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The party of the week and honors to von Sydow in San Sebastian

Nursing a bit of a "resaca" (aka "jengober", or just plain hangover) ... after the JAMAN reception yesterday at the Hotel Londres, which has leapt to the fore as a hot contender for the unofficial "BDPW" Concha, or "Best Damn Party of the Week Award. The thing that characterized this reception -- which started at eight and went on until well after midnight -- was, understated class and a quality mix of people, exquisite "amuse-gueules" (bitey snacks or 'pintxos'), and an endless supply of tasty but 'Sneaky-Pete-ish' cocteles de cava (champagne cocktails) -- all of which added up to the kind of evening where time stands still as the conversation and conviviality in the room sparkles and glows.

JAMAN is a northern California-based organization dedicated to the fomentation, distribution and sales of non-mainstream World Cinema over the internet. Says Carlos Montalvo, Sr.VP of JAMAN Operations, who addressed the gathering in both English and Spanish, "We are here in San Sebastian for the purpose of actively acquiring Spanish-language films, however, we are not solely focused on Spanish Cinema. We are focused on World Cinema where Spanish and Latin American Films will be an important part of our library, along with Asian, South Asian and US independent films. We are in the process of building what we expect to become the premiere online community for the distribution of World Cinema. But take note that the high visibility and large acquisition team we are fielding here in San Sebastian indicates
how critical Spanish-language films will be to our strategy. Jaman represents one of the best hopes for the break out of Spanish-language films into the world's largest broadband market".

Considering that the Hispanic population is the fastest growing ethnic sector in the United States and that sizeable Spanish speaking communities have now sprouted from coast to coast (notably New York, Miami, and California), this is clearly a smart business operation not to mention that it opens a wide window of opportunity for Spanish language filmmakers to have their pictures seen far beyond the limits of their native territories. JAMAN is headed up by Silicon Valley based entrepreneur, Gaurav Dhillon former CEO and Founder of Informatica, NASDAQ: INFA

One interesting presence at this reception was Los Angeles based Joel Coler, the director of USA Press for the Festival. Coler, a most congenial white-haired gentleman with long years of Hollywood experience in the field of overseas film marketing for FOX, has been doing the stateside PR for this festival for the past eight years and is, consequently, a well known personality about Donostia town. I might mention, incidentally, that Señor Coler bears such a striking resemblance to actor Ben Gazzara that he occasionally has to ward off would be autograph hounds. Another thespian look-alike was a sharp-looking raven-haired young lady with a classic page-boy haircut, whom I mistook for the marvellous actress Hope Davis (of "American Splendour"). This well turned out damsel turned out to be not an actress at all, but Danielle Farrar, the captivating Marketing Manager of the JARMAN team. All in all, it was quite a remarkable evening, the kind that makes you say to yourself, "forget about the movies tonight -- I'm having too good of a time right here!" Let's hope that JAMAN will become a standard fixture at this festival in the future. They obviously know how to throw the kind of parties that make friends and influence people.

Above all this Monday was Max von Sydow Day in Donostia. The telecast of him receiving his lifetime award was watched by a reported 638,000 televiewers.
The tall dignified Swedish actor first came to the attention of art house movie fans in America in the late fifties as the protagonist of a whole array of Ingmar Bergman films which suddenly put Sweden on every serious film goer's map. He made an indelible impression in "The Seventh Seal" (1957) in which, as a medieval knight, he duelled for his life with The Angel of Death over a chessboard throughout the film. Next was "The Virgin Spring" where Max became a relentless Angel of Death himself, corralling the two sickening slobs who had raped and murdered his teenage daughter in a stable, then dealing out merciless revenge to them with a viciously bare bodkin. I know one Korean director, Kim Soo-young, who always says that this was the film which inspired him to take up the profession.

All through the sixties, when one Bergman film after another was drawing a new young audience to art theatres and campus film clubs around the country, Von Sydow became a familiar face in foreign film buff circles but was still unknown to the mainstream public. His work in the movies of Ingmar Bergman built up an international reputation and he started to get offers from outside of Sweden. His career abroad began with The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and Hawaii (1966). The former, “The Greatest Story …” although directed by a great director, George Stevens, and featuring half the working stars of Tinseltown (from Charlton Heston as John the Baptist to Telly Sevalas as Pontius Pilate), was not exactly the greatest picture ever made in Hollywood. It was, of course, the ultimate “biopic”, the life of Jesus, but it is probably best remembered by anybody who actually saw it, for the final crucifixion scene where John Wayne, impersonating a Roman centurion at the foot of the cross, looks up as Von Sydow breathes His Last,
and, in his best cowboy drawl delivers the immortal line, “This here man was truly the son of God.”

Nor was “Hawaii” based on the sprawling James Michener novel any less forgettable. However, in the lead opposite Julie Andrews and surrounded by actors such as Gene Hackman and Richard Harris, Von Sydow was beginning to get widely known by the high class company he was keeping, if nothing else.
The real breakthrough for Max, to what might be called general recognizability, came with his role as THE exorcist in "The Exorcist", the Friedkin film which became a blockbuster hit around the world in 1973. With
this came a major change of direction in von Sydow's career. Since then, his resumé has included a wide range of occasionally weird characters, like Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon (1980), a James Bond villain in “Never Say Never Again” (1983), and the artist Frederick, in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986).

