Vulture Festival, an annual pop-culture showcase, descended upon the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel over the Nov. 17-18 weekend, providing programming options running the gamut of entertainment for two full days, beginning at 9 a.m. and lasting until 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. There was no redundancy in the programming, either; each panel or presentation occurred once, and each session required its own attendee registration — as seating per event was limited. The dual function of most of the sessions was to promote content and provide fan service. Thus, the fangirls and fanboys who attended enjoyed the festival just as much as the jet-setters and industry folk who composed most of its audience.
The biggest names flashing on the event’s proverbial marquee included Jim Carrey, Chloë Grace Moretz, Tatum O’Neal, Zach Braff, Eric Bana and Constance Wu. Most of the stars were featured in one-on-one interviews, presentations about upcoming shows and cast & crew reunions. Obviously, the higher the star-meter rating of the panelists, the more security screening was required prior to admittance into the session. Extensive security procedures, including metal detectors and CIA-looking security ready to pat down and wand, greeted guests outside of sessions such as Jim Carrey’s panel, which featured the actor-artist being interviewed by Pulitzer Prize–winner Jerry Saltz, New York Magazine and Vulture senior art critic.
The Carrey session began with a little documentary film, showcasing Carrey’s new life as a painter. The film basically addressed all of the facets of Carrey’s art life that Saltz would then discuss. There was his discovery of painting as a way to deal with a broken heart, and discussion of the overwhelming degree to which creating art has become a constant in his life. Carrey also went into his views of Christ imagery and shared revelations about how reflecting upon his own artwork has allowed him to more fully understand himself. Saltz’s questions also delved into Carrey’s technique, work habits and his criticism of the Trump administration.
During the latter half of the hourlong presentation, Saltz projected some of Carrey’s biting political cartoons — which Carrey publishes prolifically on Twitter — and asked the artist to talk about them. The panel was as entertaining as it was informative and touching. More than once, Carrey got misty-eyed — as when pointing out that when he is painting he loses touch with time and, in those moments, feels he's sharing a spiritual space with his deceased mother. The other teary moment came when Carey was contemplated the death of Aretha Franklin and how much beauty she gave the world, contrasted with the state of the world at the time of her passing. This latter moment led into a great rant against racism.
Carrey filled his panel with impassioned, spiritually motivated quotes. Among these were: “We are all sculptors in our lives”; “When the brush hits the canvas, it’s like hitting the pond with a rock, and it doesn’t stop [rippling]; it goes around the world”; “Pence has a face of absolute insincerity!”; and “4,000 documented lies in two years doesn’t lie" (in reference to Donald Trump). After the hour was up, the audience took their elation, new knowledge and/or newfound appreciation of Carrey’s soul and marched out of the hall to get a drink at the poolside lounge or head into another pop-icon showcase. Naturally, not all of the programs would be as passionately driven or exuding of belief, but then, no one ever said pop culture was based on providing meaningful and spiritually uplifting content to the masses.
Some of the more fan service–centric showcases included a screening of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald featuring a Q&A with Academy Award–winning costume designer Colleen Atwood; a Scrubs reunion; a screening of The Devil Wears Prada with anecdotes from screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna and director David Frankel; and, in celebration of its 10th anniversary, a screening of the True Blood pilot, featuring live commentary by show creator Alan Ball.
The True Blood session began with Ball recalling the moment he discovered the Southern Vampire Mysteries series — upon which his HBO series was based — while browsing at a bookstore. After that, the screening began. Ball rattled off factoids and anecdotes as the show ran. He revealed that the pilot episode of the series, which is set in Louisiana, was shot in Los Angeles and that the addition of hanging Spanish moss to the various sets helped create the illusion. Ball revealed that when he first pitched the show, he had bullshitted, “It’s about the terrors of intimacy.” He pointed out that the show’s star, Anna Paquin, had been craving the role of Sookie Stackhouse, and she had to read for the role five times.
As is the case at insider gatherings like this, Vulture Festival revealed lots of interesting behind-the-scenes info. Ball told how the industry has changed in regards to addressing the production of nude scenes; specifically, he said the industry has introduced "intimacy coordinators" into the ranks of various crews. As for the predominance of graphic nudity in his series and the issues that it raised in terms of shooting, he shrugged it off and said, “They’re actors. ... I was more embarrassed [directing them] than they were.”
Some of the other hourlong sessions — essentially all of the programming sessions, not including feature film screenings, lasted an hour — included showcases of new series like Deadly Class, The Other Two and Dirty John. One of the episodic show sessions featured the premiere of an upcoming episode from the satirical series Documentary Now! The episode satirized documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker’s 1970 film Original Cast Album: Company, which chronicles the making of the Broadway cast recording of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company. This session began with a few clips from the Pennebaker film, for context, and the Documentary Now! episode, which followed, was brilliant. Following the screening, a panel consisting of stars Taran Killam, Paula Pell and James Urbaniak and series directors Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono discussed the episode’s production and answered questions about the series in general.
Other panels of note that I had a chance to experience included Off Book: The Improvised Musical Podcast Live! and Extreme Gaming Championship. The former featured the talents of Zach Reino and Jessica McKenna (with special guest Rachel Bloom), who improvised a musical comedy about the Hollywood Tower. The performance was bawdy, intelligent and hysterical; naturally, guests were encouraged to check out the duo’s 70 or so other podcasts in the series. For Extreme Gaming Championship, Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley) and Mike Still (Drunk History) — with special guests Adam Pally and Alison Rich — invited guests to compete on nostalgic video games, while they provided comedic chops and cheered on the champions.
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For the first half of the session, technical problems persisted, and once things got going, controversy over one of the games provided unintentional tension. The game, "Beat 'Em & Eat 'Em," had a pornographic objective to maneuver female characters to gulp the ejaculate of a rooftop masturbator. After the game was introduced, one emotionally charged female voice championed a well-supported movement to veto this game from the proceedings. The presenters used humor and alcohol to diffuse the various tensions throughout the program, which despite the early misjudgment wound up being fun for the crowd, who cheered on the players of other games presented.
Pop culture is really a mish-mosh. It includes nuggets of great social value and astute commentary on society and politics. It also includes material that caters to the lowest common denominator. Given that people have an unquenchable thirst for entertainment and escapism, there will never be a scarcity of creative output that satisfies both camps, or of publications like Vulture to celebrate them. Showcasing them in the flesh adds an additional dimension that fans will pay to experience.
This year's Vulture Festival provided a pleasant cross-section of such creations and showcased them in the warm and lively environment of the Hollywood Roosevelt — although the AC was cranked to freezing in a number of the sessions. The showcases generally ranged from $20 to $40 a pop, which seemed reasonable for the relatively intimate sessions. After attending the last of Sunday’s programming, guests filed back out onto Hollywood Boulevard — many of them eager to return next year, wondering aloud which stars will be featured next.