History is in the making and in the already made at SBIFF, which officially jumped into festival #25 on Thursday night at the Arlington Theatre. Needless to say, this thing has very much arrived, both in terms of the global film festival scene—a wildly busier, denser place than it was back in 1985—and as Santa Barbara’s premier cultural event of the year. Who knew the festival would survive and thrive back when founder Phyllis DePicciotto led the charge back in 1985? As she pointed out, back when, “We had a dream. We got money from the city, but they didn’t even know what a film festival was.” Now, we all know. And, by and large, love it.
Odd synchronicity found its way into the title of the opening film, an uneven but enjoyable small film called Flying Lessons, and the winged logo of this year’s festival, commemorating Santa Barbara’s own contribution to the early days of film, the Flying A Studios. Festival director Roger Durling—now in his lucky seventh year at the helm, and a real dynamo in the role—introduced the festival by noting a convergence of numbers, between SBIFF’s 25th year, Flying A’s 100th anniversary, and the 80th anniversary of the grand Arlington, “Santa Barbara’s own church of film.”
In fact, the Flying A Studio factor is not as quaint or small a footnote in film history as we tend to make it. Its pre-WWI heyday was, to quote the Steely Dan song, “Before the fall, when they wrote it on the wall, when there wasn’t even any Hollywood.” It’s a seminal cinema landmark, in the silent era, but the glare of Hollywood’s looming self-importance tends to brush aside all other comers.
Similarly, one of this festival’s ongoing challenges is to court the seductive Hollywood monster while keeping it at bay. A flow of awards season contenders are headed up the 101 to our town for the next 10 days, including Best Picture competitors James (Avatar) Cameron and Kathryn (The Hurt Locker) Bigelow (my vote goes to Bigelow, who has made a much better film). SBIFF board president Jeff Barbakow joked that “for your convenience, we have many of the winners and nominees” of the awards season in progress—including 32 Oscar nominees.
But today, the real meat of the festival’s artistic worth begins, with a varied slate of films from the world over. On Thursday, Durling beat the drum of enthusiasm for festival program exploring, saying, “I love to be challenged in watching films,” and he touched on an ever more relevant power of the festival, in an age when “art films and foreign films don’t get the light of day.”
As DePiccioto also mentioned from the stage, the very first film she screened in the first festival (only 3.5 days then) was Just Between Friends, starring Christine Lahti. As coincidence and fate have it, Lahti also stars in Flying Lessons, as a wine-soaked mother in wine country—our own wine country. Director Derek Magyar’s film is, truth be told, better than many an opening night film in this festival (never a strong slot)), although it keeps losing its balance, tilting toward melodrama and strange narrative loose ends. But good performances keep us engaged, including the alternately cool and intense Maggie Grace as a woman adrift in her mid-twenties, returning to her hometown of Santa Ynez to lick wounds and find bearings. Hal Holbrook has some moving moments as an Alzheimer’s patient who notes that memories “are all that make you real, and that separate you from what comes next.”’
Of course, the other star is location, location, location—including El Rancho Market, the rolling hills and swanky rustic structures of the ever-inspiring Santa Ynez Valley, and the uber-vibe-y Maverick Saloon (where, coincidentally, Golden Globe winning alt country cowboy Ryan Bingham, of Crazy Heart’s “The Weary Kind” fame, played a great solo set the night before). As region booster movies go, Flying Lessons holds nothing on the valley-pumping Sideways, but had enough in its favor to act as a tasty appetizer for the more serious cinema before us in the next 10 days.