By Meredith Brody
There are probably as many ways of approaching the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival, which will unspool (as Variety would have it) from April 24 to May 8, 2008, as there are filmgoers to attend it. The hardcore cinephiles will try to see it all – good luck, with 177 films from 49 countries in 38 languages scheduled, at the newly renovated, very posh Sundance Kabuki, the venerable big-screen Castro, Landmark’s Clay Theatre [www.landmarktheatres.com/market/SanFrancisco/ClayTheatre.htm], and across the bay at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. (Still, the Festival has slimmed down a bit from last year’s 50th anniversary – the first film festival in the Americas to reach that milestone – which programmed 200 films from 54 countries, which ought to help out the obsessed. A little.)
More focused moviegoers can cherry-pick: in the back of the 208-page festival program guide is a useful Country Index (which even includes settings, for you armchair voyagers). Francophiles can head straight to the 25 films listed therein, including the opening night film The Last Mistress, from daring director Catherine Breillat, starring the equally daring Asia Argento, who the Festival characterizes as “alluringly vulpine.” (For Argentophiles, be advised that she’s also appearing in two other movies this year: her father, stylish Italian horror director Dario Argento’s Mother of Tears, which co-stars her mother Daria Nicolodi, premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival and is already a cult film abroad; and Abel Ferrara’s Go Go Tales, in which she appears as a lap-dancing stripper – it’s a stretch. Anyway, this makes her this year’s SFIFF’s Sundance/Parker Posey equivalent.)
One of the pleasures of attending the Festival is watching a film embedded in an audience that’s often heavily attended by expatriates and immigrants from its country of origin, making checking out films from Asia (China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, all represented), Eastern Europe (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Ukraine), and other distant lands (Iran, Rwanda, even Canada) an even more interesting experience.
For starry-eyed cinephiles and auteurists who love to breathe in the same air as their idols, there are numerous special evenings, with on-stage interviews, clip shows, and screenings, devoted to directors and actors – even writers and critics! On Wednesday, April 30, the Founder’s Directing Award goes to Mike Leigh, with a screening of his Gilbert-and-Sullivan biopic, Topsy-Turvy. Maria Bello receives the Peter J. Owens Award, and shows her new The Yellow Handkerchief, on Friday, May 2. The Kanbar Award will be presented to screenwriter Robert (“Chinatown”) Towne on Saturday, May 3, and screens Shampoo. The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman receives the Mel Novikoff Award and shows In the City of Sylvia on Sunday, April 27. Brilliant documentarian Errol Morris’s new Standard Operating Procedure, about the Abu Ghraib photos, will screen when he receives the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award on Tuesday, April 29. And a celebration of the Midnight Awards, honoring actors Rose McGowan and Jason Lee, will start at 10:30 at the W Hotel on Saturday, April 26 (and no doubt continue until an hour appropriate for its name). Pricey tickets are also available for the Film Society Awards Night, on Thursday May 1, with a cocktail reception, dinner, and awards program featuring Bello, Leigh, and Towne. And, of course, many of the films will have their directors and other filmmakers onstage to introduce the screening and often conduct a q-and-a afterwards.
Vintage movie buffs will flock to the Festival’s annual presentation of a classic silent film accompanied by a new score performed by what the guide characterizes as “cutting-edge” musicians. This year’s offering is the 1920 German expressionist film The Golem, about a huge clay figure that springs to life in 16th century Prague, accompanied by a group led by the leader of the Pixies, Black Francis, on Friday, April 25. And you don’t need to be a buff to be enthralled by the glorious Technicolor film noir Leave Her to Heaven (1945), starring the exquisite Gene Tierney, implacable as a statue herself as she scatters her father’s ashes on horseback and brings sexual jealousy to new homicidal heights, showing on Saturday, April 26 at the Castro, and Sunday, April 27, at the PFA. See it on the big screen, where movies are at their best!
Avant-gardistas will flock to the three programs grouped under the Kinotek rubric, “Live cinema projects, multimedia performances, and gleefully unclassifiable presentations,” again according to the Guide. On Thursday, May 1, Cloud Eye Control and Anna Oxygen will, we’re told, fuse animation, experimental theater, pop music, and puppetry. A program called Generator features 20 short computer-animated videos, playing at the Kabuki on both Thursday, May 1st, and Sunday, May 4. And a multi-media performance called Scott Arford: Still Life will have Arford composing a soundtracklive and onstage on Wednesday, May 7, for the heavily-altered Italian horror film Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, seen in slo-mo stills. And futurist Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired, will continue to expound on the brave new world of expanded cinema possibilities in the annual State of Cinema address, with a PowerPoint (so last century!) presentation entitled “Beyond Moving Pictures: Possibilities for the Future of Film” on Sunday, May 4.
The light at the end of the Film Festival tunnel is its closing night film on Thursday May 8, the West Coast premiere of Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, the latest film from famed documentarian Alex Gibney, who just won an Oscar for his Taxi to the Dark Side. You can see the film alone, or spring big bucks to attend charity after-parties sponsored by Vanity Fair, in its only American film festival sponsorship this year.
But if the SFIFF51 has awakened a lust for continuous movie-watching that only consistent adventurous programming will assuage, have no fear: the fun will continue. In partnership with the Sundance Kabuki, starting on Friday, June 13, the San Francisco Film Society will begin programming one of the Kabuki’s screens year-round, with weekly bookings of the same kinds of films, often underserved by local exhibitors, that you’ve seen at the Festival. Promised are new films from around the world, including documentaries and avant-garde movies, some with filmmaker appearances, with possible themed programming in the future. In short, it’s good news for San Francisco filmgoers.