Looking to Montecito and Far Eastward

“My mother was a maid, her mother was a maid, and her mother was a slave. I get to be who I am… in Montecito!”

When Oprah Winfrey talks, people listen, and for good reason. She has been a mover, shaker, and boundary-breaker for decades, and is now Montecito’s most famous resident, who quite logically was granted the SBIFF “Montecito Award,” on Wednesday night at the Arlington. The timing is not coincidental, but in sync, like most all the celebrity sightings and toasting at the festival, with Awards season, and her quite stellar Oscar-nodded performance in Lee Daniels’ The Butler.

It turns out she is also highly skilled in the business of presenting a gracious and articulate presence in the tribute spotlight. Blame it on her natural eloquence and charisma, and gift for gab both entertaining and deeper, but — despite the slender dimensions of her filmography — she acquitted herself with greater ease and substance than many a tribute on this stage, aided by the informed and on-point interviewee John Horn. Speaking about the odd dichotomy of honesty on her TV show and the art of artifice as an actor (starting with the Spielberged Color of Purple), she commented “I was thrown by the word ‘acting.’ How do you tell the truth with the word ‘act?’”

But she did find her way into the art/craft of acting, when she learned that “you have to find a way to give yourself over to the character. You have to surrender and become a vehicle to where the spirit meets you.”

To sum up the evening, Oprah (she’s on a first-name basis with America and the world) mentioned that, as she dips into her sixties next week, is ever-more committed to make careful choices in what she does. “How can I be of service, not only to myself, but to people?,” she said. “I use my art in the service of what I think is the better good of humanity.” Big words, but this woman has a history of backing up her words with deeds.

During the award-presentation moment of the evening, a woman in the back of the theater started loudly ranting about something, indecipherable to these ears, and her heckling put a glitch in the smooth sailing of the show, before bouncers commenced to evict her from the venue. An irritant? Yes, but also a reminder that this was live and in-public, a real time event in an industry too often about the canned goods.

GO EAST, GOOD FESTIVAL: I, for one, am thrilled to see the return of the “Eastern Bloc” in the SBIFF program return, after a two-year absence. Of course, it makes sense to change things up and explore other niches in the vast world of films worth screening, but the world of post-Iron Curtain Eastern European cinema is one of the most fascinating “new” areas in the medium, which — in the best case — spring forth with a fresh approach to the language and ideals of cinema. It is ripe for showcasing in a film festival setting.

Granted, there is a strong bias here. Two of my favorites SBIFF films in the past few years have been Romanian: the raw-nerved If I Want to Whistle, I Just Whistle, and last year’s weirdly mystical/pulpy Beyond the Hills.

To that list of fest-toppers, I may have to add the remarkable Child’s Pose, which earned the Berlin Film Festival’s prestigious Golden Bear last year, for good reason. A slow but steady and never slack tale of family tragedy, from multiple angles, director Călin Peter Nelzer’s naturalistic, documentary-style depiction of a child’s death in a car accident touches nerves and assorted regions of the heart. Through its virtuosic blend of improvisatory freedom and absolutely control over the material, we get a grittily real John Cassavettes-ish feeling from the film, with echoes of Woman Under the Influence, especially comparing Gena Rowlands’ masterful work in that film and the quite stunning performance (best of the fest?) of Luminita Gheorghiu, as a mother both manipulative and vulnerable. It’s a family saga in the large sense, with a small, ultra-close-up view, with poignancy and emotional crossfire made all the stronger by the deceptively sharp focus of the film’s vision.

Child’s Pose is anything but feelgood fare, but it is a great example of how cinema can, with the right material, talents and vision, balance the elements of a deep-rooted humanity and filmic stylization to touch us in ways rarely experienced in a movie theater.

PRE-ROUNDUP: As we head into the festival’s second weekend — or third act, if you will — the time seems to ripe for critics of all sorts (civilian or “professional”) to take stock so far, to name names and compile lists. Here is one humble festivaler’s faves, to this moment (Thursday at noon). So far, the question of strongest yet oscillates between Omar and Child’s Pose: Child’s Pose, Omar, The Gambler, The Japanese Dog, Gabrielle, Of Horses and Men, La Jaula de Oro, Wounded.

Just one opinion in a sea of others, subject to change, by the day.