Call it shell shock, or perhaps just a pause for reflection, but this week's opening of the San Francisco International Film Festival has a bit of lingering sadness hanging over it. That's because the San Francisco Film Society, the festival's presenting body, lost two executive directors since last year's fest. Graham Leggat, the dynamic architect of the SFFS' recent expansion, died of cancer last August. And then his successor, former movie-biz executive Bingham Ray, succumbed to the effects of a stroke at the Sundance Film Festival in January, a little more than two months after being appointed to the exec-director post.
For many arts organizations, that two-pronged upper-echelon disaster would be enough to derail a festival. But the Film Society these days gives every impression of being a supremely well-drilled group of professionals, quite capable of carrying on the 55th edition of the Western Hemisphere's longest-running film festival all by themselves. Sometime soon the Film Society will announce a new executive director, and that will be a good thing, but in the meantime there's a film festival to get up and running, and the SFFS staff knows exactly what to do and how to do it. The show must go on.
As announced by Film Society board president Pat McBaine at a press conference, this year's festival is all about art and artists. The usual smattering of Hollywood and international talent will be on hand — including actors Kenneth Branagh and Judy Davis, who will receive awards — but the SF International, never much of a glamour pit, tends to pay more attention to filmmakers than to movie stars. So we have the chance to meet such behind-the-scenes folks as screenwriter David Webb Peoples (he'll screen Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven), documentarian Barbara Kopple (maker of Harlan County, USA), author Jonathan Lethem (presenting a State of the Cinema Address, April 21, at the Sundance Kabuki Cinema), and French film maven Pierre Rissient.
Rissient is pretty much the ideal San Francisco festival guest. As profiled in the live-wire documentary Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema, he's the apotheosis of the movie hound, a haunter of cinemas who started as a film geek and guest programmer at a Paris neighborhood theater called the MacMahon in the 1950s, worked as a press agent and ad man, and eventually became the "King of Cannes," a tireless promoter who "broke" films in the European marketplace by word of mouth — his mouth. Rissient is famous for announcing that it's not enough that you like a certain film, you have to like it for the right reasons.
This kaleidoscopic profile by critic Todd McCarthy (2007) scratches the same movie-crazy itch as Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinémathèque. The two obsessive Frenchmen, Rissient and Langlois, grew up inordinately enchanted by films and devoted their entire lives to enshrining the right ones. For Rissient, the directorial "Four Aces" were Otto Preminger, Joseph Losey (he had a falling-out with both of them), Raoul Walsh, and Fritz Lang, but he championed the work of John Boorman, Quentin Tarantino, Sydney Pollack, Bob Rafelson, King Hu, Lino Brocka, Olivier Assayas, and Hou Hsiao-Hsien just as fiercely. Anecdotes run wild: Rissient describes taking Lang, at the legendary German master's request, to a Paris screening of Deep Throat, where Lang was anxious for the money shots. Rissient, now a robust 85, appears in person at the Pacific Film Archive on April 30 for a showing of Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema. He also pops up April 28 at the Castro Theatre to introduce one of his favorite overlooked pics, Lang's House by the River.
While we're on the subject of film-history docs, Davy Chou's Golden Slumbers takes us off the beaten path to Cambodia, where, up until the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, a lively domestic film industry flourished. Chou visits decaying Phnom Penh former movie palaces now occupied by squatters, film-location settings in the countryside, and the homes of such Cambodian film figures as director Ly Bun Yim and screen goddess Dy Saveth in hopes of recapturing some of the lost magic of the era, but what's left are mostly a few old posters and stills. The films themselves suffered the same fate as the movie community, snuffed out by the cadres for the crime of decadence. The killing fields murdered stories and imaginations as well as people. A former fan notes wistfully: "I couldn't remember my parents [after Pol Pot] but I remembered the actors." Golden Slumbers plays the PFA, May 1.
At the first moment we meet 34-year-old Anders (portrayed indelibly by Anders Danielsen Lie), the central character of Oslo, August 31, he's attempting suicide by filling his clothes with rocks and walking into a pond. He doesn't succeed, and indeed things get worse from there. Director Joachim Trier's nervous character study, which he and writer Eskil Vogt adapted from Pierre Drieu La Rochelle's 1931 novel Le feu follet, shifts gears only slightly from the source — instead of an alcoholic, Anders is a heroin addict who walks away from the drug treatment center for a series of awful encounters. Somehow, some way, Anders and his misadventures assume a magnificence far above their origins. A remarkable film with a mesmerizing performance by actor Lie. See it this Friday, April 20, 8:50 p.m., at the PFA.