Sunday, March 26, 2017

SFFF60—MICHAEL HAWLEY EXPLORES THE BIG NIGHTS, AWARDS & TRIBUTES, AND SPECIAL EVENTS

The first order of business at last week's press conference for the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) was addressing the issue of rebranding. There were hints of impending change in some of the graphics used during last year's festival and now it's become official. Henceforth, the festival's parent organization, the San Francisco Film Society, will be officially known as SFFILM, and the preferred name for its annual festival is the SFFILM Festival (SFFF). According to Executive Director Noah Cowan, the change "provides a new kind of flexibility" to the organization and better "reflects the reality and breadth of our programming." Cowan also clarified that the festival's move to an earlier timeframe was meant to create distance with Cannes and therefore better engage the international film industry.

The press conference was held at the new Dolby Cinema on Market Street, and it was my first visit. Boasting a gargantuan screen and ultra-plush stadium seating—and I imagine the best sound found anywhere—the Dolby joins the pantheon of great Bay Area venues to watch a movie and I can't wait to experience it during the festival. In addition to the new Phyllis Wattis Theater at SFMOMA, this year's festival makes extensive use of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) for the first time, both its main theater and screening room, creating a mini festival hub around the area of 4th and Mission Streets. Given that I live a quick 15-minute walk away, this suits me perfectly. In all, SFFILM Festival 60 (SFFF60) incorporates eight main venues, not including the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, making this the most spread-out fest in the many decades I've been attending.

Following his opening remarks, Cowan and the SFFILM programming team got down to the business of revealing the 2017 line-up. In my previous post I talked about the programs revealed prior to the press conference, including this year's greatly expanded Live & On Stage section. It turns out that was just the iceberg's tip. The fest has whipped up enough 60th edition specialty events to program a decade's worth of festivals. Here are my thoughts. (An overview of SFFILM Festival's roster of narrative and documentary features will appear before the festival's April 5 start date).

Big Nights

Having previously announced The Green Fog for Closing Night plus the Centerpiece film Patti Cake$, the only Big Night left to reveal at the press conference was Gillian Robespierre's Landline as the fest's Opening Night selection. While I perhaps expected something more grandiose to kick off SFFILM's 60th birthday, I admit to seriously loving Obvious Child, the 2014 "abortion rom-com" that marked the first collaboration between Robespierre and actress/comedian Jenny Slate. SNL alum Slate now returns to star in Landline, a NYC 1995-set dramedy that premiered to solid reviews at Sundance and co-stars Jay Duplass, Edie Falco and John Turturro. Robespierre, Slate and co-writer/producer Elizabeth Holm are the evening's expected guests and the Opening Night party happens at the Regency Center on Van Ness Avenue.

Awards & Tributes

Photo: Dabboo Ratnani
As if having Ethan Hawke at the festival wasn't spectacular enough, SFFF60 will also pay a Tribute to Shah Rukh Khan (SRK). Expect a mob scene at the Castro Theatre on April 14 when the biggest movie star in the world takes the stage for a conversation with Rush Hour director Brett Ratner. I've been a SRK acolyte since seeing 1995's Ram Jaane at Berkeley's now defunct Fine Arts Theatre on Shattuck, which exclusively exhibited Bollywood product in the '90s. I thrilled to the sight of his train-top dance in 1998's Dil Se and our love affair peaked at a riotous screening of Om Shanti Om at the 2008 SF Asian American Film Fest (now CAAMFest). The SFIFF screened his historical epic Asoka in 2002. While I'm elated to finally experience SRK live, I wish a movie other than 2010's My Name is Khan had been chosen to accompany this tribute. Yes, the film remains a timely rebuke of American anti-Muslim sentiment, but it also queasily portrays African Americans in a manner most politely described as "quaint."

Photo: Mikki Ansin / Getty Images
While it appears the festival has discontinued its Founders Directing Award, it still honors one of the world's most beloved filmmakers this year with A Tribute to James Ivory. Berkeley-born Ivory is of course the director of such high-brow classics as A Room with a View (1985), Howard's End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993), and his 44-year production partnership with Ismail Merchant entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest in independent cinema history. Ivory is also getting considerable attention this year for his screenplay of Luca Guadagnino's Call Me By Your Name, perhaps the most rave-reviewed movie of 2017 thus far. As part of this tribute on April 14 at SFMOMA, the festival will screen a 30th anniversary 4K restoration of Ivory's 1987 LGBT milestone, Maurice.

Photo: Victoria Stevens / Interview
I've been a fan of multimedia-installation-performance-conceptual artist Lynn Hershman-Leeson's films ever since catching her brilliant biopic Conceiving Ada at the 1998 SFIFF. Ensuing festivals brought out equally compelling works like the Tilda Swinton-starring Teknolust (2002) and the documentaries Strange Culture (2007) and !Women Art Revolution (2010). This year's SFFF60 finally honors Hershman-Leeson with its 2017 Persistence of Vision Award, which celebrates a "filmmaker whose main body of work falls outside the realm of narrative feature filmmaking." Following an on-stage conversation, there will be a screening of Tania Libre, the filmmaker's new doc about radical Cuban artist Tania Bruguera. This all takes place on April 11 at the YBCA Theatre. Festival-goers are encouraged to visit the nearby YBCA museum whose first-floor gallery currently houses her major exhibition Civic Radar (on display through May 21).

