Sunday night’s gala should have been a purely triumphant and celebratory night at the Arlington Theatre, as the 27th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival came to a close with the presentation of the fine, dark-tinged Lebanese comedy Where Do We Go Now? But the final weekend of this year’s festival was affected by a bittersweet air and a dark cloud, a case of reality literally impacting on the reel world: On Saturday, the beloved filmmaker and programmer Mike DeGruy died in a helicopter accident in Australia, and the shock waves rippled around the festival in its last days.
On Sunday night, fest director Roger Durling — who’s responsible for bumping this festival up in importance as not only Santa Barbara’s premier cultural event but a festival-circuit jewel — gave an emotional and passionate tribute to DeGruy. Mirroring DeGruy’s own habit of getting an audience full of children to bellow an affirmative “yes” in a crowded theater, Durling coaxed the same exultant and ecstatic sound from an Arlington packed with mostly adults. It was a beautiful gesture of appreciation and affirmation, amid the sadness of the story.
Sunday’s proceedings also featured awards, such as the feel-good crowd-pleasers Starbuck for Audience Choice and Pretty Old for documentary. This audience member’s awards: the stunning, cinematically gripping Belgian film Bullhead for feature and the uncommonly strong and artfully made Whores’ Glory for documentary.
Some aficionados of the SBIFF’s normally rich and varied complement of international cinema were disappointed by the unusually lean portions of the all-important “I” part of the SBIFF acronym, which has been this festival’s strongest suit from the very beginning. A focus on French cinema, in the Cinema Nouveau section of the program, seemed to bogart the spotlight and push aside cinema from other parts of the world, and was a hit-and-miss collection. Some more commercial French titles gave us a glimpse at what the average French multiplexer might be seeing, but the most satisfying titles, including the remarkable perspective puzzle Heat Wave, the idea-filled Iris in Bloom, and The Giants (Les Géantes), came from a more experimental place.
A Cinesonic section for music films was interesting mostly to music fans, with few really impressing on filmic terms — although the punchy, punky comedy Vinyl was a hoot and Sons of Norway had a quirky charm. From the American independent sector, far and away my favorite was the surprisingly fine Think of Me, a natural-feeling and sentimentality-dodging saga about a struggling single mother in Las Vegas (an impressive turn by Lauren Ambrose). For uniqueness’ sake, Saturday’s Lobero Theatre screening of the Murnau classic Faust with live band accompaniment by Gardens & Villa lightened up the senses, in reel and real time.
As always, this SBIFF was a generous matrix of diverse components, appealing to the nature-film lovers in the DeGruy-planned Reel Nature series, filmmaker Russ Spencer’s enabling series on Santa Barbara Filmmakers, family fare at AppleBox, and much more. Live human filmmakers and screen talent wended through town, including Viola Davis, Christopher Plummer, and Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo from the much-toasted The Artist, and that film’s creator/director Michel Hazanavicius, in the Saturday morning Director’s Panel. “I tried to respect the grammar of the period,” he said of his contempo-retro silent film. “It looks like an old movie, but it’s modern.”
A similar sentiment was conveyed in a profound night with a great American film artist, Martin Scorsese. Riding high on all-ages acclaim for Hugo, Scorsese wrapped up a long, fascinating, and film history–filled evening tribute at the Arlington with a comment about his intention with Hugo of “moving forward but working back to the origins of cinema,” and emphasized the importance of the “ongoing, life-sustaining conversation between the past and the present.” Voilà: a perfect summarizing mantra of SBIFF, and any film festival worth its salt.
Out of 53 films seen during the ’12 SBIFF (a new “personal best,” or sign of cultural obsessive-compulsive disorder), my Top Ten list boils down thusly: Bullhead, Think of Me, Heat Wave, Whores’ Glory, Golden Slumbers, Found Memories, Lucky, Vinyl, Alois Nebel, Horses.