SBIFF Opening Night
Paul Wellman

“You people are sick, sick individuals.” It was

8 a.m. on a Friday morning in the film festival’s main screening compound of Metro Four, and festival director Roger Durling — an intrepid and galvanizing force in the festival for seven years and counting — was outwardly teasing the early-bird crowd, there to see Bulgaria’s Oscar-bid film (The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner) this year. We knew he meant it as a term of empathetic endearment. SBIFF has been enabling this sickness of cultural and global curiosity for 25 years now, and after the first weekend’s thicket of wares, all seems in top working condition for Santa Barbara’s prime festival organism.

In terms of tributes, last weekend brought the high-profile likes of Sandra Bullock and James Cameron to the Arlington for the red-carpet ride. Something connects the pair: They are mainstream faves with minimal visible prima donna attitudes. Bullock was, as expected, down-to-earth but confident, talking, for instance, about how her unpleasant experience with Speed 2 taught her “what not to do.”

Cameron’s evening got a bit syncopated, with Gubernator Arnold Schwarzenegger bestowing the award in the middle of the presentation. The gov had places to go, evil to combat. Whatever one thinks of Cameron’s movies, he’s an admirable character, fascinated by new technological challenges, education, and trying to “find something that is pioneering.” At times, Cameron seemed more like an adventurer and a man who knows the heart of the People (capital P) than an artist in any classic sense. He attends to business with what he said was a “stay calm, stay solution-oriented” mantra. It has served him well: With Avatar alone, the tally is more than a billion sold.

From the first weekend’s generally dazzling international film pickings, the high points — some of which will get later festival screenings, or are worthy of Netflix-ing — ran a global gamut. As usual, some of the more provocative titles were in the Eastern Bloc sidebar, and ranged from the gritty (Slovenian Girl, and Zero, the existential puzzle film from Poland) to the warm-spirited and hopeful (the Czech Roma family story El Paso, and the aforementioned Bulgarian feel-good film The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner).

More glossy, in-the-Oscar-news names filled the Lobero on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, for the ever popular It Starts with the Script and Directors on Directing panel discussions. Meanwhile, the world of world cinema was being explored extensively in the darkened rooms of the Metro complex, where enlightened “sick” individuals soaked it up in droves.

Once again, Iranian cinema was well accounted for, in the blissfully crazy but dryly humorous Jarmusch-y Ashkan, the Charmed Ring, and Other Stories, and the sensitive drama Twenty. One of the more established arthouse vets in the mix, Italian director Marco Bellocchio, delivers a sensory and emotional wallop with Vincere, about Mussolini’s secret lover and love child, and history in the unmaking. The truly wowing Kelin, from Kazakhstan, paints a visually vivid image of nomadic life on the steppes, like last year’s memorable Kazakh film Tulpan, except in the second century rather than the 21st.

From Finland came another Oscar contender, a disarmingly beautiful and bittersweet number, Letters to Father Jaakob. Quite by contrast, as part of the always intriguing Latin American component of the SBIFF program, Mexico’s Backyard (El Trespatio) is a chilling, semi-fictionalized summary of the very real-world tragedy of “femicide” in Ciudad Juárez.

Call me crazy, but despite the genuine embarrassment of cinematic riches in the first stretch of SBIFF 2010, the most moving moment of the first weekend came at the Lobero Theatre on Sunday afternoon. The subject was Posse, a quirky lost gem from the golden age of the ’70s, directed by and starring Kirk Douglas.

No less an American icon than Quentin Tarantino made the screening and onstage dialogue between Quentin and Kirk (“Q&K”) happen. Douglas, now 93, recalled little about his loveable oddball Western, but Tarantino knew it well (one could even sense a direct influence on Inglourious Basterds, especially a scene with foes trading quips over a lazy dinner). Douglas said he wanted to talk about Basterds, opining that Christoph Waltz’s performance as the slick villain was the “best performance of the season,” and that he wishes he could have played the role.

At dialogue’s end — Douglas had to run off to watch the Super Bowl — the esteemed actor (and occasional director) touchingly spoke about life at 93: “It’s lonely. All my colleagues are dead, and they have just left me good memories. I need to make new friends.” Touching Tarantino’s arm, he added, “How about you?” Done deal.

This special event cut to the heart of what a film festival can be tailor-made for — both celebrating discovery of new film offerings from around the world and rediscovery of old cinema gems, with their makers and famous admirers in tow.

SBIFF 2010 continues, busily and with much promise, through Sunday evening, when the closing film, Middle Men, calls number 25 a wrap. So far, so very good.


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