Saturday June 1, 2013

GREAT BARRINGTON

The Berkshire International Film Festival is here. There has been a proliferation of film festival events all over the country but a truly remarkable woman, Kelly Vickery, has really taken the Berkshire event into the bright light. Every detail has been thoroughly thought out.

Stars like Tony Shalhoub and our own wonderful Karen Allen make themselves accessible to people who might never otherwise get a chance to see just how personally generous they are. The screenings and workshops have film buffs ecstatic as one independent film after another hits the screens. Vickery has taken over Great Barrington and now Pittsfield with independent film. What Tanglewood is to music, the BFF is to film. Our cups runneth over.

As always, Richard Stanley and his aide-de-camp, John Valente, have gone full out from the beginning to provide places for the films to be screened. The opening night takes place at the magnificent Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center and demonstrates once again that Lola Jaffe and her distinguished board knew what they were doing when they restored this gem to Great Barrington. Vickery seems imperturbable as she oversees everything with a host of generous supporters and volunteers.

I love Kelly's insistence that everyone gets a chance to participate, from the various colored badge holders to the folks who line the street outside the theater hoping to get a seat.


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Opening night, when the outside temperature was 90 degrees, people came and lined up for their tickets. The able volunteers who have been the backbone of the Mahaiwe were tested as they figured out who was allowed to go where. In the end, though, it all worked out.

The first night presentations were really fun. As is his custom, board Chairman Al Togut came out and put everything in perspective. He talked about how the BIFF had expanded, offering events all year long from New York City to Lenox and beyond. The two opening night films were delightful. The first was a great short with Shalhoub and Minnie Driver. Shalhoub plays a Monk-like character who really loves food. He brings his love interest to "neutral territory" in the form of a restaurant, to discuss their relationship but Shalhoub keeps complaining about the place. Finally, she gets up and walks out and is instantly replaced by a new love interest, a beautiful restaurateur who understands everything Shalhoub has been saying. The film comes from the wonderful people at the Berkshire Playwrights Lab. It really is terrific, tight, well written and well directed and you've got to love it.

Then came the piece de resistance, "Twenty Feet from Stardom." It's the story of the talented backup singers who, although 20 feet from the world's greatest stars, never really got their due. The film was filled with extraordinary music and interviews with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and shots of Ray Charles and the Raelettes. When Darlene Love came out on stage to sing "Lean On Me," she received at least three well deserved standing ovations. When asked by a member of the audience whom she most admired, she singled out Elvis Presley who was at heart a gospel singer and who would grab her and her group to sing gospel between sets.

Admittedly, there are some things I don't like about the event. I completely lose the lovely Roselle for the entire length of the festival. She carefully plans out every film she is going to see. She and her friends debate the merits of all the choices and then dissect everything they've watched. The eminent Gestalt therapist, Dr. Rachel Brier, brings her analytic skills to her film criticism. When that happens, watch out.

On a more serious note, we all owe Kelly Vickery so much for what she has done. The biggest hand of all goes to her. What can I say? She's done it.

Allan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany.