Seen at the Movies: The New York Film Festival

opens tonight with Alexander Payne's About Schmidt, starring the one and only Jack Nicholson. His character, Warren Schmidt, is a recently retired Omaha insurance actuary further unmoored by the sudden death of his wife of 42 years. Setting out in the enormous Winnebago that had been intended for the couple's golden-years travels, Schmidt revisits places from his past, as well as various Nebraska and Kansas tourist spots and RV parks. His final destination: Denver, where he hopes to halt the impending marriage of his daughter (Hope Davis) to a jovial if rather dim waterbed salesman (Dermot Mulroney).

Jack in blue-gray

As his 1996 Citizen Ruth and especially his 1999 Election proved, Omaha native Payne is a special talent, possessed of a smart, satiric, but essentially good-hearted view of his fellow Midwesterners. About Schmidt is a different—in some ways, more ambitious—kind of project for him, in that so much of it is focused on and focalized through a single character. In a sense, the movie is all Nicholson, and he gives an uncharacteristically reined-in and amazingly eloquent performance: it's a career high for the actor, who is certain to be an Oscar contender. Just watch the play of discomfort and anxiety on his face during the hollow tributes at Schmidt's retirement dinner—this is what screen acting is all about. The nearly silent performance is punctuated by voiceovers directed to the six-year-old Tanzanian child he has sponsored through the Childreach ( organization; these monologues are hilarious, yet they give the audience crucial clues to Schmidt's character that even he—maybe he, especially, for the man has led an unexamined life—cannot fathom.

Though the cumulative effect is rather bleak, Payne's treatment of this character feels consistently on-target. I found the director's tone while attempting to capture the film's broader canvas to be bit wobbly, however. The balance in his satire—which was kept on an expertly even keel throughout Election--tips towards the cartoonish with characters like Mulroney's mullet-sporting fiancé, for example. Kathy Bates is irresistibly entertaining--and at one point, fully nude--as Mulroney's free-spirited, libidinous mother, but her character is also a bit much. Still, About Schmidt is a distinctive slice of Americana.

Payne has worked with the same creative team on all his films, and the straightforward look of Citizen Ruth and Election here evolves into something with more visual character. Omaha still looks like America's grayest city, but DP James Glennon draws us subtly into Schmidt's world with wide lenses, and when the character hits the road, he finds a plainspoken beauty in the landscape. Costume designer Wendy Chuck and production designer Jane Ann Stewart wittily contrast Schmidt's monochromatic universe with the colorful settings and loud clothes of his prospective in-laws.

Kathy in full color

"I loved the way Roberta painted her house," said Bates about her character's saturated environment during a New York Film Festival press conference. The actress added that she talked extensively with Stewart about how the items cluttering her character's house—a large, unused harp, for example—should reflect different "things she's tried in her life." Among other issues, Payne talked at the press conference about location scouting: "I drive around Omaha. I do a lot of the scouting myself, that's the only way I can do it. It's easier now—on Citizen Ruth, people were calling the police." As for Nicholson, he spoke articulately about his acting processes, the character of Warren Schmidt, and his feelings about the Midwest. Though he was wearing tinted glasses and had lost Schmidt's combover, Nicholson wasn't doing a movie-star number; after several questioners addressed him as "Mr. Nicholson," he responded, in his inimitable cadence: "Call me Jack."

About Schmidt will be released by New Line Cinema in December. The 40th New York Film Festival, which is sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, will continue through Oct. 13. I'll be back with more updates on festival offerings over the next two weeks.--John Calhoun

Seen in Philly, Part I: If you can only see one thing this year, try to make sure it's The Rolling Stones "Licks" tour. What a concert! With production design by Mark Fisher, lighting design by Patrick Woodroffe, video design by Willie Williams and direction by Christine Strand, the show is more about the band and the music than the recent Stones tours. In fact, there are three sizes of "Licks": stadium, arena, and theatre versions, with different decor and lighting for each one. I saw the arena version at First Union Center in Philadelphia, where the backdrop is a giant 55'-tall video screen used as kinetic scenery and not just as I-mag. Williams' video design mixes everything from computer-generated lips to an animated Honky Tonk Woman riding a studded Rolling Stones logo tongue. Woodroffe's lighting is multilayered, mixing bright, saturated colors and a lot of punch in the automated luminaires, some of which run up and down the video screens, then calming down to a small, simple rig over the B stage in the middle of the house.

