As Part Two of this year’s SBIFF opened, I found myself pondering one of those eternal riddles. No, not what makes a story so compelling, or how it is that a piece of celluloid fiction can inspire every feel on the spectrum. What I wondered was this: Which is more difficult, surviving the daily deluge of dawn-’til-midnight revelry while carrying the burden of an ever-compounding hangover or while carrying a baby-to-be who seems to resemble nothing so much as a karate-practicing regulation bowling ball perched atop my bladder?
Having devoted the last dozen years of SBIFF-age to research regarding the former, this year, I tackled the latter. Between the exhaustion, the inability to knock back an espresso (or a cocktail) when the need for a quick energetic re-alignment strikes, and the ever-present, yet often just-kidding, need for a toilet, I figured myself at a significant disadvantage.
Of course, recast in Hollywood terms, I suppose this might make me an underdog. And thus, in Hollywood terms, the inevitable victor. Using this logic to psyche myself up as I walked to the Arlington on Tuesday night, I could practically hear the Rocky theme song.
Oh, wait. That was the Rocky theme song.
The packed theater was electrified, as it should be for someone as legendary as the night’s honoree, as Stallone himself took the stage — drink in hand — to a standing ovation. After the opening montage, of which he remarked, “It’s great to watch your hairline recede in Technicolor,” he comfortably settled in, impressing with his sharp wit and thoughtful asides. Moderator Pete Hammond led us through his body of work — which included a notable pit stop into a film called Rhinestone, costarring Dolly Parton and oozing 1980s camp of the honky-tonk variety, as well as visits with Rambo, Cliffhanger, The Expendables, and, of course, Rocky.
The character Stallone wrote — and acted — to life more than 40 years ago is a hero for more than just his ability to land a punch, take a punch, beat a side of beef senseless, or charge a gnarly set of steps; he’s the everyman who overcomes. “The majority of us are underdogs,” Sly said. “Just when we think we have it together, something happens … and we have to struggle and fight to keep some equilibrium.”
Of course, just because Rocky has taken on the status of sentimental American icon doesn’t mean there aren’t laughs to be had. Of his enunciation, Stallone said, “I needed subtitles; I can’t even understand what I’m saying!” (He explained this earlier: Apparently, when he was born, the doctor’s use of forceps severed some nerves in his face, causing that famed lopsided grin and speaking affect — a story that likely proved funnier to the less-pregnant attendees in the crowd. Then again, kid did pretty well for himself.)
Post-program, Roger Durling took the stage, describing how Rocky had inspired him. “You have given a voice to all of us who have felt like outcasts, like underdogs,” he said. “I have the eye of the tiger because of you!” Following that, a reveling-in-the-love Carl Weathers, aka Apollo Creed, presented the Montecito Award. From there, it was on to the Hennessy lounge, where the evening’s stars posed not with a championship belt but with a bottle of Paradis Imperial (perhaps the grown-up equivalent?), sipping cognac and graciously availing the selfie seekers in the crowd.
Next up were the Outstanding Directors Awards, a panel event that was recently upgraded to prime time as one of the fest’s marquee attractions. And it was a big deal, indeed: The night’s list of five honorees coincided perfectly with the roster of contenders for this year’s Best Director Oscar. Moderator Scott Feinberg interviewed each, and each proved a fascinating — yet totally distinct — slice of genius.
Room director Lenny Abrahamson spoke of creating the closed-in feel of the “room,” which he managed by shooting in a tiny space with proportions matching those in Emma Donoghue’s book — requiring him to get creative during takes. “It was like Tetris,” he said. “I spent a lot of time in the bathtub. We’d call cut, and I’d pop out.”
Spotlight director Tom McCarthy said that, as opposed to being a deterrent, his own Catholic upbringing gave him a foothold into the story — and noted that appearing with these other directors can be rather humbling, as when that jaw-dropping Mad Max race-across-the-desert scene is cut against a take from Spotlight, “of, like, a long shot of a guy on the phone.”
Alejandro González Iñárritu said he took on The Revenant because it scared him — “When you feel fear, it’s a good sign you have to jump” — and waxed poetic about the film’s beauty: shot wholly in natural light, it made glorious, creepy use of “the complexity of dusk … you can’t emulate that.” (It wasn’t all poetry, however; he also attributed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s phenomenal work to the fact that “every morning he has chicken sausages and Mexican Coca-Cola.”)
Adam McKay (The Big Short) was as hilarious as you’d expect the mind behind Funny or Die (and, um, Step Brothers) to be, noting that he was on such a hot streak while casting the film that at one point he thought, “Should we try the Dalai Lama?” He was impassioned about the subjects tackled in the film — which, incidentally, recently screened for Congress — and stopped just short of a full-stop Bernie endorsement. “Call your representatives,” he said, “and say, ‘Why the fuck are you taking money from these corporations?’”
Physician-turned-filmmaker/Mad Max mastermind George Miller proved the philosopher of the group, musing that his story endures because, “somehow, we tapped into an archetype.” Possessed of a thinker’s sense of awe, the 70-year-old Renaissance man said stories should come “with a warning that says, ‘hazardous material,’” before segueing into an anecdote to illustrate that while his film’s resonance is heartening, it can be disconcerting, too, as when a woman told him that she loved Fury Road so much, she named her baby Furiosa, after Charlize Theron’s character. (And the pregnant lady cringed.)
Closing night brought another capacity crowd to the Arlington, Durling and much of the SBIFF squad to the stage to take their bows, and Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite to the screen. After a brief snafu, the film got rolling, telling the funny, sad, operatic tale of an eccentric patroness of the arts whose passion is singing. At which she is not good. Surrounded by yes-folk, the sympathetic underdog is encouraged to take the stage again and again — not always to victorious ends.
But SBIFF’s end was indeed victorious, as over at the Lobero Studio party, the wild Santa Anas goosed the crowd with their second (or third, or fourth) winds, carrying us through until the blustery end. And while I did not turn into a pumpkin (though I certainly look like I’ve swallowed one), nor did my water break in dramatic, Hollywoodian fashion, this SBIFF is one I’ll surely remember. I envision telling my soon-to-be-child all about it one day, perhaps this time next year … just before I kiss him good-bye and tell the babysitter not to wait up.