The 53rd edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) came to a close on May 6, having sold out 92 screenings during its successful 15-day run. While I'm still mulling over the three dozen films I saw during those two weeks—all of which I hope to write about—here's a look back at five of this year's special events.
I've been coming to the SFIFF for a few decades now, and 2010 was only the second time I've attended the opening night festivities. Someday I might grow to feel blasé about the event, but for now I still get caught up in the glamour of it all. My suit came out of the closet for the first time since last year's opening night, and despite a major MUNI snafu I was second in line and able to secure myself a choice, unreserved aisle seat in the Castro Theater. After perusing the contents of my goodie bag—which I placed under my seat and regrettably forgot at evening's end—I spent 90 minutes chatting with friends who were equally amped up for two weeks of movies, movies, movies.
The program started 20 minutes late, presumably to accommodate late arrivals from the aforementioned MUNI delay. Late that afternoon, a man either jumped or fell onto the Castro St. Station subway tracks and was killed, effectively terminating all train service until mid-evening. Finally at 7:20PM, SF Film Society Executive Director Graham Leggat took the stage and welcomed everyone, reminding us that this was his fifth year at the festival's helm—"the best five years of my life." The resounding applause and cheers hopefully told Leggat that the feeling is mutual.
This year's opening night film was Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Micmacs, which the director assured us had nothing to do with Big Macs, and everything to do with his new favorite English word, shenanigans. I've enjoyed all of Jeunet's films, except the one everybody adores (yes, Amelie, I'm talking about you). Reviews for Micmacs have been mixed, but it turned out to be a perfect opening night film—inventive, fast-paced, comical, crowd pleasing. I couldn't remember much about it the next day, but I did recall how much fun I had while watching it. After the screening, the festival's new Director of Programming Rachel Rosen interviewed Jeunet and conducted an audience Q&A. We learned that the director "wanted to put everything I love in this film," which ranged from animator Tex Avery to Mission Impossible, and that he's "not interested in realism." When asked if he might ever work again with Marc Caro (co-director of Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children), Jeunet diplomatically replied, "it's so good to work alone." With the final question, Jeunet got off the best line of the evening in regards to Micmacs poor reception on his home front: "In France they love to hate what they loved before." With that, the ebullient crowd adjourned to the Regency Center for a swinging after-party. The nibbly things I sampled there were delicious, and I washed them down with the beer everyone who frequents Landmark Theaters loves to hate.
I hadn't attended the festival's Founder's Directing Award program since it was given to Arturo Ripstein in 1999 (when it was still known as the Akira Kurosawa Award). In the interim years I've skipped honorees both deserving (Coppola, Leigh, Lee, Herzog, Forman, Altman, Kiarostami) and, imho, questionable (Eastwood, Beatty, Hackford). When I unexpectedly found myself with a free night on April 28, I high-tailed it over to the Sundance Kabuki Cinema for this year's tribute to Brazilian director Walter Salles (Central Station, The Motorcycle Diaries).
Firstly, I wish someone had clued me in on how handsome this guy is so I could have ogled him from the front row. But from my seat in the Kabuki's large House One it was easy to perceive the man's warmth and self-effacing intelligence. The evening began with introductory remarks by Leggat, followed by a clips reel of career highlights. Then came the on-stage conversation with Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who started things off by saying, "Let's put the guns down before we start, and talk about the sex life of Mr. Walter Salles." Hear, hear! I loved hearing about Salles' early life as a diplomat's son living atop a Parisian arthouse theater. Twelve-year-old Walter frequented that cinema so often, the ticket seller began letting him in for free. But he longed for Brazil: "I hated the drizzle, the cold, the croissants." During the talk it was also revealed that Salles spent a full year casting the boy in Central Station, that Latin Americans do not make good genre films (i.e., his own remake of Hideo Nakata's Dark Water), and that Argentina currently has the strongest cinema in Latin America (little to argue about there). He also acknowledged that "Antonioni is the director who brought me to cinema," specifically 1975's The Passenger.
