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Filmmaker Joan Kron, 89, Is The Freshest Face At BIFF

By Dan Shaw

It’s befitting that the octogenarian producer and director of the plastic-surgery documentary “Take My Nose . . . Please!” doesn’t look her age. “Do you think I’d have gotten funding for this film and be taken seriously on the film festival circuit if I looked like a hag?” says Joan Kron, 89, who got her first facelift when she was in her sixties and wrote about plastic surgery for Allure magazine for 25 years. The indomitable and irrepressible Kron will be leading panel discussions about her debut film after its pair of Berkshire International Film Festival screenings on June 3 in Great Barrington at 9:15 a.m. and in Pittsfield at 1:45 p.m.

The film’s title is a takeoff on the Borscht Belt comic Henny Youngman’s most famous line — “Take my wife . . . please” — which makes perfect sense. “The only people who are honest about plastic surgery are comediennes,” says Kron, whose film chronicles the impact of forthright stars like Fanny Brice, Phyllis Diller, Totie Fields and Joan Rivers. “I thought I was going to make a documentary only from movie and TV clips but that’s very expensive,” says Kron, whose film is studded with clips from those funny ladies as well as other cosmetic surgery advocates like Cher, Jane Fonda and Roseanne Barr. “But what I learned is that a documentary has to have a narrative.”

So Kron, who’s been a story-telling journalist for more than 40 years, went looking for a few good women who’d be willing to let her camera crew trail them as they visited doctors’ offices and discussed their dreams and fears of correcting self-diagnosed facial flaws that undermine their self-esteem. “It’s a philosophical dilemma to alter your appearance just because you can,” says improv performer Emily Askin of Pittsburgh who Kron brings to New York for a consultation with a world-renowned surgeon.

The breakout star of the film is the 55-year-old Broadway character actress Jackie Hoffman [right] who is, coincidentally, the breakout star of the FX series Feud: Bette and Joan in which she plays the Teutonic factotum Mamacita to Jessica Lange’s Joan Crawford. Kron pursued Hoffman after reading a Wall Street Journal article in which Hoffman said the “biggest regret of her life” was not having the nose job her mother offered when she was sixteen. And then Kron discovered that Hoffman had written a song called “Pulled, Tucked and Lifted” that she performs in her nightclub act. “I almost died when I heard it!” says Kron. “It was karma. Jackie was meant to be in my film.”

Like the comediennes in her film, Kron knows that timing is everything. Her unparalleled career reflects the zeitgeist of the past seven decades. After graduating from the Yale School of Drama, she made costumes for Howdy Doody, one of television’s first hit shows in the 1950s. As a restless wife of a Philadelphia physician in the 1960s, she organized groundbreaking Pop Art exhibits for Arts Council of the YM/YWHA of Philadelphia and collaborated on limited edition merchandise with Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Indiana. In the 1970s, she wrote for New York magazine, bringing a sassy New Journalism approach to design writing and then became the lead reporter for the launch of The New York Times “Home” section. Her resume also includes stints as a fashion reporter for The Wall Street Journal, editing Avenue magazine during the heyday of “nouvelle society,” her decades as a contributing editor at Allure, and several books.

The pivot to filmmaking included auditing a class on documentaries at the School for Visual Arts where the lecturers included D.A. Pennebaker and a class on Final Cut Pro, so she’d understand the nuts and bolts of movie making. Kron set up an editing station at her home office in Manhattan where she sat side by side with the film’s Emmy- and Peabody-winning editor Nancy Novack.

More challenging than directing the film was producing it. “I raised every penny myself,” says Kron. The money to finish the picture came from selling the URL facelift.com, which she’d owned for many years, for a “substantial” sum. “It was a miracle,” she says.

Now, Kron is busy on the festival circuit. She debuted “Take My Nose . . . Please!” at the Miami International Film Festival in March, where she won the Knight Documentary Achievement Award that came with a $10,000 prize. She’s recently been to festivals in Newport Beach and San Luis Obispo, and after BIFF she’s heading to another in San Francisco. While Kron exploits her octogenarian status for publicity purposes, she abhors the notion that her film might be graded on a curve. “Don’t be so surprised that somebody my age can make a movie,” she says.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 05/30/17 at 09:36 AM • Permalink

The 12th Annual BIFF Reveals Karen Allen’s Filmmaking Chops

By CB Wismar

The 12th Annual Berkshire International Film Festival – affectionately known as “BIFF” opens with its much-anticipated gala on Thursday, June 1 in Great Barrington. The schedule of films, as always, is eclectic.

