Film fest rule number one: Don’t show the Norwegian director your script!

This time, my second year volunteering in the Palm Springs International Film Festival, things were different. Instead of being an usher, taking tickets and biding time till the screenings let out, I signed up to drive VIPs around and maybe drive them crazy with my missed exits, one of which left the Norwegian director and me in deepest Norwalk. I thought the new job would be easier on my feet, which wasn’t quite the case. But it gave a much deeper immersion into the festival and filled my hours with interesting conversation. Here you’ll find a summary of those experiences while working for my terrific bosses, Nate Collins and Terri Arnett, in the 29th Palm Springs International Film Festival. 

PSIFFWed., Jan. 3, 2017: Arrived at transportation’s desk at the Renaissance at 10 a.m. and was asked to fill up a fleet vehicle from my pocket and wait for reimbursement. Gas cards were delayed until 11 a.m. from poor courier service. The rental agency had provided some near-empty units. I demurred. First task: take a fuel survey of all fleet vehicles. Keys were in zip bags, which corresponded to vehicle lineup order. Terri claimed this was a mere coincidence, but it fit with the overall meticulousness of this festival. Everybody knows every step. Only 1 of 8 in the fleet–six SUVs and two Malibus–was even as low as a quarter-full. I went back with the rosy report. Nate then took me on an airport dry-run: bring welcome sign, park in this waiting zone, smile, no need to lift luggage, take VIP guests to hotel. Happily, I didn’t see that cop who hassled me when I was doing Uber in 2016. After we returned to base, I was dispatched to pick up the Kopps, Aaron and Amanda, arriving from Denver. Like most of the 180 films, their documentary Liyana would screen three times in the festival. Today was the busiest I’ve seen at the airport, with a long line at security. I stood and gabbed with a couple of older gals waiting for arrivals from the same flight. One had the latest intel about the delay. The plane had landed but couldn’t get a gate. The Kopps finally walked up to Meet & Greet. I wished I’d been able to letter the welcome sign I’d been given. For Joachim Trier on Sunday, I should make my own sign. The Kopps were very nice, and they, having been to others, remarked how well organized the festival is. As we drove away from the airport I gave my briefest version of the Palm Springs story, showing them El Mirador and explaining the early importance of tennis, which led to the founding of the Racquet Club by Charles Farrell and Ralph Bellamy. The two-mile drive left no time even to mention midcentury modern architecture. I apologized for the cloudy sky, which is a 15- or 20-days-a-year thing. No rain from these clouds, though. No rain since August, in fact. Amanda commented about the palm trees along Indian Canyon Boulevard. It’s easy to forget how big an impression they make on people from frosty lands. Dropped the Kopps at East Canyon, a tiny hotel I’d never heard of, not even during those eight ride-hailing months. The festival puts its guests in hotels all over town. Looking now at the website, it’s a good thing I’d also mentioned that Palm Springs is a gay resort destination. The pool scene could mean man parts swangin’ in the breeze. Back to base and last dispatch was to refuel the Grand Cherokee, the fleet member I’d been driving and would prefer to keep instead of the Expeditions and Suburban-Tahoe-Yukon selections. Walking through the parking lot with the fuel card–they had arrived, and good thing I’d waited out that initial request–I had my eyes up looking for the Jeep and stepped into a sinkhole in the asphalt, twisting my right foot and spraining the arch. The Jeep was more than half-full, but it took about 8.5 gal and I’m glad I thought to print out a receipt for Nate. Home after two o’clock, the foot was pretty sore. I debated about going for an X-ray but decided to wait. At least I had my reward: Nate gave me vouchers for two tickets, part of the deal for each shift. I’ll redeem them for Saturday’s screening of Liyana

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Not my lettering, either. I But on the second trip to LAX I had seized control of the pen!

