Palm Springs International Film Festival Dazzles

Photo | Submitted Jennifer and Mike Cuthbert rubbed elbows with the stars and enjoyed back-to-back films at the 29th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival this month.

Photo | Submitted
Jennifer and Mike Cuthbert rubbed elbows with the stars and enjoyed back-to-back films at the 29th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival this month.

Filing from The Town Courier’s West Coast office, I was privileged to take in a major film festival recently—The Palm Springs International Film Festival (IFF), now in its 29th year.

This year the congenial village that I retired to (after living for many years in Kentlands) has been visited by, among many others, Gal Gadot, Salma Hayek, Annette Bening, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, Timotheé Chalomet and Gary Oldman. Oldman made his visit memorable by announcing that he is moving permanently to Palm Springs after the festival.

Our own star-spotting exercise came from an invitation from Netflix to join their “Row of Stars” at the premiere of “The Polka King,” starring Jack Black. The invitation came from Wootton grad Monica Levinson, the film’s producer. The “Row” included Black, Jenny Slate and Jen’s fellow Aussie, Jackie Weaver. The film, in Netflix streaming release soon, is based on the life of Jan Lewan, the leader of a polka band in Pennsylvania, who started a Ponzi scheme and defrauded millions of dollars from mostly senior citizen polka lovers in Pennsylvania in the late ‘90s. At the IFF showing, Black was resplendent in his tux and Weaver deliciously droll as she talked with us.

Film lovers assembled from all over the globe to enjoy the 12 days of eyeball-straining excitement that is an international festival. Some 180 films were selected, bringing 136,000 new visitors to town. My wife, Jennifer, and I marveled at the full houses at the local Regal Cinema—two theaters were jammed—for a showing of a film, “Under the Tree,” about struggles over the future of a maple tree in Iceland! The director explained his film as an “anti-war allegory,” though he admitted that audiences in Northern Europe greeted the film with uproarious laughter while the more southern audiences regard the film as a tragedy! (It ends with a double-murder.)

It is not unusual to sit next to a Canadian, a German, a Swede, or a Wisconsinite here for the sunshine and 80-degree temperatures, but the reasons for selecting a film are even more mixed. A popular way to experience a variety of films is to buy a “6-Pack” of tickets for six films. The catalogue is daunting—page after page of film titles with brief descriptions and a selection of showing times and venues.

Seven theaters are involved, from the intimate Palm Canyon Theater to the spacious Richards Center for the Arts at Palm Springs High School. Annette Bening expressed amazement at the high school facility, like many, not believing it was a high school and our seatmate from Seattle was similarly disbelieving. She appeared to discuss her remarkable performance as Gloria Grahame in “Film Stars Do Not Die in Liverpool.”

One notable aspect of the festival is the consistently superb sound system in each theater. Another is the long lines one waits in for seats: Attendance 30 minutes before showtime is suggested and most arrive well before that time limit. That makes for part of the congenial atmosphere in line. You get to meet folks from all over the world standing in line and not a few dinner reservations for after the show are made while standing.

But an international film festival is noted most for its celebrities and Palm Springs, though used to flashy visitors, still lost its poise when Gal Gadot hit the red carpet in a spectacular yellow dress on Opening Night. She posed for selfies, signed autographs and made herself accessible to fans until time to receive her award for her emergence as a star this year. On the other end of the experience spectrum, Salma Hayek thrilled the audience by staying a long time on the red carpet for selfies and signings. Willem Defoe proved to be unusually friendly versus his general image, and local TV celebrity Bianca Ray distinguished herself with red carpet interviews that rivaled and surpassed most network interviewers—and a dress that many stars would envy.

The weather is always a factor here: It is nearly constant with daytime highs in the low 80s and nighttime lows in the upper 50s. This has allowed a Cannes-like atmosphere for film lovers.

So what can go wrong with a festival with this many films, this many stars (many of whom stay after Opening Night to enjoy the films), this spectacular weather and reasonable ($13 per film) ticket prices and star-gazing on the streets at all times? Nothing, really.