A Fun Swansong: The Last Film Festival
By Christopher Weedman.
The Last Film Festival’s comedic glimpse into the behind-the-scenes politics and turmoil that surround film festivals began as a joke between the film’s writer-producer-director Linda Yellen and its late iconic star Dennis Hopper during an encounter at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. When she asked him what he imagined the worst film festival in the world would be like, the actor grew excited and told her that if she wrote the script, he would star in the film. However, the ever-colorful Hopper gave her one stipulation: make his character, “a cocksucker, a crook, whatever, just make sure he’s a guy who loves movies” (qtd. in Appelo).
An unwavering love for movies is among the qualities that personified the actor-director Hopper as an artist during his fifty-six-year career, which, sadly, ended on May 29, 2010 following a losing battle with prostate cancer. Hopper’s career in Hollywood was marked by extreme highs and lows, some of which resulted from his well-documented overindulgence in the “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” lifestyle of the American counterculture of the late 1960s and 1970s (a glimpse of which can be seen in The American Dreamer , a fascinating semi-documentary made during post-production of his 1971 film The Last Movie). This led to more than a decade of addiction, which nearly ended his career and claimed his life. Thankfully, to the delight of his friends and fans, Hopper entered a rehab program and cleaned himself up in the 1980s, before going on to reenergize his career with his unhinged portrayal of the gas-huffing gangster Frank Booth in David Lynch’s controversial Blue Velvet (1986).
Unfortunately, the hellraiser persona that Hopper cemented for himself during his heyday trailblazing down the road of the New Hollywood film movement with Easy Rider (1969, the seminal counterculture film in which he starred, co-wrote, and directed), in some respects, has overshadowed a fascinating film career that bridged the gap from the last days of the Hollywood studio system in the mid-to-late 1950s to today’s independent film movement.
Given the erratic trajectory of Hopper’s career, it should not come as any surprise that his last film would also not follow the most straightforward path. As Ringo Starr’s hit single warned us long ago, “It don’t come easy.” The long eight-year journey to complete The Last Film Festival is a touching love letter from Yellen to Hopper, who, in addition to starring in the lead as an unscrupulous Hollywood producer down on his luck, has his memory evoked by the film’s title: a nod to his second directorial feature The Last Movie (an experimental gem deserving of a Blu-ray/DVD release and proper reevaluation).
Shot on location in Yellen’s hometown of Forest Hills, Queens in 2008-09, The Last Film Festival became the victim of production difficulties when Hopper contracted prostate cancer and later died with only two to three scenes left to film. The production went into limbo and, for the next several years, considerable doubt remained about whether or not the film would ever see the light of day. Yellen was eventually persuaded by both the film’s co-star JoBeth Williams (a long-time friend, who worked previously with the director on the Showtime television films Chantilly Lace, 1993 and Parallel Lives, 1994) and others who worked on the production to initiate a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds needed to finish the film. This type of unconventional fundraising harkened back to how Yellen put together her first feature, the comedic drama Looking Up (1977, starring Marilyn Chris and Dick Shawn) four decades earlier. In order to raise the $96,000 needed to finance Looking Up, Yellen sold shares of the film to thirty of her friends and family for $3,200 a share. This time around for The Last Film Festival, Yellen found 506 backers through Kickstarter and raised $109,202 (well-above her $90,000 goal), which enabled her to complete the film and add additional embellishments that were not planned originally. The Last Film Festival saw a theatrical release by Monterey Media on September 30th with a DVD release set to follow on October 25th.
In the opening minutes of The Last Film Festival, Hollywood producer Nick Twain (Hopper) is being chauffeured to the first annual O’hi Film Festival, a small-town event located in O’hi, Ohio, where his latest film Barium Enigma is set to screen in competition. A financial disaster may soon be on his hands, as demonstrated by the fact that Barium Enigma was turned down by 3,999 of the 4,000 film festivals in the world. However, after receiving an invitation from Harvey Weinstein to screen the film at the lone remaining one, it appears that his fortunes are starting to turn. Under these circumstances, any Hollywood producer would be thrilled to have the powerful studio mogul behind Miramax Films and the Weinstein Company express interest in his/her film.
Unfortunately for Nick, not all Harvey Weinsteins are equal. The one behind this film festival is a hapless mortuary worker (played by Saturday Night Live alum Chris Kattan), who, in his spare time, fulfills his desire to make movies by shooting footage of the corpses at work using the camera on his flip phone. As a means of jumpstarting his own film career, he has organized this festival, which is being held at the local high school. One of the film’s cleverest sight gags features one of the film screenings taking place in a classroom with the film being played on an old TV/DVD cart with “Property of the English Department” written on the side. If you are like myself and have ever taught a film course with limited department resources, this subtle moment will make you smile.
