Joe Pantoliano: Pantsed

Joey Pants“At some of these festivals, you have ski poles in your hand. Here, you’re trying to turn on your tape recorder and you have to move your wine glass,” actor Joe Pantoliano observed while I juggled a glass of pinot noir and my Vox Box Echo-Plex Mini. We were at a private reception for the Sonoma Valley Film Festival at the Ledson Hotel two weeks ago. I was half-crocked, he was all business, there to press the flesh with journos (myself and drinking pals David “Temp” Templeton of the North Bay Bohemian, WineX’s Christopher Sawyer and KWMR’s Raul Gallyot included) and sprinkle some stardust over the pay-to-play patrons all but losing their heads over the man who played The Soprano’s Ralph Cifaretto.

Those of my generation, of course, first became acquainted with Pantoliano, or Joey Pants as he is sometimes called, in Risky Business in which he played a pimp putting the screws to an adolescent Tom Cruise. Here he was pimping a film festival.

“I love the branching out of all these little festivals. It’s at the point now that if I accepted every invitation, I’d be at a festival every weekend,” said Pantoliano. “But this one in particular, I think they’re really onto something and it’s not compromised by big corporate America taking advantage of it.”

I balked — Big Corporate America taking advantage of an independent film festival? Pantoliano kindly illuminated.

“I used to go to the Sundance Film Festival for the same reasons I come to this one, because it was something I loved to do. I love to ski, co-mingle with my friends, go to dinner. But then it became this big thing, which hasn’t enabled me to do the kinds of things I used to love to do,” explained Pantoliano.

Ah, Sundance, I’d been to Sundance, or at least Park City, UT, where the mother of all indie film fests is said to annually eat its young (though my experience was limited to scaling the sides of lodges with my cronies to get into parties to which we weren’t invited). Pantoliano did not realize that I knew he and Sundance had recently, in a way, served the same corporate master.

Volkswagen.

Not only was the auto manufacturer a third year presenting sponsor at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival but it also produced a six minute short film starring Pantoliano that premiered there.

The Check Up, starring Pantoliano and Kevin Connolly (from HBO’s Entourage) hawked VW’s new Jetta model and was later inserted into more than two million copies of the April 1 issue of Entertainment Weekly (incidentally, the day before I spoke to Pantoliano).

According to Adweek’s Karl Greenberg, “the film features a young man confronted by an agent from the Federal Commission on Adulthood [Pantoliano], who, like a parole officer, is checking in to assure he’s heading in the ‘correct’ (most mundane) direction. The character played by Connolly shows the officer a picture of the boring car he wants to buy, satisfying the agent the he doesn’t intend to get another Jetta. (He’s lying; there are shots of the new Jetta on his computer.)”

Says Heidi Korte, promotions leader at Volkswagen of America, Inc., “VW has always celebrated the spirit of the individual and we have a history of supporting emerging filmmakers, artists and musicians. The Festival is a fantastic opportunity to recognize the best in independent film.”

But does a six-minute VW commercial really evoke the spirit of independent filmmaking?

Apparently yes, says Sundance grandsire Robert Redford. The former Sundance Kid and more than 80 other “A-list” celebrities including Jenny McCarthy (what?) signed the hood of a Jetta that was later auctioned on Ebay to benefit the Sundance Institute.

Worthy way to unload a vandalized car, I suppose. But more to the point, how do I or even you get in on some of that corporate sponsorship? I remember that dullard’s turn of phrase, the first foolhardy rationalization of my inner whore gently prodding me toward the darkside: “It’s not selling out, they’re buying in.” Turns out it’s just selling out and, frankly, it’s like a goddamn fire sale over here.

Must we always patronize the patrons? Is it possible to bite the hand that feeds us while kissing the ring on the other hand? Yes, though you’ve got to use the same skill required to talk out of both sides of your mouth at the same time. I sure know I can. Hell, I can even talk out of my ass and get a three-part harmony going. That’s where the grit in integrity comes from, son. And when you can afford it, you can always buy some back ’cause it’s always on the market.

In the interest of full disclosure, the Sundance Channel already has a piece of my soul. I’ve left the sour grapes to the vintners.

“I have local friends that live here, I go see them. We have a ritual,” Pantoliano continued, listing some of the many reasons he’s drawn to the Sonoma Valley Film Festival. “I bring some really good wine, I buy some really good wine, and I GET some really good wine.”

I straightened my press pass — my license to swill the complimentary wine the actor and I were both enjoying.

In vino veritas, Mr. Pants.

Caught in the flash bulbs.Here is a picture of Pantoliano with million-heiress independent filmmaker Alexandra Kerry at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

On a Wing and Prayer: Lark Theater Stays Aloft

Courtesy San Francisco Chronicle / Photo by Penni GladstoneUntil recently, Larkspur resident Bernice Baeza would pass by the darkened lobby of the Lark Theater and want to weep. Now, she smiles as brightly as the neon lights that illuminate the local landmark’s marquee.

