The Festival began on Thursday August 10th with the 30th Anniversary screening of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, and by the conclusion on Saturday evening will have screened 400 films of 40 minutes or less (chosen from the 6300 films that were submitted). I’ve managed to see around three-quarters of all the films, and I can report that there are some brilliant short films being made. Films that definitely deserve your attention. Since many can be accessed by online links or will appear at future local festivals, you may indeed have a chance to see them elsewhere. I’ll be providing a complete run-down of the best films I’ve seen at the Festival early next week, so be sure to look for that.
One of the films shown in the Hollyshorts festival was A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud., adapted and directed by Karen Allen from a short story by Carson McCullers. The story is gossamer-thin, a small slice-of-life interaction between a boy and a strange man in his 60s at a village tavern at 6 in the morning. The boy has a paper-route, and he’s stepped into the coffee shop as he always does after dispensing the papers. The older man calls the boy over and tells him, “I love you.” All the people in the shop – mostly men about to go to work in the paper mill – laugh at hearing this. The man then goes on to explain himself, to give his own philosophy of love, which he came by through a great deal of suffering. There is something vaguely religious about the scene and the “love” that the man expresses, but it remains oblique and enigmatic. as Ms. McCullers certainly intended.
In this, the first film she’s directed, Karen Allen slows the pace of life down to a crawl. We are as far away from the pace of the other films in her festival block – mostly urban dramas, suffused with hip-hop music and rhythms – as it is possible to be. The film is shot in black & white with the exterior scenes suffused with dawn’s early light. (In Ms. McCullers’ story, it’s raining hard.) The Berkshires landscape is almost painfully beautiful, and Ms. Allen lingers on it as long as she can before the boy (played by newcomer Jackson Smith) enters the tavern/coffee shop. The strange man is played by Jeffrey DeMunn,in a performance of astonishing delicacy. Where this character seemed like something of a holy fool in the McCullers story, DeMunn comes across here as an almost otherworldly figure, who seems as if he comes from a different species than the hard-edged, cynical townsfolk. He is a wanderer, a lost soul who has somehow been found, who has stumbled upon the secret of living. Again, everything transpires so slowly that it almost feels like we are out of the time/space continuum, as if the older man and the boy are communicating on a higher plane than the other patrons exist within. This emphasizes the spiritual quality of their dialogue, where DeMunn seems like a guru passing on his wisdom to one of the few people who might understand him. But does the boy understand? Does the story that DeMunn’s character tells him change the boy’s outlook on life? Ms. Allen retains the story’s sense of enigma, though the film version feels larger, more spacious, more striking. It feels less like a slice-of-life than it does a religious scene painted by Caravaggio, if Caravaggio painted in black-and-white. Which is to say there is a meditative quality to it that is deeply heartfelt. Personally I’d like to see it again, because the slowed-down pacing requires some adjusting to before the surprising aspects of what transpires can be fully appreciated.
I chatted with Karen in the Chinese Theatre’s lounge area on the day after her film screened.
“I first read the Carson McCullers story when I was 22,” she said. “It just made an immediate impact on me, and this has stayed with me ever since. It feels like something that I just had to do, and I’m so glad that the opportunity finally came along to do it.”
The film has already been awarded “Best International Short” at the Manchester Film Festival, and Karen was named Best Director at the Rhode Island Film Festival. She deflects my question about any other films she might like to direct and speaks instead about the stage plays she has directed, mostly for the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York City and the Berkshire Theatre Group in Stockbridge, Mass., near where she lives. “Theater was my first love, and I keep going back to it,” she told me.
Of course, for many people around the world, Karen Allen will always be Marion Ravenwood, the feisty and independent woman in Indiana Jones’s life. She played this role in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), and there is simply no overstating the effect that her character had on boys of many ages in Raiders of the Lost Ark – a film that itself has a place in the American psyche just behind Star Wars. And no wonder – story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, directed by Steven Spielberg. These are the folks you want steering your ship.
“Well, sure, we had George Lucas and Steven Spielberg working at the top of their game,” she said. “But you have to remember that Spielberg’s last film at that point was 1941, which was a critical and financial disaster. He has never experienced failure on that scale before, and he was definitely licking his wounds. We were all aware how much he had at stake with this film. And he was prepping ET at the same time that we were shooting Raiders, so yeah, there was a lot going on.”
In addition to her role in Raiders, I’m partial to her performance in Starman (1984), in which she’s trying to help an alien played by Jeff Bridges get back to his planet. There’s a lovely innocence to the movie, and there’s so much chemistry between the two of them. Karen has continued to do movie roles over the years, often in independent films that tend to get lost somewhere in distribution. She stars in a new indie film coming out September 8th, Year by the Sea, in which she plays a woman who retreats to Cape Cod in the hope of reclaiming who she was before marriage and children.
Karen Allen will always have a place in the hearts and minds of film afficionados as the lovely girl next door who emerges more vividly as a genuine person the more you get to know her. At age 65, there is still a natural, unvarnished beauty about her, personable and soulful. And when she smiles, there is once again that girl next door, lovely but not remote, inteligent and full of mischief, who could also be your best friend.
“I’m in a period of transition,” she said. “I’m looking around for how best to spend my next 20 years. I’ll let you know when I find it.”