2017 SBIFF American Riviera Award honoring Jeff Bridges presented by actor Gil Birmingham
Paul Wellman

Jeff Bridges exists in that lofty piece of real estate called veteran, beloved actors enjoying great artistic vitality and due accolades in a later career chapter, most recently in the wave of warm vibes and award season hosannas for his wondrous work in Hell or High Water. Jeff Bridges is also a friendly, charitable guy who lives “down the block” (albeit one of the nicer houses on the block), and is concerned about the place he calls home.

That includes his long-standing passion for abating hunger — in the world, in America, in Santa Barbara County. Bridges was given another tribute evening at the Arlington last night, timed with the accolade moment of High Water, and as might be expected, he was both mythic and dude next door in person. Accepting his American Riviera award from High Water co-star Gil Birmingham, he said “to a hometown boy, this means a lot.” He also took the opportunity to talk up his philanthropic mission to battle hunger, starting locally. Quoting Fairview Farms founder Michael Ableman, he offered that “What keeps hunger in place is the lack of community. And what a community we have here, a microcosm of our nation, with very needy and extremely wealthy people. Working together, we could end hunger in our county and be a model for the rest of the nation.”

As SBIFF head Roger Durling explained, Bridges has been instrumental and at-the-ready with help for the festival, going back many years. He arranged the premiere of Seabiscuit here, among other acts of kindness. He’s part of the ensemble responsible for kicking SBIFF into its robust and healthy state in the worldly ranks of film fests.

Inevitably, Bridges faces questions in his iconic as “the Dude,” the language-challenged (or gifted, depending on one’s outlook) and hirsute slacker Zen master in the Coen Bros. film The Big Lebowski. “The Dude is so dear,” he said, responding to a shout-out from the Dude-brained crowd, pressing the question of how much Jeff is in the Dude. “I don’t know which [role] I’m most like. I start preparing my characters from myself — what should I amp up and what should I hold back?”

But he also explained that, following the cult status of his Dude-ification, he feared the typecasting that his father, Lloyd Bridges, faced after the huge success of TV’s Sea Hunt. “I’m concerned about not developing a persona,” he commented. “I have tried to mix it up so people would be pleasantly confused.” Shifting gears radically, he soon appeared as POTUS in The Contender, post-Dude, and the clip with him saying to the congress “hate and evil have no place in the chapel of democracy” got one of the biggest ovations of the night.

As moderator Scott Feinberg was trying to wrap things up and keep the evening from being overly epic, Bridges made a quick interjection to mention his still-new-ish passion, as a recording/touring musician, with his Santa Barbara based band The Abiders (some of whom could be found at the Seraphonium Live! screening). “It’s my teenaged dream realized,” he said, in what has become a mantra for him. That late-breaking chapter all started with his Oscar-grabbing role as a country star gone down, but not out, Crazy Heart. That’s a reasonable enough catch phrase to get at the special character that is the man who would be, and remains, the Dude.

A Trip Around the World If you feel that you haven’t gotten your cathartic fix of bleak Eastern European cinema this year, head on over to the Bulgarian film Godless, a slow, dark, and almost stealthily powerful piece of filmmaking, the full effect of which lingers after the end credits. Writer-director Ralitza Petrova’s morality tale, about a corrupt money laundering scheme, a young physical therapist trying to find her way out of a criminal vortex (seeking redemption), and elder abuse. Godless, indeed. The film also contains one of the more haunting single shots I’ve yet seen at the festival: a faithful dog chases feverishly after a car that had a doomed victim in its trunk. It’s heartbreaking and harrowing, and simple, and sets the stage for a film of dark clouds and long takes and narrative questions left unanswered, at least in any tidy Hollywood fashion.

Another deceptive slow, but deep film from Eastern Europe, the Croatian director Zrinko Ogresta’s On the Other Side (also about a nurse, coincidentally), sneaks up on us and hovers around our consciousness after its surprise ending. Much of the dramatic action takes place on the phone, and the details of the narrative elephant in the room — the nightmarish Serbian-Croatian war of 20 years earlier — and subtle touches such as foreshadowing shots on an elevator, conspire toward another quiet but strong example of the cinematic renaissance occurring in the Balkans. Actress Ksenija Marinkovic knocks us out with her understated emotionality and measured climactic moments amidst the pained atmosphere in the long shadow of a horrific war.

To get the bleak out of your cheek, then proceed to the surprisingly charming Costa Rican rom-com on a beach getaway flick About Us, directed by and starring comic charmer Hernán Jiménez. Our couple in focus, trying to resolve relationship woes and blahs with a trip to St. Theresa, runs into assorted “things that can go wrong” follies, including the arrival of a third party, a former Argentinean friend (and more?) of the female half of the equation, making for some interesting, revealing comic-narrative math. Frothy fun is to be had, in a genre that has frequently gone, um, south in Hollywood’s hands.

The refugee crisis is such a pressing topic in the global scheme — even if not yet impacting America as much as it should be — and the domain of documentaries is one forum through which the subject can be directly addressed. What makes the fascinating, Oscar-nommed Italian doc Fire at Sea unique and uniquely powerful is its cooler-headed approach, in which director Gianfranco Rosi depicts the tense conditions on the island of Lampedusa, entry point for many African refugees.

But Rosi wisely tells his tale, juxtaposing the life of a humble family on the island (and the endearing, slingshot-obsessed and spaghetti-slurping young son) and the horrors of arriving boatloads of desperate refugees, without narration or the nervous fast/data-packed pace too many docs seem to heed. There are no narrators or film clips in real life, very much in progress. The calm, quiet approach serves to accentuate and pull us into the humanity of the situation, in uncommonly touching and poetic terms.

What to See File: Of the films on the final two days docket, I can recommend: My Life as a Zucchini, Godless, About Us, Pyromaniac, The Fury of a Patient Man… see you on the street to swap notes on other thumbs-up items.


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