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February 11, 2004 2:00 AM
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Santa Barbara Finds New Energy (and Big Names) in 19th Year

Santa Barbara Finds New Energy (and Big Names) in 19th Year

by Steven Rosen









Festival artistic director Roger Durling welcomes "Lord of the Rings" helmer Peter Jackson to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, where Jackson received the modern master award. Image by Ray Mickshaw/courtesy of Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

"I'm a scrappy dog."

Such a pronouncement from any film-festival director, usually an unflappably restrained and even academic sort, would seem unusual. But coming from the director of the just-concluded festival in Santa Barbara, a fashionable resort and college town where most residents wouldn't know a scrappy dog if one bit them, it is extraordinary.

But that's how Roger Durling, who on Sunday completed his first Santa Barbara International Film Festival as artistic director, describes himself. Without any festival-related work experience before joining Santa Barbara last year as a volunteer programmer, the 40-year-old, spiky-haired Durling pulled together big names as well as increased community interaction.

When the 10-day event -- the 19th annual festival -- closed Sunday night with a screening of "The Reckoning," it claimed a record attendance with 51,000 tickets sold. And the crowd at the film gave an emotional Durling an extended standing ovation. "He's given this festival an excitement and energy we haven't seen before," said Arnold Kassoy, president of the festival's board of directors.

At the closing event, numerous award-winners also were announced. Michael Schultz's "Woman Thou Art Loosed," which had its world premiere at the festival, won the top American spirit award sponsored by Panavision. Among the others: George Hickenlooper's "Mayor of the Sunset Strip" was named best documentary; Italian director Gabriele Salvatores' "I'm Not Scared" best foreign film, and Argentine director Eduardo Mignogna's "Cleopatra" best Spanish and Latin American film.

The Audience Award for best feature went to Marco Tullio Giordana's six-hour Italian family epic "Best of Youth," best documentary to Rick McKay's "Broadway: The Golden Age," and best short to Gustavo Loza's "Silencio Profundo." The juried Bruce Corwin award for best live action short went to Aimee Lagos and Kristin C. Dehnert's "Underground."

Durling's greatest coup was getting Peter Jackson, director of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, to come to Santa Barbara to receive the festival's highest honor, the modern master award. Because it's near to Los Angeles and held during award season, the festival previously has attracted big names to its ceremonies and panel discussions. So Durling was under pressure to continue that tradition -- and maybe up the ante.

"That was the big question my board had about me -- I don't have credentials, I don't have connections," Durling said in an interview, recounting that pressure. "I went out to ask favors from everybody. I was relentless trying to make connections."

Durling came to the U.S. to study after expulsion from school in his native Panama for being gay. He became a playwright in New York and Los Angeles and then opened a café in Santa Barbara. A longtime film buff, he complained to clientele about the city's film festival until one customer -- a fest board member -- suggested he work for it. He was named interim artistic director last year when the previous one left and then got the position fulltime.

Jackson was the only person Durling wanted for the modern master honor -- and he didn't get the director's assent until mid-December. The presentation/ceremony, which occurred on January 31, was by far the festival's hottest ticket and most anticipated event. With "Return of the King," the last film in the "Rings" trilogy, an Oscar favorite, this was viewed as a dress-rehearsal for the coronation.

As such, it was comically surreal at times. Held at the Arlington Theatre, a restored 1928 movie palace with an interior modeled on a terraced Spanish village, the event drew both the city's well-dressed sophisticates and families with children who worshipped the "Rings" trilogy the way their parents once did "Star Wars."

"Rings" actor Sean Astin introduced Jackson and drew Beatlemania-like squeals of delight from the many young fans. His words were tongue-in-cheek: "How visionary it is for the Santa Barbara Film Festival to pick a director completely overlooked and a film gone completely under the radar," he said.

Taking the stage to several ecstatic screams of his own, the diminutive Jackson looked positively troll-like with his beard and tangle of curly brown hair. He wore wrinkled slacks and his belly rounded out the striped golf shirt worn under a sport coat. If "Rings" has made Jackson millions, he hasn't yet spent it on clothes.

Jackson has a past that perhaps many in the audience were unaware of -- making low-budget "splatter comedies," as he calls them, in New Zealand. Films like the appropriately titled "Bad Taste" and "Braindead/Dead Alive." (He also made an artfully sensitive film about a real-life murder, "Heavenly Creatures.")

As the festival showed gory clips from his early films, one couldn't help wonder if, were they still alive, Fellini or Bresson might be confused about what shapes a "modern master" these days. "I was a geek and I still am," Jackson said proudly, after the "Bad Taste" clip, to his on-stage interviewer, New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell. "If people at the Santa Barbara Film Festival want to change their minds, I'm happy to shake hands and let it go at that."

