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The New Orleans Film Festival turns 20 

© First Look Studios

The New Orleans Film Festival

Oct. 8-15

click to enlarge Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes star in Werner Herzog's The Bad - Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which was filmed in the city.
  • Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes star in Werner Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which was filmed in the city.

O n its 20th anniversary, the New Orleans Film Festival comes full circle with an opening night screening of the Richard Linklater film Me and Orson Welles. He was first honored when the fest screened Slacker, the grunge-era, ellipitical masterpiece of Austin-style lassitude — a film that helped launch a new generation of digital filmmakers and film festivals.

  "Film fests were suddenly a hot thing (in 1991)," says festival artistic director John Desplas. "It was all just starting to take off. Now every podunk town has an international film festival and a rodeo." He observes, "It was like, 'Let's put on a film festival,' and nobody really knew what they were doing, nobody knew anything about the movie business. How hard can it be, right? You just put on some movies." Back then, an aspiring film festival simply had to put the word out, and a pile of videotapes would arrive on its doorstep. With the advent of a more corporate-focused indie-film industry, those days are over.

  "It was a real learning experience," Desplas says. "But it was also easier to get an audience then, since you didn't have all the DVRs, video-on-demand, YouTube and everything else."

  The New Orleans Film Festival has come of age in a period of great change in the film industry, but it found a winning approach: Highlight Louisiana films, encourage new filmmakers and pay for the small stuff with some big-ticket screenings. The 2009 slate has it all covered from Orson to Oprah to The Edge to The Cove to The Thirst. Among the 120 titles, the big-ticket films include Precious, co-produced by Oprah Winfrey and native New Orleanian Tyler Perry, and Linklater's Me and Orson Welles, featuring Zac Efron as the young Welles taking Broadway by storm.

  Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a late addition to the lineup and screens in advance of its Nov. 20 national release. The alleged "remake" stars the doleful, quasi-local Nicolas Cage in the role Harvey Keitel made infamous in Abel Ferrara's 1992 original. How can Herzog improve on the hilariously abject original from tormented Catholic Ferrara — featuring Keitel in full-on method man mode, smoking heroin, getting naked and masturbating in front of a couple of Jersey girls? Who plays Darryl Strawberry in the shoot-the-radio, baseball playoffs scene? Obviously, Herzog has a very different setting, but it's worth remembering that the original Bad Lieutenant is one of those love-it-or-hate-it rides that either gets funnier every time you see it, or is completely unwatchable after the first 30 minutes. The backstory between the two directors also is entertaining. A wickedly funny set-to ensued with the unveiling of Herzog's film at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month, as he endured the wrath of Ferrara for daring to tread on his tortured-Catholic turf.

  Those looking for "so bad it's great" films may have to settle for The Best Worst Movie, a documentary about the making and cult following of what may be the worst film of all time, Troll 2, which also screens at the festival. Documentaries, short and experimental films fill out the juried portion of the festival's offerings.

  Still, the event aims to please in the department of big-ticket items: It Might Get Loud features Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White, rocking out and talking about it. For good eco-measure, there's The Cove, about the slaughtering of dolphins in Japan, and Thirst a high-action vampire thriller from Korean director Park Chan-Wook. The Yes Men — whom some may remember for a stunt posing as HUD officials in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina — return with their latest film, The Yes Men Fix the World. And Bronson chronicles a man who appropriated the persona of Charles Bronson over the course of three decades in jail.

  The straight-talking Desplas doesn't harbor any illusions about independent film in New Orleans. "Everyone talks a good game about indie films and wanting to see things," he says. "But they really turn out for the big titles."

  The film industry hasn't made assembling that part of the schedule any easier in spite of the marketability of mentioning awards from Sundance or other big festivals. Desplas points to the emergence of a corporate-oriented distribution scheme as a real impediment to putting on a well-tuned festival. "It's more and more of a challenge to get the producers and distributors to go along with your plans for a film," he says. "These days, 'The Launch' is everything." Last year, distributors of Gonzo, Alex Gibney's Hunter S. Thompson documentary, were distressed to learn the film would show at 10 p.m. on a Monday night. But it sold out.

  "They are a lot more careful about where they put a film," he says. "The distributors and producers don't want it overexposed, and they also have a big fear of losing control."

  As distributors have become more strategic in their dealings with the festivals, the festivals have in turn become the main market for films that otherwise would never have a theatrical release, or would have to settle for one limited to coastal arthouses. "Especially in New Orleans, there's no other place for some of the smaller film companies to show their films," Desplas says.

  In the face of all the changes, Desplas takes a Field of Dreams approach to the festival. The festival was built, and they came. So far, so good.

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