25th time's the charm: An exuberant eye for the Film Festival

The 25th annual Virginia Film Festival will take place November 1-4.  I have been blessed to watch it from the beginning.

On October 27th, 1988, The Virginia Festival of American Film opened in Charlottesville.  It was a wonderful birthday present for this native film buff which promised classic films, recent rarities, and premieres. Not only that, but attendees could also interact with actors, directors, producers, screenwriters, documentarians, etc.

Loving film and film lore, I attended a documentary, George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey and stayed afterwards for a Q&A with the film’s director, George Stevens Jr., who fielded questions about his father’s body of work, including the 1956 epic Giant (which featured locally filmed scenes.) 

Some viewers feel that knowing film-making secrets detracts from them. For me, it’s not like seeing how hotdogs are made; it’s about how talent, hunches, and fate combine to make works of art. I loved it and decided at the first festival that— if it continued annually— I would support it by volunteering. I felt that if it stopped due to lack of support, I would be partially to blame.

The second festival brought Jimmy Stewart and Gregory Peck to town. In my debut volunteer year, I worked shifts as an usher, driver, and member of the special events committee. On a Downtown Mall site now occupied by the Main Street Arena, Mr. Stewart and Mr. Peck were given “Keys to the City." The guests were brought to the stage from the Eastern Standard restaurant (today the site of the Whiskey Jar). I was part of the crowd control.

When Jimmy Stewart approached, I saw him shake hands with a bystander. Seeing this, my hand reflexively came up. Then my favorite star firmly grasped my hand and adjusted his bifocals to look down at me, my face froze with my mouth wide open– speechless.  I was holding the hand of George Bailey and Jefferson Smith, and went helplessly limp.

Both Stewart and Peck would appear at showings of two of their most famous films: It’s a Wonderful Life and To Kill a Mocking Bird, respectively. After the latter film, Peck was joined on stage by the reclusive former child-actress, Mary Badham, made famous by her spot-on portrayal of “Scout.”  When repeatedly hounded by professional autograph seekers holding glossy photos of her in character, the actress-turned-school teacher finally relented by taking a picture and pen pushed at her, autographing it, and then speeding off in her car.  The seeker turned and displayed the (worthless) picture. It was signed “Scout.”

Over the years, my volunteering stints covered a range of activities before and during the Festival. (It became the Virginia Film Festival in 1996).  In 1992, things changed with Roger Ebert’s legendary series of “shot-by-shot” seminars.

By working with Ebert over the next eight or so years, I became a “house manager,” then “theater manager” (during the Festivals), and crossed paths with many great talented people. It was between shifts one day that I spent time talking with Arthur Penn.

As both festival volunteer and audience member throughout 24 years, I have witnessed talks by the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Jason Robards, Ann Margret, Douglass Fairbanks Jr., Nicolas Cage, Matthew Broderick, Sigourney Weaver, Sissy Spacek, Morgan Freeman, and Robert Duvall, among others.

At a showing of the film-noir classic, Out of the Past, Robert Mitchum told the audience that he thought they were a “bunch of idiots” for attending. (The movie, he explained, was made as a “B” film and was no more than “program filler,” a low grade picture for a double bill.)

In one interview, I watched Fay Wray, the star of King Kong– so moved as she talked about getting hired by Erich von Stroheim for The Wedding March– that she burst into tears.

After introducing They Shoot Horses Don’t They? director/actor Sydney Pollock left the auditorium, and  I followed him to ask a question plaguing me since the showing of Tootsie the night before: “Why wasn’t Bill Murray, who had much more than a cameo, listed in the opening credits of Tootsie (which Pollock both directed and acted in)?" He explained that Murray’s name would have to have been so far down the list that Murray opted out of the credit altogether.

At a reception at the McGuffey Art Center, I overheard someone near me discussing her “good friend” Lillian Gish (Intolerance, Way Down East). Gish was a favorite silent actress of mine. I turned to the speaker and asked her about Ms. Gish. For the next several minutes I listened to Gish reminiscences by Eva Marie Saint (On the Waterfront, North by Northwest).

When Roger Ebert stopped appearing at the Festival, other participants were featured in similar seminars.  Writer/director Frank Pierson analyzed Cool Hand Luke, for which he wrote the screenplay. As I worked with him, I kept thinking: “This is the man who wrote ‘What we have here— is failure to communicate.’” I asked him about a scene from the movie that duplicated a scene from Scarface, the 1932 Paul Muni vehicle I had seen the day before. Both movies showed the protagonist escaping a prison work camp by carjacking a dump truck and using the truck’s bed as a bullet-proof shield. Pierson stated he didn’t write that scene— the director must have added it.

So here we go again, ready to make new memories. I enjoy sharing the love of film with the thousands of attendees. I will see friends I have made– both volunteers and audience members– and maybe make new ones.  As always, I look forward to the Virginia Film Festival. And I’ll continue to be glad to help out.
Carroll Trainum may also be spotted volunteering at the FirstNight Virginia celebration in December.  He may be seen behind the counter of BreadWorks Bakery, as well— sporting one of several Red Sox caps.

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