Before getting to the evening's main event, Salles shared a short film that had been screened only once before—for the 60th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival. In it, he addresses his six-month-old son, saying, "If I could choose just one film for you to see before any other, it would be this one." Then we saw an infant entranced by Chaplin dancing with the globe balloon in The Great Dictator. Salles remarked that they screened a DVD projection for the first take, and his son just wasn't interested. For the second take they projected it in 35mm and this time he became fully engaged by Chaplin's antics. What a smart, discerning kid!
As a special treat made exclusively for the SFIFF, Salles next showed us a one-hour work-in-progress documentary about his efforts to film Jack Kerouac's On the Road. It was edited in just one week from 100 hours of mini-DV and super-8 interview and location footage. Salles, who first read the book as a 15-year-old, feared that showing an incomplete film about The Beats in San Francisco might be a "suicidal act," but the festival audience ate it up. In its current state, the film gives an impressionistic overview of Kerouac's work and the times from which it sprang. An off-camera Matt Dillon intermittently reads passages from the book, and contemporary figures ranging from Laurie Anderson to Johnny Depp to David Byrne reflect on its influence. There are terrific interviews with key players who are still with us (Michael McClure, Carolyn Cassady), as well as vintage screen tests by Brendan Fraser, Ashley Judd, Mathew McConaughey and others made for a previous attempt at filming the book. Directors as diverse as D.A. Pennebaker and Jean-Luc Godard have been interested in the project, but based on the evidence presented that night, Salles is clearly the man for the job. Indeed just one week after this event, it was announced that shooting for Salles' On the Road (the narrative feature) will begin in August. The next day at the festival, Salles would conduct a master class, as well as introduce a screening of his 2008 film, Linha de Passe.
On Saturday, May 1st, I must have changed my mind a dozen times. Should I spend the early evening at the Kabuki watching a French orangutan documentary (Nenette) and a Brazilian movie (The Famous and the Dead) before heading over to the Castro for the late-night world premiere of All About Evil? Or should I catch Roger Ebert receiving this year's Mel Novikoff Award at the Castro? I chose the latter and it turned out to be a smart move. The combination of Roger Ebert and Peaches Christ made for one of the most fabulous evenings I've experienced in 35 years of attending this festival.
Ebert and his wife Chaz were brought onstage and seated while four directors delivered heartfelt and hilarious tributes to the man they call "The Thumb." Terry Zwigoff recalled Ebert being the first person in line for a 1985 Telluride screening of Louis Bluie, and later sold him a soundtrack LP in the theater lobby. He also told a great story about a Crumb test screening. The audience survey cards were overwhelming negative—they thought the storyline about brother Charles should be dropped—so Zwigoff "fixed" the cards with the help of Wite-Out and a late-night trip to Kinko's. Ebert would become a steadfast champion of the film, going so far as to record a commentary track for the DVD release (much of which would be used for the text-to-speech software that allows the now "speechless" Ebert to speak through a computer). Next, documentarian Errol Morris called Ebert, "not just a film critic, but a cultural icon." He was followed by Jason Reitman who, commenting upon Ebert's social networking prowess, declared "I know teenage girls who tweet less than Robert Ebert." Reitman would also add that, "It's hard to put Roger Ebert's work into context when it's him who puts us into context."
Last up was Philip Kaufman, who took a seat next to Ebert and Chaz and read a mayoral proclamation declaring May 1, 2010 "Roger Ebert Day" in San Francisco. Then the man himself fired up his laptop and brought the house down with his first sentence, "My little man is standing on his chair and applauding." The rest of Ebert's speech railed against Hollywood's current output of sequels and so-called blockbusters ("The studios are running like lemmings to 3-D") while films like Erick Zonka's Julia, featuring a tour de force performance by Tilda Swinton, gross a measly $65,000 in U.S. release. (Locally, the film ran for one week last summer on the SF Film Society's Kabuki Screen before moving over to the Roxie). The tribute audience then got to see and judge Julia for itself, having been specifically chosen by Ebert to accompany his appearance at the festival. A letter of regret from Swinton was read to the crowd—she had hoped to attend the screening but was stuck filming on the East coast. I was thrilled to watch it a second time, especially on the Castro's big screen. It's a tough little film and there were a few walkouts, but the applause at the end was booming.
