Indie Spirit raises Altman’s ‘Cuts’

Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” sparkled Saturday at the Independent Feature Project/West’s Spirit Awards, picking up three of the trophies including best picture. The filmmaker also was cited for his direction and for co-writing (with Frank Barhydt) the omnibus tale of daily life adapted from the short stories of Raymond Carver.

The veteran helmer, whose “The Player” took the top prize at last year’s event, was shooting his current film in Paris. Both films were released domestically by Fine Line. The best picture award was accepted by producer Cary Brokaw.

“I can’t believe such good fortune,” said Barhydt, accepting his award. “It just proves you can stay fresh and dynamic at any age.”

However, the prognosis for the awards presentation itself was quite the opposite. One IFP/W luminary groaned that the awards show had “become what we feared most — predictable and dull.”

The multi-Oscar-nominated “The Piano” walked off with best foreign film, while Jeff Bridges was named best actor for “American Heart” and Ashley Judd took best actress honors for her debut in “Ruby in Paradise.”

Films released by New Line won six of the 10 prizes. The only other company whose films won more than one award was the now-shuttered Triton Pictures.

“I wanted to bury it,” filmmaker Robert Rodriguez told the 1,300 attendees at the Hollywood Palladium when his film “El Mariachi” won the first feature category. Citing its flaws and his inexperience, he concluded that creativity, passion and hard work and not “the wallet” were the vital difference for the films being honored.

Rodriguez and Bridges, who received a thunderous ovation, were among the few winners present to accept their prizes. Supporting winners Christopher Lloyd for “Twenty Bucks” and Lili Taylor in “Household Saints” were off filming, Judd was in a play, and best cinematographer Lisa Rinzler of “Menace II Society” was shooting a commercial out of the country.

Still, it was the sins of commission rather than omission that marred the afternoon. Emcee Robert Townsend went through the sprightly program as if he were auditioning material for an upcoming comedy special. It’s likely that his banter — including a hip, minority version of “Julius Caesar”– won’t get beyond the walls of the Palladium.

IFP/W chairman Jonathan Wacks scored points with the announcement of a major fundraising campaign to build a filmmakers center that would include offices and a screening room for specialized fare.

Townsend, the presenters, special honorees and award winners all struggled with the bad acoustics of the room. Mismatched visual cues and a bank of video monitors were among the missteps employed to make the show faster and more accessible.

Special honoree Sandra Schulberg, who founded the IFP in New York, had some insightful, historic perspective to convey but was largely overcome by the space and the din. A similar fate befell Ted Hope and Jim Schamus, who received the Brian Greenbaum producing plaque.

Admitting that he was especially uncomfortable at such an event, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, named the John Cassavetes Award winner for his oeuvre, rebounded with a dash of wit. He recalled Cassavetes’ words in a documentary: “Filmmakers should be aware they don’t know anything.””So, I felt qualified to accept,” he concluded.

The few bright spots of the presentation were bestowed by New Line’s Robert Shaye, receiving the independent-friendly Findie for career achievement, and by keynoter Jim Sheridan.

Shaye’s thoughtful acceptance and lecture on “prudent aggression” provided a modest assessment of why his company had survived the rigors of 27 years of indie scrambling. “Seize the moment,” he advised, “and get on with it.”

Sheridan’s casual remarks displayed Irish charm and the ability to work virtually any room. In telling of his journey from Dublin to New York and from theater to screen, he emphasized vision and determination. And, alluding to the success of a handful of indie releases in a marketplace dominated by studio films, he said, “Monopolies don’t work; that is the artist’s strength.”

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