Every year our beloved San Francisco International gets to call itself the longest running film festival in the Americas, and all it ever must do to maintain that claim is continue to exist. That's easier said than done nowadays, with myriad cable channels and online streaming services, let alone the other very crowded film festivals, offering an essentially infinite all-you-can-eat buffet of motion picture experiences.
This year's SFIFF, number 56 and the first since prolific indie movie producer Ted Hope assumed leadership of the San Francisco Film Society, takes nothing for granted. For instance, its State of Cinema address will be delivered by Steven Soderbergh, fresh from announcing that he's now retired from making films. (Chroniclers of allegedly dead or dying art forms may enjoy knowing that Soderbergh's main reason for giving up movies is that he wants to do more painting.) As for the general and pressing question of what's in it for you, one answer seems to be this festival's active interest in transmuting past shared cultures into future ones.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
So the usual cornucopia of panels, seminars, tributes, and awards this year includes a directing award for local filmmaker Philip Kaufman, whose 1978 take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, one of the greatest San Francisco movies of all time, will get a big-screen showing at the Castro. The robust crop of films with Bay Area ties also includes a batch of newly restored, refreshingly old-fashioned works by the rightly revered late documentarian Les Blank, who died from cancer in his Berkeley home earlier this month. Festival opener What Maisie Knew, an attentive little-girl's-eye view of her parents' divorce, from former locals Scott McGehee and David Siegel, loosely updates a novel by Henry James. Big Sur, from Michael Polish, lyrically adapts a novel by Jack Kerouac, and tests the durability of the Beat mystique.
More studies of past meeting future -- in content and in form -- may be found within the festival's unique, once-only events. Local archivist Rick Prelinger's audience-interactive home-movies collage, No More Road Trips?, wonders if we've reached "peak travel," and whether localism, for all its benefits, has overtaken the American tradition of nomadism.
No More Road Trips?
On his blog, Prelinger says this of the project: "I've written no narration, nor have I commissioned music or sound effects. The soundtrack for this fully participatory film will be made fresh daily by audiences at each screening. Perhaps they'll identify some of the places that come and go in the 639 shots that currently populate the cut. Perhaps they'll ask me questions, or answer those posed by others. Or perhaps they'll react tendentiously, in the manner of Question Time in the British House of Commons, or riff rowdily in the style of the Elizabethan theater. Once the movie starts, it belongs to the audience."
Relatedly, in an increasingly popular one-off festival showcase, the Film Society annually commissions contemporary musicians to perform live original scores to old silent films. This year's is Waxworks, a German horror-fantasy from 1924, with a fresh, percussion-intensive soundtrack from erstwhile Faith No More and Mr. Bungle frontman Mike Patton, along with locals Scott Amendola, Matthias Bossi, and Will Winant.
Name directors making the festival rounds with indie-flavored, willfully regressive new work include Joss Whedon, whose followup to last summer's superhero tent-pole The Avengers just happens to be an as-yet barely publicized, micro-budgeted modern update of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing; David Gordon Green, whose muted comedy-drama Prince Avalanche reportedly is a return to pre-Your Highness subtlety; Noah Baumbach, whose hipsterish black-and-white comedy Frances Ha stars his partner and post-mumblecore muse Greta Gerwig; and Richard Linklater, whose trilogy-concluding romantic duet Before Midnight, reuniting the no-longer-young lovers played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, serves as SFIFF56's closing night film.
Aging isn't easy, but it's worth it; sometimes the older you get, the younger you feel.
The 56th San Francisco International Film Festival runs from April 25 through May 9 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, Castro Theatre, and New People Cinema in San Francisco, and at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. For tickets and information, visit festival.sffs.org.
All images courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.