I’ve attended a few Woodstock Film Festivals over the years as a reporter for another newspaper. While the paper first provided blanket coverage of the Festival a decade or so ago, within a few years, the blanket had grown threadbare. By 2012, editorial space had shrunk so drastically that whole stories went missing or got boiled down into nuggets in an online soup. It was frustrating.
One of my stories that got the boil-down treatment was, I admit, a bit off the straight-and-narrow approach favored by editors who no longer thought the Festival important or interesting. I wanted to ask people, “What movie changed your life?” I went so far as to make a sandwich board that I wore, blushingly, around the Festival site one year.
It’s a simple, and, I contend, the most revealing question that a moviegoer can ask of him or herself. You can argue all day (and movie fans do) about what “the best” movie is. That’s a question for the intellect, and ultimately a matter of opinion.
But to ask what movie changed your life is to ask an emotional question having very little to do with popularity or publicly accepted “greatness.” I have a long list of movies, directors and actors who I believe deserve to be called “great.” But the movie that most deeply affected me, that changed my way of seeing the world, never won an Oscar or made any critic’s Top 100 list. Walt Disney’s Old Yeller changed my life.
I was seven years old, and I still remember the shock and sense of desolation that I felt when I saw actor Tommy Kirk point a rifle at his loyal, lifesaving old dog and shoot him because the mutt had contracted “the hydrophobie” from a pack of wild pigs. Of course I cried. Old Yeller was my unhappy introduction not to life’s savagery, but to its unfairness. It has played out through my life in ways that my seven-year-old self could never have anticipated; a nagging, gnawing sensitivity to injustice in all its forms has followed me and shaped my life to this day.
What follows are recollections of several celebrities who, during several of the festivals, very graciously answered my question. I’ve not forgotten what they said, but I no longer have the notes that would allow me to quote them exactly. So, wherever possible, I’ve buttressed my recollections with statements that they’ve made elsewhere.
Director Jonathan Demme has been a favorite filmmaker of mine since I discovered the movie Citizens’ Band in 1977. Next to Robert Altman, he has made more of my favorite films – some inarguably “great” ones – than any American director since then. He was in town to accept the festival’s Maverick Award. I buttonholed him outside the Bearsville Theater and asked him my question.
Without a moment’s hesitation, he said Far from Vietnam: a series of five short films released in 1967 featuring the work of five French directors, including Agnes Varda and Alan Resnais. He said that he went into the movie theater “a typical John Wayne All-American” and came out a different person. Here’s how he described the experience in a lengthy Guardian interview in 2008:
“There was one film that I saw in my late teens at the New York Film Festival, Loin du Vietnam. I wasn’t against the war in Vietnam, I didn’t have any political opinions; I was against being drafted and killed. And I went to see this film, and Alan Resnais had a segment that talks about the horror of the Nazi occupation of France, and how the Americans had shown up and liberated France, and were adored for this. And now, today, in 1968, the Americans in the context of Vietnam have become the Nazis: The Vietnamese had been invaded by them. And however it was spun, I came out of that movie radicalized; I got the joke. It was an amazing moment for me: The film triggered something. So, yes, a film by one person can make a difference.”
Not only films, but also film festivals, can be the occasion for truthful, memorable insights.
I caught up with writer/director John Sayles, another favorite of mine, after a panel discussion on “Movies that Matter: Do They Count?” We spoke for about half an hour, about how he enjoyed working with Scots director Bill Forsyth on Breaking In (and how dismayed he was by Forsyth’s decision to stop making movies). He talked about how he admired and loved working with Edie Falco, and with cinematographer Haskell Wexler on The Secret of Roan Inish. When I popped the question, he smiled, cast his eyes skyward for a moment and surprised me.
“Two Women,” Sayles said. Vittorio de Sica’s film starred Sophia Loren. The movie was a breakout arthouse sensation at the time of its release in 1960 and won Loren an Oscar. It told the story of a mother trying desperately to protect her daughter from the horrors of war. Sayles, like Demme, said that he was stunned to see the ordinary, everyday terrors of war: the sort of story that Hollywood has traditionally shied away from.
My surprise at his choice of an all-but-forgotten film was momentary. The man who has famously bankrolled such intimate, politically sharp indie classics as The Return of the Secaucus Seven, Matewan and Lone Star by scripting well-paying big-budget Hollywood films smiled at the memory. That Two Women had had so strong an impact seemed perfectly understandable after a moment’s reflection.
Documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock was on the same panel discussion with Sayles. I thought that the director of Super Size Me was giving me an answer that was intended for Sayles’s ears more than mine. His answer to the question was Matewan, perhaps Sayles’s best-known work.
Was he trying to impress Sayles, who was standing nearby? Nope. Turns out that Sayles shot Matewan in 1987 near Spurlock’s hometown of Beckley, West Virginia. Spurlock would have been 17 at the time. He became a fascinated observer of what was going on in the otherwise-sleepy West Virginia hills. He said that the experience allowed him to realize that he wanted to make movies. Seventeen years later, he made his directorial debut as the death-defying star of his Oscar-nominated documentary Super Size Me.
Actor Timothy Hutton won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People in 1980. I caught up with him at a luncheon for Festival participants. Hutton smiled and a light seemed to come to his eyes. “The Deer Hunter,” he said. He called it not just an amazing film, but also an amazing experience for him.
Hutton later recounted to O Magazine how he’d fled to Paris after Ordinary People wrapped: He was all of 19 years old and in possession of his first credit card, his first passport and $7,000 in cash. “In Paris I felt free for the first time in years. Over three days, I must have gone to almost every museum and jazz club in the city. I saw The Deer Hunter and was blown away by the soundtrack and the passion of the artists involved. Things settled down, and I felt a sense of peace. I returned to New York with a depleted savings account but a good idea of what I wanted to do with my future.” He described the experience as part of a life-changing “Aha!” moment.
I met Sullivan County favorite son, Oscar nominee and anti-fracking activist Mark Ruffalo backstage at BSP in Kingston in 2011 after he accepted the Festival’s Meera Gandhi Giving Back Award. His answer to the question may have been the most candid and easily understood.
Ruffalo’s choice was yet another indie production, one that had been shot on location maybe 40 miles away, in Margaretville: You Can Count on Me. Aside from being a massive critical success, Ruffalo’s performance as Laura Linney’s unpredictable ne’er-do-well brother was the actor’s breakout role: a movie and a role that very clearly changed Ruffalo’s life.
– Jeremiah Horrigan