It is undoubtedly a coup — and also a continuance of tradition — that the SBIFF has scored the involvement of some top names in the Oscar-hopeful crop this year, with the arrival of James Cameron and Sandra Bullock as this weekend’s evening tributes subjects doing the red carpet dance at the Arlington this weekend. A more dubious distinction connecting the two populist heroes is that their current hit movies — A Blind Side and Cameron’s uber-titanically successful Avatar — have been roundly and rightly criticized for their inveterate racist themes, variations on the old creepy Dances with Wolves trope in which whitey saves the day…and in Cameron’s case, whitey is king of the world.
Of the notable women toasted this year, including Monday’s all-day Kathryn Bigelow fete and a rightful bow to Julianne Moore, Bullock is more a people’s choice item. She has never had much in the way of roles with depth, and seems to have a wonderfully self-effacing sense of herself and her modest talents as a cheerable everywoman. After one set of career clips during her tribute at the Arlington on Friday, she winced, “This is so painful. Great movies — I just don’t want to see my pieces.” Regarding the stinker Speed 2, she commented that Keanu Reeves “knew something I didn’t. He said ‘no’.” After that film, she quipped, “I learned what not to take.”
Given that Cameron’s films seem to paint him as a sentimentalist and control freak (although he repeatedly spoke of the importance of being “open to the magic” while filmmaking), it seemed strange when the evening’s plan turned inside out. After clips of Terminator 2, the evening plan jumped ahead — out of sequence — to the awards ceremony, and Arnold Schwarzenegger did the honors. Plans shifted to accommodate the schedule of the Governator, whose last words to Cameron during the photo op were “I’ll be back.” Because of that Cameron’s should-be climactic line “If you love what you, you’ll never work a day in your life” was followed by much more this-is-your-life chatter with Leonard Maltin. It was deliciously surreal, the sort of curveball you’d never find in a James Cameron film.
BLOC PARTY: Once again, some of the strongest films in the line-up this year come from the “Eastern Bloc” section of the programming, and the fare is nicely diverse, with both grit and sugar in the diet. The Polish Zero is a filmic, multi-narrative wild ride (ala Slacker, but with more life-and-death factors afoot, and Krzysztof Kieślowski-ish in some ways), while the Czech El Paso is an agreeably emotional saga of a displaced Roma (gypsy) family, and a poem about culture clash.
Bulgaria’s bid for the Foreign Oscar, The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner is, like many a foreign film Oscar hopeful, a sweet, sad and sentimental affair. A grandfather’s passion and philosophical airs, after his grandson’s post-car crash amnesia, becomes a vehicle for nostalgia of the personal and socio-political sort — touching on the repressive life during the Soviet Bloc era.
MUSIC MAN: In a festival unusually well-stocked with music films, a prized event — from the specialty jazz corner — was Charlie Haden: Rambling Boy, Swiss filmmaker Reto Caduff’s effective telling of the rambling story of jazz bass great Haden. Haden’s story will be familiar to anyone who has followed jazz over the past 50 years, from his key role in Ornette Coleman’s classic, revolutionary-evolutionary quartet to work with Keith Jarrett, Old and New Dreams, his romantic party band Quartet and possibly his greatest group, Liberation Music Orchestra. Ironically, Haden has just scored the biggest-selling project of his career, with his country-bluegrass album Rambling Boy — going back to his childhood days with his family’s country radio show — and scenes of its making frame the doc.
In his film, Caduff checks in with many key parties (though, regrettably, not Ornette himself) and deftly stirs in vintage and stock footage to visually expand the saga. Still, for jazz fans, the most valuable five minutes comes with a rare piano-bass duet with Jarrett, their first musical meeting in over 30 years, on the theme of “How Deep is the Ocean.” It’s way deep.
After Saturday night’s screening, Haden answered Q’s with his wife and co-producer, Ruth Cameron, on the Lobero stage (where, incidentally, he played with his Liberation Music Orchestra late in 2008). He summed up his nearly seventy years in music by saying “I have to create music. I don’t have any choice.” Lucky for us.