Sun., Jan. 7: My first shift in four days. Susan arrived Thursday. We saw five movies, three on Friday and two Saturday. She went back this morning. For the trip to LAX with Gustavo Salmerón, Terri was going to give me a Tahoe but I asked for the Grand Cherokee and got it. Gustavo wasn’t quite ready, and then, getting in front with me, he asked to stop where he could buy the Desert Sun because his movie was featured on the cover of the special film festival section. I pulled into Seven-Eleven, and Gustavo went in for a long time. He didn’t feel any imperative to hurry because he was taking the red-eye. But I had to pick up Joachim Trier. Finally he emerged with three copies of the paper, one free for his mother, and we got moving. I told him about being on the Costa del Sol last month and explained why I would go there in the off-season. It turned out he has an older Grand Cherokee and a Triumph Thunderbird Sport, the latter an interesting choice for a Madrileño. And he had once, some years ago, rented a Harley and hossed it through the redwoods in northern California. The biggest surprise about Gustavo is that during his youth he had been an exchange student for six months in southern Illinois. I forgot to ask if he was supposed to stay longer but vamoosed ASAP. As we drove through the canyon he tried to snooze, having had insomnia the night before because of his emotional state after the screening of Lots of Kids, a Monkey, and a Castle. Evidently it was a great success! Or failure? As we neared the airport he talked about the idea that sometimes pops into his brain: move to L.A. because of the greater opportunity. He would like to make fiction films. Do documentaries turn out to be a dead end? I thought I was supposed to drop him off at the international terminal, but he was already out of the car with his stuff when I double-checked and found he was flying Delta to New York. We loaded back up and drove through the return lane. I was relieved he was gracious about it.

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Meanwhile, I had just enough time to get parked, go inside dumpy Terminal 7, and greet incoming Joachim, co-writer and director of Thelma. I hadn’t been standing there long when stepped up with a smile. I spoke a few words of welcome in Norwegian, and when he asked, I explained about having taken Swedish at UCLA in 1980. Joachim was impressed on account of my trip to Nordkapp and having read Norwegian writers. When you tell a Norwegian you’ve read Synnøve Solbakken, by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, you cut through the clutter. We talked at some length about Knut Hamsun. I recalled purchasing an English translation of Mysteries while visiting Oslo but forgot to mention that Markens Grøde is my fave Knut novel. Hearing my mention of the Skaldic tradition. Joachim told a gripping story about Thor, having been tricked by trolls, dressing as a bride in order to retrieve his hammer, then destroying the whole crowd with it. And Joachim made an interesting point. Denmark has had its furniture and design, Sweden has Volvo and IKEA (and H&M, ABBA, SAAB, many other acronyms, and even Koeninsegg), but Norway lacks a flagship. Norway, as Hamsun pointed out in a lovely passage about them, had potatoes. Norway, though, has always had writers. Its two greatest artists, he believes, are Hamsun and a painter about whom much is written: Munch. I bragged that I had been to Munchmuseet before Li’l Screamy became a worldwide icon. The two-hour trip back went fast, especially when he asked about Palm Springs and I gave my snappy fifteen-minute account of the history (forgetting to mention Cowboy Mayor Frank Bogert). After dropping him at the Riviera around 9.40 p.m., I put fuel in the GC and returned to the Renaissance. The festival’s operation there was closed down for the night, so I left the key with the front-desk clerk. Because I was starving I stopped at Wendy’s on the way home and greased out on a double-burger.

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Alissa Simon chats with Joachim Trier after the screening of his film Thelma.

Tues., Jan. 9: Last night was the screening of Thelma. The day had been stormy and wet, and getting myself out in the dark took some resolve. Besides, the five movies already seen left me glutted. As soon as I got rolling, though, I was glad. It felt good to go down the road toward the bright lights. Waiting in line, I had a nice chat with the two women ahead. At the film festival, people are happy to talk about themselves, what they’ve seen, where they’re from. These two invited me to sit with them. Joachim had described the film as “basically a witch story,” and I wasn’t that sure about wanting to see it. My early Disneyfication always shows through. Turns out it’s a spellbinding film, an edge-of-your-seat story made with great economy. The acting, cinematography, and music cement things together. Joachim and Variety’s Alissa Simon came to the stage afterwards, and she led a discussion and moderated the Q&A. Joachim repeated what I’d heard in the car about the film being based in Norwegian fairy tales. He also described his latest project, editing the documentary on Edvard Munch, which highlights forgotten late-in-life paintings that came out of the museum’s vault. When everything wrapped up I said hello. He had wondered if I made it and thanked me for the introduction to Palm Springs. I promised the sun would come out Wednesday. 

