Tuesday, October 17, 2006


The Lone Pine Film Museum, Grand Central Station for the 17th Annual Lone Pine Film Festival, held October 5-7, 2006

Some might call it Cannes for the cowpoke set. Others might think of it as Toronto with tumbleweeds, or a six-gun Sundance. Some might, but not William Boyd, who was actually in town for the 17th Annual Lone Pine Film Festival held October 5-7 in the gateway to Death Valley, Lone Pine, California. Lone Pine has been popular with Hollywood location scouts ever since Fatty Arbuckle shot The Round-Up there in 1920. It was Arbuckle’s first feature, and the very first movie ever shot in Lone Pine. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, would follow, starring the likes of Tom Mix, Jack Hoxie, Tex Ritter, Tim Holt, Dale Robertson, Gene Autry, John Wayne and, most significantly, William Boyd, aka Hopalong Cassidy, the closest thing there is to royalty in these parts, who shot over 30 features in or near the desert town and may be the cowboy star most closely associated with Lone Pine.

Hoppy’s ghost, indeed the ghosts of all the stars who at one time or another visited and worked in Lone Pine, seemed to freely roam the streets for three days, ducking into saloons and in and out of porta-potties, munching on tri-tip and knocking back beers obtained from one of several open-air barbecues operating in town, and even settling in for an occasional screening at one of the two venues given over to this year’s festival. I saw Hoppy myself. I talked to him. Well, maybe it wasn’t really him, but deep down, some part of me really wanted it to be him. The magic of old Hollywood westerns grabbed on quickly upon my arrival in town and held their dusty sway over my imagination. The Second Coming of Hoppy was all well and good, but it was the panels, and the surrounding beauty of the Alabama Hills themselves, and, yes, even the films (which, if I had to guess, most of the people in town for the festival largely took a pass on) that would ensure the experience of the Lone Pine Film Festival would be placed securely in the firmament of my memory, a firmament almost as lovely and awe-inspiring as the one that shone down upon that tiny desert town during the nights after the projectors shut down and the cowboys all drifted off to sleep at their campsites.


A calendar for the Umberton Drive-in in Florida sits under glass along with a open script, complete with director and script supervisor notes, for Yellow Sky.

The hilarious/scary '50s sci-fi throwback Tremors was also filmed near Lone Pine, and the museum offers up this scaled down model of the movie's small town under siege by a burrowing Graboid.

A visitor to the museum peruses a display near a framed poster of Ride the High Country and an artfully placed tumbleweed. (Less artfully-placed tumbleweeds were accessible just about anywhere outside the museum doors.)

A wall devoted entirely to Bad Day at Black Rock, in several different languages.

Saddle up with John Wayne in Henry Hathaway's North to Alaska. This display is part of a huge, nicely arranged main entry room to the museum. Right next to the saddle, just out of camera range, is a full-sized stagecoach.

A giant poster for Ida Lupino's The Hitchhiker greets guests at the entrance to the Lone Pine Film Museum theater, a cozy screening room (about 60 seats) where I saw The Tall T and The Showdown.

In addition to the movies The Tall T, Violent Road, The Violent Men and Seven Men from Now, I spent a lot of time in the Lone Pine Film Museum, and I did get to attend one panel that revolved around stunt men and western movie villains. Present on the panel were stuntmen Loren Meyers and Diamond Farnsworth (son of actor/stuntman Richard Farnsworth), as well as memorable movie villains Ed Faulkner (McLintock!) and Jan Merlin, who traded his acting in for a career as an Emmy-winning writer of soap operas. Merlin provided the highlight of the panel when he acted out a hilarious story of how he, a New York-trained actor with no experience riding horses whatsoever, bluffed his way through his very first western action sequence, on a western programmer starring Dale Robertson called A Day of Fury. And it was Merlin who hit the weekend’s emotional high note when, near the end of the panel, he expressed heartfelt thanks to the audience for the opportunity to act in so many films an have so many memories. “It’s quite an honor to be part of a largely bygone group of Americans,” he said, his voice wavering, “who were so honored as to make their living portraying an even earlier generation of pioneering Americans.”

