Mopping up: The ebb and flow of the wet Festival

Forget rain dances. Hold a wet-theme film festival in the middle of a drought, and the heavens open up.

Or maybe there was a rain dance of sorts from the UVA umbrella girls who greeted attendees at Thursday's 15th anniversary opening-night tribute to Virginia filmmaking. A clap-happy crowd in Culbreth applauded archivists, the sponsorsactually, anything that moved. Festival director Richard Herskowitz noted that since the announcement of this year's festival theme in September, reservoir levels have risen 15 percent.

By Friday, it was pouring, but the rain didn't seem to dampen the ardor of film fanatics, particularly for Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven and the first of Roger Ebert's three shot-by-shot Chinatown sessions. Ebert's informed cinematic presence is always a highlight for film lovers, and besides conducting his own workshops, this year he went on to chat with Nicolas Cage at the Saturday premiere of Sonny, Cage's first directorial effort.

Sunday the crowds thinned, but film diehards gathered to soak up one last film or two. And afterward, festival goers emerged to notice that the sun was out, and fall had burst into full foliage while they'd been spending the past four days in the dark.

Sell outs: Opening night with Jeff Wadlow and director Ron Maxwell's presentation of Gods and Generals, Ebert's shot-by-shot analysis of Chinatown, Far from Heaven, Nic Cage's Sonny, Leaving Las Vegas, The River with Sissy Spacek, two screenings of Rivers and Tides, the narrated-by-a-fish Maelstrom, and Buster Keaton's silent classic, Steamboat Bill Jr., according to the Film Festival.

Only movie in the Wet festival that features a pregnant woman's water breaking: Former local boy Jeff Wadlow, son of late state senator Emily Couric, gets credit for that in his extreme film-making effort, Manual Labor, which was shot in a week and won him $1 million from Chrysler.

Politics in his blood? Wadlow says the movie he'll make with the $1 million he got from Chrysler will cost $10 million, and he adds, "The Virginia government could use me in the budget department."

Movie we aren't going to race out to see: A 30-minute condensation of Ron Maxwell's Gods and Generals, which will be nearly 3 1/2 hours long when released, features a bloated Jeff Daniels, and the facial hair on the Stonewall Jackson character, resembling a beehive escaped from a John Waters movie, convinces us to wait until it's a TV mini-series.

Most unrecognizable actor: It takes a few minutes to realize that the guest onstage after Gods and Generals is Stephen Lang sans the Stonewall Jackson beehive beard.

Most profitable area of filmmaking: Pornography, as we learn from an NYU film grad student at the opening night gala.

Kiss-kiss: Rita Dove greets Sissy Spacek with big hugs at the gala, also attended by politicos (Rob Schilling, and Rob Bell in a tuxedo), out-of-towners, locals, and film lovers paying 75 bucks to attend the soiree.

"I've never been to a party like this where the bar didn't have any beer": Joe Cress, decked out in a Confederate overcoat, who is in Maxwell's Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, notes the absence of brewskis at the gala and is no doubt wondering how well his $75 has been spent. Fortunately, re-enactor Cress, who hails from Abingdon, carries his own flask of home brew in an inside coat pocket.

Biggest draw for the eco-crowd: The documentary Cadillac Desert, which details Los Angeles' water grab and is "the real story of Chinatown," says photographer Alexandria Searls. Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority chairman Rich Collins, Southern Environmental Law Center's Deborah Murray, and UVA environmental sciences prof Vivian Thompson moderate.

Our unfortunate cultural predilections: That "we need to urinate and defecate into pools of drinking-quality water," observes a member of the Cadillac Desert audience.

Program we had to bolt from before dozing off: Liquid Light 2, water-themed shorts with expert Scott MacDonald, one of eight experimental film programs, made it apparent why avant-garde films are a "cinematic endangered species."

Movie we regretted having to cut out of before it ended: The Finnish movie The River, about which one audience member asked beforehand, "Does this have subtitles? I don't do subtitles."

Most gorgeous cast and furniture: The Scandinavian actors and set in The River.

Where you really get your money's worth: Twenty minutes before his 4pm Chinatown session is scheduled to begin Friday, Roger Ebert is already talking film with audience members, who paid $50 for all three session, or $20 for one.

The downside to Ebert's "democracy in the dark": No detail is too banal for comment from the sold-out crowd at Chinatown. We know we're in trouble when, during its opening credits, a woman wants to discuss whether the curtain-like background is a woman's skirt and what that might mean.

Film noir hallmarks Roger Ebert misses from contemporary cinema (but not real life): Smoking– for its interesting visuals. And hats on men– for the shadows.

Movie Ebert says is the best of the year: Todd "No Show" Haynes' Far from Heaven, which screened Friday night.

Movie experience you can get only at a film festival or at the Smithsonian: A live band accompanying silent movies. This year, the Baltimore-based Annie Watts and Boister performed an original musical score to Buster Keaton's Steamboat Bill Jr.

 Who says silent, black-and-white films can't captivate today's film-history-illiterate audiences? The 74-year-old Steamboat Bill Jr. has the audience at Culbreth howling Friday night.

Pouring rain outside, a desert on the inside: Festival goers watching a sneak preview of Phillip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence, the story of three aboriginal girls who travel 1,500 miles across the dry Outback after being removed from their families by the well-meaning, racist Australian government, leave the screening really thirsty.

He's baaaaccck: The festival's worst long-winded proclaimer has audience members ready to drown him on day two of Ebert's Chinatown discussion when his comments ramble on about why studios don't make the same type of films as independents dowe think.

Charlottesville scalping scene: Ticket-holders for Saturday's sold-out world premiere of Sonny with director Nicolas Cage ask up to $50 for a pair of tickets whose face value is $15.

Cherchez la femme? Cage's bride of two months, Lisa Marie Presley, was in attendance at the first screening of her husband's first try as a director, despite the current National Enquirer cover, "Lisa Marie Divorce Blow-up."

The audience loves Cage; jury split on Sonny : David Lynch fans are impressed with Cage's depiction of a young male prostitute, but the reaction from other audience members on his directorial debut ranges from squeamish to downright shocked. Says one: "I brought my 17-year-old son and his date to see a movie with a sex scene using a [policeman's] night stick."

Best dodge: Merely saying he likes directors who "push the envelope," Roger Ebert refrains from offering an opinion on Sonny to the nervous Cage.

The Jaws report: Only one person in the bathing suit-clad audience at the Aquatic and Fitness Center screams in terror during the frightful film classic.

Movie in which Sean Penn deserves to drown: The Weight of Water by Strange Days director Kathryn Bigelow, which premiered Saturday night. Afterward, we had nightmares from sweet little Sarah Polley's performance.

What Roger Ebert says he'll do after three days of dissecting Chinatown: Go home and enjoy the movie without all the interruption.

Highlight of day three at the Ebert shot-by-shot: Watching the famous Faye Dunaway "my sister, my daughter" scene in slow motion.

Martinis for brunch, anyone? The Rutherford Institute's John Whitehead and writer Avery Chenoweth explore the theme of wet as in alcohol-imbued at the under-attended Sunday screening of The Swimmer. Burt Lancaster, looking remarkably buff for 55, wears swim trunks throughout this movie based on a John Cheever short story.

Rode hard and put up wet: After four days of attending the Virginia Film Festival, The Hook vows to cease and desist with the water-saturated metaphors.


Read more on: virginia film festival