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The 2002 Woodstock Film Festival: The Spirit of ’69

More than 30 years after the music festival that put Woodstock, New York, on the map, people don’t know what to make of this small town in the Catskills. It doesn’t help that the actual events of 1969 took place on a farm 50 miles west of here, or that a younger generation vaguely links the place name to that more recent free-for-all capped by a conflagration of semis and pizza stands.

But Woodstock was, and still is, anchored in the arts. While no longer as hip as Bozeman or Brooklyn for the glitterati and literati, it’s still the kind of place where you can stop at the hardware store and run into a former member of The Band, a guy who writes for the New York Times, and a world-famous photographer. Plus the owner of the local head shop. And it’s the kind of place where residents and attendees truly believed in what Woodstock Film Festival head feature programmer Ryan Werner called ‘the power of media and film to support the underdog.’ They agreed with Harold Leventhal-producer of Bound for Glory and Alice’s Restaurant-when he decried the current state of entertainment as ‘cultural monopolization.’ And of course they partied their asses off each night after the last screen dimmed.

But the point is, the third annual Woodstock Film Festival, which ran from September 18 to September 22, 2002, and opened with a performance by Arlo Guthrie, can tag itself ‘fiercely independent’ and get away with it.

This year the lineup included more than 125 feature films, documentaries, and shorts, including Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity, Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone, Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, and Gus Van Sant’s Gerry.

The opening night film, Personal Velocity, had the audience playing hey-I-know-that-location! since much of it was filmed in the area. Miller, the daughter of Arthur Miller, adapted the trilogy of stories about women from her novel of the same name. Parker Posey plays a book editor in the strongest of the three sections, but had little to say during the obligatory Q&A afterward. At a party that night her novelist boyfriend Tom Beller deflected questions about his own work by saying, ‘Let’s keep it about Parker tonight.’ Whatever.

Not surprisingly, much of the festival focused on music. Phish bassist Mike Gordon hosted the New York premiere of Rising Low, his documentary on-get ready-bass players. Benny Mardones performed after a screening of Into the Night, a VH-1 Behind the Music-style documentary that follows his career from near-superstardom (his 1980 hit ‘Into the Night’ is one of those songs you instantly recognize without knowing who sings it) to rapid descent into drugged oblivion and finally to bizarro resurrection as the rock god of Syracuse, New York. Tim Robbins and his brother David Robbins discussed film scoring. And cinematographer Haskell Wexler (pictured, center, with Nora Guthrie and Harold Leventhal) attended a screening of the 1977 Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory, for which he won a cinematography Oscar. Alas, nobody had checked the film beforehand, and the scratched-to-hell, faded-to-pink print left Wexler sinking in his seat muttering, ‘Someone should be shot.’ But Wexler, who’s been involved with the festival from its beginning, graciously accepted apologies and commented that ‘The film is still true today. We’re living in a world of corruption.’

The recent anniversary of 9/11 couldn’t be ignored. When writer-director Peter Mattei answered questions after Love in the Time of Money, he noted that the film’s title came to him on a flight from Los Angeles to New York on September 10, 2001. It was just one of hundreds he’d considered-but the next day it seemed eerily appropriate. It stuck.

The closing night party and awards ceremony packed Woodstock’s Bearsville Theater on September 22. Tim Robbins won the Maverick Award for his social consciousness and independence. After accepting the award from Liev Schrieber, Robbins made an enthusiastic but not entirely coherent statement against military action in Iraq, then bolted to make the two-hour drive back to Manhattan-‘I have to wake my kids up at six and Susan’s out of town.’

Interview with the Assassin, by first-time writer-director Neil Burger, took the Best Feature Award, with honorable mentions going to Asghar Massombagi’s Khaled and Karen Moncrieff’s Blue Car.

Haskell Wexler presented-what else?-the Haskell Wexler Award for Best Cinematography to Luc Montpellier for his work on Khaled. Bill Plympton presented the Best Animation Award to David Russo’s Populi, a stop-action short that may or may not have deep socio-political meaning but does have very cool humanoid sculptures and a menacing steel sphere rolling all over Seattle.

The following awards were also presented:
· Best Documentary: Spellbound, Jeff Blitz, Producer and Director
· Best Student Film: A Girl’s Guide to the Galaxy, Catherine Tingey, Director
· Best Short Documentary: Howrah, Howrah, Till Passow, Director
· Best Short Film: Broken, Patrick Downs, Director

Kate Pierson (pictured), a Woodstock local who’s always willing to lend her voice to a good cause, performed after the awards ceremony backed by New York band Johnny Society.

Festival attendance wasn’t overwhelming this year-staff demurred when asked for figures and parking was always easy to find. And some attendees grumbled about accommodations when they were put up with local families. But with its focus on independence and music, the festival has found a groove that should keep it growing in the years ahead. And maybe one day Woodstock will mean just as much to cineastes as it does to those still seeking the Summer of Love.

Photos by Ben Caswell.

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