PALM SPRINGS, Calif.—Editing a manuscript might not be the most cinematic endeavors about which to make a documentary—unless the parties in question are Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb. For a half-century, Gottlieb has edited Caro’s work, including the not-yet-completed final volume of Caro’s definitive biography of Lyndon Johnson. “Turn Every Page — The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb” is directed by Gottlieb’s daughter, Lizzie Gottlieb, who had to tend the tall order not only of convincing both her father and Caro to be in the film at all, but to agree the two not be filmed together.
“This movie has no men in capes, no buildings are blown up, the world is not saved, and it’s so much more thrilling than any of those Marvel movies,” David Ansen, main programmer for Palm Springs Film Festival, said prior to the screening. “No disrespect to Marvel, but sometimes we need nothing more than two articulate and brilliant men to hold us rapt for two hours.”
“It’s a film about two men who are in a race against time to finish their life’s work—you might say a tortoise-like race, but that is what they are striving for,” Lizzie Gottlieb told me on the red carpet prior to her screening.
A natural question for her—perhaps even more so for Caro–is when that final volume of the LBJ biography will be completed. She said that “Turn Every Page” is far less about the finality of the project than this unique relationship between the two Bobs. “It’s more about what does this work like, what does it mean, what has it been, and what can it look like?”
Caro writes and Gottlieb marks it up with his red pen. Indeed, “Turn Every Page” is a film for those who have ever had an argument about grammar; Caro and Gottlieb share how they’ve had epic battles over the semicolon. They are seen together in the film only once to work, though their dictum was that the younger Gottlieb record no sound.
“I think a film about two very old men who spend their time sitting in rooms quietly thinking about word choice did not strike a lot of people as a cinematic bonanza,” Lizzie Gottlieb said at the screening, adding she spent the better part of a decade working on her documentary. “It was a unique perspective to bring people into [the] vanishing world of book publishing and a very peculiar work relationship that has spanned fifty years. I was in a position to bring you in.”
It’s also a story about the art of crafting a manuscript—especially when the complete record may be less than you’d hoped. Indeed, Caro shares in the film that he learned Johnson’s team had effectively cheated their way to winning his Senate race. Caro was heartbroken, but the complete record demanded to be shared (he also tells Gottlieb’s camera, “This is how an election is really stolen.”)
“I never wanted this to be an objective film that was an ode to two great men,” Lizzie Gottlieb told me. “I have a personal relationship to it of course—and to my father. I couldn’t make a dispassionate film…because I do have a lot at stake with him being 91 years old.”
India’s Pan Nalin was on hand for a screening of “Last Film Show,” a loosely autobiographical work about a young boy named Samay (newcomer Bhavin Rabari) who sneaks off to the movies as often as he can, and much to his father’s dismay.
Nalin shared that after his own first trip to the movies as a kid, his destiny was fixed.
“I told my teacher I wanted to ‘become’ movies, and he said, ‘You don’t become movies, you make movies,” Nalin said. “I think when we start watching film, somewhere we lose that sense of innocence. When we were kids we had no fear of being judged. That’s [the same] spirit [as] when we were filming this movie.”
Nalin said he auditioned over 3,000 actors before finding Rabari, who traveled from India for the screening. The young actor used his new knowledge of English to enthusiastically enchant the crowd. Then translating for his star, Nalin said Rabari believes the way people view “Last Picture Show” is that: “First they are laughing, then they are crying, then they are really hungry.”
“Last Picture Show,” which has much buzz about its chances being listed for the best foreign language Oscar, bears a striking similarity to “Meet the Fablemans,” Steven Spielberg’s film also loosely based on his young life making movies. Like the fictional father in “Last Picture Show,” Nalin’s own father was dubious about him working in movies, however, eventually he came around. Nalin also said that he hopes to soon make a trilogy about the man who “invented” martial arts in antiquity.
At a different screening, Czech filmmaker Petr Václav introduced “Il Boemo,” (featured image) a sumptuous realized film about Josef Myslivecek, a contemporary of Mozart’s who, if the film is to be believed, led a rather colorful life in eighteenth-century Italy, where his lovers included a wealthy society woman and a famous opera singer.
“Il Boemo” is indeed a feast for the eyes, even if its recreation of the composer’s life doesn’t necessarily have a traditional ending that will satisfy Westerners. It’s more a history lesson with a rather plentiful bit of eroticism and period detail in the mix. Comparisons to “Amadeus” are inevitable given that Mozart shows up in both movies, though only as a child in “Il Boemo.”
“You never know why you want to do a film,” Vaclav said. “I started to discover Myslivecek’s music. I love the aesthetic of eigtheenth century Italy [so] it’s like a crystallization of ideas” (featured image: “Il Boemo”).