The viewing possibilities of the day are pretty much predetermined by a long-scheduled meal: an early dinner at Chez Panisse back in Berkeley that’s been arranged for Denver Post film critic Lisa Kennedy, in town to sit on the SFIFF new directors prize jury, by her old college friend, novelist Sylvia Brownrigg, at 5:30 p.m. This means I just have time to go to the Master Class with Walter Salles (billed as “an intimate discussion about the art and craft of directing”), at 2:30 p.m. Overlaps with the Salles event neatly eliminate six screenings (three scheduled before, three after): a highly-touted war documentary called Russian Lessons; Colony, another documentary, about the worldwide bee colony collapse disorder, a subject I’m passionately scared about; My Queen Karo, a coming-of-age film set in an Amsterdam squat; Pirate Utopias, a short-film program that intriguingly is billboarded as “containing nudity and explicit sex”; Cargo, a Swiss science-fiction film set on a ship; and Yellow Sheep River, a Chinese documentary that sounds something like The Way of Nature, the year-of-farming-in-Sweden film I saw a couple of days ago. (But I like slow, poetic documentaries about farming! Remember Terra Madre? There can’t be too many of them, as far as I’m concerned!)
This list (I like lists, too) is tendered merely as a snapshot of the eclectic programs on offer. (No wagering permitted.) At this point in the festival, I’m soothed by the thought that I have second chances to catch most of them. (Even if a reality check of the program would quash that notion.) I’m further soothed by the knowledge that I’ve already seen most of the movies scheduled that evening, while I’m at dinner. There’s Everyone Else, a talky study of an ill-assorted young German couple on vacation in Sardinia, which won the Silver Bear at Berlin a year ago; Wild Grass, the latest wacky shaggy-dog offering from Alain Resnais, starring the cream of French actors, including Andre Dussolier, Sabine Azema, Emmanuelle Devos, and Mathieu Almaric; Patricia Clarkson in something of a love triangle in Cairo Time; the tragic melodrama Shirley Adams; and Claire Denis’s White Material, set in Africa, on a farm threatened by civil war, with the furiously intense Isabelle Huppert alongside Christophe Lambert, Isaach de Bankolé, and Nicolas Duvauchelle. (Another snapshot glimpse of the hard choices imposed on the hapless festivalgoer.)
For a couple of days, at least, it seems that the festival is turned over to Salles. Along with yesterday’s tribute evening, and today’s Master Class, there are a couple of screenings scheduled of Linha de Passe, his 2008 film about a mother – Sandra Coreloni won the Best Actress prize for her performance at Cannes -- and her four sons trying to navigate the mean streets of São Paulo. It was co-directed with Daniela Thomas and produced by director of the Los Angeles Film Festival Rebecca Yeldham (who also produced In Search of On the Road: A Work in Progress, and was in yesterday’s audience at its screening).
Salles is also due to receive his Founder’s Directing Award (alongside Robert Duvall, the Peter J. Owens award-winner for acting, and James Schamus, the Kanbar award-winner for screenwriting) at tonight’s Film Society Awards, a black-tie fundraiser for which tickets start at $500 and tables escalate to $25,000. (I won’t be in attendance. And not just because it conflicts with my dinner.)
Before the master class, I chat with local documentary filmmakers Lourdes Portillo and Rob Epstein, whose latest film, Howl, co-directed with Jeffrey Friedman, a docudrama about the obscenity trial of Allen Ginsberg’s 1956 book Howl and Other Poems, has played at both Sundance and Berlin this year. (I forget to tell Epstein that I’m sorry that Ginsberg wasn’t around to be thrilled that the very hot James Franco played him. But I do whisper that Salles is “criminally handsome,” and he says “Yeah, and somebody told me he’s 54.” At first I’m incredulous – he looks easily a decade younger. But then I remember that he said that he was enormously influenced by Antonioni’s The Passenger while in college, so the dates work out. I then channel Margo Channing: “Bill’s thirty-two. He looks thirty-two. He looked it five years ago, he’ll look it twenty years from now. I hate men.”)
Festival director Graham Leggat is today’s interlocutor, more self-effacing than Alejandro González Iñárittu was last night, but eliciting similarly expansive and interesting replies. (Last night my wrist got sore from scribbling notes. Salles joined the short list of people I’d follow if they started their own religion. I hope to redact them at some point, to see if I can tap into the excitement he expressed about cinema’s possibilities. He even convinced me –almost – that I should re-watch Krystof Kieslowski’s Decalogue, which he called “the most important body of work of any filmmaker in the Eighties, the most important humanistic filmmaking of the last twenty or thirty years.”)
Salles tells Leggat (and his audience) that San Francisco has so spoiled him that “you’ve reduced the possibility of me enjoying other film festivals.” He talks about the relationship between documentaries and fiction films, working with non-actors, and again comes up with graceful, generous quotes. Borges said that what interested him in literature was to name what hadn’t been named before. Salles feels like Henri Cartier-Bresson: in his documentary work, he waits to be invited into the community. In his fiction films, he attempts to be open to possibilities – the religious procession in Central Station was incorporated into the film when he observed several such events during filming. Eight film clips are scheduled, but in the event (with lots of time given over to questions from the audience, about half of whom raised their hands when asked how many were filmmakers), we only get to about half that number. “Don’t get discouraged!,” Salles tells his audience.
I decide, in the grips of religious fervor, to stick around for Salles’ introduction to Linha de Passe, which I’ve already seen. I’m cheered when I overhear a young Asian guy complaining to the theater manager that the lens in Cinema 5 is soft at the top – I agree with him, and tell him I’m pleased I’m not the only nutty obsessive who notices such things. After hearing that 40% of Brazilian families suffer from absence of the father – can that be right? – I rush off to Chez Panisse. I think I have plenty of time, but the damned bridge is a nightmare. I’m uncharacteristically a few minutes late, and still manage to be the first person there.
I compliment Lisa, who was the film editor of the Village Voice when I was the restaurant critic there, on her gracious acknowledgement of those years in the SFIFF catalogue: “where she had the good fortune to be schooled by some of the best: Georgia Brown, Manohla Dargis, J. Hoberman and Amy Taubin.” “Not everyone would be so generous,” I say. And then we tuck into Chez Panisse’s seasonal fare – I especially like a green garlic pudding soufflé surrounded by asparagus, peas, and spinach swimming in a lake of crème fraiche – the wine flows, and heedlessly I drink my fill. I can sleep it off before tomorrow.
[Photos of Colony. and Linha de Passe]