The strangest thing happened at this year’s film festival, the one thing nobody thought would ever happen–the movies were better than the parties. True, they were a mishmash of various treats and oddities, but one sensed a guiding hand behind their selection. It was as if a refined sensibility were overseeing the whole thing–refined, yes, but also ribald and even slightly dangerous. Plus, it ended up giving the town the best political theater it has seen in ages.
First, the movies. Going to see the real cool ones has become a Sarasota status symbol. Anybody can go see the documentaries about the decimation of the Brazilian rain forest. But the story of bondage queen Bettie Page–well, that was a harder ticket to come by. Guess which one I saw. I remember looking around as the lights were dimming. There was the whole Sarasota bondage community.
Shoe fetishists were entertained by the British film Kinky Boots, about a factory in England that starts manufacturing, well, kinky boots. And then there was Neo Ned, about a neo-Nazi who befriends a black woman who channels Hitler. These were unusual movies. And I hear the person to thank for this largesse is programming director Tom Hall. If this is true, then we are very lucky to have him. Everybody in the business loves him, he has great taste, a sense of humor, and he’s not afraid to make a little trouble. I personally think we should make him city manager, as I trust his judgment unconditionally.
No, the movies were not a problem. But those parties! They started out OK. The early ones on roped-off streets and in the museum courtyard were fine. But by the time Night of 1,000 Stars rolled around you smelled trouble. What gave it away? The parking. You drove up to Michael’s On East and thought, Uh-oh, this place is a madhouse.
Parking problems plagued the festival from the start. The first day’s publicity was all about the sudden 500 percent increase in valet parking at Hollywood 20 and the parking operator’s tactless admission that, yes, he was price gouging, but it was OK because a film festival was not an emergency like a hurricane. Well, it was an emergency to some of the festival board members, and Randi Schlanger arguing with the valet parker, as reported in the Herald-Tribune, must have been a sight to behold.
Anyway, there you are at Michael’s and you can’t get near the place because there’s so much traffic. So you pull into the lot of the medical building across the street, and who should come running up and yelling at you but an extremely rude valet parker who tells you that you can’t park there. Well, you’re certainly not going to try valet parking–the line disappears in a traffic jam down the street, then turns the corner and backs up to Tamiami Trail. So you look for a place on the street, which takes half an hour, then you trudge over to the Sweetbay-side entrance, where a security guard tells you that you can’t get in this way. Meanwhile people are walking in and out of the gate, but you can’t. For the first time in my life I almost said, "Don’t you know who I am?" (By the way, Marjorie North also had a run-in with this security guard and called him "snarly" in her column.)
So, cursing the film festival and everybody connected with it, you are forced unnecessarily to walk all the way around the block. You finally get in. The place is oppressively hot and crowded. There are not enough bars. Somebody yelled at me again, this time for breaking in the line to the bar. I had no idea that was a line. I thought it was an enormous mob of people that happened to be long and thin.
I didn’t see any stars. I didn’t even see the Landers sisters, and they’re always there. All I saw was Jan Schneider. True, they did have strippers as entertainment. I noticed Phil Mancini staring open-mouthed at the gyrations of some blonde. I wanted to beg him to stop gaping and open another bar.
Night of 1,000 Stars was on Friday. On Saturday night was the Filmmakers’ Tribute Dinner, which is the culmination of the festival and famous for something always going wrong. One year a drunken patron heckled Jon Voight. One year they couldn’t get anybody to honor until the day before. One year the filmmakers who didn’t win prizes started crying in the lobby. It’s always something at the Tribute Dinner.
This year, I guess so they’d be sure to have somebody to honor, they came up with five of them. Any one of them would have been sufficient: Felicity Huffman, Robert Towne, Paula Wagner, William H. Macy and Robert Altman. It was at the Longboat Key Club, a new venue for the event, in a series of enormous air-conditioned tents.
I solved the parking problem by finding a special place for the press, with no valets and just a few steps from the door. Inside (or rather outside, for the first part of the party took place on the lawn) milled the 900 people who had tickets for the event, plus the honorees, plus all sorts of interesting local people with some agenda to advance, like Vern Buchanan and–once again–Jan Schneider. She was wandering around like the cat that ate the canary. She’s up to something, I told myself.
Conspicuous by her absence was Katherine Harris, who usually attends and was there last year with her husband and Gary Busey, of all people. But I did hear the most exciting rumor: Cynthia McKinney, that congresswoman who slugged the cop who didn’t recognize her because she got a new hairdo, was there. I ran around asking people where she might be. It turns out one of the films was about her and her efforts to eliminate vote fraud and that the film featured Katherine, but not in a positive way. There had even been a demonstration at the screening–or rather, two people showed up, one from each side, plus two reporters. (We’re not a very demonstrative town.)
We moved inside and found our tables. What happened next was, in Marjorie’s words–in a column that has become an instant classic–"seven hours of cocktail party, schmoozing, dinner, videos, welcomes, awards, auctions, announcements, introductions and thank yous." Perhaps it was a little long. I was sitting next to radio personality Ann Corcoran, who, thank God, had brought a deck of cards. The waitress would put an empty plate in front of you, then come back in 10 minutes and take it away, then come back in five minutes and put it down again. It was that kind of party.
After a while I started looking for the congresswoman who hit the cop. She left early, perhaps sensing this was not her crowd. Then things started to get hazy. I checked off the honorees on the tablecloth. Two more to go. I passed the time watching one of the town’s more prominent hairdressers fight sleep. His eyes would close, then his head would slip, then he would awake with a jerk. Then the whole thing would start over again. Paula Wagner was busy thanking people. She finished with her blood relatives and then moved on to her stepchildren.
Finally Robert Altman came out. Boy, he sure woke people up. First he endorsed Jan Schneider (see, I knew something was up) then he blamed Katherine Harris–or "Kathleen Harrison" as he called her–for the Bush presidency, including the war in Iraq. People cheered, people hissed. But whatever your politics, it was a first. Katherine Harris had been badmouthed at a fancy Sarasota event, and another Tribute Dinner had entered into legend.