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April 6, 2007

Vail Film Festival: a celebration of excess

I lay silently on my back—eyes closed, mouth slightly open—as a tall blond woman massaged moisturizing oils into my face. Next to me, Ben Kolak, erstwhile Fire Escape chairman and Crime Fiction producer, received the very same treatment. Waiting their turns were Will Slocombe, the director of Crime Fiction, and Paul “The Dude” Friedman, an old friend, master skier, and laid-back embodiment of the American West.

The site was the hospitality tent of the Vail Film Festival, a four-day celebration of film, skiing, luxury, and corporate sponsorship. (The facials were courtesy of a Japanese cosmetics company hoping to corner the American male market.) We had all come to Vail to support Crime Fiction, a film that bloomed from the dank basement office of Fire Escape Films to assume a place on the lofty festival circuit. This was Crime Fiction’s second festival after its premiere at Slamdance, and Slocombe, Kolak, and producer Marc DeMoss were hoping to generate interest—if not a seven-figure distribution deal.

Vail, CO is a peculiar sort of town, a pre-fabricated resort community at the base of the nation’s largest and priciest ski area. Like most ski resorts, it’s a jumble of city slickers, local aristocrats, and ski bums who tend bar, drive buses, or live far enough outside of town that the cost of living is no longer on par with the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

The film festival is an infant, only four years old and featuring far fewer films than grown-up affairs like Sundance and Telluride. It’s lavish by any standard, but in the dollar-soaked world of Vail, most people barely take notice. This benign ignorance lends the festival a clubby feel—the same faces keep popping up at screenings, the hospitality tent, the afternoon open bars, and the evening galas. It was the perfect venue for a small film like Crime Fiction, a place where shaking hands at cocktail parties (to say nothing of handing out 50 pairs of Crime Fiction briefs) might—just might—yield the kind of break that every hustling independent filmmaker hopes to score.

We arrived in Vail early on opening day and immediately became the stars of the hospitality tent, scoring free Stella Artois, truffle oil hamburgers, and Tabasco sauce to go along with our facials. And yes, there were films shown alongside these complimentary goods and services.

Opening night began with Snow Cake, a typical indie character drama featuring a big-time actress venturing outside her comfort zone (Sigourney Weaver as an autistic woman whose daughter dies in a car crash), an understated performance from a renowned character actor (Alan Rickman), and a bizarre animated sequence that recalled the excesses of early ’70s acid films. There was a lot to be admired, but the film’s pensive, talky spirit felt a little staid.

Far livelier was Vanessa Roth and Alexandra Dickinson’s The Third Monday in October, a documentary covering student council elections at four middle schools across the country. The film shared common themes with Jeffrey Blitz’s Spellbound, but whereas the central drama in that film occurred between parents and children, here the machinations, dreams, and heartbreak played out between teachers and students. Third Monday sagged a little toward the end, but overall it was pretty exhilarating stuff.

The next day brought fresh powder to Vail as well as the “Colorado premiere” of Crime Fiction. The morning kicked off with a well placed pair of Crime Fiction briefs being shown off by the local TV weatherman on Good Morning Vail—hopefully a sign of big things to come. However, festival management had stacked the deck against the U of C’s little movie that could. A live music event was scheduled concurrently with the screening, and a prize-winning film from Cannes popped up on the schedule at the last moment to draw even more of the potential crowd away.

That said, the screening was a rousing success, mostly due to the attendance of Will Miller, a charismatic real estate mogul who regaled the Crime Fiction crew with stories of the “whoopie side” of Rio de Janeiro. (As best anyone could tell, this meant the sex and drug trades.) Miller was hot on the idea of making a documentary on this sordid area and felt that the Crime Fiction crew’s macabre sense of humor would be perfect for the job. For the rest of the weekend, Miller kept the stories and liquor flowing as he hashed out what this proposed documentary might look like.

The range of people at a festival like this is one of its great draws. There are the perverse dreamers like Will Miller, searching for the right kind of filmmaker to put his bizarre fascinations onto the screen. There are the young filmmakers, mouths agape at the extravagance of the place, trying to find an audience for their projects. There are the down-and-out screenwriters who have never had a script produced but have nonetheless been able to secure a meager livelihood judging screenplay competitions on the festival circuit.

And then there are the big shots. Vail is a small festival, so it’s not awash in Weinsteins, Wilsons, or Baldwins, but it still draws a few bold-faced names. D.B. Sweeney, who made a name for himself playing macho types in the early ’90s, won the audience award for Two Tickets to Paradise, a film which he wrote, directed, and starred in. On the final evening, TV pin-up Sophia Bush arrived to take home the “Rising Star” award, and Harold Ramis sauntered in to accept the “Golden Summit” award, staying long enough to reminisce about Robert DeNiro (a “bad improviser” and a “bully”).

As Ramis loaded up on French toast the next morning, Crime Fiction had no deal in place, but a few wheels were turning in good places, and may be turning still. Crime Fiction is probably not going to end up at the AMC 21, but maybe, just maybe, those intrepid U of C filmmakers will get something tangible out of all this. Brazilian whorehouses, anyone?