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The IFP/West held its annual celebration of independent film on the Santa Monica beach during Oscar weekend. When Filmmaker invited artist and writer Karen Finley and photographer Jessica Craig-Martin to cover the event, we hadn’t realized they were old acquaintances – they appeared together in Richard Kern’s early Super-8 film, You Killed Me First. Here are their observations. [see the print version of Filmmaker's Spring 2000 issues for Jessica Craig-Martin's portfolio]

Karen Finely at the IFP/West Independent Spirit Awards. Photo by Jessica Craig-Martin.

High-energy drama has been happening around the Academy Awards all week. Burgers along Hollywood Boulevard have been advertised as "Oscar burgers." The hotels on Sunset have been crowded with papparazi, stars, wannabes, yesterday’s news, assorted trinkets – EVERYONE SELLING SOMETHING – and the operatic harmony of custom phone rrrrrings going off in lobbies and restrooms. Whether it was the Chateau Marmont, the Mondrian or the Standard, it was impossible to get a table, and that was the reason for being there. These hotels are like little New Yorks, I thought to myself as I spoke with Susan Sontag at the Mondrian. (Now, Susan might be a good choice for next year’s Spirit Award keynote address – a deconstruction of the Annie Leibovitz Vanity Fair Hollywood cover, perhaps?)

The Spirit Awards setting: Along the Pacific Ocean, on the beach, in glorious weather in Santa Monica, on a beautiful day of heaven, in a tent big enough to house 1,000-plus while still feeling intimate. We were served a refreshing fare of salmon and chicken with chutney where the dressing was just right and the wine just dry enough – with coconut ices served in the shell on magenta tablecloths, and goody bags that made me forget my birthday and Christmas. Jealous? Please go there.

I wore tight zebra-skin pants with rhinestones, four-inch spikes, a full length white negligee, feathers exposing cleavage somewhere, and I fit right in.

When it comes to the Spirit Awards, everyone knew that Hilary Swank and Chloë Sevigny were going to win, so during the show we all took turns gazing at Peter Fonda in the Oxygen Bar. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the place to go during the awards was an oxygen tent, where vials of colored liquid oxygen in Southern California desert palette were lusciously served to you via your own designer breathing tube in teal by oxygen bartenders in black lab coats. I tried Nirvana – a lavender air – as I was offered a free phone call via sponsor Sprint. But on with the show!

The Stars: Oh, it is Steven Soderbergh. Hello, Steven. An orange juice, please. Oh, why it’s Pedro Almodovar walking in and out. Can’t he wait for his escort – a woman on crutches – crutching right after him? Can’t wait to see that in his next movie. Jeff Bridges was in front of us. He looks damn good in that frosted hair even if he was confused with Jeff Goldblum.

Farrah Fawcett was there. I stared, along with about 50 others. Her life is a goddamn independent film. How does she do it, looking 23? She was escorted by a man who looked just like her. Farrah, please don’t tell us it was your brother! Tell us you have been successfully cloned! I just can’t get enough of Farrah. I want her crazy, confused. Any way I can get her!

The Ceremony: The event started with a percussion piece. I don’t know if it was performance art, a sponsor’s idea, or the Phillip Glass version of multiculturalism, but it didn’t get us to our seats. What we needed was a recording of Cher yelling "Snap out of it and sit down!"

I was told that Meg Tilly would be hosting the event but it turned out to be her sister Jennifer. The afternoon was her doing Billy Crystal. Afterwards, the major complaint was her. But I liked Jennifer. She was upbeat, funny and deprecating about herself and the industry. And while everyone is so damn self-conscious in the independent film world, I found her common, feel-good approach relaxing. And she wore a toga made from silver foil gum wrappers!

Next year I propose RuPaul as the emcee. I also would love to see a musical number, a dance number, a "Saturday Night Live" version of The Blair Witch Project with the lights off in the audience and everyone screaming for one minute. But I suppose this is a no-no in the indie world which is supposed to be all about artistic vision, but geezus almighty! And speaking of the Almighty, the first person to be thanked at the Spirits was the Heavenly Father himself by the child Kimberly J. Brown in her acceptance speech for Best Debut Performance in the single-mother feel-good epic Tumbleweeds. The child thanked the Heavenly Father. Skip the Dog will be up next year. NO, I AM NOT KIDDING.

Election won for Best Feature with some whispering, "That wasn’t an independent film." And there certainly were sweet moments, like the makers of The Blair Witch Project asking the audience to please remember that the people in their film were acting! (And to please cast them.)

What was so uplifting about Hilary Swank in her sheer noir flapper look is that she thanked her husband, Chad Lowe, and the audience clapped for him. Ladies and gentlemen, I’d never before been given the opportunity to give Chad Lowe applause.

And Hilary Swank took her moment of glory to put an end to the Ally Sheedy backlash. (Everyone commented on Sheedy’s 20-minute acceptance speech last year.) But Swank just recalled it for herself: "Look, I won, and when will I ever have the opportunity again, so I won’t SHUT UP!" And that was beautiful, because the beauty of these events is to be able to see actors – who are always acting – win and see their real, unrehearsed emotion.

Producer James Schamus, in his keynote address, gave us all things we needed to hear. Everyone I talked to thought he brought up important points about independent film, finances and freedom of speech. Unfortunately though, we were out of school for the day playing hooky. His meaningful, thought-provoking speech should have been included in the goody bag for contemplation later. I didn’t go to the Oxygen Bar while he was talking, but the day wasn’t about issues for most. We were at the beach.

The After Party: If you want to-the-point composure and style, look to Chloë Sevigny, who accepted elegantly with her woodsy- toned paisley silk backless knee-length dress with heels that strained her calves. And she gave us all an extracinematic moment at the Boys Don’t Cry party afterwards at Shutters. After winning Best Supporting Actress, Chloë sat alone eating feta and assorted hors d’oeuvres, with Harmony’s suit jacket wrapped around her slender frame. There was something aloof, assertive and transforming in her giving herself this moment.

At the beach, where we came out after the event I stood next to Anthony Dod Mantle and congratulated him for being nominated for Best Cinematography for julien donkey-boy. He reminded me that he didn’t win and went on to comment on how big this event has become – too big. I told him to think about all those things tomorrow, next week, next year, but today think of all the things he had been through to get to this moment. Plus, how lovely the day is. How successful and fortunate we all are here and to feel the day’s joy.

We looked at the ocean and took in the day. And that is the true spirit of the Spirit Awards.


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