Santa Barbara--It's film in a land of high contrast. Santa Barbara, ninety miles north of Los Angeles, is made up today of students and retirees, soul surfers and weekender movie biz folk, social dowagers and former rock stars. And as such the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, in its majority year of 21, and third year under the guidance of flamboyant impresario and self-proclaimed self-made man Roger Durling, has hit a fine balance of imbalancing contrasts, too.
Take the featured documentary presented on the third night of the fest at the "Historic Lobero" a courtly 70-something sometime opera house where Mozart and the Whale had just screened and where former Monkee Mickey Dolenz stood introducing the great but awfully-titled documentary "Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?)." "In honor of Harry I dropped a tab of acid. In a couple of minutes this ought to be really great," he quipped to an audience that included many friends and family of the late great pop sing singer songwriter and legendary carouser, but also to his majesty the reclusive Brian Wilson, former Beach Boy current tortured genius, who was whisked in and then out of the theater as the film ended. Many a boomer in the crowd was seen mopping a tear during the lovely Nilsson music cavalcade alongside kids who knew him from videos of The Point.
Contrasts were built into the opening and closing nights, as 100,000 people, about half from out of town, attended a fest that stretched between old and new guard. Kicked off with a film by old Hollywood master Robert Towne ("Chinatown"), who in "Ask the Dust" made a rather predictable but sweet meditation on old Los Angeles featuring a frequently naked Selma Hayek. "We could have ended this with a whimper or a bang," said Durling, perhaps coyly unconscious for a moment of the controversy surrounding "Thank You for Smoking." "We decided to end it with a bang," he said. The film made by Jason Reitman (son of Ivan) based on the novel by Christopher Buckley (son of William F.) was buzz worthy on its own until a mini brouhaha kicked up over sex scenes featuring Tom Cruise squeeze Katie Holmes, scenes that were allegedly yanked from a Toronto screening, after a call from Cruise to Reitman. For the record, the sex scenes were present, though a lot of controversy swirled wondering if they had been tamed down. (Durling says no.) And if you're keeping score it's Hayek half-naked and Holmes seen doing it clothed.
You might build a case that the fest has become a hub of the Pacific Rim. Its two strongest sidebars were Latino Cinema curated by UCSB film professor Christina Venegas and the Cult Asian entries culled by fest programmer Cevin Cathell. The former yielded works of surprising and incisively radical vision. "Battle in Heaven" ("Battalla en el Cielo") by Carlos Reygados shocked and awed as did Manuel Martin Cuenca's "Malas Temporada." Yet the film everybody talked longingly about was "Duck Season," a tender, relatively simple Argentinian film. The Asian films, so down with the kids fared well, though the hands down fave "Sympathy for Mrs. Vengeance" showed only once and that was on Super Bowl Sunday. Another Korean film that showed promise was "R Point" ("Gong Su-Chang"), a horror film set in Vietnam.
But the lands bordering the Atlantic produced the most juice and joy, according to me. "Joyeux Noel," a French film nominated for Oscar, took the Audience Award. A French Canadian film entitled "C.R.A.Z.Y." seemed on everybody's lips. But the Old World in its entirety seemed represented, in fact most of the Academy's nominated best foreign films were there: "Bestia nel Cuore," "Paradise Now," and "Sophie Scholl." The biggest box office hit in France last year, "Brice De Nice" drew large crowds of young to its dumb and dumber premise. And from Africa, Tsotsi and a short doc entitled "Sisters in Law" took fest honors.
Lest its indie cred be undervalued, though, a number of the chief selections to the SBIFF fest were films made outside the studio system. Films like "Piano Tuner of the Earthquakes," Hard Candy, "Half Empty," "The Hamiltons and The Legend of Lucy Keyes" mixed high hopes and film accomplishment searching for notoriety, attention or just distribution.
There is no denying the fest's proximity to Hollywood, though, nor its willingness to court there hard. Since Durling first lured Peter Jackson here, more and more of the biggest names approaching Oscarhood have been willing to be honored, interviewed publicly and feted here. The man of the hour was George Clooney this year earning the Modern master appellation for his direction of Good Night and Good Luck and his role in the important film Syriana. Clooney was grilled by Leonard Maltin for over two hours inside the Arlington movie palace, and then, rumor has it, ditched his party and got drunk alone at the nearby stolid Upham Hotel. Naomi Watt, who went nominationless, talked about her great luck. Two very likely to win male nominees, Heath Ledger and Phillip Seymour Hoffman also spoke, the former nervously, making his Brokeback character seem less a stretch, the latter in winning ingenuousness. Both returned frequently to a theme about how important it is to want to learn the craft all the time.
The twelve day schedule rattled by rather fast. Panels met, as they do. A woman's panel, rather poorly attended, furnished the most heat and ideas, though the most entertaining was the directors, who this year included Paul Haggis ("Crash"), "Mike Binder" (Upside of Anger) and Duncan Tucker ("Transamerica") spoke of the need for festivals to promote films like theirs. A writer's panel delved into the need for obsession and the inevitability of even self-censorship but froze in time when screenwriter Gill Dennis ("Walk the Line") told the crowd that in his research he found out that Johnny Cash's father had served in a semi-routine fashion of taking black prisoners out of the local jail and killing them. It's sometimes painful when film people talk about film expressing truth, to learn what feel good biopics can sometimes hide.
There were a few gaffes. George Clooney's award trophy fell apart in his hands. The writer's panel failed to provide Larry McMurtry as advertised or to apologize in any fashion for his absence. A few cancellations. "I want to apologize for any mistakes we made," said Durling on closing night, adding that no malice was intended, only a passion to please and human error.
Because the major contrast is the sophistication this small town film festival musters. At the end of his tribute Phillip Seymour Hoffman poured lavish praise on the montage of Hoffman clips Paul Fagan assembled. He seemed genuinely to marvel at the pleasure he had sitting down talking to Leonard Maltin, as he put it, "Talking about things I enjoy talking about." "Will you come back?" said someone in the audience. "Yeah," said Hoffman.
(D.J. Palladino is an arts writer and contributing editor to Santa Barbara Magazine and the Santa Barbara Independent where he has been a film and theater reviewer for the last 20 years.)