It may be a testament to the residual provincial charm and naivete of life in Santa Barbara that we still get a buzz off of twirling, beaming klieg lights. On opening night of the film festival, it’s not hard to find your way to the center of the action in town, and opening night in 2008 found the kliegs in full force, slicing through the rain clouds overhead, specifying the cultural epicenter at the Arlington Theatre. In this venerable, kitsch-fitted house, the 11-day festival opened its portal with the world premiere of an inoffensive and occasionally heart-warming romantic comedy outta’ Hollywood, Definitely, Maybe. Summary review: it was certainly better than a poke in the eye.
More important than the opening night fare – historically, never the strongest element of this festival – was the sense of a ceremonial, if frothy, intro to a festival which has grown upward and outward. As SBIFF board president Jeff Barbakow mentioned in his introduction, what began 23 years ago as a means of putting bodies in hotel beds during the tourist off-season has grown exponentially, especially in the last five years of Roger Durling‘s kindly directorial guidance and command. This festival has rightfully taken its place among the world’s top 50 film festivals, a list which includes only a dozen American models. And anyone who has been a longtime SBIFF observer has seen said growth, in numbers and money, in celebrity voltage, and in terms of the artistic side of the medium – for some of us, the most important measure of all.
For his part, the protrusive-coiffed Durling came out in a fit of emotive intensity, making an impassioned speech, dedicating this year’s festival to the recently-belated young actor Heath Ledger (the subject of a SBIFF tribute evening following Brokeback Mountain, only two years ago at the Luke Theater). The fact that Durling’s wireless microphone kept cutting out only added to the emotional volatility of the dedication. Shifting quickly from tragedy to comedy, Durling introduced the opening film’s director, Adam Brooks, but endearing young actress Abigail Breslin (of Little Miss Sunshine fame) took to the podium, announcing that she was Brooks, soon confessing she always wanted to be a director (and who hasn’t?).
Live human presence exited stage left and the projectors rolled. But wait, what was this, an actual commercial (for a certain corporate entity, rhyming with American Schmeck’s Press) preceding the film? Thus far in Santa Barbara, we’ve dodged the irritating bane of pre-feature commercials. Is the tide turning as of this festival? Let’s hope not. That said, this year’s festival title trailer is less patently sensual and more matter-of-fact than last year’s, but comes equipped with a cool, rocking musical backdrop by Bruce Winter and Zach Madden.
Definitely, Maybe, coming soon to a multiplex near you, is a nice enough, if too-long, variation on the feelgood-y romantic comedy theme, bumped up a notch or two by the presence of solid talent like the lovely smart Rachel Weisz, the wizened Kevin Kline, and the incurably, precociously charming Breslin, but ultimately succumbing to feelgood blandness by the time credits roll.
Then again, we’ve been trained by more than two decades of SBIFFs not to take the opening night film too seriously: the real meat of the festival unreels in assorted directions in the next ten days, in the dark, sans the klieg factor.