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.