Iconoclasts welcome on Lido

VENICE — Venice is nothing if not contrarian. Always a haven for the filmmaker and cineaste alike, its reputation for embracing controversial films and generating heated debate is well established. In this regard, the festival has acted as safe harbor to directors like Mike Figgis, Abel Ferrara and Jane Campion, whose films have fiercely divided critics Stateside, and often faced hostile reaction at other festivals.

For example, a year after Campion’s “Sweetie” was trashed at Cannes, her followup film, “An Angel at My Table,” earned her Venice’s Special Jury prize in 1990. In 1995, Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days,” a film American critics largely frowned upon, faced an inverse reaction on the Lido. “They fell all over themselves about the movie,” says Hilary Clark, Fox senior VP of international publicity. “I won’t say they were unanimous, but there were many over-the-top extraordinary reviews.”

The response also gave the film a boost in Italy, where it performed sturdily at the box office, compared to the U.S., where it topped out at $8 million. Moreover, films like John Cassavettes’ “Gloria” and Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and GuildensternAre Dead” — not exactly crowd pleasers on this continent — received Venice’s Golden Lion for best film in their respective years.

U.S. films on slate

Among the American contingent of films making the trip this year are Barbara Kopple’s long-in-the-works documentary, “My Generation”; Julian Schnabel’s “Before Night Falls” and actor Ed Harris’ directorial debut, “Pollock.” All three filmmakers will be accompanying their features — all world premieres, and, given the lack of U.S. distribution at press time, all representing high stakes.

For Kopple, the journey will be the culmination of a long, uphill struggle to reach an audience since she began gathering footage on the project back in February 1994. What began as a chronicle of Woodstock’s 25th annivesary fest in Saugerties, N.Y. — a project abandoned early on by Polygram Filmed Entertainment — is now a feature that juxtaposes Woodstock ’69, ’94 and ’99.

The film was shown in a two-hour-plus rough cut at this year’s Sundance, but has been whittled down to approximately 100 minutes. “It’s quite a bit shorter,” says the two-time Oscar-winning filmmaker. “It just really moves. My philosophy is less is more. I’d rather have people at the end of the film wanting more than saying, ‘when is this thing going to end.'”

The trip to Venice will not be Kopple’s first. She took her Woody Allen documentary “Wild Man Blues” to the festival in 1998. “The audience loved it and laughed hysterically,” says Kopple, which is not surprising given Allen’s favorite-son status at Venice, which perennially unspools his latest works.

“Venice is a different kind of festival than, say, Sundance, where we’re looking at films for ourselves. Venice, on the other hand, is attended by a lot of the general public, and it means that you’re letting something go to a whole different country, and a whole different scope of filmmakers from all over the world.”

And, as Clark points out, the breadth of the international press is equal to that of Cannes, but with more of an interest in art over commerce. “Because Cannes has a market, with Troma and all those people running through the lobby screaming and wearing masks and parties on the beach every night, it’s very frantic and people are overprogrammed. But Venice has the most wonderful, casual atmosphere. The whole style of the festival lends itself to celebrating filmmaking.”

Like Kopple, Harris has attended Venice once prior: as an actor promoting “The Truman Show.” This time he’ll put himself on the line as an actor-director with “Pollock,” which joins Kopple’s “My Generation” in the fest’s Cinema of the Present sidebar. In it, Harris plays pioneering abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock, a project that’s been on Harris’ mind since his father sent him a book on Pollock in 1986. “I didn’t even know who he was at that point,” says Harris. “The fact that he changed the direction of modern art and that he was a bit of a revolutionary was compelling to me. I found it curious that this guy fought personally for a way of expressing himself that was ultimately nonderivative of any art being made at the time.”

The script was distilled by Barbara Turner and Susan J. Emshwiller from the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “Jackson Pollack: An American Saga,” written by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. Harris, who began painting over the last decade in preparation for the movie, calls the work “a very personal thing” and “a very subjective” view of the painter’s life. “I think it’s really hard to get inside an artist’s head, per se, but I do think you get a feeling of what it was like for him to be the person he was and the struggles he faced, not only with his art, but just getting up in the morning.”

Painter-filmmaker

Equally personal was “Before Night Falls,” the second feature by real-life painter-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel. Kopple says she introduced Schnabel to Venice fest director Alberto Barbera when he was in New York.

Schnabel’s feature debut, “Basquiat” — Schnabel’s own painter biopic about his late contemporary in the New York art scene, Jean-Michel Basquiat — played at Venice in 1996. “Falls,” about the late Cuban novelist and poet Reinaldo Arenas, traces the writer’s life from rural poverty to getting swept up in Cuba’s Communist revolution to his literary fame and eventual censorship, imprisonment and exile.

“He joined the rebels and was educated by the rebels, so he was going to be this kind of ‘Big Red Hope,’ ” says Schnabel of Arenas, who was persecuted not only for his burgeoning counter-revolutionary views, but his homosexuality.

“This is something I’ve been working on…probably since the first time I saw Reinaldo in a documentary in 1992,” he says. “I felt compelled to say something about Reinaldo’s story. I see filmmaking and painting as different tools to get at the same philosophy — it’s just an attitude towards life.”

Although “Falls” goes to Venice without U.S. distribution, Schnabel did manage to secure an Italian distributor, Keyfilms. “I thought it would be important to have an Italian distributor when we’re in Venice,” says Schnabel.

Distrib offers

Schnabel has gotten at least a couple of offers, as have Kopple and Harris. And as the films will also be making appearances at fests in New York and the business-intensive Toronto, the filmmakers are less preoccupied with making deals than soaking up Venice’s particular brand of La Dolce Cinema.

Kopple is simply glad to see some light at the end of a long tunnel. “I’m going to Venice because the film will be finished and to just really get a sense of an audience,” she says. “So I’m not really going to Venice to look for a distributor; I’m going because Alberto loved it so much and said, ‘Please come’ and that’s what I’m working towards.”

Adds Schnabel: “I spent a lot of time sort of wandering around in Italy when I was in my early 20s. Later, when I showed ‘Basquiat’ in Venice, with 2,000 people watching, it was very satisfying. So I think I’ll enjoy showing this movie, this year, even more.”

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