The 4th Annual Key West Film Festival – Wasting Away Again in Margaritaville

December 1, 2015

by Adam Nayman

Photo credit: Tanya Koivusalo.

The tallest building in Key West, Florida is the La Concha Hotel, which towers over the other structures on Duval Street despite being only four stories high. In addition to being the southernmost settlement in the entire United States – a brisk 90-mile swim/Mojito-fuelled speedboat ride from Cuba – Key West is surely the country’s last word in low-rise living. In lieu of a skyline, this mile-wide island offers up a variety of street-level sights, including a few storefronts and private residences that appear unchanged from their 19th Century heyday – a parade of stately white columns and exposed, weather-beaten brick.

The basic equanimity of the buildings in Key West reflects its every-vendor-for-themselves economy. Figuring out exactly which of the dozens (and dozens) of bars, restaurants, bodegas, souvenir shops and one-price boat/trolley/bicycle tours lining the main drag gives a tourist the best bang for their buck is a crapshoot. Now, it’s a fun crapshoot: as a tourist in Key West, your job is to wander the strip and stop every few blocks to eat and drink. “Breakfast,” “lunch” and “dinner” are relative concepts here, as is “happy hour,” and while there are plenty of vacation spots that come to resemble Night of the Living Dead on weekends, Key West is the only place where the zombie walk seems to be a round-the-clock ritual. A t-shirt I spotted in one the store windows near La Concha sums up the vibe: “if you’re not drunk right now, you’re doing it wrong.”

The artistic avatars of Key West are famous enough. Ernest Hemingway lived (and drank) here in a sprawling house that’s currently a historical landmark infested with the descendants of his beloved six-toed cats; supposedly, Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire in La Concha (when it was under another name). And of course Jimmy Buffett spends a lot of time on Duval Street. If a city can have a national anthem, “Margaritaville” is Key West’s “La Marseillaise.” But the city’s cinematic history is pretty spotty: besides Timothy Dalton driving through in a hurry in License to Kill, it’s hardly been represented at all.

Nevertheless, there was a strong Florida presence in the selections at this year’s Key West Film Festival, a fledgling programme finding its way in its fourth year. This year’s instalment featured about half as many titles as previous iterations, which head programmer Michael Tuckman explained was an attempt to make things feel more intimate and special for the attendees; Tuckman also went out of his way to invite film critics from bigger cities to place some of the bigger titles in context. The contrast between the indigenous, local productions at KWFF –including Quincy Perkins’ The Little Fireman and Jonathan David Kane’s Papa Machete, which won the prize for best Floridian film – and the awards-season contenders getting local premieres, like Carol or Spotlight is palpable, and yet from what I observed, one of the strengths of the festival is making both types of screenings equally appealing to an audience that usually doesn’t have much to choose from across less than a half dozen movie theatres.

I was in Key West to present Paul Verhoeven with a Lifetime Achievement Award – a Golden Key, which actually looks a bit more like a glass paperweight – and to present a 20th anniversary screening of the Dutch director’s 1995 flop Showgirls, about which I recently wrote a book. Obviously, getting to meet and talk to one of my artistic heroes was a great thrill, and the fact that Verhoeven liked the book – which was given to him by his daughter – means a lot, but what was more interesting was hearing him converse with the audience after the sold-out showing during our Q and A. From where I was sitting (i.e. three feet away from him), Verhoeven seemed equal parts surprised and delighted that people had strong, mostly positive reactions to a movie that had been left for dead, and he thanked everyone for their attendance as if he thought that getting out of the sunshine and 90-degree weather to sit through 131 minutes of gilded sleaze was somehow and imposition. Which, of course, it was not.

Photo credit: Tanya Koivusalo.

In a way, Verhoeven seemed out of place in Key West; this is a guy who has opened the Cannes Film Festival and whose films have grossed about a billion dollars worldwide combined, walking around a film festival that wears its affable, under-the-radar modesty on its sleeve. But there’s something to be said for the kind of intimacy that Tuckman is striving for – mainly that it’s rare, if not totally alien, at even mid-level film festivals these days. The sheer accessibility of the directors here — including Amy Berg, in town with a documentary on Janis Joplin; Shane Carruth, who was doing festival jury duty; and Brett Ratner, who presented a subsidized prize for student productions – outstrips any other festival I’ve been to. Not only that, but everybody is so relaxed (which is to say lubricated by booze) that shop talk is at a minimum: most of the conversations I overheard between the people making movies and the people writing about them – including Indiewire’s Eric Kohn, who sat on what must be the one millionth recent panel about the “role of film critics” in the 21st Century – were about plantains, cocktails, and the gigantic chickens roaming the streets at all hours.

Photo credit: Tanya Koivusalo.
Photo credit: Tanya Koivusalo.

During the festival’s closing award ceremony, Verhoeven smiled when a presenter made a joke about porn films being the great common denominator of movie genres – the sort of flip but honest remark you probably wouldn’t hear onstage at, say, the Lightbox. And in the camera scrum that followed, he seemed to enjoy being the center of attention in a place where it’s easy – and mandatory – to get distracted every few minutes or so. I can’t say that I was myself too focused on movie-watching while in Key West – we all need to take working vacations sometimes – although I’m grateful for the chance to have seen Todd Haynes’s excellent Carol in advance of its Toronto bow (and at a screening venue where free wine was provided to offset a small hiccup in getting the DCP started).

For the people in Key West who don’t see or talk about movies for a living – which is to say pretty much everybody else who crammed the screenings and panels full all weekend – the focus on cinema as an art form worthy of discussion and analysis seemed refreshing and welcome. Finding a way to grow a festival whose appeal is bound up in its mellow vibe is a genuine challenge, but for now, Key West is an outlier in the best sense. It’s a small fish in a big pond. And et there’s something nice about being in a position to sit back on the beach and watch the big, bad ocean from a safe distance. I dare say it doesn’t suck.