Credit: Peggy Grossman

My friendly barista was taking a keen interest in my SBIFF press badge, bearing a photo of Adam Diver as a logo/icon. He informed me that Driver was 1) a Star Wars stalwart and 2) like himself, a former member of the military and advocate for supporting veterans with PTSD. I had to confess that I knew Driver mainly for his roles in films such as Paterson (directed by Jim Jarmusch) and Silence (the underrated Martin Scorsese film), and of course, the much-praised and Oscar-nominated Marriage Story —the reason Driver was in town and on my badge. The barista was disappointed that he couldn’t make the Driver tribute, last night at the Arlington, and I promised I would report back from the front.

Cut to the Arlington, where Driver got extra stage time due to a short-notice cancellation by fellow would-be tribute partner Scarlett Johansson, who fell violently ill at the Miramar and had to be a no-show. As it happened, one of the more interesting exchanges Driver had with his interviewer Anne Thompson considered the influence of his military service on his high-profile acting life. “The military was the best acting training I had,” said Driver, who went from service to studying at Juilliard. “The structure is the same. The end result is different. A group of people are on a mission, and it is very much ‘team over individual.’ You’re on this impossible mission.”

Later in the thoughtful and refreshingly unscripted interview, Driver spoke of the challenges of acting, but admitted the fun factor: “It’s not like,” he paused, looking for an analogy and then stared at his jumbo hand-held microphone, “inventing a microphone.” Responding to Thompson’s question about his ability to peel back layers of masculinity in many of his roles, Driver danced around the subject, and finally joked about his “urge to bite things.”

Voila, my report from the Driver front, in brief.

ART OF THE CLICK: One of the accidental themes of this year’s SBIFF has to do with celebrating old school, veteran photographers, responsible for capturing and nurturing the realm of celebrities, and the outside world in motion. Director Andy Davis’ fine film Mentors: Tony & Santi, getting its world premiere on Tuesday at the Lobero, deals with the enduring friendship and immortally potent image archives of Tony Vaccaro and Santi Vassali.

In another doc, That Click, the photog in focus is Douglas Kirkland, who, like Tony and Santi, worked for the influential magazine Look, starting in the ’60s. Kirkland’s 50-plus year career, still in motion, is startling to observe as laid out in a stylish, music-adorned way by director Luca Severi. His vast body of work includes shoots for Look and Life with legendary screen sirens including an unclad and come-hithering Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor, Judy Garland, and before finding his lucrative place in the dream-building machinery as set photographer for Sound of Music, Moulin Rouge, Titanic, and others.

Interviewees include Baz Lurhman, Nicole Kidman, an articulate Sharon Stone, and Michelle Williams, who exudes that his pictures offer “entire stories told in a single moment.” The enthusiastic Kirkland is seen on the job, and “in character” as a man who clearly loves his work, and who has adapted to the digital photographer world as it evolves. At an exhibition of his decades of work, the photographer quips, “if you have a chance to become a Douglas Kirkland, I would recommend it,” he said through a beaming smile.

His integrated role in the Hollywood machinery, and his creative approaches to shooting stars makes the doc a perfect fit for a festival such as SBIFF, which celebrates both the art and the mass cultural buzz of film.

GRACE, CONTINUED: Santa Barbara, and beyond, are fairly-well familiar with the tragic yet moving story of Grace Fisher, the musically gifted and musically driven young woman who suddenly became a quadriplegic five years ago. On her 17th birthday, Fisher was stricken by the rare, polio-like Acute Flaccid Myelitis, losing the use of her body below her neck, virtually overnight.

But the upside to this inherently, wrenchingly sad story relates to her indomitable spirit and willingness to adapt to her radically new reality, a quality beautifully captured in Lynn Montgomery’s documentary Amazing Grace, given its world premiere at the festival. With the open and willing participation of the Fisher family — Grace, her heroically engaged parents and sister (and family dog) — Montgomery has created a compelling saga about a still-unfolding Santa Barbara case of adversity and triumph.

Combining home movies, intimate new interviews in creative visuals, and filmic tactics, Amazing Grace takes us through the details of the affliction forward. Of special interest are quick inserts of selfie videos a teenaged Grace made of herself playing impressive, Michael Hedges-like instrumentals on her open-string guitar.

Along the way, we are inspired by Grace’s…well, grace and determination to live well despite her limitations. Helped and mentored by UCSB professor emeritus Dr. Earl Stewart, she becomes increasingly adept at playing the keyboard and composing on a computer, using just a mouth stick.

She is treated to surprise visits and performances by area guitarist Chris Fossek, playing her own prized Martin acoustic guitar, and famed Oscar-winning composer Justin Hurwitz playing his romantic theme for La La Land on the Fisher home piano. Hurwitz, a hero and inspiration for Grace, then hangs out and talks music with Grace, as she shows him her composition “Waltz of the Waves,” which was performed by a young school orchestra at Santa Barbara High School.

A Q&A session with Montgomery followed the film, with Grace and her parents — and many caretakers and other participants in the story in the house at the Fiesta — addressed this special project. The director, whose daughter is a friend of Fisher’s, described this as her “amazing passion project.” Grace herself ended the session by saying that the “amazing” part of the title and spirit of the film, and her life story in progress, had to do with her many helpers and supporters, from her parents outward.

As she says at one point in the film, “Healing isn’t just a physical thing. I’ve been blessed in other ways.” The blessing is infectious.

Films to See: Head’s up and thumbs-up department, for today’s film fare: Invisible Life, a surprisingly touching melodrama with an artistic touch, and Brazil’s bid for the Foreign Film Oscar; Finding Farideh, a fascinating documentary about an Iranian adoptee in Amsterdam, returning home on a roots/self-discovery journey to Iran, and Iran’s Oscar bid. And for a live music jolt, check out Sergio Mendez in the Key of Joy! at the Lobero, which is also reportedly hosting a live appearance by Mendez himself, the man, the myth, the doc subject.


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