The Opening Night of the San Francisco International Film Festival featured a highly-anticipated film by Oscar-winner Alex Gibney, “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine,” about the famed founder of Apple, with obvious appeal to the local crowd. Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society Noah Cowan, introducing the first festival produced under his leadership — he joined the organization just before last year’s event — seemed especially ebullient as he introduced the evening at the historic and still-dazzling 1922-vintage Castro Theatre.
In a world of seemingly endless film festivals, both local and international, Cowan emphasized what sets San Francisco apart and draws attention from the world: the special qualities of the Bay Area, its innovation and curiosity. He also touted the year-round activities of the Society in education and filmmaking support as well as exhibition: six films directly supported by the Film Society are in the program this year, and others are appearing on the international film festival circuit.
It was surprising that, in his pitch for new membership, he didn’t mention the most exciting and innovative new Film Society perk: access, after the Festival, to online streaming of 14 feature films and 11 shorts, starting the day of their final Festival screening and available until May 31. Film Society members can access all films; anybody who has purchased a ticket to a screening can access one feature and one short. With ticket prices at $15 and $13, and entry-level membership at $50, a membership can pay for itself after viewing three or four movies online.
Gibney said that he was inspired to make “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine” after witnessing the international outpouring of grief that greeted Jobs’ untimely death at the age of 56 in 2011. The resulting 127-minute film seemed like the work of a biographer increasingly disenchanted with his subject. The relentless, driven visionary who profoundly changed communication was also revealed to be unpleasant in many of his dealings with humanity, from being dismissive and rude to collaborators as well as underlings to denying the fathering of his first child until a paternity test forced him to acknowledge her and accede to a $500 monthly support payment. Among many other revelations: when Jobs returned to Apple — the most highly valued company in the world — after a ten-year interregnum, he canceled its charitable programs.
Gibney’s initial calls were to Jobs’ widow, Laurene, who never met with him, and to Apple, who amusingly replied that they did not have the resources to comply with his requests.
The location of the opening night party, the kitschy Madame Tussauds, was a hit, as amused sophisticates took selfies with an array of simulacra, from the sublime to the ridiculous — from ET to Barack Obama, with pauses in between for everybody from Steven Spielberg to One Direction (fetchingly arrayed on bleacher seats). Steve Jobs proved irresistible to everyone including Alex Gibney.
Luckily I only had to arrive at the first movie of the first full day of the Festival in Japantown’s Kabuki complex at the crack of 2 pm: the documentary “Iris” about the fashion-world favorite, 93-year-old Iris Apfel, who never met an accessory she didn’t like. (The SFIFF audience was also remarkable well-accessorised; my own seven bangles and two rings seemed timid in such company.) The film is the last full feature shot by the famed filmmaker Albert Maysles, who died on March 15 of this year, aged 88.
The second program I chose was a master class, Cinema Visionaries, with director Alex Gibney, in spirited and enthralling conversation with Noah Cowan and filmmaker Rob Epstein, co-chair of the film program at California College of the Arts. The increasingly prolific Gibney, whose Scientology film, “Going Clear,” and four-hour Sinatra documentary, “All of Nothing at All,” premiered on HBO earlier this year, talked about his strengths as a conceptualizer and structurer of his works.
Afterwards I raced from the Kabuki across town to the Castro to see Liz Garbus’s documentary, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” A long line wended down the block, which didn’t stop me from missing the beginning of this compelling film, a Netflix production, about the unique entertainer Nina Simone and her tortured life, which received a standing ovation from its sold-out crowd.
Next up at the Castro, an unusual reboot: the director’s cut of the film maudit “54,” 17 years after its debut. This version took out 40 minutes of the original release and replaced it with half-an-hour of grittier footage, including a kiss between Ryan Phillippe and Breckin Meyer. Afterwards there was a Q&A with director Mark Christopher and cast members Phillippe and Meyer (who revealed that it was his first-ever onscreen kiss) before the delighted (young and disco-attired) Castro crowd. “San Francisco audiences do not disappoint,” the happy Christopher said.
The next day began with Bill Condon’s examination of the elderly Sherlock Holmes, “Mr. Holmes,” with Sir Ian McKellen incarnating the great man’s beginnings of senility. The screening survived an unpleasant interruption: a fire alarm (blessedly false) necessitating a grumpy exit to the street and a fairly swift return.
Another dash across town to the Castro, to see the co-presentation with the Telluride Film Festival of actress Barbara Loden‘s sole directing effort, “Wanda,” introduced by this year’s Telluride Guest Director, novelist Rachel Kushner. Kushner’s introduction included the surprising quote from Kazan that he’d separated from Loden after she’d made the movie because she neglected her role as homemaker during its production: “I’m an old-fashioned man.”
Afterward, I ran into a previous Telluride guest director, Alexander Payne, whom I tried to tell how the movie had stayed the same since I’d first seen it when it discomfited me with its story and displeased me with its filmmaking, but I had changed, and was now more accepting of it. He was more interested in sharing with me his own aperçu, that he preferred Fellini’s (masterpiece) “The Nights of Cabiria”: “Another movie about a pinhead who gets into trouble and ends up surrounded by musicians.”
I stuck around at the Castro for the opening salvos of its Irving M. Levin Directing Award, a sublime and profane conversation between eager fanboy Noah Cowan and his old friend Guillermo del Toro, appearing Wellesian both in his black-clad bulk and his obvious joy in indulging in what Orson Welles called “the biggest electric train set any boy ever had”: making movies.
At the Kabuki I caught the sole Festival screening of Guy Maddin‘s new “The Forbidden Room,” an homage to lost films of the past. It’s a sort of Russian Doll of narratives nestled within narratives, cobbled together from dozens of short films Maddin shot with an eclectic array of actors — Udo Kier, Matthieu Amalric, Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin — in his first full foray into color and digital filmmaking.
Afterwards Maddin and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s Anita Monga and Peter Moore and I went out on the mean windy deserted Post street in search of a drink. A couple of false starts led us up the stairs of a smoky Korean barbecue place (from the in-table grills, I hasten to point out, not cigarettes). We discussed Maddin’s recent shoots in Jordan and Cuba, as well as his upcoming teaching stint at Harvard, while Korean girls danced and sang (inaudibly) on a big screen behind him — which seemed appropriate.
At the Clay Theater was a moving documentary, “All of Me,” about impoverished Mexican women who somehow cook daily meals for people illegally migrating northwards on freight trains, which they hurl at them as the train moves through.
I remained there for “Best of Enemies,” the witty examination by Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville and his colleague Robert Gordon of the ABC television debates between William Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal during the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions. Pure pleasure.
Would that the marquee event, the awarding of the Peter J. Owens acting award to Richard Gere, had been as delightful. Gere was generous and thoughtful in his conversation with journalist David D’Arcy, but his new movie “Time Out of Mind,” though sincere in its attempt to look at homelessness in New York, felt tedious despite its innovative long-lens filmmaking (by interesting lenser Bobby Bukowski) and layered, purposely unsettling soundtrack.
Still I felt I’d had a perfect Festival opening weekend: documentaries, feature films, experimental movies, tributes. And there were eleven days yet to come.