The 2009 edition of AFI Fest, which opened last Friday in Hollywood with the North American premiere of Wes Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox," reflects radical changes made in the past year to the basic DNA of the American Film Institute's annual fall event. The festival's central venue has shifted from the art-credible Arclight to the Mann's Chinese, embedded within the tourist trap shopping complex on Hollywood and Highland that also hosts the Kodak Theater, home to the Oscars. Robert Koehler, a film critic with notably adventurous taste, has been appointed to a key programming position, and in perhaps the most significant and surely the most publicized change, AFI has made every regular festival screening free to the public on a first come, first served basis. The latter is made possible thanks to the generous corporate sponsorship of Audi, lauded on opening night by AFI Fest CEO Bob Gazzale as "a corporation with its finger on the pulse, its eyes on the prize, and its foot on the pedal."
That same batch of mixed metaphors could be applied to AFI's strategy to bolster their own brand by spotting a niche and filling it swiftly. Whether AFI's recent bold moves will sustain the festival through this thrive-or-die economic climate and beyond remains to be seen, but the festival's evolutions make sense as a way to reach and cater to the cinephiles of a city that's both synonymous with film around the globe, and a notoriously difficult place to market global film. Rebranding themselves as a "festival of festivals" dedicated to bringing highbrow critical favorites and prize winners fresh from the fest circuit to Los Angeles for the first time (and in some cases, likely the only time), and simultaneously streamlining their program to make do with fewer star-heavy world premieres, the 2009 lineup suggests that AFI wants not only to be a festival of festivals, but a festival that caters specifically to people who pay attention to other festivals.
But even if the AFI Fest lineup shares a few films with the most recent edition of the New York Film Festival, no one in Los Angeles seemed to prone to complain, as A.O. Scott did in assessing NYFF for the New York Times, about the scourge of "festivalism." By showing most movies one time only, for free, on a block that's symbolically synonymous with what's left of a functioning Hollywood mythology, AFI managed to turn screenings of films by Euro-auteurs like Claude Chabrol and Michael Haneke into welcoming events. Not only did starry galas for "Fox," "Precious" and "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" held during the festival's first weekend attract impenetrable seas of gawkers to the sidewalks surround Graumann's Chinese, but five of the six screenings I attended -- including San Sebastian winner "Woman Without Piano" and Berlinale Golden Bear recipient "The Milk of Sorrow" -- were full or very nearly so. On Monday night, I couldn't get a seat for a prime-time screening of "Fish Tank," which reached capacity several minutes before show time.
AFI's Audi-backed creaming of the year-long festival crop seems to be solving the problem of attracting an audience, at least for the time being. Still, aside from "Mr. Fox," which gloriously suggests that Wes Anderson should have maybe been funneling his pet themes of arrested boyhood through stop-motion animation all along, the single world premiere I caught at the festival is the film that made the strongest impression. Daniel Raim's documentary "Something's Gonna Live" focuses on Hollywood production designer Robert Boyle, whose credits include "In Cold Blood," "The Thomas Crown Affair" and several Hitchcock films including "The Birds" and "North by Northwest." Raim meets the 90-something Boyle several times over the course of a decade to capture the Oscar winner reminiscing with a sampling of collaborators-turned-cronies, including cinematographers Conrad L. Hall and Haskell Wexler, and art director Albert Nozaki (a Japanese-American who recalls being forced to pack his desk at Paramount just hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor).
Raim goes for conversational and contemplative over didactic, allowing "Something"'s subjects to essentially free associate on their past versus the present, to glorify specific painstaking artistic techniques long lost without ever fully romanticizing the industry that supported them, and to debate the merits (or lack thereof) of technology, the blockbuster mentality and the ever-increasing homogenization of Hollywood film.
Raim makes his present felt most strongly through his choice of B-roll, sneaking in ample present day footage of a Hollywood (including the complex where AFI Fest is now centered) under near-constant construction, in which the old is constantly being erased to make room for the new. As a revamped film festival takes shape on Hollywood's most radically gentrified block and provokes questions about the role of film institutions and their relationship to the communities they serve, "Something's Gonna Live" offers an essential clear-eyed view of Hollywood -- as a city, an industry, an idea -- as a construct never not in the midst of evolution.