Photo: Unknown
The festival's Mel Novikoff Award is presented each year to an "individual or institution whose work has enhanced the film-going public's appreciation of world cinema." This year's long overdue recipient is the Bay Area's own Tom Luddy, whose many accomplishments include co-founding the Telluride Film Festival. An on-stage conversation at the Castro Theatre on April 9 will precede two screenings: Une bonne à faire, an extremely rare eight-minute Jean-Luc Godard short that was filmed on the set of Coppola's One from the Heart at Zoetrope Studios, followed by A Long Happy Life. Released in 1966, this little-seen classic Russian road movie and "Chekhovian drama about the solipsism and narcissism of modern characters" would be the only film directed by Gennady Shpalikov, who committed suicide at age 37.

Photo: Christopher Gabello / Interview
Another SFIFF accolade that seems to have fallen by the wayside is the Kanbar Screenwriting Award. In its stead, this year's SFFF60 offers up A Tribute to John Ridley, who most recently won an Oscar® for penning 12 Years a Slave (2013). Ridley is also recognized for writing the story that became David O. Russell's Three Kings (1999), for writing and directing the Jimi Hendrix biopic All is By My Side (2013), as well as writing the novel Stray Dogs, which became Oliver Stone's U Turn in 1997. (More importantly to me, he wrote and executive-produced all 21 episodes of The Wanda Sykes Show.) To accompany this special program on April 12 at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission, the fest will screen the first episode of Guerrilla, Ridley's upcoming Showtime series about black radical activism in early 1970's London, starring Freida Pinto, Babou Ceesay and Idris Elba.

The 2017 George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award, traditionally handed out at the ritzy SF Film Society's Award Night Gala, will be presented for the first time in public on April 10 at SFMOMA. The recipient is filmmaker, artist and writer Eleanor Coppola. The evening will feature a screening of Paris Can Wait, her first feature film since the 1991 award-winning documentary Hearts of Darkness. This comic road movie stars Diane Lane as the wife of a high-profile movie producer (Alec Baldwin) who goes on a Cannes-to-Paris adventure with a seductive Frenchman (Arnaud Viard). Paris Can Wait had its Bay Area premiere in the "Culinary Cinema" sidebar of last autumn's Mill Valley Film Festival and will open at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on May 19.



Special Events

One of the most ingenious happenings at this year's festival has to be film historian David Thomson interviewing William R. Hearst III about Citizen Kane, whose protagonist Charles Foster Kane is based on Hearst's grandfather. Their conversation at the YBCA Theater on April 6 will be followed by a screening of Orson Welles' 1941 masterpiece, long considered the greatest film ever made until its position was usurped by Hitchcock's Vertigo in 2012. Speaking of both David Thomson and Vertigo, he conducts a master class at SFMOMA on April 16 entitled Two or Three Things That Frighten Me in Vertigo. (Two additional SFFF60 master classes are Finding Characters in Unlikely Places with Pixar's Newest Short, Lou and We Are All Storytellers: A Pixar in a Box Workshop for Girls, both to be held at the Walt Disney Family Museum).

Short on funds? SFFF60 has your back with a trio of free screenings. On April 8 at the Vogue Theatre the fest presents Rivers and Tides–Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time, the acclaimed documentary which had its international premiere at SFIFF in 2002. The film is being shown as a ramp-up to the world premiere of Thomas Riedelsheimer's Leaning Into the Wind, his latest collaboration with the nature-driven artist. Among other things, Leaning observes Goldsworthy as he creates Tree Fall, one of four artworks found in San Francisco's Presidio park.

The next free screening takes place on April 14 when Hayes Valley's outdoor Proxy space hosts a presentation of Whose Streets?, Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis' documentary about the outsized militaristic police response to the 2014 events in Ferguson, MO. Then on April 15 the Castro Theatre will free-screen Defender, Jim Chai's new documentary about Jeff Adachi, San Francisco's heroic Public Defender and sometime film director (The Slanted Screen, You Don't Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story).

SFFF60 isn't the only local arts organization celebrating an important anniversary this year. At Canyon Cinema 50: Guy Maddin Presents The Great Blondino and Other Delights, the fest pays tribute to one of the world's most important distributors of avant-garde and experimental cinema. First released in 1967, Robert Nelson and William T. Wiley's 42-minute Blondino is considered one of the early masterworks of American independent filmmaking. I'm far from a fervent devotee of this strain of cinema, but the fact that Guy Maddin will curate and introduce the selections renders this April 15 event at SFMOMA a personal must-see.

Another Bay Area commemoration of note is Disposable Film Festival 10th Anniversary Retrospective. Founded the same year as the iPhone, the festival was created to exclusively showcase people telling stories with DIY personal technology. Disposable co-founder Carlton Evans will be on hand at the Roxie Theater on April 13 to introduce a dozen of the best shorts culled from the festival's first decade.

For the second year running, the festival will host a VR Days program. When I attended last year's one-day event, the only thing I knew about VR was that it stood for Virtual Reality. Now that I'm a bit more seasoned, I look forward to seeing how the technology has advanced in the past 12 months. This year's VR Days takes place at YBCA Forum on April 9 and 10, with tickets being sold for one-hour timeslots between noon and 7:00 p.m. The line-up of VR experiences will include the Oscar®-nominated short Pearl, interactive re-enactments of historic battles (My Brother's Keeper) and cinematic dance on camera (Through You).

This year's annual State of Cinema Address will be given by Dr. Ed Catmull at the Dolby Cinema on April 8. The co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and five-time Academy Award® winner is expected to speak on "the importance of skepticism when exploring new technology," after which several Pixar artists will take the stage for a conversation hosted by Wired magazine.

Cross-published on film-415.

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