Palm Springs film festival is a hot spot full of characters


PALM SPRINGS — Beyond the wind turbines where the desert turns to grass, the aging and well-coiffed, makeup expertly drawn, hair dyed in russet and platinum shades, mingled with directors from foreign lands. A film buff, his wife pointing a camera, scampered down the sidewalk and hugged a 26-foot-tall statue of Marilyn Monroe.

A man in a fedora checked his itinerary and hurried toward a theater a few blocks away. Around the corner at the Renaissance Palm Springs Hotel, workers taped down a red carpet, canes clicked on the lobby floor and an auteur from Morocco with a mellifluous French accent sunned himself by the pool. The afternoon heat in the valley rose, sprinklers hissed. “Lovely Louise,” a comedy from Switzerland, would premiere at the nearby Camelot Theater at dusk.

“Everyone’s quite excited about this,” said one woman, pointing to an ad for an Egyptian documentary film. “Oscar buzz.” Overhearing her, a man told his wife: “I prefer Scandinavian murder mysteries.”

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The 25th Palm Springs International Film Festival, which opened this past weekend in this well-tended redoubt of golf courses, churches and copper mountains, is a study in contrasts and styles. The movies are mostly small and obscure, with titles such as “An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker” from Bosnia and “Above Dark Waters” from Finland.

But the venue is a wonderful collision of glitz and idealism, perfectly timed for Hollywood stars campaigning for Oscars. Academy voting on nominations ends Wednesday, and the Golden Globes come Sunday. Publicists and agents have been promoting their big U.S. and foreign titles and targeting the sizable community of studio folks who’ve settled in the Coachella Valley with their savings and pensions.

Given its setting and its focus — it’s a long way from Cannes or Telluride — the festival has its own idiosyncratic energy. Much of the crowd, including a flock of winter-escaping Canadians, was young when James Dean fell for Natalie Wood in “Rebel Without a Cause.” They can recall the first flashes of Marlon Brando and how Sophia Loren and Omar Sharif broke hearts more than half-a-century ago.

They stood in ticket lines this weekend with walking sticks, sunblock and billed hats, perusing titles of nearly 200 films from 60 countries. Retired teachers, bankers, hoteliers, they reminisced about long-ago vacations and were passionate about subtitled movies that highlight, often in understated ways, the narratives of other cultures.

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“I’ve been here five times,” said Linda Leonard, hoisting a bag and a film catalog while boarding a shuttle near the hotel. “I wouldn’t have a chance to see these films otherwise. I like the festival’s low-key, non-commercial vibe. It’s very mellow. I enjoy films from Russia, Germany, Poland and Eastern Europe and how they deal with past struggles of Nazism and communism.”

The shuttle sped past palms and stucco. Leonard, who lives in Boulder, Colo., was on her way to the Camelot Theater to see “Halima’s Path,” a Croatian film about a Muslim mother’s quest to gather the bones of a son killed in the Balkan wars. She mentioned that decades ago “Ingmar Bergman changed my life” with the “The Virgin Spring” and “The Seventh Seal.”

An author and psychotherapist, she has written books on addiction “and another on reindeer … about what women, well not just women, but let’s say humans can learn from them.” The shuttle slowed, “Oh,” she said, “I could talk about films all day.”

A diamond stud in his ear, Bob Marlin, who had a sunburned face and a Beatles-style haircut, waited in the sun outside the Regal Palm Springs 9. The retired history teacher had just seen “The Rocket,” described as a “tough little movie” about an estranged tribal boy from Laos “who falls in with a James Brown look-alike” and his urchin niece.

“I’d give it four out of five,” said Marlin, who lives in Palm Springs, estimating that he’ll see 30 movies over the course of the festival, which is expected to attract 135,000 people before it ends Monday. “Picking films is sort of serendipitous. Hit or miss. Australia turns out good films and I also like Spanish movies. Foreign films are subtler and lower key. They tend to be better than the Hollywood product, which hits you over the head Americans tend to be to over-stimulated as it is.”

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Espresso cups clattered and the shade narrowed around the pool at the Renaissance. Nabil Ayouch, the Moroccan director of “Horses of God,” the story of how young boys in a slum are seduced into terrorism, sat on a lounger. He spoke of upheaval in the Middle East, the restless aspirations of Arab youth, and noted that he had heard a lot of complaints — a common refrain of festival-goers — about the predictability and lack of subtlety in many big-budget American films.

“It’s easy criticism,” he said, “I don’t believe Hollywood treats its stories and characters superficially, but they do have this big machine that needs to make money.”

He added: “The audience at my screening was curious and informed about geopolitics. They were aware of what’s happening in the world. This was not the idea I had of Palm Springs. Americans have stereotypes about us but we are full of stereotypes about Americans.”

The sun edged behind the mountains; the sky bloomed orange, then slipped to dark. Limousines glided down the wide streets leading to the convention center, where hundreds of fans waited near the red carpet. Those with tickets to Saturday’s gala — old faces momentarily made new in air tinged with perfume and Cabernet — spoke of art and money and how the world was changing. Women with fresh tans checked their wraps, a man in a kilt, drink in hand, scanned a sea of dinner tables decorated with 18,500 roses and a backdrop draped with the name Cartier.

The stars arrived, a glittering army in a night of praise, awards and self-congratulation. Meryl Streep. Julia Roberts. A charming Tom Hanks; a quite funny Sandra Bullock. Bruce Dern, 77, white hair flying, ambled across the stage, jubilant that after decades of plying his craft he finally was a player with his portrayal of Woody Grant in “Nebraska.” He looked as if he could have been one of the festival-goers, a man with a long memory, movies running through his head.

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“Who knew? You know what I mean,” he said of his nominations and recognition. “The role of a lifetime.”

A table of Canadians clapped. They spoke of American football and the differences between U.S. and Canadian healthcare. One man, a lawyer in a silver tie whose wife runs a self-storage business, noted that in Canada doctors told him he’d have to wait six months for a hip replacement. He flew to the U.S.

“How long did it take to arrange?” someone asked.

“Booked it like a haircut,” said the man.

“If you have the money,” another man said.

The night drew on; the roses began to curl. The platitudes and retrospectives finished, the stars departed. The festival-goers wandered through town, sitting in cafes, bars and hotels, marking movie schedules on what to see next. Something from Serbia or perhaps Singapore. The desert temperature dropped and Marilyn Monroe, her dress billowing like a lost ghost, stood alone beneath a quarter-moon sky.