2011 SBIFF opening night at the Arlington Theatre Jan. 27, 2011
Paul Wellman

It seemed an indeterminately odd omen when my first encounter at the fest was face-to-face contact with one Anthony Zerbe, who grabbed my badge and thickly asked, “What are you?” Bending over to focus, he muttered, “Press, huh,” and then wandered off into the eye-blinkering klieg lights rotating over State Street.

Gratefully, staff, security, and other potential credential-checking monitors of the evening proved much more malleable, actually downright pleasant as we shimmered into the Arlington’s big room, which would eventually fill with over 2,000 people, a record according to board president Jeff (Sam the Eagle) Barbakow.

Then, without ceremony, the lights dimmed and on came Parry Gripp’s “Megaphone” interpreted brilliantly by 16-year-old Harry Bossert’s LEGO stop-action animation, which set a tone of unaccustomed hipness to the fest proceedings — in fact, it would be safe to say a number of the full-house crowd wasn’t sure what all this crazy rap music was all about anyway. Before the fest is over, people will be quoting it like Shakespeare I predict. It’s a big improvement over the old whimsical talking-heads, lushly scored intro films of yesteryear, I swear.

After reciting a number of reliably pleasing statistics (42 Academy Award nominations for honorees, 170-ish films from 49 countries, 30 world premieres, and 33 U.S. premieres), and a litany of thanks including everyone from us (yay!) to a rather noisy element with a contrastingly studious-looking logo known as Lynda.com. Barbakow brought on the handsomest man in show business shows, Mr. Roger Durling, who exhorted us to meet each other, argue peacefully, and take part in the great democracy that is a film fest. Well whatever, the fest is a happily diverse place, though the elections come after the fact. But I did resonate with Durling’s other well-tempered phrase, declaring the SBIFF as a Film Utopia. That’s better.

The film, Sarah’s Key, also upset another tradition, which is the typical horribleness of SBIFF opening night films. In fact, the full house at the Arlington this year was completely surprising to anyone who recalls the terrible, no good, horrible Santa Ynez-based film that kicked off 2011’s bash, and almost kicked over my faith in the whole party last year. The fact that the theater was full shows that there’s not much in the way of cultural memory-banks in this town. Or maybe it was the reputation of the film — it was a U.S. premiere — or the beloved book filmed by director Gilles Paquet-Brenner, present and movingly humble as film introducer. Not present, however, was the star, Kristin Scott Thomas, who was expected.

If you’re ever wondering where the snows of yesteryear went, they were actually beleaguering a film entitled Bel Ami, filmed in Paris last winter until the icy dusting of the sidewalks there closed down production. Thomas, starring in the film, had to reschedule shooting days, which conflicted with the opening of our fest. At first she was coming, then she wasn’t, then she was, then it was off, leaving poor Durling and his staff emotionally consternated to say the least. If her absence was felt, however, nobody mentioned it to me.

Everybody had opinions about the film, arguing in that democratic fashion Durling advocated earlier, as we braved long lines to get past security into the big party at Paseo Nuevo. I thought it was a good film, though I was more moved by the scenes set in 1942 and other past places than I was with the contemporary story of a woman reporter in Paris (Thomas) who discovers that her apartment was the scene of a terrible tragedy heaped on top of the mind-numbing brutality of the Paris police who rounded up Jewish families and sent them off to death camps. The latter-day fulminations seemed trivializing, somehow, and finally a bit schmaltzy. The heart of the film was very moving though.

Unlike the lines that massed on State Street, though. But they finally yielded to the party within, where food was served, drinks were poured, and the mayor, congressmember, and new state senator held court not far from an elevator that took one, after one’s badge was happily inspected, upstairs into the secret party within a party where another group assembled, including big sponsor types, director Andy Davis, and the artist Mary Heebner and her gentle hubby Macduff Everton, discussing the life of Santa Barbara, that utopia of film, and its nice weather and never once mentioning the apparently grim fact that the press was commingling amongst them.


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