A Vintage Film Fest in Wine Country

Times Arts Editor

That ever-widening phenomenon, the film festival, can be put together on a frayed shoestring. All you really need is an organizer with limitless energy, an obsessive love of movies and a certain amount of chutzpah. Add some cans of loaned film, a few celebrity visitors and you've got it made.

Actually, it also helps to have a projector, which the second Wine Country Film Festival did not have at the scheduled hour of launching Saturday night. Actuality No. 2 was that the opening-night film, "Vincent," based on Vincent van Gogh's letters to his brother, Theo, hadn't shown up either.

There is no permanent projection equipment in the handsome Luther Burbank Center for the Arts just north of town. The 35-millimeter equipment was arriving by truck from Los Angeles, and hadn't. But the screening was preceded by a two-hour wine-tasting and buffet, the tastes provided by a dozen or so of the excellent local wineries.

The audience was thus so mellowed out by curtain time that there was no murmur of protest when the screening commenced quite late and consisted of short documentaries shown in 16 millimeter. These included a delightful and unexpectedly affecting look at New York's street entertainers called "No Applause Just Throw Money" and made by Karen Goodman.

The moral of the launching, as of festivals generally, is that it's what you show that matters, not where or in what circumstances. Serious audiences for film that may not themselves be serious are found everywhere. They are not trapped at home by their VCRs; indeed, they appear to be driven to leave the house in search of the big screen. They are indefatigable.

As the festival's promoters, Steven and Justine Ashton, discovered a year ago, there is a hip and viable audience in Sonoma County, eager for the film fare that might but probably wouldn't customarily make the local cinemas.

The festival is a two-parter, launched in Santa Rosa and Healdsburg over the weekend, resuming Wednesday for a further five-day run down the road in Petaluma.

For its first two days this year the festival was an adjunct of "Celebrate Sonoma," a countywide arts festival which also embraced arts and crafts sales, an all-day outdoor rock concert and two performances of an ambitiously choreographed and costumed show called "Salute to Broadway." A cast of more than five dozen local school kids, from seniors to moppets who did not look quite ripe enough for first grade, sang and danced a medley of show tunes from early days through "Cats." It was swiftly paced, a warming throwback to early Mickey and Judy.

Screenings resumed Sunday afternoon with a showing of "Haiti Dreams of Democracy," a videotape documentary shot early in 1987 by Jonathan Demme (the weekend's principal honoree) and Joe Menell.

Saturday night, at the newly remodeled and renamed Raven Theater in nearby Healdsburg, the festival presented a collage of clips from Demme's work ("Crazy Mama," "Melvin and Howard," "Stop Making Sense," "Swimming to Cambodia") and a surprise, unannounced screening of his new film, "Married to the Mob."

Dean Stockwell, who co-stars with Michelle Pfeiffer and Matthew Modine in the film, was a platform guest, along with Spalding Gray, the one-man star of "Swimming to Cambodia," which Demme directed during a three-camera, three-night shoot before live audiences.

When the festival resumes in Petaluma on Wednesday, the promised films include several from mainland China and shorts and features from several European countries. Items of particular interest include the U.S. premiere of a Swedish documentary on the late Soviet film maker Andrei Tarkovski ("Sacrifice") by Michael Leszcylowski.

One of the films on Sunday will be "A Forgotten Melody for the Flute," Eldar Ryazanov's satire on the Soviet bureaucracy, which has the winds of glasnost blowing through it. It will be showing at the same hour (unfortunately) as Cathy Zeutlin's documentary "Just One Step: The Great Peace March."

Teri Garr and Cloris Leachman are scheduled to appear with their new films, "Out Cold" and "Hansel and Gretel," respectively.

Festival-giving is a fine and chancy art, heavily dependent on volunteerism, good will and persuasiveness. (The Ashtons have persuaded American Airlines and Sheraton, among other corporate sponsors, to help out.)

As they go along, festivals develop personality traits, funky or pompous, austere or friendly, elitist or democratic, Spartan or indigestibly large.

The Wine Country Film Festival could do with a few more helping hands, but its shirt-sleeve informality is a pleasing change from the black-tie grandeur that can give a festival an unbearable heaviness of being. The response to the films themselves here is direct and uncluttered (and divergent), as it should be.

Given this special geographic context, James Thurber does come to mind: a simple, domestic festival but rich with promise, and I think you'll be relieved by its lack of presumption.

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