Western villain Jan Merlin entertains the crowd with a tale of a New York actor (him) trying to mount a saddled horse for the very first time, and on camera as well.

But as good as all that was, easily the best part of the LPFF was finally getting to meet one of my favorite bloggers, Brian Darr, who rides herd on Hell On Frisco Bay. Brian’s blog is ostensibly a chronicle of old cinemas and festival happenings in San Francisco, but it’s an excellent way to keep up on the forefront of independent, foreign, classic and rare cinema, as well as experimental films, too, because Brian’s reportage on the film festival scene in the Bay Area is so complete and engaging and consistently well-written. We had intended to meet for Bad Day at Black Rock Saturday afternoon, but unexpected car trouble had me taking a test-drive up into the Alabama Hills and beyond, to Whitney Portal at the base of Mt. Whitney, during the screening.

The Alabama Hills just outside of Lone Pine. Randolph Scott was here...

The intersection of Whitney Portal Road and Movie Road... Movie Road was, among many other things, the road down which the Lone Ranger righteously galloped to the strains of the William Tell Overture.

How nice of the Great Set Designer to show off Lone Pine to the tenderfeet like me in such a way. And if Movie Road didn't already exist, wouldn't Wim Wenders have to invent it?

Later in the afternoon, on my way out of a screening of Antony and Fulvio Sestito’s The Showdown, Brian saw me grilling the filmmaking fratelli during the after-screening Q & A and then spotted me on the street (I told him I’d be wearing a Dodgers shirt). He introduced himself and his dad—an extremely nice fellow (the apple has not fallen far from the tree here, obviously)—and we stood on the street, talked about the festival a bit and conspired to meet later that night for Rudolph Mate’s The Violent Men and Budd Boetticher’s Seven Men from Now.

After we parted, I took a walk down the street and spied a big-screen TV inside a pizza parlor that was showing Game 3 of the Dodgers-Mets National League Division Series, so I decided an early pie and a pitcher of beer before the next screening would be just the ticket. I walked in the front door just as Greg Maddux threw the first pitch. By the time I waited in line long enough to get to the register and place my order, the Mets had jumped on Maddux for three runs, and suddenly I wasn’t so hungry. I sat down in front of the TV, right on the front window of the pizza parlor, and mustered all I could muster to help the Dodgers avoid elimination from the postseason, but it continued to not look so good, despite a two-run homer by Jeff Kent.

A one-sheet for Gordon Douglas's Only the Valiant graces the wall of a Lone Pine pizza parlor right next to the TV where I would watch the first half of the Dodgers' final, doomed effort to win at least one game in the National League Division Series. I somehow felt the one-sheet was a good omen and couldn't resist committing the juxtaposition to posterity...

Fortunately, less than 15 minutes after I sat down Brian and his dad came in. They joined me at my table, and let me tell you, talking movies and blogging with Brian (and his very accommodating and indulgent dad) was a whole lot more fun than watching my Dodgers creep slowly over the horizon of their season. They lost that game 9-5, thus making my early return to Los Angeles for Game 4 (I had a ticket) unnecessary. But all that didn’t matter, thanks to the great time had in the company of Brian, one of my earliest blogging acquaintances (it was he who invited me to participate in the very first blog-a-thon, all about Showgirls) and now the very first one I’ve met in person. We met again later for Seven Men from Now and capped what was my very first film festival on a high note with a superb western (even if it was digitally projected off of a DVD I have on my very own shelf at home). Brian, it was tons of fun and a great honor to meet you and spend time with you, and I hope we can figure out a way to make it happen again soon! (That Little Round-headed Boy and I have talked in passing about what fun a film bloggers convention would be…!)