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Wed., Jan. 10: This time I drove a Malibu. Anything to avoid those big Ford and GM SUVs! And besides, I like the Malibu. I don’t care if Ford kills off the Fusion, but if GM does the same with the Malibu, I’d take it personal. I left at 3.30 p.m. Amber Wilkinson’s flight was to arrive at 5.37 p.m., so I was nervous about covering the 122 miles that fast. Traffic flowed very well, though. I got to the airport just before 6.00 p.m. and noticed Nate had called and texted. Vladimir de Fontenay’s flight from Paris was delayed. Would I mind waiting and bringing back both of them. I parked and went into the Bradley terminal with the sign written in my neatest block print and didn’t have to wait too long for Amber, who extended a pleasant hello. Poor dear had traveled from Edinburgh via Reykjavik on Wow Air, a budget carrier that offers no food or beverage service and a kick to the head if you complain. She had started out umpteen hours earlier. Accustomed to flying business class, I could hardly imagine the ordeal. Then I broke the bad news to her about having to wait for Vladimir, but she is irrepressible and took it well. We stowed her bags in the car and got a bite to eat at the little Mexican snack bar in the terminal and how I wished I could have joined her in having a beer. I picked up the ridiculous tab. Why couldn’t I have been an airport concessionaire instead of a penurious writer? Amber’s been everywhere, but this was her first visit to L.A. and of course Palm Springs. She works part-time for the Daily Record, a tabloid, and runs her film website and also freelances. She was attending the festival in her capacity as a judge for FIPRESCI, the international federation of film critics, and will be going to Sundance from here. Coincidentally, Alissa Simon is in a group photo with Amber on the latter’s Twitter feed. (Amber’s handle is @NinjaWorrier.) By now, Vladimir’s Norwegian Air flight from Paris had landed, so we traipsed over to the arrivals area and waited. And waited. At 9 p.m., Amber went to the car and tried to sleep. Because the flight had been late, it couldn’t get a gate and tarried on the tarmac till one opened. It took him an hour to get through customs. He showed up at 9.30 p.m., and we skedaddled. At least traffic wasn’t an issue. Vladimir and Amber had much to talk about: film festivals in San Sebastian and elsewhere, cinematographers and actors (including the one who backed out of Vladimir’s new film Mobile Homes during prep just before shooting started). An interesting question was about when a filmmaker goes too far, examples being a blow job scene in a film whose title I didn’t catch and some snuff footage in one by a Russian director. But Vladimir had been mightily impressed by the audacity of Talal Derki, who went undercover with a jihadi family in Homs, Syria, and made a bold film, Of Fathers and Sons. Amber sees an average of a movie per day, so she knows every name and title, but didn’t know about this one. I told them I was getting an education by listening. It was fascinating to hear the chat of people who are so immersed in this big ocean of film. I dropped Amber at the Hard Rock around 11.30 p.m., took Vlad to the Ace, and visited a gas station. Leaving the Malibu at the Renaissance, I found my car covered with heavy dew: a rarity. I got home and into bed at 12.45 a.m. So nearly a ten-hour shift for me.

IMG_3849Thurs., Jan. 11: Stand-by duty from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Nate reimbursed me $15 to cover the LAX parking costs and $51 for the snack bar tab. Tonight’s shift from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. would be as stand-by driver, hanging around for Terri’s dispatches. She was in an upbeat mood. The hospitality manager from next door complimented me on my tie. It’s the blue one with light red dots. First run in the Grand Cherokee was Juan Carlos Maneglia and probably Tana Schembori and one other woman. They’re paraguayos. I took them to their hotels. He was at V. When I was ride-hailing, was that called something else? Juan Carlos and Tana made The Gold Seekers, which is a heist movie. Getting around was difficult because of the Thursday-night street fair leaving Palm Canyon Drive closed. The women were at the Hyatt. I dropped them off and returned to base. Alissa Simon was sitting in the hospitality room, so I introduced myself, mentioning Tuesday night’s screening and Q&A. “Was I any good?” she asked. Great, I assured her. I told about driving Joachim and Amber. Alissa fondly recalled a FIPRESCI trip to St. Petersburg with Amber. Soon after this chat, I went back to the Hyatt and picked up Laura Mora, director of Killing Jesús. Her friend, a Russian woman whom I assumed to be another filmmaker, took the backseat. I had sat waiting for them a long time before they found me; Laura was concerned about making it to the Pickford by 8 p.m. and give an intro to her film. But I assured her there was plenty of time. She had been glad for the sunny day: “All we’ve had in Colombia is rain for like the last two years.” It had been an issue when making the film. She explained the title Killing Jesús refers to the fictional character of her film and not the Son of God. Yet when the film screened in Toronto, a woman assailed her with the news that she needed to get right with the Lord. We got to the theater with plenty of time to spare. I told her she could go ahead and write a speech, to which she responded that a friend who made an experimental film admonished the audience beforehand, “Don’t leave. It has a really good ending!” She thought she might repeat that.