I darted out of the Castro and was greeted by the sight of blood-splattered klieg lights clawing the night sky. Then I noticed a dead body flopped across the base of the lights and a ticketholders line already around the block a full two hours before showtime. This could only mean one thing—the world premiere of Peaches Christ's All About Evil! From my vantage point in the press line, I was able to watch the red carpet parade of outlandish costumes and mile-high hairdos, praying that none of those 'dos ended up sitting in front of me. (This was a movie theater, after all, and not a planetarium.) As Peaches would remark at some point in the evening ("Peaches" being the beloved late-night movie hostess alter-ego of one Joshua Grannell), a movie only gets one world premiere. And boy did he/she pull out the stops to ensure All About Evil's would be momentous.
The All About Evil preshow consisted of no less than four musical production numbers, the first one featuring Peaches and a dozen pom-pom shaking monstrosities performing, "I'm a Gore-Gore Girl." Afterwards, she threatened the audience with a three-hour preshow in which she would single-handedly act out the entire movie onstage. Next she brought out All About Evil cast member Mink Stole and the duo croaked out the theme song from John Water's film, Female Trouble. Peaches and Mink go way back, the latter having been the first "celebrity" to appear at Peaches' Midnight Mass film series at San Francisco's Bridge Theater. Waters was also in the house that night and stood for a round of applause. Teen heartthrob and All About Evil co-star Thomas Dekker was next on board, performing the movie's rocking theme song, "Welcome to the Horror Show." Then Natasha Lyonne, who stars as mousy theater-owner turned murderous film director Deborah Tennis (pronounced De-BOR-ah Ten-NIS) wrapped things up with a final number.
After all that hullabaloo, one almost expected the film itself to be anti-climactic. But no, All About Evil delivered the sicko thrills and chills. Two scenes in particular had all 1400 audience members screaming their collective heads off in disbelief, and neither was the film-within-the-film, A Tale of Two Severed Titties. By the time the Q&A wrapped up—with Peaches now out of drag and onstage as plain old Joshua Grannell—it was two in the morning. Everyone was handed a commemorative All About Evil world premiere poster upon exiting the theater, which I'll surely treasure for the rest of my days. It was Saturday night and the Castro Street bars were emptying out—a phenomenon I hadn't witnessed in many years. I was satisfied and spent and had no hope of making it to the next morning's surprise SF Film Society members screening.
If you weren't there that night, here's good news. Come October, Peaches will be presenting the film, complete with a preshow, at San Francisco's Victoria Theater (where All About Evil was actually filmed). She promises a full-on William Castle-like experience—I think her exact words were "we're gonna stab you and chainsaw you." Meanwhile, check out Dennis Harvey's recollection of the evening at SF360, and don't miss The Evening Class' Michael Guillén and his interviews with Grannell, special effects artist Aurora Bergere and five cast members. Now for a special treat, the evening's complete opening number.
I spent the next few days singing, "I'm a gore, I'm a whore, I'm a gore-gore girl" and desperately needed a new earworm. One came in the form of the rousing and repetitive chorus that greeted each new chapter of Stuart Paton's 1916 silent screen adaptation of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. This May 4 Castro Theater screening was also the world premiere of a new score composed and performed by The Magnetic Fields' frontman Stephin Merritt, with help from Daniel Handler on accordion, David Hegarty on the Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer and a gentleman playing tuba and trumpet.
Merritt was clearly having a goof with it, blending his customary old-timey vibe with injections of electronic bleeping and screechy freakouts. Speaking and singing through megaphones, Handler gave voice to the female roles in an abrasive Olive Oyl-y falsetto while Merritt handled the male parts in a low register that was mostly inaudible. The film itself is kind of unremarkable—a flatly directed mash-up of Verne's 20,000 Leagues and The Mysterious Island, with underwater photography that was stunning for its time but is now merely quaint. Merritt exploited the film's campier aspects, such as a sarong-clad "child of nature" who sings a ditty about not wanting to wear pants and who turns out to be Captain Nemo's long lost daughter. I thought it was all good-natured fun and Merritt's legion of fans seemed satisfied, but I know some likened the performance to a bad episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I was glad I went, but it paled compared to last year when Dengue Fever blew the dome off the Castro with their score for the stop-motion dinosaur epic, The Lost World.
Cross-published on film-415 and Twitch. Photos by Pamela Gentile and Pat Mazzera courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society and SF360.