Well, speaking of Brian, he has already done the heavy lifting in chronicling his experience of the Lone Pine Film Festival with dispatches posted on Green Cine Daily (part one and part two) that are beautifully evocative of the surroundings and the experience of seeing Bad Day at Black Rock and Seven Men from Now near the actual places where they were shot. He sums up everything in a much more succinct and probing way that I ever could, so I’ll leave the good words to him via those links above.

Two shots taken from my camp site. Yes, I camped in the shadow of all that useful beauty...

I do have one last thought about the festival, however, and it has to do with that DVD projection. I’ll admit I was a bit disappointed to discover this was going to be the way of the weekend—there was not a 35mm, or even a 16mm projector in sight. But it was easier to deal with when I reminded myself that this is a festival not necessarily built around an appreciation of cinema, but more about what the movies have meant to this community, and at the very least that appreciation is one that takes a much different, much more forgiving form in regard to aesthetic presentation in Lone Pine than it might in Venice or Toronto. (The cowboy-costumed and quite inebriated revelers turned loose on the streets Friday night did remind me of Cannes, though.) And as I found myself cooped up in the Lone Pine High School Auditorium watching Rudolph Mate’s delirious Cinemascope landscapes in The Violent Men, a film that almost renders the spectacular vistas of the Sierra Nevadas routine through the frequency—and relative lack of imagination—in which they are employed, something occurred to me. The DVD projection route could actually serve to make seeing a film at the Lone Pine Film Festival even more special if the programmers were to embrace a smidgen of the guerilla drive-in aesthetic. Instead of watching The Violent Men or Seven Men from Now or The Tall T in a stuffy auditorium, imagine how much more genuinely exciting it would be if a large portable screen and chairs could be set up among the Alabama Hills themselves and an audience were allowed to see the film not just near where the film was shot, but right smack dab among the actual canyons and crevices and ridges and rock formations where the likes of Randolph Scott and Hopalong Cassidy once so proudly trod. Given the chance to shine down on an audience taking in the outdoors while reveling in that most outdoor of genres-- the western, the Lone Pine western-- the stars in the big sky could be a terrific canopy for this festival’s screenings (weather permitting, of course) as it approaches its 20th anniversary in 2009.


Anonymous said...

Ach, I am jealous! Your photos really make it look like fun...wish I could've been there, too.

Brian Darr said...

Dennis, I'm blushing at your praise for my site; reading your words makes me wonder what I can do to better live up to them. But I had an absolute BLAST meeting and talking films you the other weekend. And I was honored to sit next to such a warm, welcoming, down-to-Earth cinephile while watching my favorite film (okay, DVD- though I thought I noticed a 16mm projector in the auditorium that went unused in my presence) of the festival, Seven Men From Now. Next time we meet at a film event we'll have to coordinate our trips so we overlap more than just a few hours.

Great write-up, and I'm glad SOMEbody had the presence of mind to bring a camera along. The photos do a great job capturing a big part of my Lone Pine experience as well (interesting that we both fixated on the Yellow Sky script, without conferring.) I'll not only pass this link along to my dad, but also to all the people who've been asking me why it was I travelled ten hours to a tiny town in Eastern California.

The 'Stache said...

Sounds like you had a blast, Dennis. I could have dug it all, except for maybe the camping part!

Dr. Criddle said...

This festival sounds great! I was fortunate enough to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind on an outdoor campsite screen at the foot of Devil's Tower during a family vacation when I was eleven years old... one of the most wonderful moviegoing experiences of my life. Seeing a great film in the location it was shot in is great indeed.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Wow! I can't imagine a screening opportunity as perfect as Close Encounters at the foot of Devil's Tower. And when you were 11 years old too-- you must have been in heaven.

I don't know if Lone Pine could ever equal that in splendiferosity, but it'd sure be nice to see 'em try.

Thanks for writing in, Doc!