Happily, this year’s Opening Night festivities for the 2014 edition of the two-week San Francisco Film Festival confounded all my expectations. In keeping with the reduced attention span that technology has induced everywhere, the pre-movie hoopla was brief and ebullient. The Festival’s promo film followed the new fashion, brief and punchy: a collage of black-and-white images from the upcoming lineup, images brief and intriguing enough that sitting through them 50 or more times through the next two weeks wouldn’t induce groans.
New executive director of the parent San Francisco Film Society Noah Cowan, in town and on the job for only six weeks, seemed genuinely surprised and moved by the lusty cheers that greeted his appearance onstage. He generously and affectionately name-checked his immediate predecessors, all of whom he’d known and worked with in Cowan’s career in both festival and real-world exhibition: Graham Leggat and indie producers Bingham Ray and Ted Hope.
Cowan emphasized that the year-round role of the Film Society encompasses, in addition to other film programs, an important education program and a prestigious filmmaker support and funding initiative, Filmmaker 360, noting that a record seven films that had received grants from the organization were in this year’s Festival program. He also paid homage to sponsors, humorously noting which ones (“RBC! TV 5 Monde!”) had a Canadian connection — Cowan is a Torontonian, and left his prestigious post overseeing the multi-faceted exhibition space, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, to direct the Film Society.
Rachel Rosen, director of programming, introduced the opening night film, the remake “The Two Faces of January,” the directorial debut of prolific screenwriter Hossein Amini (“Jude,” “The Wings of the Dove,” “Drive,” “Snow White and the Huntsman”), as well as the dense upcoming festival lineup: 168 films from 56 countries in 40 languages — and, hey, 45 women directors!
“The Two Faces of January” was a perfect opening night film. So shoot me: while a number of the audience did not agree with me, citing certain infelicitous plot points, I love Patricia Highsmith and her malevolent worldview. Even if this wasn’t Highsmith at her most iconic, the twisted and shifting allegiances among the sexy movie-star trio of Viggo Mortenson, Kirsten Dunst, and Oscar Isaacs, set against the seductive and glamourous locales of Greece and Turkey, kept me engaged and occasionally enthralled.
Afterwards Rosen and Amini engaged in a spirited and brief onstage conversation about the film. Amini ruefully admitted that he had remembered the Viggo Mortenson character, from his college-days reading, as being “Jay Gatsby-esque” in looks, only to find upon re-reading that he was overweight and badly dressed. Happily Amini allowed Mortenson to be often well-dressed and handsome even in his shabbier moments. Then they decamped with much of the audience for the opening night party at a new venue, Public Works, in the Mission.
I resisted the promise of Middle Eastern music and belly-dancing, as well as an assortment of finger foods from noted SF restaurants in favor of an early night before the onslaught of the morrow. As one of my favorite SF International regulars, the stylish Netta Fedor, profiled in the amusing San Francisco Chronicle piece “8 Soldiers of Cinema,” said: “I never count Opening Night. Tomorrow is the first day of the Festival.”
While I failed to uncover a copy of “The Two Faces of January,” in order to check my vague memories of more complicated plot turns, I did find copies on my shelves of both Andrew Wilson’s “Beautiful Dreamer: A Life of Patricia Highsmith,” and “The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith,” by Joan Schenkar. And fell down a completely enjoyable rabbit hole of first checking the indexes and then promiscuously reading around, for too many hours — though never as promiscuous as the talented Miss Highsmith. Guaranteed groggy for tomorrow’s line-up! I’ll never learn.