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My idea of an artistic, healthy, full-service film festival is one that strategically balances worthy nods to the Hollywood machinery and due respect for the international cinema intelligentsia. A ripe example of that delicate balance hit SBIFF as it slides into its final days.
Last night, the Arlington and the town were abuzz with the generous presence of full-scale movie star and film-icon-of-substance Brad Pitt. More than most of the countless celebrity tributes in this festival’s 35-year history, the Pitt’s triggered a mega-buzz around town, to the degree that mayor Cathy Murillo ought to have declared yesterday Brad Pitt Day in Santa Barbara. SBIFF exec director Roger Durling tapped into that zeitgeist by opening his introduction to the Maltin Modern Master Award event with a hardy, “Welcome to the Brad Pitt Film Festival!”
Conversely, while the mayor was at it, she could have decreed today as Bong Joon-Ho Day. Illustrating this festival’s long and strong commitment to international film (the IF in SBIFF), the festival presents the celebrated Korean director in house, after a free screening of his Best Picture Oscar-nominated mini masterpiece Parasite — in itself, a magical mixture of popcorn and art house qualities – this afternoon. But the fest takes the occasion to also screen a few of his vintage films throughout today — including Memories of Murder and The Host. We get a chance to catch up with his filmography, which is the stuff that film festivals are made of.
For anyone who went into the Pitt tribute wondering how he might deserve the evening’s Modern Master Award accolade, ample evidence for the defense was laid out to sway the initially skeptical. Among his strengths and virtues to the film world — and the world — is his discerning and enabling work as a producer, over and above his star power.
It’s true that his underrated and subtle acting range has allowed him to shine in select rolls over the past 30 years, validating what award presenter, director David (Seven, Fight Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) Fincher cited as Pitt’s masterful ability to make the idle moments and presence in a film count for much, even comparing that quality to Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant. He might have also added naturalist Robert Redford, a hero of Pitt’s on various fronts, who directed Pitt in A River Runs Through It.
A short list of Pitt’s best work includes two 2019 performances, Ad Astra (which he also produced) and his Zen slacker, Oscar-nominated role as a stuntman in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The short list of bejeweled work over the past three decades also includes his breakout in Thelma and Louise, Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, a lovably unintelligible thug in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, in Terrence Malick’s poetic Tree of Life (which should have been one of the featured films in the tribute), and Killing Them Softly.
When interviewer Leonard Maltin asked Pitt about values that were imparted on him from his midwestern roots, coming out of Southern Missouri, Pitt didn’t miss a beat, saying simply, “Probably that we don’t analyze ourselves.” Touche. Pitt wasn’t keen on self-analysis last night, but had a lot to say, in his cool, charismatic, and self-regulated way.
After watching clips and discussing a series of his films, including Seven, Burn After Reading, and Babel, Pitt commented “I’m noting a theme of hubris…that has always gotten me into trouble in the past, and it gets the nation into trouble,” slyly alluding to the White House without naming names or current geo-political travesties.
But a certain humility and restraint is also a critical part of Pitt’s work, as actor and also as a in producer role. His production company, Plan B, is behind making such great and socially worthy films as 12 Years a Slave, Moonlighting, and Last Black Man in San Francisco possible.
One of the jewels in the Pitt crown is the too-little seen The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (which SBIFF wisely screened several years ago), of which Pitt said marked a point of finding a personal voice. “That’s a film that’s near and dear to me,” adding with a fitting note, “it’s a statement about celebrity.”
After accepting his award from Fincher, Pitt glowed from the normally salty Fincher’s paean to him, saying “That’s not going to help with my hubris issues.” He then jokingly “reviewed” his performance with Maltin. “It went well,” he said. “a few lulls, but a good finish. I’d give it three and a half stars.” He added, “It’s nights like these that remind me I’m old. I’ve been around. I no longer remember the first rule of Fight Club. But I feel really blessed.”
Pitt’s final comment touched on his sometimes status as a Santa Barbaran, living north of Goleta. “Santa Barbara rules,” the semi-homie beamed. For at least two festival days this week, it ruled, film-wise.