The Opening Night of the San Francisco International Film Festival has been pretty codified for the ten years or so I’ve been attending regularly: a full, schmoozy, warm house — featuring local film folk and movie buffs — fills up the venerable, beautiful, 1922-vintage Castro Theatre, and enthusiastically applauds the traditional music medley played on the mighty Wurlitzer (ending with “San Francisco, Open Your Golden Gate,”) and some brief introductory and self-congratulatory speeches before watching the opening would-be crowd-pleaser on the Castro’s excellent big screen. Afterwards there’s a onstage interview with filmmakers that ends with an audience q-and-a, and then most of the audience heads over to the location of the opening night party.
The opening night of the 56th iteration of the fest followed the format, with certain upbeat additions: after losing two beloved Executive Directors in recent years — Graham Leggatt in 2011, and Bingham Ray in 2012, before he’d even gotten a chance to introduce his first festival — the new Executive Director, Ted Hope (another NY-based independent film producer, as Ray was) got to convey his thanks to the Film Society for bringing him to the city he hopes never to leave. He referenced the life-changing experiences one can have in a movie theater, as well as meeting people who become friends, as important parts of the festival experience.
In addition to the already-announced awards — San Francisco’s own Ray Dolby receiving the George Gund III award for his outstanding and unique contributions to the art of cinema; Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump,” “Munich”) chosen for the Kanbar screenwriting award; and local hero Philip Kaufman (“The Right Stuff,” “the Unbearable Lightness of Being”) getting the Founder’s Directing award — Hope revealed that Harrison Ford would receive the Peter J.Owens award for excellence in film acting.
The 56th edition of the festival is dedicated to its longtime supporter, the eccentric, beloved George Gund III, who died in January. In every screening venue of the festival, two choice seats are labeled “RESERVED FOR GEORGE GUND III” (next to two similarly set aside for Maurice Kanbar, another beneficent SF Film Society stalwart). This always puts me in mind of the NO PARKING EXCEPT FOR MR. EDDY street signs in Andrew Bergman’s “So Fine” — especially because an SF Film Fest volunteer often has to eject ordinary folk who sit down there, frequently after the lights go down. A slide show featured Gund’s extravagant (and oft-mentioned) eyebrows.
Hope mentioned the festival’s 53 new sponsors that are helping to put on “the best two weeks of the year,” before bringing out festival Director of Programming Rachel Rosen, who introduced Scott McGehee and David Siegel, directors of “What Maisie Knew,” and both longtime San Francisco residents before moving to LA. They cited the Castro as an important part of their own movie education, before introducing the winsome seven-year-old Onata Aprile, chicly dressed in striped-black-and-white leggings, an embroidered white tunic, a black bolero topped with a sparkly black scarf, and black kitten heels a la Suri Cruise, who incarnates the title role.
The film, a contemporary version of the Henry James classic about a custody battle between Maisie’s narcissistic and heedless parents (Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan) and Maisie’s subsequent relationship with their new young partners (Alexander Skarsgard and Joanna Vanderham), played well to the crowd.
Afterwards the tiny Aprile, who was found just three weeks before shooting commenced, proved a crowd-pleaser too. When asked which character she liked the most (meaning which co-star), she hesitated long enough for McGehee to interject “Oh come on, he’s a very tall Swedish man!” to which Aprile gulped “I liked EVERYONE!”
Afterwards, even though I had dressed up in party clothes to go to the party in a cavernous nightclub tucked under the Bay Bridge, I found myself picking up a roast turkey sandwich across the street from the Castro and driving home. Maybe it was the full moon. Somehow I couldn’t face the noise and the camaraderie. Tomorrow the serious work of choosing from among 158 movies would begin. I needed my rest.