Fresh features that capture the essence of independent film making on a global scale (“In Between” from Israel, “The Hero” starring Sam Elliot from the US, “Lost in Paris” and “The Stopover” from France) are balanced with documentaries that explore everything from plastic surgery (“Take My Nose… Please!”) to music healing a shattered Haiti (“Serenade for Haiti”) to an insightful profile of a dance school in Baltimore that promises the young women who attend the opportunity to attend college (“Step!”).

And in the center of this maelstrom of movie making is the founder and CEO of BIFF, Kelley Vickery, whose ambitious love affair with the arts came into focus when, living in the Berkshires, she realized that film was the underserved and under-presented art in the area. Dance, music, theater and fine art all had their elevated place in the region. How about film? 

An early supporter of the festival was widely acclaimed actor and director (and BIFF board member) Karen Allen, whose string of theatrical film credits include starring roles in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Starman,” “Scrooged” and her return to the Indiana Jones franchise, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” A consummate actor and theatrical director, this year’s Festival will introduce her in a new role, film writer and director. 

A Tree. A Rock A Cloud. by Carson McCullers has always intrigued me,” Allen says. “For some reason, I could envision it as a film from the very first time I read it… a film about relationships and the passing of experience across generations – the giving of wisdom.”

Allen is quite candid about the challenges of moving from stage direction – she has taught at Bard College at Simon’s Rock and directed, locally, at the Berkshire Theatre Festival as well as several highly regarded productions Off-Broadway.

“Being an actor means that you dive within the character… you get to explore and develop how one person fits into the greater story,” Allen reflects. “Becoming a filmmaker – a director with responsibility for the entire story, all of the characters, all of the production elements, is quite a different challenge.”

The challenge has been well met. “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.” recently won Best International Film designation at the UK’s Manchester Film Festival. Appearances at festivals in Dallas and Houstonm, and a May screening at the Short Film Corner at the Festival de Cannes in France, will presage the film’s screening in Great Barrington. “We’re honored that the Carson McCullers Foundation has been so involved in the film,” says Allen. “This is the centenary of McCullers’ birth, so the film is a fitting moment of recognition.”

A lively addition BIFF this year will be celebrity conversations offered at the newly opened Saint James Place, just steps away from the Mahaiwe and Triplex theater screens where most of the action happens. The Beacon Cinema in Pittsfield will also screen films.

The Saint James Place program — entitled “Tea Talks” after its sponsorship by Harney & Sons Teas — will bring filmmakers and others face-to-face with their audience for lively commentary and discussion. Karen Allen will be talking about her film, and New York Times columnist (and economist) Paul Krugman will take part in a discussion on “All the President’s Men.”

One annual highlight of BIFF is the selection of its honored guest, and the opportunity to see and hear from one of the cinematic greats. Celebrated Academy Award-winning actor Christopher Plummer will be honored at this year’s Festival with a screening of his latest film, “The Exception.” On June 3, he will appear on the Mahaiwe stage in conversation with David Edelstein, chief film critic for New York, as well as film critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air” and “CBS Sunday Morning.”

The complete roster of films, their screening times and locations is available on the festival website.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 05/11/17 at 10:00 PM • Permalink

You Can’t Look Away From Tony Stone’s “Peter and the Farm”

By Jamie Larson

With elegant sweeping landscapes, scenes of animal processing and a lonely man battling his isolation and madness, Hudson-based filmmaker Tony Stone’s latest movie, “Peter and the Farm” is the naked examination of solitary, 70-year-old, organic farmer Peter Dunning. Though shot in Vermont, Stone (the co-founder of the Basilica Hudson performance and art venue with musician, wife and the film’s producer, Melissa Auf der Maur) has captured a powerful vignette with resonance here at home.

