DON’T JUMP!: Mr. Film Culture gets all Vertigo at the Golden Gate Bridge.
Happy 50th anniversary to the San Francisco Film Festival, whose 1957 program had the smarts to name Satyajit Ray as its Best Director and Pather Panchali as its Best Film. I arrived too late this year to be invited to the trilliondollar-a-plate 50th-anniversary dinner, whose guests included, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, Spike Lee and George Lucas plus Robin Williams doing standup about his adopted city: “It’s a very large asylum. I walk down the streets of San Francisco and here I’m normal.”
The SF Fest is a splendidly serious one, showing first-rate documentaries and obscure foreign-language features, with a special emphasis on Asian cinema, as befits a city with such a large émigré populace. In the mornings, the fest buses in hordes of teenagers to see movies, and there’s an exemplary outreach program in which filmmakers go to high schools and show their works. But at the fest itself? Sadly I ask, where are the college students and those in their 20s to ponder these fine pictures? The audience was overwhelmingly Baby Boomer and beyond.
Just how knee-jerk-left are SF audiences? I attended a screening of The Sugar Curtain, a documentary about Cuba made by Camila Guzmán Urzúa, who lived there in the 1980s. Although she’s disillusioned with Cuba today, Guzmán Urzúa regards her time growing up there as a “golden age” because the country’s economy was bolstered by the Soviet Union. When she appeared for a Q&A, nobody in the San Francisco audience challenged her about the ’80s in Havana, about the lack of civil liberties, the prisons filled with Castro’s enemies, including gay people. Wait till she shows the film in knee-jerk-right Miami!
What from San Francisco should Boston look forward to? The Rape of Europa, which will have a run of seven screenings at the MFA, starting May 31. It’s a highbudget, polished, 35mm documentary about Hitler’s plundering of masterpieces of art — he raided private Jewish collections and, with fellow rabid art collector Hermann Goering, stole from the Louvre. We also see Hitler’s own landscapes, which, for a homicidal maniac, are not bad at all. If only he had been admitted to art school in Vienna, how different life might have been for the world.
The best American feature I saw was Rocket Science, from the director of Spellbound, Jeffrey Blitz. Reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, it’s a wacky, genuinely alternative tale of a clumsy, self-destructive, but oddly winning teenager (Reece Thompson) who tries to make the high-school debate team despite his fearsome stutter. The film is very funny and often pretty sad, and it avoids a feel-good ending for, far better, a philosophical one. It’s due to open in Boston on August 17.
My most cherished day at the fest was the Vertigo mini-van tour, which, led by Vertigo expert Miguel Pendas, creative director of the San Francisco Film Society, allowed us to see up close the key locales for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1957 masterpiece. Hitchcock loved the Bay area and visited it often; he even claimed favorite restaurants. He worked with various screenwriters to transpose the story of Vertigo from the Marseille locale of the original French crime novel by Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud.
We rode excitedly about town, checking out the fancy Nob Hill hotel where millionaire Gavin Elster first hired Scottie (James Stewart) to follow his wife, and then the still-extant house where Scottie lived, and where his anguished girlfriend Midge sighted Madeleine (Kim Novak), her competition, on his porch. The tour concluded at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge where, as we all know, Madeleine feigned a suicide attempt and a feckless Scottie rescued her from the waters. Oh, the sucker!