Yet this is just the beginning of an endless series of problems for Nick. After his arrival at the festival, he is compelled to massage the egos of his two female stars: one his ex-wife, Claudia Benevenuti (an aging screen siren with a financial stake in the production, played by Jacqueline Bisset) and the other his unfaithful girlfriend, Chloe Blakely (a young starlet on the rise, played by Katrina Bowden). Both women detest one another, a feeling that only escalates when they find their up for the same “Best Actress” award. Making matters worse, Nick must contend with a local mayor with gubernatorial aspirations, Marion Biriotte (JoBeth Williams); a young publicity agent, Aaron Samuels (Joseph Cross), with little interest in promoting his picture; a heartthrob lead actor, Z.Z. Reed (Agim Kaba), arrested en route to the festival for sexually propositioning an undercover police officer; and a young female stalker, Desiree (Leelee Sobieski), who may or may not be his illegitimate daughter from a one night stand with an underage cheerleader from a long-forgotten visit to O’hi decades earlier.
The Last Film Festival’s narrative is told by Yellen and the screenplay’s co-author Michael Leeds (creator of the Tony-nominated Broadway musical Swinging on a Star) using a multi-perspective approach that cross-cuts between the various threads of its ensemble narrative in a style that recalls the work of Robert Altman, particularly The Player (1992) with its satirical mosaic of Hollywood’s behind-the-scenes politics. The improvisational Yellen frequently employs this technique in her films and used it to great effect in the excellent feminist drama Chantilly Lace with its multiple storylines revolving around longtime female friends reuniting over a series of months to comfort each other about their career aspirations, romantic (and, sometimes, purely sexual) relationships, and life disappointments.
Unfortunately, given the diverse comedic styles of The Last Film Festival’s ensemble cast, the humor, at times, feels disjointed. Whereas some of the performers (notably veterans Hopper, Bisset, and Williams) play their roles more or less straight and allow the humor to develop naturally from the absurdity of the dialogue and situations, others (particularly Kattan and Donnell Rawlings, a former cast member of Comedy Central’s acclaimed Chappelle’s Show) draw heavily upon their background in sketch comedy and play their roles more broadly. This observation is not meant as a criticism of the individual performances, or engage in an unproductive debate regarding the dichotomy of “high” and “low” humor. Instead, it is to point out the inconsistent tone of the film. At times, it is difficult to tell whether or not The Last Film Festival is aspiring to be a biting satire of the corruption, egotism, and the self-serving nature of Hollywood (seen in a very funny montage sequence featuring snippets of the cast and crew of Barium Enigma giving radically different synopses of the film to a TV news reporter, all of which serve their own personal interests), or a broad farce about Hollywood and small-town America (seen in the slapstick contortions of Kattan’s mortuary worker, when he is caught trying, rather creepily, to shoot footage of Bowden and Bisset catfighting as they both undress in the high school locker room).
Regardless, there are several laughs in the film that feature inside jokes about the Hollywood industry. Some of the brightest moments involve the excellent Bisset, who plays upon her own star persona as one of the sexiest international film stars of the late 1960s and 1970s: best remembered for her acclaimed roles in François Truffaut’s French Nouvelle Vague classic Day for Night (1973) and Peter Yates’ Hollywood blockbusters Bullitt (1968) and The Deep (1977), the latter of which garnered her considerable publicity at the time due to shots of her scuba diving wearing a white t-shirt. Playing an actress nicknamed “The Piranha” by her ex-husband, Bisset amusingly conveys the character’s growing inability to cope with her fading image as a Continental European sex symbol. Bisset especially shines when she abruptly drops her faux-Italian accent for her natural British one and, in another memorable sequence, turns down a local fan’s request to autograph a photo by informing him, “This is very nice, but it is not me. This is Julie Christie.”
Despite some misgivings, The Last Film Festival is often quite amusing and a delightful conclusion to the career of Hopper: an immensely talented artist, who, like his character in the film, possessed both an eccentric charisma and a genuine love of movies that were part of his charm. Yellen’s strength and perseverance to honor him by finishing the film deserves a large round of applause.
Christopher Weedman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches courses in Film Studies. His scholarship has appeared in Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Senses of Cinema, and the edited anthology Fifty Hollywood Directors (Routledge, 2015). His interview and career retrospective of British actress Anne Heywood (the Golden Globe-nominated star of the controversial 1967 film The Fox) will appear in a forthcoming issue of Cinema Retro.
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Hamill, Denis (1997), “A Movie Fan Who’s Calling the Shots. Queens Native Linda Yellen Turned Her Passion into a Career as a Filmmaker,” The New York Daily News, 27 April 1997, http://www.nydailynews.com/movie-fan-calling-shots-queens-native-linda-yellen-turned-passion-career-film-maker-article-1.765561, accessed 26 September 2016.
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