They did not. Instead, they called upon actor John Cleese to present Jackson with the award. Jackson had told the crowd his early style was influenced by Monty Python's Flying Circus. Cleese professed admiration for "Rings" -- especially given that Jackson is from backwater (to Cleese) New Zealand.

"It is the artistic equivalent of someone from Bakersfield painting the Sistine Chapel," he said, to shocked laughs. He also gave the director a model kiwi bird, which Jackson clutched during his short acceptance speech.

The festival attracted other big names; "Monster"'s Charlize Theron came for the mid-week outstanding performance of the year tribute; Diane Lane for the new American Riviera award. The directors' and writers' panels, arranged before Oscar nominations were announced, drew a slew of nominees and then-hopefuls  Gary Ross ("Seabiscuit"), Jim Sheridan ("In America"), Tom McCarthy ("The Station Agent"), Anthony Minghella ("Cold Mountain"), and Denys Arcand ("The Barbarian Invasions"), among others.

But just as interesting were the other programs. Trying to lure new moviegoers, Durling offered sidebars on Santa Barbara filmmakers, cult classics, movie musicals, and more. One of those outreach programs resulted in controversy. During a Santa Barbara student shorts program, parents booed at and yelled for a stop to "Son of Satan," an animated film with much profanity. "I'm still getting emails about it today," Durling said on Sunday, several days after the screening.

To show that the festival wanted to be inclusive of the city's Hispanic population, Durling not only programmed a Spanish/Latin American Film sidebar but chose the Argentine film "Valentin" for opening night.

That country's Oscar submission and a forthcoming Miramax release, Alejandro Agresti's film proved to be a popular choice -- a relatively short and heartfelt look at a boy's search for family and interest in rocket science in 1969 Argentina. It also featured an engagingly sweet performance by young Rodrigo Noya as the geeky, eight-year-old Valentin. This writer found Noya charming and the film's vignettes cute and offbeat, but overall "Valentin" didn't work up much emotional commitment for its young character.

The top award winner, "Woman Thou Art Loosed," was based on the inspirational writings (and play) by Bishop T.D. Jakes, who appeared as himself in the film. Centering on the experiences of an abused young woman (Kimberly Elise from "Beloved") trying to start anew after prison, it was a heartfelt stab at "gospel cinema" (in its producer's words) that sometimes was more intent on message than dramatic naturalism. But it had two thoroughly believable performances by Loretta Devine and Clifton Powell as an unmarried middle-aged couple caught in a destructive and dangerous relationship.

Several other films had their world premieres at Santa Barbara. "Noise," directed by Tony Spiridakis and adapted by Lance Doty from an obscure 1970s novel, featured a sensationally taut, alluring performance by newcomer Trish Goff as a divorced New York copyreader bedeviled by a noisy neighbor.

Having some of the tense, angry beauty -- and smoky voice -- of a young Demi Moore, Goff effectively portrayed her character's arrogance and insecurities, emotional coldness and sexual neediness. She was great. But the film around her, while offering some good scenes, was stuck somewhere between thriller and black comedy. And the presence of a high-pitched Ali Sheedy as the weird neighbor begged comparison with the superior "High Art."

Another premiere had nothing to recommend -- "Love's Brother" from Australian director-writer Jan Sardi, whose screenplay for "Shine" received an Oscar nomination. Adam Garcia, an Australian actor, and Giovanni Ribisi played two Italian brothers who move to Australia after their parents die. There they become part of a proud, insular Italian farming community that gathers around the espresso machine at the local café. Garcia needed to wear a sign to remind us he was playing an Italian character -- there was no hint of it in his voice. Ribisi, on the other hand, so overdid it he became inadvertently comic.

Among other rewarding movies were "Travellers and Magicians," Buddhist director Khyentse Norbu's fable-like follow-up to "The Cup"; Jonathan Demme's riveting documentary about a Haitian political crusader, "The Agronomist"; the Oscar-nominated Dutch love story set during World War II, "Twin Sisters"; and the beautifully animated "Proteus."

Finally, not all the entertainment was at the town's theaters. While State Street, Santa Barbara's central promenade, wouldn't be confused with Park City's Main Street during Sundance just yet, the street activity was divertingly amusing and at times downright exciting. One panhandler had a sign reading "Need Money for Equipment for Independent Film Project." Another, a young man, offered back flips for $1. By all reports, he was breathtaking.

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