Thanks to efforts she spearheaded, the Lark is now a nonprofit film center that boasts an eclectic lineup of independent films, classics, family films, documentaries, special events and public forums.

Built in 1936, the Lark is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been designated a Larkspur Heritage Building. By the late 1990s, however, the theater had fallen into disrepair and its doors were shuttered. Six years passed until the community, rallied by Baeza, came together to reopen what is one of the few single-screen venues in the Bay Area.

“It had been closed for years, and I kept driving by it, hoping, wishing and dreaming,” recalls the energetic Baeza, a self- described film enthusiast and former associate director of the Latino Film festival.

“I love this town, but what was happening here was that this end of town was dying,” she says, referring to the block along Larkspur’s main drag where foot traffic had waned while the theater was closed. “I talked to a friend of mine and said, ‘Somebody has to do something about it, and I think it may have to be us.’ ”

When Baeza learned 19 months ago that the theater was going on the market, she made an offer but was outbid. Baeza eventually approached the new owners, local developers and real estate investors Terrence Andrews and Michael Gottlieb, and asked what they were going to do with it. Fortunately for Baeza, they also wanted to maintain the site’s heritage as a movie theater. With the aid of local attorneys, Baeza created The Lark Theater nonprofit, which now operates the movie house.

Baeza, now the theater’s executive director and president of its board, then faced the daunting task of restoring and upgrading the venue. Fund- raising efforts yielded $500,000 from community and corporate supporters, and renovation began with an outpouring of services from local professionals who offered their time pro bono or at reduced rates. Larkspur residents, from local architects and contractors to volunteers of all ages, pitched in to return the theater to its former grandeur.

The theater’s exterior was restored to its original Art Deco design with new neon lighting and a floor of refurbished terrazzo tiles. Inside, however, is where restoration efforts are most evident. The walls, once decrepit and moldering, were repaired and repainted, gallery spaces were created to showcase local artists, and a lounge area was added to accommodate patrons between shows and during special events. New environmentally friendly carpet made from recycled materials that produce no off-gases was installed.

A refurbished concessions stand features all the standard theater fare as well as organic popcorn, coffee and turkey dogs and individual “six-packs” of candies that the staff packages by hand. Wine and beer are served on weekends.

The auditorium’s original decorative lights were hand-restored, and a mural was added to reflect the theater’s vintage design motifs.

“Volunteers designed it, we did it over three weeks, night and day, with tiny paint brushes and lots of masking tape,” Baeza recalls with a laugh. She is also pleased with the new curtain that flanks the screen and relishes having it open and close before and after each show — a ceremonial nod to the glory days of cinema long-forgotten at the multiplexes.

“When theaters are entering an era of big entertainment conglomerates, it’s nice to know that this kind of homegrown, homespun community effort is here. The community really got behind it, which made a big difference,” says Phil Siegel, a San Francisco publicist and friend of Baeza who promotes the theater pro bono.

Audiences also will appreciate the new 35-millimeter projector, the recently installed video projection system and the modern Dolby Digital sound equipment.

There are about 200 new seats. According to Baeza, the old seats had become receptacles of all order of detritus. “The things we found,” she says shaking her head in awe. “When we put in the new seats, we sacrificed a few spaces to get more comfort in the aisles,” she says and proudly points out that the cup-holders in the armrests have spill-preventing bottoms.

Some of the new seats have small plaques bearing the names of donors. For a $1,000 donation, film fans can have their name displayed on an armrest (160 seats are still available). This and other fund-raising initiatives are necessary to keep the theater open, Baeza says.

“Once the neon lit up, people saw it and loved it, but then thought, ‘Oh, it’s done,’ ” she says. Baeza says an additional $350,000 is needed.

“We know that local residents are hungry for this kind of programming, and we also know that independent and mainstream filmmakers are looking for additional outlets in Marin County to show their work,” Baeza says.

As she has programmed the theater’s calendar, Baeza has been careful to focus on the needs and interests of her audience.

“Our mission is to serve the community and have the theater available for events and a variety of things that the community would be interested in,” Baeza says.

For film and event times and ticket prices, call (415) 924-5111, or visit www.larktheater.net.

Play it again, Sam (Elliot)

Sam Elliott

“Off the Map” directed by Campbell Scott (Big Night), is a tender portrait of a quirky mid-70s New Mexico family living off-the-fat-of-the-land as well as off-the-grid in the dusty Taos desert. Joan Allen plays the sun-kissed matriarch whose notion of personal freedom includes gardening in the nude. Meanwhile, scrappy pre-teen daughter Bo (fresh-faced newcomer Valentina de Angelis) entertains herself by perpetrating low-end mail fraud schemes, while her father (played by Sam Elliott in one of his most touching roles to date) weeps his way through a clinical depression in the hopes of finding catharsis before drowning in tears.