Stone will attend a screening and discussion of his acclaimed documentary hosted by the Pine Plains Memorial Hall at The Moviehouse in Millerton, New York on Jan. 22. The tightly focused documentary watches as Dunning shoulders an astonishing amount of daily labor and personal anguish. The film also bears witness to the complicated reality behind that which we’ve built a good chunk of our local cultural identity upon.

“When we started filming, Peter had been alone on the farm by himself for a year and a half because he’d also had a DWI. So he was extremely isolated,” said Stone, who initially rejected Dunning’s pitch to film his suicide, choosing instead to film his life.

“I think the predicament Peter is in is actually quite common. His family has been driven away, so there isn’t anyone to pass the family farm on to, and so you’re carrying the weight all by yourself with your aging body and your aging equipment. That’s kind of the only type of sustainability missing from Peter’s farm because there’s nobody to hand this thing off to.”

“We’re so entrenched in monoculture now, there is less room for a diverse farm like Peter’s that supports its own ecosystem,” said Stone, adding that while the impact of industrial farming is not an explicit theme of the movie, its presence hangs quietly overhead. “There’s income versus living, and Peter says he’s interested in making a living.”

Tony Stone and the Hudson Waterfront view in front of Basilica Hudson.

Stone spent a year visiting Dunning at his farm in Brattleboro with Auf der Maur and a small crew. He’s known Dunning from the farmers market since he was a kid growing up there, but had never visited the decaying farm itself before coming with his camera. The story of the farmer’s life quickly poured out before him. Stone doesn’t shy away from strong imagery in any of his work, and the inclusion of shots of butchering animals or a dead coyote swinging from a barn window might be difficult viewing for some. But for Dunning, it’s just the un-gratuitous activity of daily life. But one could use the word gratuitous for the amount the old man drinks.

“I’ve never seen such a high-functioning alcoholic, but even with his alcoholism he’s extremely active for 70,” said Stone. “The only thing he imports to the farm is basically alcohol and fuel. You see him just working away every day. That’s the Sisyphean thing about being a farmer.”

For all the bleakness, what captivates throughout the film is Dunning’s animated storytelling, engrossing personality and performative flair. Emotional and dramatic, he holds court while moving through his endless routine of chores.

“You watch Peter and he’s this unique character but his struggle is truly universal. As people will see when they watch the movie, he’s also such a performer. He was used to talking to the animals for many years. Suddenly he had this outburst and a need to just download all this stuff to us. He really invited us in.”

For Dunning, every action he takes throughout the day has a story. He would, in his own way, direct his story, telling Stone not to ask him about something until the right time. “The story arises from the event,” he said.

“There’s a natural arc that happens in the film. The confrontation happens at the right moment. It was like, ‘did Peter sort of write this whole narrative before we got there?’ But it is an amazing way to exist. He’s living on the clock of nature, living in the seasons.”

Shooting over the course of the year, Stone wanted to capture the seasonality of Dunning’s existence. In so doing he also captured the flowing visual beauty of a rural farm. Stone skillfully shoots the vibrant colors of summer through to the cold contrasts of winter. In other hands, the inherent pastoral elegance of the farm might serve as contrast or a foil to Dunning’s internal darkness. Stone shows that the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

“We’re trying to place you there as much as possible. We never approached it with a pre-driven narrative about what we wanted the film to be. We just went forward and absorbed the land, the way Peter is, capture what he sees and feels and his attachment to it. A hilltop farm is incredibly beautiful but it’s also extremely difficult to manage and run.”

Stone says he likes screening the film in rural communities like Millerton and is especially gratified when farmers or the people close to them tell him he’s captured something about the way of life that is usually hidden. It’s a reminder that as we enjoy supporting farmers by patronizing their stands and eating “farm to table,” we aren’t always supporting them as members of our community. But as much as the film is about a single man or about farming, it also rumbles a low tune about the human condition and our own personal, subterranean loneliness.

Part of the film’s success is that Stone doesn’t feel a need to pull a moral out of the mud. But there is true beauty in the telling and filmcraft for sure. If you can’t make it to Millerton for the screening, “Peter and the Farm” is available for download online.

Screening of “Peter and the Farm”
Sunday, Jan. 22 at 11 a.m.
The Moviehouse
48 Main St., Millerton, NY
Free.

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Posted by Jamie Larson on 01/16/17 at 01:22 PM • Permalink

The View From BIFF 2016: World Facing And Local Focus

A Year By The Sea

By Jeremy D. Goodwin

One of the most delicious preludes to summer’s high season around here is the Berkshire International Film Festival, which reliably fills downtown Great Barrington (and a busy bubble around Pittsfield’s Beacon Cinema) with happily dazed festival warriors, walking around town in search of somewhere to duck in for a meal between screenings or buzzing about one of the evening events that give us all a chance to break out those white party clothes for a dose of late-spring glam.

This year’s edition includes 26 narrative features, an equal number of documentary features and 17 short films. As usual, the selections come from all over the world— from 26 countries, but who’s counting?—but there’s also plenty of particular concern to the Rural Intelligence region. Things get rolling on June 2 at Great Barrington’s Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, with the doc “Music of Strangers: Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble,” with the Berkshires’ (and world’s) favorite cellist on hand for a Q & A afterward.

Festival fave Karen Allen is at the center of what is likely to be a crowd-pleaser this year—“A Year By the Sea,” based on Joan Anderson’s much-loved memoir of the same name. Allen plays the author, who responded to her husband’s upcoming transfer to Wichita, Kansas by renting a house on Cape Cod and venturing on a journey of self-discovery that has proven inspirational to untold readers.

When the opportunity came along, the role was a very pleasant surprise.

“I’m 64, and I have to say, around the time I came into my early to mid-50s, the quality of the roles that are written for women falls off. You get to play the annoying mother,” she says. “I come from a wonderful generation of actresses, and there’s not that much for us to do. I could reel off 25 names of actresses who I think are just brilliant, and we never see them in films,” she says.

As the bold, questing protagonist, Allen has some real meat to dig into here, she says — and it helps, too, that the story is so inspirational.

“It’s about the classic questions,” director/screenwriter Alexander Janko says. “Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I go from here? I think we live in a culture now where it’s harder and harder to take the time to ponder those questions and seek those answers.”

Forgotten Farms

Farms and food are on our minds a lot in the RI region, of course, and “Forgotten Farms” (June 4 at Triplex Cinema) takes a close look at a sometimes-overlooked part of the local food scene.

New England’s dairy farmers are an integral piece of the region’s agricultural infrastructure, but the amount of farmland devoted to that pursuit has plummeted, while much of the attention and energy surrounding the local food movement has centered on startup farms that keep our farmers’ markets stocked with kale and heirloom tomatoes.

“Dairy farms get very little attention, especially compared to the sort of boutique farms that are getting an overwhelming amount of attention in the press,” says producer Sarah Gardner, who is the associate director of Williams College’s Center for Environmental Studies. “Yet those farms produce a relatively small proportion of the food that we consume, while the traditional dairy farms produce almost all of the milk that’s consumed in New England.”

Other festival highlights include a tribute to actor Bruce Dern on June 4, a closing-night screening of the biographical doc “De Palma” (directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, who will be around for a Q & A) on June 5, and “How To Let Go Of The World And Love All The Things Climate Can’t Change” also on June 5, directed by Josh Fox and featuring a panel discussion with Fox, author Benjamin Barber, and anti-fracking activist Rosemary Wessel.

But as always, the BIFF has much too much going on to summarize it quickly. Your best bet is to examine the website, or pick up a copy of the festival program and browse with a Sharpie behind your ear to circle your top choices. You’ll need a fresh marker.

Berkshire International Film Festival 2016
June 2-5
Great Barrington and Pittsfield, MA
(413) 528-8030

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Posted by Lisa Green on 05/23/16 at 03:51 PM • Permalink

Something Old And A Whole Lot New At Wind-Up Fest

By Amy Krzanik

Some people find it difficult to cultivate the suspension of disbelief needed to enjoy most big-budget films. Luckily, the recent and explosive popularity of memoirs, reality TV shows and documentary films has filled in the entertainment gap. Their popularity can be attributed, in part, to the ease in which viewers can see themselves in the subjects: most people don’t look like leading men or own million-dollar mansions, and neither do the subjects of documentaries. Instead, we know these people, we are these people, and perhaps someday we’ll also get the chance to tell our story. After all, the truth is stranger than fiction, and a lot of it is funnier, braver and more engaging, too.

