By BEN R. WILLIAMS
Way back in 2003, I spent a weekend in Richmond with a good friend of mine.
This trip just happened to coincide with a French film festival that my friend desperately wanted to attend.
I was not excited about this prospect.
You see, I like movies that are hard and ugly, movies that leave you gutted, movies that stick to your soul. For example, my favorite movie of all time is probably William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer” from 1977, a film about four desperate men who end up South America and have to drive two trucks full of highly unstable dynamite through 200 miles of jungle. This is a movie in which Roy Scheider beats a guy to death with a shovel and more than one person explodes.
What I do not have much patience for in movies is whimsy and pretentiousness. When I heard we were going to be attending a French film festival, I immediately began to worry that I was about to get my fair share of both.
However, I am willing to try anything once. Besides, I thought to myself, I was looking at the situation from a closed-minded American perspective. You can’t just write off the cinematic output of an entire country based on your assumptions. Maybe, I thought, I would surprise myself by actually enjoying a French film festival.
And you know what? When I actually sat down in the theater with my friend and the films started rolling, I learned something.
I learned that I was right the first time and most of the films were terrible. However, two things surprised me: The first was that I actually liked some of the films — not many, but a few.
The second thing that surprised me was that more than anything, I hated the audience.
I have never in my life seen a more pretentious bunch of people. You wouldn’t be able to find a more insufferable crowd at the Annual Recumbent Bicycle, Kombucha, and Ascot Festival.
Everywhere I turned in the lobby, a man in a turtleneck and rimless glasses was telling someone that he was glad he could FINALLY watch some intelligent cinema, or a woman in an ironic shapeless sweater was lamenting the fact that Earth Fare no longer carried cruelty-free quinoa.
I’m not great in crowds, especially fancy crowds. Whenever I’m at the sort of event where I have to wear a tie, I’m constantly waiting for a man in a tuxedo and white gloves to place a hand on my shoulder and softly whisper in my ear, “Sir, you must leave. There have been Complaints.”
However, I did my best to blend in, keep a low profile and behave myself.
I remember that the festival started off with some short films. I was excited about this, because I figured even if the films were terrible, they would at least be brief. Plus, some of them were supposed to be cartoons, so that was cool.
I remember one short animated film about a girl walking to a library. That was pretty much it.
Another short — this one live-action — was about a guy who wandered the streets of Paris capturing sounds in jars and carrying them home so he could listen to them over and over again. It was ten pounds of whimsy in a five pound bag and the audience gave it a standing ovation.
Another film was a computer-animated tale of a bunch of gargoyles on a cathedral. It rained and that caused water to flow out of the gargoyle’s mouths and they made burping noises. It was so bad that I felt embarrassed for everyone involved, but it was in French with subtitles so the audience loved it.
After the short films, we watched a feature-length film called “Les Amateurs.” While I no longer remember the plot, I remember actually liking it pretty well. It was a decent comedy; not necessarily anything to write home about, but enjoyable enough. I still remember one scene in particular: A hitman or something is being chased by a car. He stops, pulls out his gun, and opens fire on the driver. Paint splatters the car’s windshield, and the hitman and the audience simultaneously realize that his gun has been replaced with a paintball gun that was featured earlier in the movie. The hitman quietly mutters a French curse word, then gets struck by the car and goes flying. It was a solid gag.
After the movie ended, I was standing in the lobby when I overheard an audience member talking to the director of “Les Amateurs.”
“What a hilarious movie!” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if someone decides to remake it for American audiences. Of course, they’ll have to dumb down a lot of the humor.”
It was at this point that I couldn’t take it anymore. I was tired of quietly pretending to be one of these pretentious jerks. I had to take a stand.
I went to the concession stand and I ordered a jumbo Mr. Pibb and a one-pound bag of Twizzlers.
I kid you not, people stopped and stared. We had been there for hours, and I was literally the first person to go to the concession stand and order something other than a glass of wine. My friend was mortified.
We returned to our seats and waited for the next movie to begin. My friend attempted to fold himself in half as I tore open my bag of Twizzlers.
I felt alive. I felt vital. I felt like Rodney Dangerfield in “Caddyshack.” I turned to the guy sitting next to me.
“Hey boss,” I said, “want a Twizzler?”
He furrowed his brow and studied the bag. He had clearly never seen a Twizzler before.
“What is it?” he said.
“It’s like a licorice stick,” I said. “It’s good!”
He took a Twizzler out of the bag and bit into it. He clearly liked it, because throughout the next movie, he took one whenever I offered the bag (my friend wanted no part of my Twizzlers).
After the movie ended, the event organizer took the stage and invited all of the French filmmakers in attendance to come onstage and participate in a Q&A.
“And finally,” he said, “please welcome esteemed actor, director, and producer Slony Sow.”
And at that, my Twizzler buddy stood up and waved to the audience.