Opening Night at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival (abbreviated to SFIFF53 in future) is always something of a warm schmoozefest: local filmmakers and staff of the innumerable other Bay Area film festivals show up in force at the glamorous, beautifully-preserved 1922-vintage Castro Theatre.
The hoi polloi (which includes the press) is greeted by an auditorium in which it seems 2/3rds of the seats are marked with RESERVED signs, for patrons, donors, and people who’ve actually paid for their tickets. We score three on the left side, seven rows from the front, in the first row that’s unreserved. Happily that’s within hailing distance of Rachel Rosen, the new director of programming for the festival, who’s standing by, ready to introduce the film.
Rosen, who was assistant director of programming at the San Francisco Film Society, parent organization of the SFFIF, from 1994 to 2001, served as director of programming of Film Independent and the Los Angeles Film Festival for the following eight years. She’s delighted to be back in SF. While exchanging pleasantries, she allows “I thought I’d seen everything, but…” It seems that the Icelandic volcanic cloud has – of course – affected the shipping of film prints, and she’s still uncertain of the fate of a few movies, including one scheduled to show tomorrow night.
But, as the mighty Wurlitzer provides a semi-Gallic soundtrack (“La Vie en Rose” and “The Night They Invented Champagne” interspersed with “It Might as Well be Spring,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and “That’s Entertainment”) in honor of opening night’s Micmacs, the new film from French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, all seems well with the world.
When Executive Director Graham Leggat referred to his tenure as the San Francisco Film Society’s executive director as “the best five years of his life,” it sounded valedictory, but he quickly said he hoped he would continue for many more years to come. After Rosen reminded the audience not to use their still or video cameras during the movie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet walked out onstage filming, saying “I can shoot. I don’t care. It’s my film!” He said “I love San Francisco. My wife is from San Mateo. I was in Point Reyes Station, in a bookstore, and I heard the music of Amelie. The store owner said ‘It’s a French movie,’ and I said ‘I know,’ and she said, ‘Of course – you’re French!’ Micmacs means shenanigans – I just learned this new word – I like it!”
While I find Jeunet’s films admirably well-designed and shot but rather one-note and relentless, the movie was a perfect choice for a festival opening-night film: a film-buff’s dream, full of movie references, with part of the rapid-fire pre-credit sequence even taking place in a video store, with Danny Boon mouthing the French-dubbed dialogue of Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. The audience was in the palm of its hand.
Afterwards Rosen and Jeunet settled into onstage easy chairs for an audience Q & A, during which Jeunet cited many of his influences for Micmacs – Tex Avery, Pixar (one character looked exactly like the toy restorer in Toy Story II), Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin. He urged the audience to visit YouTube to see clips of Julie Ferrier’s theatrical one-woman shows, as well as letting them know that her contortionist tricks were actually performed by a “Russian girl who performs in an erotic show in Germany – my Japanese director of photography was very interested!” During the questions, the unmistakable tones of Peter Coyote were heard. Jeunet ruefully confessed that the film played better (“they laugh more”) in Toronto, Austin, and San Francisco than in France – “I’ve had three hits in a row before this; in France they love to hate what they loved before!”
Afterwards partygoers trekked to the Regency Ballroom at Van Ness at Sutter, in the 1909 Regency Building. The balconied room, illuminated with dozens of crystal chandeliers, lined with food and drink booths, and featuring a jazz band, quickly grew crowded, and I followed Regency habituees up marble staircases to an amazingly beautiful, more intimate but still impressive third-floor space, once a Masonic Hall, with dark wood paneling and Arts-and-Crafts fixtures, as well as lots more food (alas, in teensy hors-d’oeuvre portions that James Beard referred to as “doots”) and drink. There was a jazz trio, tango dancers, and a contortionist. I spotted publicist Karen Larsen, Susan Oxtoby of the Pacific Film Archive, entrepreneur Maurice Kanbar, the Mill Valley Film Festival’s Mark Fishkin, Anita Monga of the Seattle, Palm Springs, and San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the San Francisco Cinematheque’s Jonathan Marlowe, Hannah Eaves of LinkTV and the SF Film Society’s new Filmmaker Advisory Committee, and the Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller, as well as local Academy-Award-nominated filmmaker Sam Green, whose “live documentary” Utopia in Four Movements, scheduled for Sunday night, is one of the most-anticipated events of the fest. It was a delightful way to ease into the long march of the following two weeks.