I was aware, living in Northern California, that there was a film festival in Sonoma -- a region almost as famous for its wine as its fabled neighbor, the Napa Valley. But I never included it in my film-going schedule, even in fantasy. I thought that it was too far away to run up and back, even for a whole day of movies, and that its epicurean bent -- it's self-described as "an intimate celebration of unforgettable cinema, world-class food, and fine wine on Sonoma's historic plaza" -- wasn't quite the thing for a serious film scholar such as myself. But after all, my other avocation is food critic.
I'm getting sybaritic in my old age, I think, as I drive up through preserved wetlands and manicured grape vineyards on a glorious spring day. Reading the catalogue for the 16th iteration of the festival, the descriptions of exactly what one can eat at the various venues -- "pasta with…delicious sauces and salad for lunch and dinner screenings," "a variety of complimentary rum drinks," "grab and go breakfast buffet," "pub food and drinks" -- had charmed and intrigued me. I remembered being shocked in movie theaters when neighboring patrons unveiled takeout Chinese food and aromatic pastrami sandwiches, but wasn't I just jealous? Hadn't I smuggled an assortment of tea sandwiches from the excellent Nijiya Market into a screening of "The Place Beyond the Pines" at the Sundance Kabuki yesterday? Wasn't the democracy of everybody being able to access upscale food and drink appealing -- and, hey, pasta was going to be quieter than popcorn, no?
Even just picking up my pass, I was surrounded by bountiful arrays of not just the ubiquitous PopChips and energy bars, but a glamorous, magazine-ready spread of cheeses, crudites, and baked goods catered by The Epicurean Connection, the very establishment that I'd considered picking up a cheese sandwich at when walking along the historic park square that anchors Sonoma's downtown. I improved the volunteers' opinion of the Fourth Estate by picking up all four varieties of Cocoa Planet bars: salted caramel, chocolate olive, vanilla espresso, and mandarin orange, yum. I saw that my usual festival diet of coffee and Goobers was going by the wayside.
The opening reception at MacArthur Place, set among charming gardens whimsically adorned with sculptures, featured free-flowing local wines and beers, as well as more cheeses and crudites, and -- when I arrived, not wanting to look too eager to attack the buffet -- the memory of shrimp. I was not surprised, when introduced to the Festival's Executive Director, Kevin McNeely, to find that he had been a restaurateur and was a bon vivant -- reminiscing about the founding of the festival, he said that he and his friends had wanted "an excuse to throw a big party on a Saturday night." And now, after 16 years -- when they started, he said, they had no connections in the international film world -- he was happy that the Festival could attract world-class movies.
I moved closer to where trays of grilled beef skewers dabbed with horseradish and tiny onion tarts were issuing from the kitchen. Just as I had that desperate opening-party feeling that I knew no one in the room, I was accosted by the worldly Tom Davia, who I'd last seen strolling along the river in Karlovy Vary. He's serving on the festival's documentary jury. He introduces me to Vanessa McMahon and Lincoln Forrest Phipps, who looks familiar. It turns out that both of his films, "Tropicalia" and "Hollywood Don't Surf!," premiered at Telluride, and that I stood in line for half-an-hour for "Hollywood Don't Surf" at the Backlot and didn't get in. I told him that he owes me a DVD.