VLPS Lighting Services provided much of the rig, including (12) VL2402™ luminaires, (49) VL2416™ luminaires, (46) VL6C™ luminaires, (40) VL5™ luminaires, (12) VL5™Arc luminaires, (7) 7K Syncrolites, (24) 3K Syncrolites, (38) X-spot HOs, (24) Studio Beams, (32) Molemag Scrollers, (86) PAR-64s, (96) ACL PAR cans, (16) 3K Diversitronic strobes, (16) MR-16 8' Ministrips, (78) Molefay 8-Lites, (28) Blue Bulkhead Lights, (4) T-Lights, (5) Lycian Starklites, (8) 3K Gladiators, (2) Flying Pig Systems Wholehog 2 consoles, (8) Reel EFX DF-50 Hazers, (2) Roadie Smoke Machines, (160') Stacking Truss, (424') 20.5" medium-duty truss, (4) CM Hoist two-ton motors, (65) CM Hoist one-ton motors, (3) CM Hoist 1/4-ton, 32' per minute motors. Fourth Phase provided additional lights from High End Systems, and Syncrolite provided the proprietary 3K and 7K units, which are a big part of the show. Jim Straw is lighting director and lighting crew chief Ethan Weber is also the lighting director for the theatre shows, running them on an Avolites Diamond III console. Jake Berry is production director for all versions. Mick Jagger is of course the star of the show, exhibiting more energy than the Energizer Bunny.--Ellen Lampert-Gréaux

Seen in Philly, Part II: It's always fun when the circus comes to town, especially when it's the Cirque du Soleil. Their new touring show, Varekai, is indeed great fun and very colorful, with set design by Stephane Roy, lighting by Nol van Genuchten, costumes by Eiko Ishioka, and projections by Francis Laporte. The context is a golden forest where the creature inhabitants frolic amongst the trees, a combination of aluminum and carbon steel poles up to 35' high and shimmering in the light. They perform in a clearing, a large circular stage, with the musicians playing in the wings.

The more than 130 costumes in the show are particularly inventive, evoking various animal and bird shapes for some of the acrobats, with wings, scales, and tails. A rather rickety-looking ladder rises up and creates a bridge across the stage; of course, it is strong enough to carry the acrobats, but it looks like the forest creatures built it themselves out of sticks or bamboo poles. The same stick motif carries over to decorate the four masts that both hold up the large blue and yellow striped tent, and serve as lighting positions and followspot platforms. Lighted orbs fly in, and a giant freeform balloon glides through the air, with projected birds fluttering inside. Additional projections appear on two large sheets of fabric that the acrobats fly into and slide down to the floor on, as the energy level builds to a crescendo at the end of the show. It was standing room only as well as a standing ovation for Varekai, which will continue to tour throughout 2004.--ELG

Heard in the Wings: As San Francisco-based theatre consultant Len Auerbach celebrates the 30th anniversary of his firm, the very name of the firm has changed. Formerly Auerbach & Associates, the new name is Auerbach-Pollack-Friedlander, with Steve Pollack now vice-president in charge of the San Francisco office, and Steven Friedlander now vice president in charge of the New York office. All three are members of the American Society of Theatre Consultants. Patricia Glasow, IALD, is vice president in charge of Auerbach + Glasow, the architectural lighting side of the practice. Auerbach-Pollack-Friedlander specializes in the planning and design of performing-arts and media facilities, with recent projects ranging from the Mesa Arts Center to Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall.--ELG

Seen in Texas: Various old movie locations. Seen the real Alamo, in San Antonio? Well, you just have to drive 120 miles west and see the full-scale replica built for John Wayne's 1960 film The Alamo. It's still standing on Happy Shahan's ranch near Brackettville, and it's been used in other TV movies and historical reenactions of the famous 1835 siege. Furthermore, next door is Alamo Village, a two-street, 18-building western town mockup that has played host to about 200 film, television, commercial, and music video productions, including Bandolero, Barbarosa, Lonesome Dove, and Bad Girls. A helpful guide in gunslinger costume says don't expect Disney's upcoming version of The Alamo to visit the location, however: "They'll be going for awards on that one, and production designers don't win Oscars for using hand-me-down sets."…Another 250 miles west, the skeletal remains of the famous Giant house still stand, on the Ryan Ranch near Marfa. A few fruitless passes back and forth at the supposed spot finally prompted a scan through binoculars…and there it was, a bare collection of sticks at least a mile off the road. And there I was, a movie nerd deep in the heart of Texas.--JC.

About Schmidt photos: Claudette Barius/New Line Productions.