Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

Custom Search

© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

In-fested with film

The next time that the governments of the world start handing out big money for worthy research projects, I hope at least one or two of them will consider supporting a cause that I think is very important and invariably overlooked. It is a condition that I call Film Festival Withdrawal Syndrome.

Now, some people may scoff at such an idea, but that is only because those people haven’t suffered through this agony themselves. It is time to start feeling outside of your own skin, people! Some of us are really hurting!

I personally first experienced this heartbreaking condition in June of 1987. That was the year that I first purchased a full-series pass to a film festival. And it wasn’t just any wimpy one-week film festival. It was the Seattle International Film Festival, which ran non-stop for a full three-and-a-half weeks. During that span of time, I attended no fewer than 68 festival programs. I got my first glimpses of well-regarded international films like Tampopo, Jean de Florette and Good Morning, Babylon, as well as such stomach-churning midnight movies as Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn and Dead-End Drive In (midnight movies frequently have the world “dead” in the title)—not to mention an evening with Dennis Hopper.

When you haven’t spent the better part of a month (with no days off) sitting in a cinema watching up to four or five movies a day, the first few days can be challenging. Your butt gets sore, you find yourself at times fighting to stay awake (especially through subtitled eastern European films) and you go through a degree of sensory deprivation because you lose contact with friends, family and generally the entire rest of the world. Wars may break out or end, natural catastrophes may rivet the attention of all the civilized nations, but you may not hear about any of it. If you do make contact with the outside world, you are likely to hear that other (non-film-festival-attending) people think you’re really weird.

But, as strange as the phenomenon of immersing yourself into film non-stop for an extended period may be, at least that experience is somewhat foreseeable. A rational mind can more or less imagine what it is going to be like to be booked up with movie-watching for weeks. What we don’t think about, however, is what it is going to be like when… the film festival ends! To the extent that we think about it at all, we simply imagine somewhere in the back of our mind that things will just go back to normal. They don’t. I still have an extremely vivid recollection of the closing night of the 1987 Seattle film festival. The final film was the Taviani brothers’ Good Morning, Babylon. When the movie ended, the lights went on. And suddenly, it was over. Unexpectedly, I felt a tremendous sense of loss and a bit of inexplicable panic, as the question went through my mind: What do I do now? For weeks I had not had to think about what I was going today, tomorrow or the next day. It was all laid out for me. There were no decisions to be made. (This was in the days when the Seattle film festival had a single venue, so one didn’t even have to choose between movies.) For the first time, I finally understood the shell-shocked looks on some of the faces of my high school classmates on graduation night—the ones who were not going to college, had no job lined up and had no girlfriend or boyfriend. That terrified look of what do I do now?

Although I have never since felt that emotional weight of film festival withdrawal as strongly as I did on that night in 1987, I still feel it to some extent at the end of every film festival I attend. Even ones where I only see a handful of movies. Basically, it is an experience that scars you for life. I felt it again on Sunday evening when the lights went up in the Galway Omniplex after the screening of the German film Tough Enough. There were only a handful of other people in the auditorium. (I had eschewed the formal closing night film and awards ceremony at the Town Hall, to save a bit of money and wear and tear on my arse. It used to be important for me to see the awards handed out, but it isn’t anymore.) Everyone else left when the credits began to roll, so when the lights went on, I was there alone. If I had Peggy Lee’s voice, I would have stood up and broke into a rendition of “Is That All There Is?”

One of the most nagging aspects of film festival withdrawal is, when you have had a full-series pass, you grow addicted to the luxury of merely flashing the card at the ticket collector and waltzing right into the movie. It’s a small thing, really. But for those few seconds you feel as if you own the cinema. While other people are queuing up to buy tickets or searching their pockets or handbags for the ticket they stuffed away in a distracted moment, you simply display the laminated card that is hanging around your heck or is clipped to your shirt and saunter through like a V.I.P. It is a great feeling, made only better by the fact that, for some reason, the ticket collector invariably smiles at you, as if you are an old friend or a respected colleague. They don’t give you the same look as when they stare down at your ticket, to make sure it is valid, and tear it in half. And, in the early days of the Seattle film festival, it was even better, in the case of packed houses and sell-outs, because the passholders had their own queue that was let in before the riffraff, who were holding mere tickets. As far as I know, the SIFF still has a separate passholder line, but in later years there got to be so many passholders that the passholder queue was nearly as long as the ticketholder line. It got to where you had to have a full-series pass, just to have a chance of getting a decent seat.

So, yes, I did survive another Galway Film Fleadh. Somehow this year, things seemed that bit quieter. The Town Hall pub never seemed as busy and buzzing as previous years. And not a single film I attended packed a completely full house. Maybe it was the unseasonably warm weather that graced the city (and the whole country) the last several days of the fleadh. Although a very warm Saturday afternoon didn’t stop a good turnout (appropriate enough) for the climate-change documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

As noted last time, I spent more time than I care to admit at McDonald’s, but I did make a happy discovery midway through the film fest. I found that, in the city center, La Salsa (a burrito joint on par with, say, Taco del Mar in the U.S.) was in range of an internet hotspot. The signal wasn’t as strong and the seating not as comfortable as Mickey D’s, but the food was much better.

Anyway, I hope you have been touched by my heartrending personal testimony of film festival withdrawal. Please seek and out support charities that address this serious social problem. If only more countries followed Ireland’s example. To its credit, Ireland has facilities to treat people suffering from this condition in virtually every city, town and village in the country. They are called pubs.

-S.L., 20 July 2006

If you would like to respond to this commentary or to anything else on this web site, please send a message to Messages sent to this address will be considered for publishing on the Feedback Page without attribution. (That means your name, email address or anything else that might identify you won’t be included.) Messages published will be at my discretion and subject to editing. But I promise not to leave something out just because it’s unflattering.

If you would like to send me a message but not have it considered for publishing, you can send it to

Commentaries Archive