 

Back to the Hyatt, where all three paraguayos had been waiting–Juan Carlos taxied from V–and we went to the Pickford so they could see Laura’s Matar á Jesús. There had been a screw-up, not my fault. I sat at the previous drop-off point for fifteen minutes, left, and was then summoned right back and they had suddenly appeared there. Terri warned they were unhappy. They would be about thirty-five minutes late, not to mention the problem of finding three seats in a dark theater. Indeed, it was a quiet drive. I’d wanted to ask if Alfredo Stroessner were still alive, but that would’ve made it even quieter. Oh, well, why not risk a stupid joke? When we got to the theater, I pointed to the fountain and said to Juan Carlos, “No nadando!” And he got a laugh from that. Returning to the transportation center, I was sent to the Camelot theaters to pick up Yves Hinant, who made So Help Me God, a “stranger than fiction” documentary about a Belgian judge who takes viewers behind the scenes on cases. Yves, who was in a nice mood, had been at a screening and would now party at the Toucan nightclub. And that was it. The shift had passed quickly. I dropped off the GC. Before going home I went over to the Village Pub, had a beer, and listened to Moonchild nail their classic rock attack. Very impressive. They just need to dress better.

Sat., Jan 13: Stand-by at the Renaissance at 10 a.m. There was an unopened bottle of wine on Nate’s desk. I suggested it was too early to start drinking, but he kidded that it’s never too early. The same cake from Thursday, now half-eaten, was on the volunteers’ table. It was yummy then but not an appetizing sight this morning. There were two other volunteer drivers, Betty, a nurse, and another woman whose name I’ve forgotten, and we shared pleasant conversation about film festivals past and took turns accepting as dispatches came up. Nate assigned me the Tahoe. This is an older model. No doubt the new one is better and doesn’t feel so seaworthy. It was still dirty after Tuesday’s rain. My first assignment was to pick up Vladimir at the Ace. “Now that I’ve seen you in the daylight, I don’t know if I want you in my car,” I said, drawing not even a chuckle. “What do you mean?” he said. Oh, Lord, what impulse leads me to try jokes like that?

Image-1I dropped him off at the Hilton’s brunch for festival guests. Returned to base, sat around, and returned to the Hilton a few minutes before 1 p.m., picking up Vladimir and a Mexican filmmaker named Michel Franco (April’s Daughter). We waited a few minutes, but no one else got into my shuttle. The talk was once again of Cannes and the ACID (Association for Independent Cinema and its Distribution) program and whether it’s worthwhile for a Mexican film. (It’s not.) No one else from the brunch joined us during a short wait, so I took Michel to the Alcazar and then turned down Palm Canyon Drive for the Ace. It was in the low 80s and Vladimir couldn’t wait to get to the pool. I asked how he likes living in Paris and was surprised to hear him profess great love for New York. But Paris is more practical, being less expensive, not to mention it’s easier to fund filmmaking in France. Of course, I inserted, there’s also the fact that all the food there looks so scrumptious. Even a package of macarons at the airport makes your eyeballs pop out. Then I repeated everything I know about the story of reblochon, but he isn’t fond of it, preferring goat cheese. After dropping him off I fueled up the Tahoe. From one-quarter full, it took $53. How can anybody afford to run these things? My shift having ended, I went across to the Regal and tried to exchange the voucher Nate had just handed me for a ticket to the 2 p.m. of The Gold Seekers. There may never be another chance to see a Paraguayan movie. Alas, no tickets available. Instead, having three vouches in hand, I got tickets for Sunday’s screening of Killing Jesús and invited Gerry and Gracie, but I don’t think either will make it. The festival ends Sunday. Monday is departures day.

