subconscious desires.
As he takes questions from aspiring students, we witness Lynch waxing on about his work methods, his admiration for Van Gogh and Kafka, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the karmic retribution facing O.J. Simpson, and meditation's lofty, life-changing merits. These appearances, often recorded by poorly sound-equipped cameras stationed in the venues, are interspersed with head-scratching quotes from the Bhagavad Gita, Finnish proverbs, Portuguese poems, and George Harrison lyrics.
Lynch is a smart anda lively speaker, but the movie is repetitive and even a little boring. Lynch is credited as the film's director, but it's hard to believe he would release something this structurally banal. For a movie about expanded consciousness, the film itself is severely limited in scope; it would have been nice to see Lynch checking into foreign hotels, boarding airplanes, even buying doughnuts. Especially buying doughnuts. Instead, Meditation, Creativity, Peace is a feedback loop of New Age hosannas, with the great director reduced to an enthusiastic pitchman peddling a product — a nondenominational evangelist promising something like salvation. His films work a lot better when we can draw our own conclusions.
• One film that has the potential to attract a lot of attention and distribution after its opening-night premiere at the festival on Thursday, April 4, is Decoding Annie Parker (screening at 7 p.m. at Muvico Parisian). It's a true-story dramedy about breast cancer that's chockablock with familiar faces from TV: Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul, Parks and Recreation's Rashida Jones, The West Wing's Richard Schiff, Lost's Maggie Grace. The title character is played by Samantha Morton as a freewheeling young woman in the 1960s whose family, one by one, succumbs to breast cancer, and she feels she might be predisposed — a controversial position at the time. Her destiny is intertwined, and intercut, with that of Mary-Claire King (Helen Hunt), the real-life Berkeley biologist who famously sequenced the gene for breast cancer. (Parker herself will be attendance for the PBIFF screening, along with the film's director, Steven Bernstein, for a Q&A.)
The narrative stretches decades in the two women's quests, effectively showing the emotional and physical damage that breast cancer wreaks on personal relationships as much as the survivors' bodies. The film presents a sobering, deeply committed performance by Morton, the kind of wallowing-in-misery part that attracts Oscars — but Hunt's story line is the more compelling one, and it receives shorter shrift. Paul, the Emmy winner who plays Jesse on Breaking Bad, is miscast as Annie's paramour, because he's young enough to be her son; when Annie winds up later with the more-mature Bradley Whitford, the great character actor is reduced to a thankless and slavish part that a robot could have performed with more personality. But despite its imperfections, Decoding Annie Parker bravely tackles uncomfortable subject matter with warmth, humor, and relatability.
Here's a brief look at five other PBIFF titles that caught my eye:
The Shift: Another film dealing at least tangentially with cancer, this shaky-cam drama set during a 12-hour shift in an emergency room pits the worldviews of two nurses against each other; Danny Glover costars. (7 p.m. Friday, April 5, at Muvico Parisian)
Twilight of the Gods: The filmed version of British writer/director Julian Doyle's play of the same name, about the tumultuous relationship between composer Richard Wagner and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche — which continues in spirit after Wagner dies. (8:30 p.m. Monday, April 8, at Muvico Parisian)
Joe Papp in Five Acts: This film boasts the most stars of all the PBIFF titles, corralling the likes of Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Martin Sheen, and Christopher Walken, albeit in a documentary context, to discuss the life and work of Joseph Papp, the late theater impresario. (2:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 10, at Cobb Downtown at the Gardens)
Renoir: As its title suggests, the film is about the great French artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir, his son and future celebrated filmmaker Jean, and the young woman they both fell in love with during Pierre-August's twilight years. It looks sexier than it sounds. (7 p.m. Wednesday, April 10, at Cobb Downtown at the Gardens)
Chez Upshaw: Illeana Douglas and Kevin Pollak play the proprietors of a struggling B&B who turn their business into a lucrative assisted-suicide station to make ends meet in this dark comedy to close the festival. (7 p.m. Thursday, April 11, at Frank Theaters in Delray Beach)
For a complete listing of films and events, visit pbifilmfest.org.