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Many features at the 2012 Film Festival fill the need for laughter

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 2, 2012 - Last November, when the 20th annual St. Louis Film Festival got underway at the Tivoli, few people in St. Louis had even heard of the opening night film -- a silent French farce set in Hollywood at the end of the silent era. The little-known comedy, called "The Artist," was a sellout at the festival and it went on to win five Academy Awards, including best picture.

This year's festival -- officially, the 21st annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival -- will open Thursday, Nov. 8 at the Tivoli. The opening night film this year is "Silver Linings Playbook," a darkish comedy directed by David O. Russell ("The Fighter"). It is about a fallen man struggling to get back on his feet. It stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. Like "The Artist," the film at this point is relatively unheralded. Will history repeat itself at the Academy Awards?

Don't bet against it.  For one thing, "Silver Linings Playbook," like "The Artist," comes from the Weinstein Company, headed by film-marketing legends Bob and Harvey Weinstein. "The Weinsteins are masters at the Oscar campaign," says Chris Clark.

"And," he adds, "The movie the Weinstein Company is really pushing this year is 'Playbook'."

Chris Clark, a tall, boyish 51, with a neat graying goatee and a receding blond buzzcut, is the artistic director of the St. Louis Film Festival. As such, he is in charge of choosing the narrative feature films from all over the world that will be shown at the festival, which runs Nov. 8-18. There will be 110 narrative features shown this year, a record. Also on the bill are 73 feature-length documentaries, chosen by festival executive director Cliff Froehlich and film academic Brian Woodman, and 226 shorts, chosen by operations supervisor Brian Spath. Fifty countries are represented.

Clark figures he sees about 350 narrative features a year, and picks less than a third of them for the festival. As it turns out, "Silver Linings Playbook" is one of the few narrative features in the festival that Clark has not seen. But he knows its pedigree. When the Weinstein Company called to offer him the film, he snapped it up.

"And then they asked, 'Would you like to screen it a second time?' We were delighted. We don't usually get a chance to show a studio film more than once, so of course I said yes. So we're showing it opening night at the Tivoli, and again on Saturday (Nov. 10) at the Plaza Frontenac in prime time."

The Weinstein Company is also supplying two other feature films, both with musical themes, that Clark was glad to accept, and that he expects to do well: "Quartet," the story of the aging, bickering members of a British musical ensemble, directed by Dustin Hoffman, and "The Sapphires," an Australian film about a '60s singing group modeled after the Supremes.

Clark says many of the feature films he chooses for the festival are submitted by filmmakers unsolicited. "I have a stack two feet high next to the DVD player by my desk," he says, "and when I've got some time, I grab one. I have to admit, I don't watch every one all the way through. I hang in as long as I can."

But Clark also goes to two or three film festivals a year, usually avoiding the most famous ones. He gets an early start on his search by attending the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which opens the first week in January, a couple of weeks earlier than the better known Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

"Films that get a lot of attention at Sundance," he says, "often are released before the fall. And sometimes the films that looked so good in the high altitude of Sundance just fade away by the summer. I prefer the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which is known for its wide selection of foreign films. Where else will I see a great film from Kazakhstan? I may not like it, but at least I can decide."

You might say that Chris Clark goes to sunny Palm Springs, Calif., in January so we don't have to.

"At Palm Springs," he says, "I can see 35 or 40 films in nine days, the lines are short, it's relatively cheap, and it's a great time to catch up with other programmers. The festival planner network is a posse of its own."

"I saw 'Starbuck' at Palm Springs. It's a French Canadian movie about a former sperm donor who discovers he has more than 500 children. It's being remade as an American movie starring Vince Vaughn, but we are showing the original. It's weird and funny."


"There are a lot of good comedies this year, an exceptional amount," he says. Besides the aforementioned "Silver Linings Playbook," which won the People's Choice Award at this year's Toronto Film Festival, he mentioned  "Eliminate: Archie Cookson," a British movie about a washed-up spy who suddenly finds himself back in the bloody thick of things, and "It May Be Love But It Just Doesn't Show," an Italian romantic comedy that came into the office unsolicited.

"Not high art but just plain funny," he says of "It May Be Love." "The world is in a bad mood. Dr. Clark suggests that comedies like this are just the tonic."

"And then there's 'Man Without a Cell Phone,' a comedy from the Palestinian Territories. How many of those do you get to see? And it fulfills part of our mission, which is to nurture cross-cultural ties. It's all one planet."

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