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Sun., Jan 14: Killing Jesús was my seventh film of the festival. All four documentaries I had seen with Susan back on Jan. 5 and 6 made Best of the Fest. Patty, in the group ahead of me in line, had the list in the Desert Sun. I said Liyana was my favorite because of its combination of a warm, uplifting story and crafty filmmaking. It was no surprise to see it on the list but startling to see Brimstone & Glory there. That was the fireworks movie from Tultepec with no very strong story. The newspaper also reported that Laura Mora had been stricken with fever and was unlikely to attend today’s screening, but beyond the newspaper’s pages she had recovered enough to be present and say a few words before the film started. Hebe Tabachnik introduced her, noting that the movie had won the award for best Spanish-language film of twenty-four in the festival. And Killing Jesús had claimed other awards at previous festivals. A couple of rows at the top were empty, so I hadn’t stiffed anyone by holding the two extra tickets. The show began. Taking its starting point from Laura’s experience, it’s the story of a college professor who’s assassinated for no obvious reason (although he may have deserved it for quoting Michel Foucault in a lecture). Because the legal system is overwhelmed and incapacitated, his daughter, Paula, sets off to find the assassin. The quest has her delve into the slums of Medellín. It’s gritty and uncomfortable and indelible. Laura recruited nonprofessional actors for the film and somehow pulled it off. After the Q&A, I said hello but her foggy response made it seem she had forgotten me in her fever. Walking out of the theater, I noticed a woman just behind, so I paused enough to fall in step, asking what she thought. Her response matched mine. It was fine, but something didn’t click. This woman, Joan, was flamboyant with a lively print blouse and lively scarf and lots of rings and bracelets and a Texas accent. She wants to own a ‘61 Chevy someday! Even when I got near my car and she was going another direction, we stood talking a long time. At last she mentioned the other direction led to the bus stop. She would be going by public transit to visit an elderly friend at Horizon mobile home park. I offered a ride, and she accepted. Even after getting there, we sat in the car talking. It was so pleasant to meet someone and have a spontaneous, long conversation. I liked her a lot. I should have asked to take a selfie together. No idea whether she would have said yes. The Horizon park sigh would have made a nice backdrop. When she stepped out it was nearly four o’clock, so by the time I got home the sun was about to set. I ended the afternoon feeling exuberant from the full immersion experience. 

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My suggested fleet for the 30th Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Mon., Jan. 15: Reported at 10.30 a.m. and Nate gave me the Suburban, a rattling 43K-mile rental. Cristóbal and Camilla, from Chile, making their first visit to the U.S., needed to get to their hotel in Hollywood. I pointed out a few features of the landscape: Mt. San Gorgonio being the highest in SoCal, what exactly the Inland Empire is, how Greater Los Angeles is made up of about 85 municipalities. Camilla was excited to see the IKEA in Covina. Finally we got the first sighting of downtown L.A. and then bellied against it as I-10 moves south to get around. They seemed impressed by the towers. The Wilshire Grand Center adds an emphatic slash to the grouping. I missed Vermont Avenue and veered off on Normandie, then back to Vermont on Washington. We went toward Koreatown–largest Korean population outside Asia–en route to Hollywood. I explained about all the ethnic enclaves in L.A. The Chileans asked about Italian, and I couldn’t think of a Little Italy here. They got a kick from Korean signs mixing riotously with San Salvador Restaurante and Burger King. Spotting the Hollywood sign was another delight. A question about the neighborhood’s safety came up. Would thieves tear a camera off your person? I almost spluttered at the notion. They’d rather send ransomware. We saw homeless camps along the street, leading me to say there’s just no way we should have this problem in the U.S. I dropped them off and wished them a happy time. They were avid to get to the museums. The race back to Palm Springs was interrupted by a pit stop at In-n-Out, which is overrated but at least the tiny meat patty hasn’t left me belching like that Wendy’s double. I stopped again at the Shell just inside Palm Springs on Rte. 111 and fueled the turd truck. Terri had had just phoned between the freeway and city limit, and she kidded, “Make sure it’s 87.” I said I was considering diesel just for fun. In response she borrowed from President Trump’s vocabulary. Nate was waiting for me at the rental car lot. We got under way in his little Ford, and I told him my biggest takeaway from the festival is how these brilliant artists strive and struggle for years to write the scripts and make the films. He asked if I’d have any suggestions for improving the transportation detail. I would get cars washed after the rain ends, no matter how inconvenient that is. And it would be good if the jumbo SUVs could be replaced with Lamborghinis. We were going back to my car in the Renaissance overflow lot, but I misdirected him, confused Caballeros with El Segundo. Now Nate knew why I was always late. Incidentally, my foot is still sore but I’m walking almost normal. 

 

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