A languid and lyrical film, I lucked into a screening of “Off the Map” at last year’s Mill Valley Film Festival and later had a chat with Elliott, who was on hand to meet the press. After the usual bull (“Love the ‘stash, bro,” etc.) we settled into a discussion about the differences between promoting an independent film versus a studio picture.

“It’s all about marketing with the big studios, ‘How can you make them believe there’s something there that isn’t?'” Elliott said frankly.

I replied with something to the effect of “Come now, Mr. Elliott, you don’t mean to say the studio marketing machine would misrepresent their product with flashy ad campaigns, do you?”

Elliott gave me his trademark thousand-mile stare, then (as the Cohen Brothers put it in their script for “The Big Lebowski” — prior to even casting Elliott, mind you) came “a deep, affable, Western-accented voice — Sam Elliot’s, perhaps.”

This is what he said:

“I’ll give you an example of that. Years ago — it wasn’t a big studio movie, but it got a big studio release — a movie called Lifeguard in 1974. It was one of my very first films. It was a coming-of-age kind of a thing, a guy who’s 30 years old who had been a lifeguard for 15 years, everybody in his circle, his friends and family are telling him it’s time to fucking grow up and get off the beach and he just wanted to be true to himself. He thought there was value in being a lifeguard, being like a civil servant, it was what he loved. We did that movie and it was taken real serious, made it for under a million, Dan Petrie directed it. Incredible little film. It ended up making $30 million at the box office. That was a lot of money in the 70s. Paramount sold it as like ‘Beach Blanket Bingo,'” he laughed.

Elliott said he didn’t realize the spin machine was on full-cycle until he was on the road promoting the film and speaking with reporters befuddled by the disparity between the film’s content and packaging.

“You go into all these interviews and ideally everybody has seen the movie. The opening line in every review was ‘This isn’t anything like I thought it was going to be,’ because it was this story that was real to us, but the one-sheet for it was me in a fucking Speedo, with a big-titted girl in each arm and over the top it said ‘Every Girl’s Summer Dream.’ Like a Baywatch poster,” recalled Elliott. “‘These guys would make that comment, ‘This movie isn’t anything like I thought it was going to be,’ and I say, ‘Yeah, how ’bout that?'” And the whole interview ended up being like that. I haven’t worked at Paramount since.”

As “Off the Map” rolls out nationally, Elliott has been on the road making media pit stops like Friday night’s appearance on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson to promote the film. Elliott sees his role as an actor as only part of his commitment to a film. For Elliott, his job isn’t done until the film is — I’m going to say it — on the map.

“I’ve always felt that when you make a movie, part of the deal when you sign on, you got to sign on for the duration and that means until the movie comes out,” explained Elliott. “I’ve always been available for the jobs that I’ve done because I believed that. It’s not always easy to go out and do it, but when you believe so strongly in a piece, I’m not talking about it in terms of the performance one gave, but in terms of the story and characters and what it’s about and the net worth of it to the audience’s experience.”

“Off the Map” is available on DVD.

Left-Wing Letter Bee No. 6

See this live at the Hess Gallery in NapaReceived an Evite from “Stick It to the Man” to join in the Left-Wing Letter Bee No. 6, a very worthy exercise of applied democracy that goes from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday, April 10 at Amnesia Bar, 853 Valencia St. in San Francisco.

The notion is to express our grievances and concerns to our government representatives in an old-fashioned letter, which, according to many wonks, is the equivalent of 100 voices. (Throw a photograph in there and you’ve also upped your word count by a 1000 words.)

As explained in the invitation, “Right-wingers write more letters than we do, and we’ve set about fixing it. We’re talking about letters, here, not email, or pre-printed postcards, or faxes, or phone calls. Ink on paper — you ever wonder how church groups seem to have the power to change corporations’ minds? Or how the NRA swings legislation? Think about it: they can’t deny or ignore a real person’s real words on real paper.”

The organizers (the SF Weekly’s Hiya Swanhuyser among them) explain that it doesn’t matter what letter you write so long as you write about “whatever’s on your left-wing mind.” To get that left-wing mind active and writing, sample letters will be on hand as will some manual typewriters (I will forgo the monkeys-typing-Hamlet probability gag in deference to the fact that letter writing works).

The Letter Bee will be followed by “Triumph of the Ukulele,” a musical program featuring Tippy Canoe, The Hi-Hokem Boys, Go Go & The Coconuts, and Uni & Her Ukulele.

An evening of thinking, inking and drinking, my kind of night. Better write a letter or someday you may find yourself penning a Dear John to Free Speech.