The most unlikely festival

Every year I go, I can’t believe the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books still exists. This last weekend was the 18th time it has unfolded and the 9th consecutive one I’ve attended. Since it began, bookstores have died off en masse. The Times itself is in bankruptcy, its future in doubt. And yet the festival not only took place this year as it has before, but our experience was as pleasurable as ever.

Over our two days on the USC campus, Steve and I spent time in 8 events. We judged three to be stupendous: the hour we spent listening to sci-fi master Orson Scott Card, the crackling panel focusing on political cartoons, and the knot-tying (and teaching) performance by Philippe Petit, the tightrope artist who commanded global attention 40 years ago when he danced on a wire at the top of the World Trade Center towers. We liked two other panels where the talk ranged from Hollywood mogul Lew Wasserman to the early years of Saturday Night Live and Joseph Papp’s Public Theater to the role of storytelling in human life to a scientific defense of procrastination. Watching celebrity chef Susan Feniger whip up Asian millet puffs on the outdoor cooking stage (and then toss them out, as one might lob nutrition pellets at the bears in the zoo) was fun too. To the panel of novelists gathered under the dubious title “The Ties that Bind” and the one discussing “Landscapes Real and Imagined,” our reaction was lukewarm — but even those included a few valuable nuggets.

Political cartooning in the spotlight.
At 63, Petit has more vitality (and personality) than most guys half his age.

Chef Feniger is hardly a shrinking violet either.
The whole thing feels like it lives up to the promise of offering something for everyone. In addition to what we did, there are dozens upon dozens of vendors (selling books and a whole lot more), children’s activities, music, and even more films. Almost all of it’s free (though you can assure getting seating by going online and paying $1 per activity.)
Will the book festival make it to the 20-year mark (two years from now)? Will it even be held again next year? Who knows. But if it is, consider making the trip before it vanishes like some glorious Southern California mirage.
Something new this year was the party hosted by The Last Bookstore in downtown LA, which offers both used and new books -- both for sale and incorporated into art works.


Tunnel of books at the Last Bookstore party.


Several readings were going on when we dropped in.


Fully Satisfying

I’ll probably never attend one of the big-name, high-prestige film festivals like Sundance or Cannes. But it’s hard for me to imagine I’d any enjoy any of them more than the event that Steve and I participated in last weekend: the Full Frame documentary film festival, held in Durham, North Carolina every spring. We learned about it from friends who love it so much they’ve gone 5 or 6 times, including this year. At one point, I commented to them that luring S and me to this festival was a little like introducing us to heroin. I’ve never used that, but I imagine the intensity of the pleasure and the rush are similar.

In the four days, the festival organizers screened almost 100 films (including about 15 shorts). We had no opportunity to see about a quarter of them, because we didn’t get in until late Thursday night. It’s only possible to see 5-8 per day (since there are almost always four films showing simultaneously.) But given those constraints, we amazed ourselves by what we were able to consume. I watched 17 films ranging in length from 6 minutes to almost 2 hours — an average of almost 7 hours of movies per day. My brain was exploding by the end of each day. But I woke up ready each morning for more.

As for the films, of the 17 I saw, there was not one I didn’t like. My only tepid response was to the 6-minute-long short on Lyndon Johnson — not much weightier than a youtube video. But I liked it. Five of the 17 were good to very good. And I thought 11 were superb. The ones most likely to be readily accessible for viewing are:

— Manhunt. This was the real-life version of Zero Dark Thirty — and far more interesting to me than the fictional one. It will be airing on HBO in early May.

— Twenty Feet from Stardom. An introduction to the world of back-up singers. I didn’t see this one, but Steve did (we split up for a couple of showings) He raved about it, and he’s not even that into music. It will be released in theaters in June.

— Muscle Shoals. I’m not sure if this one (or the next) will be released, but it’s hard to imagine they won’t be. Muscle Shoals is the legendary Alabama recording studio in a little town on the Gulf. A huge number of really famous musicians recorded there — from the Stones to Aretha Franklin to Bob Dylan to the Allman Brothers to so many more. The music was great, but even more fascinating to me was the insight into the art of capturing it.

— Downloaded. A riveting history of online music sharing, focusing most on the original: Napster.

The beautiful Carolina Theater, one of the festival venues

All my 11 favorites were so good (and so varied) it’s hard to rank them in my affections. Still, I think the two that may have the most lasting impact on me were:

— Menstrual Man. This was the astounding story of a 9th-grade dropout in India who became obsessed with finding a way to get inexpensive sanitary napkins into the hands of Indian women (90% of whom do not use them, instead relying on cloths that they’re too embarrassed to hang out in the sun to sterilize, and thus are often germ-infested.) He came up with a small, simple, and easy to maintain manufacturing system, but he has no interest in getting rich from it. Instead he’s selling systems the NGOs that in turn are making them available to women in hundreds of villages all over India. They in turn are now supporting themselves and their families. Deeply inspirational, it was also funny and mesmerizing.

— After Tiller. This film tells the story of the four doctors who are the only ones in the United States left doing third-trimester abortions since the murder of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita four years ago. Before seeing this film, I thought third-trimester abortions should be illegal. The movie taught me why there is a need for some. It showed me how that decision so often springs from the desire of anguished parents to protect their unborn babies from dreadful pain and early death (caused by various medical conditions afflicting them.) Viewers see the four physicians struggling with moral dilemmas and tortuous dramas daily; I don’t think I’ve even seen a movie so concerned with ethics. And I was awed by the manifold bravery of those four doctors.

I doubt either of those two films will be easily accessible, and that’s a big reason for going to a festival like this. It’s an opportunity to see so much one would otherwise miss. It was also a chance to visit places I’ll never get to (Tajikstan! The inside of a Moscow jail.) It was also a huge intellectual blast. Maybe I could eventually have found everything I saw online. But probably not, and I also wouldn’t have known what to look for, nor would I have had deep pleasure of watching these amazing movies in the company of hundreds of other people who also loved them.

Something else I'd never seen before: a USED bookstore in the Raleigh-Durham airport