The Penn is Mightier

At least I didn't run into Sean Penn in the bathroom ...

So, which you like to hear about first -- what the AFI Dallas International Film Festival people are doing at the Toronto International Film Festival, or what I said to Sean Penn in the bathroom Saturday night after one of us had clearly had one Havana Club too many? Thought so.

So, yeah, the AFI people are here, including CEO and artistic director Michael Cain, who brought with him five staffers, including programming and marketing peeps, to sell the Dallas fest to the largest annual gathering of bizzers and buzzmakers in North America. They're already prepping next spring's shindig, most likely by scheduling some January and February events by bringing to Dallas well-known filmmakers for some special events, including ... well, it was off the record, but at least one major movie celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2008 is expected to be feted early in the annum, with the director in attendance.

On Saturday night, AFI Dallas threw a fancy throwdown at the same club where, last year, Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner entertained Jeff Goldblum, writer-director Hal Hartley, documentary legend Al Maysles and about 1,000 of their closest pals. Cuban's not around -- probably off getting ready to dance with the stars. Wagner was around for a couple of days, though: He and Cuban produced Redacted, the based-on-a-true-tale Iraq War horror story for which writer-director Brian De Palma just won the best director award at the Venice Film Festival.

But, Sean Penn. Really, not much of a story. Christopher Kelly, film critic for the Fort Worth Star Telegram, and I were invited on Saturday night to attend a little dinner for the Joel and Ethan Coen movie No Country For Old Men. Wasn't gonna go -- had something to see, something to write, something. Besides, as much fun as it sounds to go to dinner with famous directors, it's really not -- you wind up sitting with people you know listening to them talk about things you don't really care about. Same goes for them. Lord knows they don't go to those things wanting to sit with me.

Only, this dinner was the exception. Because every time I'd go outside for a smoke, there'd be somebody famous doing the same thing. Like, oh, I dunno ... Diane Lane, say. Or Clive Owen. Or Eddie Vedder. By the time we left the dinner, crowded outside were those folks and the rest of the guest list: Catherine Keener, Woody Harrelson, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Emily Mortimer, the Coens. Word was Brad Pitt had found out about the party and was on his way over. It was like an issue of Entertainment Weekly had exploded. "So this is what an Oscar party looks like," Chris said, as Catherine Keener was apologizing to him for barely bumping him

"You're staring," I told him.

"So?" he said.

All that's more interesting than my Penn story, but here it is. Before dinner was served I went to the bathroom. Long hallway, very dark, go left, take the first right. So I'm making a right, and taking a left into my right shoulder is Penn, looking like he's slept eight hours in the past eight years -- dark suit, darker circles under his eyes.

As it happens, a few hours earlier I'd gone to see Into the Wild, Penn's elegiac, kinda moving and surprisingly funny adaptation of Jon Krakauer's book. So we pass each other, kinda brush-bump each other, and that's that -- he walks past, I walk on. But for whatever reason, I can't let it go. So I turn around and tell Penn, "Hey, man, really dug your movie."

"Hunh?" he said. "Oh. Thanks."

Shoulda been that. Wasn't.

"No, man," I tell him. "It was great, really profound, amazing." Pretty sure I rattled off half a dozen other adjectives. No idea why. Not proud. Really had to piss. Not proud.

"Cool. Thanks." A beat. We both turned walked away. I walked into the bathroom. Saw another guy who'd been sitting at our table. He was washing his hands.

"Hey, man," he says, grinning like he'd won the lottery, "Sean Penn was just in here."

You don't say. --Robert Wilonsky


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