She sucks lollipops through much of the festival in an attempt to quit smoking, but I am sure it is partly the pressure of being presented with a Career Achievement Award by her Loggerheads director Tim Kirkman (currently working on a film about the Wright Brothers) that has her lighting up again and again during the run of the festival. Tim Kirkman describes Tess as "real" at the AFF's award ceremony. It's true. Tess is vivacious, warm, approachable, a true Southern girl from Mammoth Spring, Ark., without a pretentious bone in her body. She is as real in person as she is in perhaps her most beloved screen role in the sublime, heartbreaking Bruce Beresford 1983 drama Tender Mercies. Seeing Tess Harper again in in that film, I am struck by how much she resembles one of the earthy Italian neorealist actresses like Anna Magnani filtered through a distinctly American, Christian, Texas sensibility.
I attend the AFF as a judge in the documentary category where my fellow judge, Johnson City Press critic Sam Watson and I agree unequivocally that the astoundingly beautiful and moving doc about Ugandan children brutally affected by that country's war compete in a national dance competition. The film's distributor, Think Films, is hoping the film garners a doc nomination at this year's Academy Awards, and I can't think of a better film to receive that honor. Here's my capsule review for War/Dance, which played during this yearâs Atlanta Film Festival.
The film will open in Atlanta at the Landmark Midtown Landmark Art Cinema Jan. 25. Sam and my choice for runner-up documentary is equally powerful: a story of the Korean girls and women stolen from their families and forced into prostitution as comfort women for Japanese soldiers during World War II. Most amazing is the way Behind Forgotten Eyes mixes animation and interviews to tell its story. The filmmaker Anthony Gilmore's decision to interview not just the Korean women but the Japanese soldiers who were in their own way degraded and guilt-plagued for their involvement in hurting these women shows the depth and complexity of Gilmore's approach.
Some of my fellow judges for the AFF are Harry Anderson, of "Night Court" fame, who now lives in Asheville, as well as '70s heartthrob Robby Benson (Ice Castles, Ode to Billy Joel). I talk briefly with Benson, whose blue eyes still burn with that singular intensity though he now has the demeanor of a cool college professor with his beard and tweed jacket. I have to suppress the urge to scream "you were an icon of my adolescence!" when we meet. I manage to hold it together.
In addition to acting and directing, Robby teaches at New York University and has written a satirical novel, Who Stole the Funny? about the assorted vulgarities and indignities of L.A.'s entertainment industry. I realize over the course of the festival that the people who live there are crazy for Asheville, unlike so many Atlantans who often complain bitterly about the city. (Though fewer seem to do that now than in the past.) There are a lot of reasons why: They have an amazing art house, the Fine Arts Theatre, whose owner Neal Reed tells me he ran the semiporno John Cameron Mitchell film Shortbus for two months, an unfathomable proposition in Atlanta where small art houses such as the Plaza Theatre are just trying to survive. I envy a town with that kind of Ã¼berreceptive, adventurous audience. Atlanta has a great film scene; we just have to drive so far to get to it, and it lacks the cohesion a small town can have.
People are very regular and personable, maybe because Asheville is such a laid-back, outdoorsy town, like Santa Cruz with mountains. There seem to be a lot of Californians here, transplants from the "industry" who understandably choose to make their home base in a place without a Versace boutique or life dominated by make-believe stories and make-believe breasts. I attend a fascinating panel with Robby Benson and another Asheville resident, sex, lies and videotape actress Andie MacDowell, where they dish about the business and tell fascinating anecdotes about the trials and tribulations of being actors, and directors like the one who worked with MacDowell and played psychological games during a rape scene.
If there is a theme for me of the weekend, it is the incredible difficulty of being an actress in a very strange industry. There are too many occasions for others to pillory your self-esteem, and then there is the very recognizable female phenomenon of pillorying yourself onscreen.
Within minutes of meeting Tess Harper, she's telling me of how self-conscious she still feels about her body watching Tender Mercies. With those unforgettable ice-blue eyes and alabaster skin, I don't know why she worries so.
Fake Wood Wallpaper filmmakers I profiled back in 2003. Alex is the one in the ski mask. Orr remains an unrepentant cinephile: one of what can often feel like a very small group of young filmmakers in Atlanta with an expansive, deep knowledge of both contemporary film and film history. And his film, Blood Car, a runner-up in the feature film category, certainly shows his nimble hand with genre and decidedly original, unhinged sense of humor. One of the festival's judges, the creator of the Child's Play franchise Don Mancini, raved about Blood Car and made me proud to live in a city with such inventive, sharp filmmakers.