The second week of the 49th San Francisco International Film Festival was packed with tributes and special events, luring crowds diverse enough to be equally starstruck by Werner Herzog and Ed Harris. (Not as diverse, alas: all of the honorees — not to mention their on-stage interviewers — were middle-aged white guys.) Still, all the kudos were well-deserved. April 25, the Persistence of Vision Award, previously given to the likes of Kenneth Anger and Faith Hubley, went to wildly creative Canadian Guy Maddin, who sheepishly accepted his award with an anecdote recalling his first visit to SFIFF back in 1989 (punch line: “You don’t get a hangover from Stoli!”) In between screenings of several Maddin shorts, including the remarkable “Heart of the World” and the self-explanatory “Sissy Boy Slap Party,” the director discussed his fascination with “lost films,” his beloved Winnipeg, how to best direct a herd of nervous ostriches, and ideas for future projects (“I’d like to make a horror movie, but with lots of dancing.”)
The next night, Herzog faithful jammed the Castro Theatre to see the quirky Bavarian (criminally ignored at the Oscars for 2005’s “Grizzly Man“) pick up the Film Society Directing Award. After a clip reel highlighting just a few of his accomplishments (including multiple doses of best fiend Klaus Kinski), Herzog chatted about his long career, confessing “Everything that has to do with movies, I love.” (Films other that his own that were name-checked throughout the evening: “Tarnation” and, uh, “The Real Cancun.”) He also dropped science on the infamous “Incident at Loch Ness” (apparently, he earned enough dough from that acting gig to pay his rent for an entire year) and mentioned “Wrestlemania” (twice). The evening was capped off with his latest effort, “The Wild Blue Yonder,” a singular sci-fi tale spun from the lips of narrating alien Brad Dourif. Illustrated with footage of real astronauts, mathematicians, and deep-sea divers, and scored by an array of global musicians, “Yonder” may not be as satisfying as “Grizzly Man,” but it is no less completely Herzogian.
The night of April 27, SFIFF’s fancypants awards gala raged at a swanky downtown hotel. But the most stylish crowd in town was packed into the Castro watching “Heaven and Earth Magic,” late artist-musicologist Harry Smith‘s 1962 animated opus. A rhythmic, black-and-white melange of cutout figures, optical illusions, and recurring motifs, including a grinning skull and a watermelon, “Magic” surely has its own fans. On this occasion, however, the hipsterati were out en masse to see San Francisco darlings Deerhoof perform their original score for the film. Frankly, the end result was kind of disappointing; the images in “Magic” are fairly repetitive, and would have perhaps been better-served by a more dynamic, less dissonant musical approach. Deerhoof did acquit themselves nicely, however, during a post-“Magic” zip through five short Smith films, colorful nuggets which lent themselves to far more rockin’ accompaniment.
Thanks to the Peter J. Owens Award, SFIFF crowds are guaranteed at least one genuine Hollywood star sighting per year (if not more – hey, local hero Peter Coyote digs a good fest flick just like you and me). This year, Ed Harris got the Owens nod, taking the Castro stage after a compilation of clips highlighted his work in films like “The Right Stuff” (as director Philip Kaufman looked on from the audience), “The Truman Show,” “A History of Violence,” and “Pollock.” (Not esteemed enough for the reel, maybe, but soon mentioned onstage: the Alcatraz-set “The Rock.”) Before introducing 1984’s “A Flash of Green,” a lesser-known Harris film from “Ruby in Paradise” director Victor Nunez (who lent his personal print, apparently the only in existence, for the occasion), the actor reminisced about his early days, talked about his decade-long quest to make “Pollock,” and conspiratorially joked about being nominated for, but not winning, a Best Actor Oscar: “If you go, you wanna win the fuckin’ thing!”
The next afternoon, a smaller but no less enthusiastic crowd greeted Kanbar Award for Excellence in Screenwriting honoree Jean-Claude Carriere at the Kabuki. The requisite clip reel included “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (with director Kaufman — apparently less than six degrees from everyone at the fest — again present) and Carriere’s many collaborations with Luis Bunuel, including “Diary of a Chambermaid” and “Belle de Jour,” which later unspooled at feature length. The garrulous Frenchman talked about the importance of viewing screenwriting as a team sport, as well as such asides as writing for an ape (“Max mon amour”) and his still-sharp memory of being rocked by Fritz Lang‘s “Metropolis” at the tender age of “eight or nine.”
Amid all the fetes and special guests, there were still plenty of regular ol’ fest screenings. Among the narrative highlights was “Brothers of the Head” — a mock-doc of sorts from Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe (co-directors of “Lost in La Mancha“). A seedy Svengali recruits conjoined-twin brothers to front a rock band; fights, suggestive lyrics, love affairs gone wrong, and all the complexities associated with being permanently attached to another human being ensue. The reliably mesmerizing Ryan Gosling stars in another young man’s tale, “Half Nelson,” from director Ryan Fleck. Gosling plays Dan, a high school history teacher and basketball coach who hides his crippling drug addiction with increasing futility. The film also boasts fine performances from deadpan young actor Shareeka Epps (as Drey, one of Dan’s students) and Anthony Mackie (as the neighborhood drug kingpin who’s trying to lure Drey into his employ).
Maybe the most powerful film of the week was “The Bridge,” Eric Steel‘s disturbing and emotional look at Golden Gate Bridge suicides (screened the same day as the moving “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple,” making for a double feature of depressing, SF-themed docs). “The Bridge” earned pre-release notoriety when it was revealed that Steel was capturing jumpers with his camera — and planned to use the footage in his film. Watching human beings hurtle themselves over the bridge railing is harrowing no matter how you frame it, but Steel also tracks down the families and friends left behind by those who perish in the film, adding a considerable humanity to what could have been a purely exploitive exercise.
After the screening, Steel noted that the purpose of “The Bridge” is “suicide prevention and mental illness awareness,” and voiced his support for the construction of a suicide barrier on the bridge’s walkway. During an emotional Q&A — featuring an onstage appearance by a young man featured in the film who actually survived his plunge — Steel revealed the things that surprised him the most while making the doc: first, that those who jumped were connected by similar risk factors, including mental illness; second, that so many people (caught on tape) would just stroll past a person who was clearly preparing to leap from the span; and third, how “remarkable and generous” the families and friends were in sharing their stories.
[EDITORS NOTE: This article was originally published in SF360.org, a joint publication of the San Francisco Film Society and indieWIRE.]