The brains behind the Wind-Up Fest (formerly known as The Williamstown Film Festival) have already figured this out. In its 17th year, the WFF—which runs from Thursday, October 15 to Sunday, October 18—has donned a new name and been re-imagined as a celebration of all things nonfiction. Following the retirement of the festival’s founding artistic director Steve Lawson earlier this year, the organization tapped Paul Sturtz, the director of Columbia, Missouri’s True/False Film Fest, to be its new creative director.

Why a purely non-fiction festival? Sturtz explains, “What we learned at True/False was that documentaries in general are much more approachable; there are less layers of pretension when you’re not dealing with the apparatus of Hollywood. My philosophy around film festivals is that it’s a lot more satisfying when you have great films and interesting people who you want to spend time with, rather than focusing a lot of energy and resources on getting ‘stars.’” Having big names at an event can create a distance between the viewers and a film’s directors and stars. Instead, Sturtz was looking for a more “up close and personal, intimate experience” for Wind-Up.

That’s why, along with managing director Sandra Thomas, Sturtz designed the four-day event to be even more interactive than in years past, adding more talkbacks with actors and directors, performance pieces, after-parties featuring live bands, and something he calls “show and tell.”

Instead of simply watching a film quietly in the dark, which anyone can do at home, guests are invited to attend a variety show of sorts, like the one on Friday afternoon at MASS MoCA. Hosted by humorist David Rees, known for his National Geographic show “Going Deep with David Rees” and the comic strip Get Your War On, the event also will include archivist Rich Remsberg who will bring his “History Jukebox,” an interactive game show; photographer Brenda Ann Kenneally who will reveal “The Boys of Troy” (NY); and musicologist David Rothenberg who will play new songs of the humpback whale. You’ll get all of this, plus three short films, at one event. Talk about bang for your buck.

Another “show and tell” occurs on Saturday at the ’62 Center at Williams College in the form of RADIO 1-2-3, when Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass recreate their 3 Acts, 2 Dancers & 1 (Missing) Radio Host performance which opened this year’s Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. Barnes and Bass will appear live and Ira Glass will be there in spirit (or, in the form in which he usually appears, as a recorded voice). This American Life’s Scott Carrier will give a guided tour of his unlikely radio career. And Nick van der Kolk will premiere the October episode of his popular podcast Love + Radio.

The inclusion of radio shows and a podcast in the festival showcases the resurgence in popularity of this new/old art form, and Sturtz doesn’t think it’s just a fad. “Radio has an ability to fit into people’s lives more easily than other mediums, and podcasts fit into people’s everyday lives in a beautiful way,” he says. “Everyone thought radio was dead 10 years ago; who would have guessed this would have happened?”

One thing that will return to the festival this year is its annual benefit dinner, which will be held on Friday evening at Gramercy Bistro on the MASS MoCA campus and be followed by a screening of Very Semi-Serious. The film is a behind-the-scenes look at the New Yorker, its iconic cartoons and the process by which both well-known illustrators like Roz Chast and yet-to-be-published hopefuls prepare their work to be viewed by the magazine’s cartoon editor Bob Mankoff. A “show and tell” with longtime New Yorker cartoonist Bruce Eric Kaplan (known to the magazine’s fans as BEK) and Liana Finck will follow the screening.

On Sunday, after a Bloody Mary brunch (you heard that right—full schedule here), a talk by cinematographer and director Kirsten Johnson (CitizenFour, This Film is Not Yet Rated, Pray the Devil Back to Hell) will touch on a subject that all Wind-Up participants have pondered at some point in their careers. At Williams College’s Goodrich Hall, Johnson will share the ethical struggles that come with filming the lives of others, bringing the spirit of the festival and its events full circle.

Wind-Up Fest
Thursday, October 15—Sunday, October 18
Williamstown and North Adams, Mass.

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Posted by Amy Krzanik on 09/28/15 at 12:23 PM • Permalink