Where he was usually the hero or main actor in his Swedish films, he had now become a character actor in international flicks and Hollywood productions, often a villain, but always in demand to play haughty foreigners of one kind or another in lesser roles. The smaller Hollywood roles undoubtedly brought much more moola to his bank account than the leading Swedish ones, so Max became quite a busy character actor on the international scene, sometimes accepting parts in dumb pictures that were little more than
caricatures. Nevertheless he still had some big ones up his sleeve, and his inherent class manifested itself when he finally obtained an Oscar
nomination for his role as the father in Billie August's "Pelle the Conqueror", 1987, which also picked up an Oscar for best foreign language film. What is significant here is that Max was nominated for a Best Actor prize while performing in a foreign language –not English!

Two brief quotes I came across on IMDB just about sum it up on this truly exceptional screen actor.

(1) Whenever I see a film starring Max Von Sydow, I can expect the very best in quality acting from him, regardless of whether the film itself is lousy or not".

(2) "Sydow isn't all that well known internationally, although he's appeared in a number of high profile Hollywood films such as 'The Exorcist' and 'Three Days of the Condor'. But he really shines in his native Scandinavian homeland especially under inspiring directors such as Bergman & Billie August. The great thing about Sydow is his depth and ability to play any character a director requires of him".

Here in Donostia Mr. Von Sydow has been subjected to a gruelling round of interviews –television, radio, papers, mags -- everybody, it seems, wants a piece of him, such that many one-on-ones or small groups have been limited to eight minutes each. Since the actor speaks slowly and tends to reflect carefully on each question put to him, this has left some journalists, particularly those working through an interpreter, a bit frustrated as they glance nervously at their watches, watching their time run out. What comes across is the rock solid dignity and aristocratic politeness. The actor says he started out in theatre and took up acting to overcome painful personal shyness. Ingmar Bergman, who was at first much more involved in
theatre than in film, first discovered Max there and then put him in the series of films which made both of them famous in one of those long term actor-director collaborations that makes one think of John Ford and John Wayne, or Kurosawa and Mifune. Because of his imposing physical appearance and timeless demeanor, even when he was still a young actor he was always playing characters considerably older than his actual age. The hardest part of the job for him these days, says the extremely versatile thespian, is to avoid being type cast. “They all want me to play priests, judges, generals, or other authority figures”, says Max with a rare, slightly wry, grin. Around this man there is no way not to feel that you are in the presence of a much higher authority – if not quite the son of God.

In the ongoing Lubitsch retrospective the gem of the day was “The Love Parade”, 1929, an early talking musical starring Jeanette MacDonald and a very young Maurice Chevalier. This was followed by “Montecarlo”, 1930, in which MacDonald sings “Beyond the Blue Horizon”, one of the biggest hits of that pre-war decade and a standard that is still heard today. This also has the typically Lubitschian humor, notably the casino scene where Jack Buchanan explains his winning betting technique. “If I’m sitting next to a brunette, I bet red -- If I’m next to a redhead, I bet black… “So, asks his companion, “Whaddya do if you’re sitting next to a blonde?” –“Well, I just ask her where she lives”.

A parallel retrospective running is devoted to the films of still active French director Barbet Schroeder, 16 features and a handful of early shorts from 1971. On view yesterday was “Reversal of Fortune”, 1990, with Jeremy Irons in one of his best roles as Dr. Claus von Bülow, a cold-blooded aristocratic physician who hires high-powered lawyer Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver) to defend him when he is accused of having induced his wife’s fatal coma through an overdose of insulin -- and it’s almost damn certain that this bastard is guilty as charged. Based on a real case, this is the kind of material which both Schroeder and Irons revel in. A kind of black comedy minus the chuckles.

Tomorrow will see the arrival of originally Polish, but now completely international director Agnieszka Holland, with her latest opus, “Copying Beethoven”. While she is perhaps best known for “Europa-Europa”, 1990, in which a Jewish boy with a tell-tale circumcision finds himself in the Hitler Youth, her American studio features include “The Secret Garden”, “Washington Square” and the inexplicably, and vastly underrated minor masterpiece “Total Eclipse”, 1995, in which a pre-Titanic Leonard Di Caprio, a mere twenty at the time of shooting, plays the homosexual French poet-maudit, Arthur Rimbaud, so convincingly (in English, yet) that I still think it’s the best thing he’s ever done – (or ever will do…) -- towering several stories above his recent Aviator and other more acclaimed performances. In the current
film Ed Harris incarns Ludwig van, while beauteous German actress Diane Kruger, who debuted in “Troy” as ‘Helen of’ just two years back, plays the chick Beethoven signs up to work with him as his copyist during his waning years – whence the title of the flick. I have always appreciated Holland’s
work from way back when she was working with Wajda in Poland (she wrote the screenplays for “Korcak” and “Danton” as well as Kieslowski’s “Three Colors, White”) and feel that she is incapable of making a bad film – however, after suffering through Ed Harris’s “Jackson Pollock” and the painful bit he did
opposite Streep in the abominable “The Hours”, I am approaching his Beethoven with a certain trepidation. But if Agnieszka handles Ed with the same deftness she did Leonardo, a truly memorable Beethoven may emerge.
Actually, to tell the truth, I’m rooting for Ed. We’ll know tomorrow.

Alex Deleon, Donostia-San Sebastian

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