Thursday, July 28, 2016

San Francisco International Film Festival 2016

This would be a year of change for the San Francisco International Film Festival. For the first time in thirty years the home of the Festival would not be at the Kabuki theaters near Fillmore Street. The main venues would be in the Mission. 
The Fillmore neighborhood was still a bit rough around the edges when I started working at the Festival. The changes in the Mission neighborhood have been the center of debate about the future of San Francisco. The tech boom brings improvements to San Francisco neighborhoods and escalating real estate prices, but people are wondering at what cost. Artists and long time San Francisco institutions have been pushed out. Is San Francisco losing its soul? A multimedia program at last year’s Film Festival had taken a close look at these issues. “Boomtown: Remaking San Francisco” was a multimedia program examining the future of San Francisco.   
The Mission always had a rougher edge. How much has it changed? Leaving the sociology out of it, what would the new venues be like? We were leaving the familiar territory of the Kabuki theaters and the Fillmore neighborhood. Exactly how was this going to work? 
Bigger events would still be held at The Castro Theater. The main venue would now be The Alamo Draft House. A Texas corporation bought the crumbling Mission Theater and renovated it. Pictures in the lobby showed the crumbling ruin of what had once been a movie palace. The roof had caved in and there was water damage. What they’ve done with it is impressive. It must have cost a fortune. The other venues in The Mission are the Roxie and the Victoria. They are small, historic theaters. There was also a huge change at the East Bay satellite of the Festival, The Pacific Film Archive. They would be operating out of a new building.    
The Mission is gentrifying, but it still has its problems. The BART station at Sixteenth St. draws homeless and mentally ill people, “The passing pageantry of the streets.” Most consider them a harmless annoyance. It’s jarring sometimes to see them screaming at invisible demons, but they usually leave others alone. There are still some bad people out there. “Nefarious types.” Customers did admit that they were afraid to be in the Mission late at night.   
There were many logistical changes. We were used to The Kabuki. Where were the theaters, bathrooms and exits? The regular Festival customers figured it out quick. There was less standing outside in line, which made people happy. 
The Alamo Draft House serves food in the theaters during films. We expected complaints from the hard core that it would be disruptive. The Alamo agreed to only have food and drink service for the first twenty minutes of a film. It was amazing how efficient and unobtrusive the wait staff is. Apparently having food and drink delivered to your table eventually won out. 
I got to see twelve films this year.  A lot for me, but the hard core will see fifty films in the two weeks. What I saw was only a slice of the festival. This may read more like a list:  
Opening Night was “Love and Friendship,” a “period piece comedy” set in the 1790s. It’s based on a Jane Austen story. The director and writer is Whit Stillman. The film has a subtle sense of humor. Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny. Kate Beckinsale was at the Opening Night party! She was quite gracious and posed for pictures with fans. (Most of the big stars don’t leave the VIP area.) 
Also at The Castro was “Miss Sharon Jones!” Director: Barbara Kopple. It’s an inspiring story of the Rhythm and Blues singer’s struggle with cancer. The medical parts are a bit hard to take, but she has a stirring comeback show at the Beacon Theater with her band, the Dap Kings.  
This year’s Film Noir rarity was “Cast a Dark Shadow.” An English film directed by Lewis Gilbert. Dirk Bogarde is a sleazy gigolo hustling older women. He meets a woman who we know is hustling him. It’s unintentionally hilarious. Or is it unintentional?   
“Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World.” Werner Herzog takes a look at the history of technology and some of the scary places where it’s going. It seems an odd topic for Herzog. Experts in robotics are trying to create a team that would beat the World Cup champions. In one scene an Indian scientist working on robots admits he’s “developed feelings” for his creations. You can almost see him blushing. In another scene a computer scientist is talking about how machines learn faster than people. He says that soon robots will be creating art, including films. Herzog comments in his heavy accent: “But they will not be as beautiful as my films.” The guy quickly backtracks, “Oh no!” They certainly can’t be as great as Herzog’s films. That’s what he says on camera. 
During the introduction to Johan Grimonprez’s “Shadow World” we’re warned that the documentary is, “A film that will make you angry.” It’s how arms dealers profit from the misery of war. There are opening scenes of the trenches of World War I. Some companies suppled both sides! There are “corrupt partnerships between governments and the munitions industry and the privatization of war.” After the Iran Contra scandal, the U.S. backed off a bit on arms deals, but made sure that ally Margaret Thatcher reaped the benefits. This is the real story!  
“Soundbreaking: Stories from the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music” is the first two chapters of a series that will be shown on PBS. Maro Chermayeff and Jeff Dupre. We hear great stories about the early history of recording Rock and Roll. Plenty of cameos by icons of Rock music.
Jason Bateman’s “ The Family Fang” is a comedy about a very strange and dysfunctional family. Christopher Walken steals the show.    
“Vampyr” is this year’s big live music film event. Directed by Theodore Carl Dreyer. It’s a strange, dream like film from 1930 with live accompaniment by Mercury Rev, which includes one of the Cocteau Twins. This was hipster night. The band supplied a great live pulsing sound track to the “non-narrative film.” 
  “And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead” is a documentary on Bob Kaufman, the great North Beach poet who had a tragic life. Directed by Billy Woodberry. It has great vintage shots and stories of North Beach. Richard “Specs” Simmons, the owner of Spec’s was in attendance! This was my sentimental favorite of the Festival.   
Yet another music documentary was “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.” Morgan Neville directed. He made the great documentary “Twenty Feet from Stardom” that was a big festival hit. He’s also made a documentary on Keith Richards. “Under the Influence.”
Yo-Yo Ma is on a crusade to spread the unifying aspects of music. He forms a great group of musicians from around the world. The 9/11 attacks almost end the concept, but the band hangs in and perseveres.
“Notes on Blindness” is the story of a middle aged theologian, John Hull, who goes blind. There is no cure. He struggles with survival, and takes extraordinary efforts to keep his academic career going. It makes him wonder, what is the nature of blindness? He writes about it. An inspiring story. Peter Middleton and James Spinney.  
It was back to The Castro Theater for the Closing Night film: “The Bandit.” Directed by Jesse Moss. His mother is a volunteer at the Festival! The documentary is about Burt Reynolds and his stunt man, Hal Needham. It seemed an unlikely choice for a Film Festival Closing Night, but I learned after the Joan Rivers event to give it a chance. 
The film is about Needham, but there’s a funny look at Burt Reynolds’ career. Remember the centerfold?! There is footage on the making of “Smokey and the Bandit.” (It’s said that many in the South believed “Smokey and the Bandit” was a documentary.) There was a rumor that Burt might show up for Closing Night, but we were told he’s too busy “filming in Florida.” 
Attendance for the Festival was down from record levels, but ticket sales are only ten per cent of the budget. Donors and sponsors supply the main money. There seemed to be a smooth transition to the new venues. It may be a move towards quality over quantity. It all seems like a dream when it’s over.