SFIFF54: Michael Hawley Wrap-Ups Four Special Events

[Our thanks to Michael Hawley for offering this entry to Twitch.]

The 54th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF54) drew to a close on Thursday, May 5, after showcasing 193 films from 48 countries at 265 screenings (134 of which featured special guests). During those 15 jam-packed days I took in 29 films, which will be encapsulated in a future entry. Meanwhile, here's a look back at four memorable SFIFF54 special events I attended. All of them, not surprisingly, transpired inside the city's beloved Castro Theatre.

But first let's talk about regrets--yes, I've got a few. I didn't see Oliver Stone get this year's Founder's Directing Award, nor screenwriter Frank Pierson's acceptance of 2011's Kanbar Award. I was also M.I.A. for Mathew Barney's Persistence of Vision Award ceremony and producer Christine Vachon's State of Cinema address (which fortunately, I was later able to watch here). Most of all, I regret having to pass up the Terence Stamp tribute, which featured an on-stage interview by Elvis Mitchell and screening of Federico Fellini's Toby Dammit. Stamp was here to receive the Peter J. Owens acting award, an incredibly inspired choice the festival seemingly pulled out of its hat at the 11th hour. I heard it was an unforgettable evening and the Castro was nearly sold out, no mean feat considering the event had only been announced one week prior. Alas, the four events I did attend were spectacular enough to assuage any feelings of remorse.

Moments after entering the Castro Theatre for the Opening Night screening of Mike Mills' Beginners, I heard the disappointing news that star Ewan McGregor would not be attending. His flight from Paris was cancelled (something about gasoline pouring from the plane's wing while taxiing for takeoff), but there was a possibility he'd arrive in time for the after-party. The unenviable task of informing the Ewan-adoring crowd of this development befell Director of Programming Rachel Rosen. Following the screening, she and director Mills were in the middle of a very engaging Q&A when a man strode past my aisle seat. From the back it looked like it could almost be--yes, it was indeed--him!

McGregor's first words from the stage were, "Sorry about that," and for another half hour he and Mills told some very funny tales about the production of Beginners. My favorite involved co-star Christopher Plummer and several pairs of black skinny jeans. Woe to those who missed seeing McGregor in order to beat the crowds to the fabulous opening night party at Terra Gallery.

I'm sure it's no longer a secret to anyone that the original recipient of this year's Founder's Directing Award was meant to be Claire Denis, who unfortunately bowed out at the last minute. Her spirit, however, was still very much present at SFIFF54. For this year's film-with-live-music event, the festival presented Tindersticks: Claire Denis Film Scores 1996-2009. Over the course of 70 glorious minutes, the British band Tindersticks performed 23 compositions from the six Denis films they've scored, while corresponding images towered above them on the Castro's huge screen. The eight musicians commanded the full width of the stage, and side-lights bathed them in colors that changed according to the moods of their cool, impassioned music. I was particularly thrilled to hear the throbbing twang of L'intrus' main theme, and the lovely title song from Vendredi soir, featuring the reedy vocals of lead singer Stuart Staples. This astounding show was one of only two U.S. performances and one of only six worldwide. In short, a rare privilege to behold a certified coup for the festival.

More than any other film or event at SFIFF54, I was most anticipating Serge Bromberg's Retour de Flamme: Rare and Restored Films in 3-D. This presentation of 100 years of stereoscopic cinema coincided with Bromberg receiving the festival's 2011 Mel Novikoff Award, "bestowed upon an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the filmgoing public's appreciation of world cinema." I'd seen Bromberg--a consummate film preservationist, programmer, director (Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno), raconteur and showman--work his magic on the Castro stage twice before. The program would surpass my already high expectations as one of the greatest film events I'd ever attended.

Following the awards ceremony and brief on-stage interview (where Bromberg shared some harrowing film preservation war-stories), the amazement commenced. First up was 1941's Third Dimensional Murder, a silly haunted house short with monsters throwing things at the camera. This was the only film that required old-style, red and blue-lensed 3-D spex. After that, modern polarized glasses came into play. I was delighted to see some of my favorite cartoon characters in 3-D, like Donald Duck and Chip 'n' Dale (Working for Peanuts, 1953) and Bugs Bunny (Lumber Jack-Rabbit, 1954). A trio of 1950s Russian films, collectively known as The Parade of Attractions, featured 3-D vistas inside an aviary and large aquarium (look out for the octopus tentacles!), plus a juggling act that had the Castro crowd dodging flying clubs. One of the longer works of the evening was Motor Rhythm. Made for the 1939 World's Fair, this was a 3-D stop-motion animated musical in which a Chrysler-Plymouth assembles itself part-by-part (you can watch an eye-straining 2-D version here). Modern 3-D animation was represented by the likes of John Lasseter (Knick Knack, 1989) and a brand new Road Runner cartoon by Matthew O'Callaghan (Coyote Falls) which closed Bromberg's presentation.

At one point Bromberg reminded us that France was the true birthplace of cinema. So perhaps it was no surprise that the two most affecting segments of his program featured the works of French pioneers Georges Méliès and the Lumière Brothers--names not normally associated with stereoscopic cinema. It turns out that Méliès unknowingly invented 3-D movies when he simultaneously shot European and American negatives with side-by-side cameras turned by a single crank. By assembling bits and pieces of both negatives (representing left and right eye), and using a computer to stabilize the images, Bromberg has been able to partially construct a 3-D effect for three Méliès shorts. In Parafargamus the Alchemist (1906), for example, a large serpent puppet appears to slither right into the audience. For me, the highlight of the entire event was three short stereoscopic films shot by the Lumières in the mid-1930s. In one, the camera is placed squarely on a train platform and in another, on a crowded beach. Passersby walk near the cameras and occasionally stare into them, the 3-D effect bringing these distant personages to life in ways that no 2-D image ever could. The effect was akin to emerging from a time machine whose dial was set to 1930s France. It gave me the shivers.

Before I knew it, the festival's 15 days had sailed by and I was back at the Castro for the closing night film, On Tour. French actor-turned-director Mathieu Amalric stars as a washed-up TV producer who takes a troupe of six American New Burlesque performers on a tour of French harbor cities. As luck would have it, California and the Bay Area in particular are at the epicenter of New Burlesque, making it possible for four of On Tour's performers to attend the screening. During the Q&A, they discussed how the project came about and what it was like being directed by one of France's most famous actors. They also revealed why the film may never see a U.S. release. Apparently, either the descendents of Screamin' Jay Hawkins or Aerosmith's Steven Tyler (they weren't sure which), is demanding €300,000 for the rights to one song heard in the movie.

Mid-Q&A, performer Roky Roulette excused himself, stating that he needed to return home (he lives in the Mission District and has two daughters). We should have suspected it was a ruse. When the Q&A ended, he returned to the stage costumed as KFC's Colonel Sanders, chawin' on chicken and doing a funky striptease down to a g-string and explosion of feathers. In a San Francisco Chronicle interview the week before, I'd read that Roulette's claim to fame is a striptease he performs while riding a pogo-modified hobby horse. Sure enough, at the festival's closing night party he brought the house down with this routine, putting one helluva an exclamation point on SFIFF54. You can watch a video of it at the film-415 YouTube channel.

Cross-published on film-415 and The Evening Class.
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