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Blessed by the Sundance Man

Robert Redford, Plus 1982 and Violet


A funny and uncommonly touching thing happened at the Arlington on Saturday night, the night of the living Bob Redford, multi-talent who happens to also be the world’s most famous film festival maker, as the Sundance Man. There he was in his storied and handsome, smart and understated glory, onstage with ace interviewer Leonard Maltin, gamely running through the “this is your life” sprawl of the program, a calm and luminous presence. Of course, Redford is one of America’s favorite Hollywood high voltage stars because he so willfully bucks the affectations of the mega-star life, living away from the Pacific Ocean, making films that matter, and creating America’s greatest film-festival-turned artistic miracle.

It may be true that he’s no great shakes as an actor, but, like Clint Eastwood, has filled the bill with a cool, quiet grace in the right roles, up through this year’s minimalist All is Lost. But he’s also a man of conscience, and, as he said on Saturday, “what drives me forward is an insatiable curiosity.” illustrating his point that “as an artist, there are many parts to what we do.” He spun a fascinating story of the process of making the brilliant All the President’s Men, starting with a promotional gimmick for 1972’s The Candidate through a maze to Men’s celebrated release (after Nixon’s self-release from office). He touched on the brave backdrop to his directorial debut, Ordinary People, which scooped up Best Picture and Best Director Oscars in 1980.

But the most special and site-specific moment of the night came at the end. After SBIFF director Roger Durling’s emotive presentation speech, one fest-head to the mentor, Redford graciously accepted the trophy and applauded the spirit of the presenting SBIFF. “I’m flattered by this, and I’m shy,” he told the SRO house. “I don’t know why, but I am. It’s a little like coming home,” he added, as a SoCal boy who spent time surfing and heading into the hills as a youngster. He admitted being impressed with the well-oiled machinery and vision of the SBIFF operation and the genuine, warm reception he received upon arrival here. “It really buoyed me. There is a wonderful vibe here, and a sense of community in this festival.”

File under a guru’s validating blessing for our beloved SB institution of, lo, these many years.

NIGHT FOR DAY: A list of requirements for the avid — verging on obsessive — festgoer, eager to pack in as much of the festival’s offerings as humanly possible: an insatiable curiosity, plenty of fluids, a tolerance for sleep deprivation, and bad eating habits for a 10-day stretch, and a fare of missing out on something you’ll regret later.

As a f’rinstance, after catching the Redford Moment at the Arlington, one could race down to the Metro 5 to check out the late evening shift screening of the Spanish/Santa Monican film Violet, catch a few hours of sleep and battle the cue for the 7 a.m. screening of 1982. Why not? It’s festival time.

Violet, made by Luiso Berdejo, is a peculiar and hard-to-pigeonhole enticement of an indie flick, which isn’t afraid to head down ambiguity or splashes of philosophy, poetry, and post-Bunuel-ian detours into surrealism. Our young protagonist, a Spaniard in Santa Monica, obsesses over a mysterious Polaroid of a woman, and tries to discover her identity, bumping into wise men and L.A. oddballs on the path to awareness.

And let’s not forget the 805 angle, as all roads in the story lead to Zaca Lake, where our hero basks in the magical ambience of that special “bottomless” lake. As Berdejo explained in the Q&A, Zaca Lake is a special and spiritual spot, known for spiritual retreats and Chumash reverence, and the perfect location for a cathartic exit strategy. The lake is also, of course, known as the location for Creature of the Black Lagoon, fitting for a director who pays the bills in the horror movie genre.

For something completely different (SBIFF is nothing if not a central processor for “something completely different” contrast)…1982 is an impressive piece of work from director Tommy Oliver in what could be called the Junkie’s Blues genre, about the ravages of drug addiction on a black family in Philadelphia, circa the early ‘80s. In a setting which runs the risk of slipping into melodrama or excess criminal grit, 1982 proceeds with a surprisingly emotionally subtlety, bolstered by strong performances — especially Hill Harper, as the long-suffering father, and Sharon Leal as the junkie mother in distress, seeking deliverance.

AWARD SEASON REWARDS, FROM AFAR: For one, SBIFF has always been a great window on the world of cinema beyond the borders of the U.S. and/or Hollywood. In a day when actual theatrical screenings of foreign films in town is minimal — scattered bookings at UCSB and at the arthouse micro-circuit of the Riviera and Plaza de Oro — the festival offers a condensed way of seeing what’s going on in the world… film-wise and life-wise. That forums includes a valuable chance to check out the films up for the foreign film Oscar, and some of those — including the strikingly good Omar from Palestine, Belgium’s bluegrassy wonder The Broken Circle Breakdown.

Also on the Oscar front, Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty is, well, a great film, which starts out on a strong note rivets the senses and goes deep, thematically and in terms of spiritual self-seeking. With a premise based around a famous, cynical writer’s 65th birthday, a splashily-choreographed affair on a rooftop in Rome, and the soul-searching — a search for the “great beauty” — it triggers. A sensory bedazzlement with a Modernist-Baroque sense of cinematic style, spritzers of the bizarre and also the internally-focused contemplation, we can’t help but brandish it with the old cine-buzzword “Fellini-esque.”

Sorrentino, in town for the festival, explained in the Saturday afternoon “Director’s Panel,” despite the free-flowing and elaborately-staged cinematic qualities of the film, he sees it as being “completely indebted to writing and to literature,” which serves to reflect the unusually literate tapestry of its script.

All in all, it’s a feast for the senses, juggling a longing for edge and grounding, decadent abandon and the quest for spiritual “roots.” And yet there is nary a dull moment. When the measure of SBIFF films this year is tallied, this will be the one to beat.

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