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Berlin 2009 Looking back -- Echoes and Encores

The global financial Crisis, Recession, Depression -- call it what you will - was not overly in evidence at the 59th edition of the Berlin Film Festival which ended its annual ten day run here on Febtuary 14th, Valentine's day. Private VIP and celebrity parties as reported in the gossip tabloids seemed to be as lavish as ever, and public box-office attendance in terms of tickets sold, was the highest ever at 270,000, up a solid 20,000 from 2008. The one festival section that did seem to be affected, despite disclaimers to the contrary, was the Film Market where activity in the sprawling spaces of the Gropius Building was visibly down from normal. Most years those not having a special market badge (purchased at a high premium price) could not even get into the building or into market screenings. This year a press badge or any other accreditation marker could get you through the gate, and once inside, the formerly wall-to-wall crowds milling around the various national booths were noticeably thinner. Tickets to press screening were being dispensed like hotcakes to all comers, not just accredited buyers and distributors, presumably so the screening rooms would not look too empty.

One nice event during the week was a book launch for the new edition of International Film Guide, sponsored by the new publisher, Wallflower Press, at the Frankfurt Book Fair stand. Until now IFG was published by VARIETY and the Wallflower people were clearly interested in publicizing the changeover and the souped up format of this key film business handbook.
Gratis copies of the handsome 45th edition, street price 29€, were available to all guests and the pleasant social gathering was fueled by a concurrent wine tasting conducted by fruit of the vine connoisseur Steve Ashton of the California Wine-Country film festival.

It was announced during the week that festival chief, Dieter Kosslick, who took over the reins in 2002, has had his contract renewed. Just how popular this decision was is open to question While Dieter is a very energetic, high-profile go-getter, there are many who think he's a little too star struck, and that the quality of the festival has declined considerably under his aegis, becoming more of a Hollywood playground, especially in the showcase competition section, than the virtrine for high film art it was once reputed to be.
Whether Dieter was directly responsible for the unusually flaccid competition showing this year is not clear, but it is obvious that some instantly forgettable clunkers were programmed only because they had a name performer or two who could be lured to Berlin. Aside from Oscar winning top star Kate Winslet, this year was also no great shakes as far as glamorous star turnout -- unless one considers the likes of Steve Buscemi, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Defoe, Rip Torn, John Goodman, Woody Harrelson, and/or Keanu Reeves as radiators of glamour. To me it looked more like a parade of character actors, but it may just have been a case of slim pickings -- a year of getting whatever you could get.

As far as prestige cultural names of the second generation, the festival did manage to snare a couple of the progeny of heavyweights. Mitchell Lichtenstein, director of the totally forgettable "Happy Tears", a low budgeter with Demi Moore and Rip Torn, is the son of famed Op-art artist Roy Lichtenstein, and Rebecca Miller, director of the slightly more interesting "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee" (with Keanu Reeves and Robin Wright Penn) is the daughter of the world renowned American playright, Arthur Miller, who was once married to Marylin Monroe.

Interestingly, Gus van Sant's "Milk" starring Sean Penn as the gay mayor of San Francisco who was assassinated in 1978, was shown in the Panorama section of the fest, backed up by a revival of the Robert Epstein documentary on the same subject, "The Times of Harvey Milk", winner of a documentary Oscar in 1985. Considering that this years Oscar winners in the two key categories of Best Actor and Best Actress, respectively Sean Penn and Kate Winslet, both had their Oscar winning films shown here only a week or so earlier (For Kate it was "The Reader", in competition), maybe it wasn't such a bad year for Berlin after all --- and then there were the dozens of worthy films from everywhere except Hollywood, Iran, Spain, France, China, Israel, and, of course, a strong German turnout -- the usual suspects that make Berlin what it is, one of the great international film festivals. The official body count this year was 383 films shown.

by Alex Deleon

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