Paul Wellman

Is it frivolous to celebrate film when the world is, in ways literal and figurative, burning? Is it somehow inappropriate to don one’s party wear for a sojourn along the red carpet when the doors have been slammed shut on the spirit of openhearted refuge that for so long defined our country? To worry over how to maneuver beyond the velvet rope when there is talk of building walls? Is it silly to escape into stories when “alternative facts” are paraded as real? And is it a poor allocation of one’s energetic resources to stay out late schmoozing when women’s rights, environmental protections, and funding for the arts and education are all on the chopping block?

Yes, I totally went there. And you know what? I totally went to the film festival, too. And I’d argue that not only is film festival-ing at this juncture not frivolous; it is, in fact, the opposite. Seriously. Just because the festival is one of the city’s splashiest soirees doesn’t mean it’s not important.

Consider the case of festival director Roger Durling ​— ​an out, gay immigrant who runs an arts organization; under the new rules, that’s basically three strikes. Yet on opening night, the Durls opted to hold up his own story as a quintessential example of the American Dream gone right: “This is a place you come to after you die, a place of second chances,” he said. “I am a foreigner, and I am an American.”

It sounded the perfect note, and the opening-night film, Charged, felt equally apt. The documentary follows a chef and outdoorsman, Eduardo Garcia, through his recovery after he suffers a 2,400-volt shock in the Montanan backcountry after stabbing a dead bear that hid a power source ​— ​and then finds himself doing battle with testicular cancer, for a little extra fun. Though it sounds heavy, it’s really a story about coming to a profound appreciation and gratitude for life and all that it entails ​— ​beautifully shot and with some sweet hits of humor, too. After the film, everyone was invited to take a candle on the way out of the theater, creating a river of light that led to the after-party (this is a celebration, after all) at Paseo Nuevo.

The following days stacked the marquee talent: legend Denzel Washington; “it” duo Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling; comers Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Dev Patel, Janelle Monáe, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Ruth Negga, Simon Helberg, and Stephen McKinley Henderson; and Casey Affleck and icon-in-the-making/reliable scene-stealer Michelle Williams. Each evening’s event packed the Arlington to capacity and delivered laughs (when Washington described how he would constantly slip into long, impassioned speeches, by way of method prep for his performance as Malcolm X in the eponymous film, and offered a demo: “This sneaker is white, and the black man is the sock, choked at the neck!” he riffed before adding, “No disrespect to white people or sneakers”), chills (when Loving star Negga spoke of how critical the Supreme Court is in terms of protecting and extending our freedoms), snorts (Stone was determined to get Durling laughing hard enough to drop one; she succeeded), swoons (Michelle Williams’s dress was a serious stunner), and even a hashtag (see #supersavvysantabarbara), spawned by a little Durling-Gosling-Stone banter. (Thought question: If your event does not result in a hashtag, did it really happen?)

With its eclectic crowd and distinctive vibe, every year the festival infuses Santa Barbara with a particular buzz, one that’s refreshingly unlike anything else in the Babylon catalog ​— ​undoubtedly goosed by all that émigré energy. It’s a small but important reminder of how much richer and more expansive life gets when you open your doors. And while it’s a cliché that movies are a lovely means of escape, it’s no less true that sitting down and allowing yourself to be immersed in someone else’s world, their unfamiliar story, is an exercise of empathy. And that’s a muscle that’s in need of some collective flexing.

Am I arguing that popcorn is political? Not necessarily. But I think it’s inarguable that this year’s festival, with its celebrations of diversity, social justice, and the power of perseverance, feels more relevant than ever. And hell, when the world is burning, there’s no denying that there’s catharsis to be found in a bit of well-placed partying.


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