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San Francisco International Film Festival Begins with ‘Twenty Feet from Stardom,’ ‘Populaire,’ ‘The Artist and the Model’

San Francisco International Film Festival Begins with 'Twenty Feet from Stardom,' 'Populaire,' 'The Artist and the Model'

The first screening of the first full day of the San Francisco International Film Festival: Fernando Trueba’s “The Artist and the Model,” set in France in 1944, starring the irresistible duo of Jean Rochefort and Claudia Cardinale. I manage to find myself in a good seat, $4 cup o’ Kabuki coffee clutched in my hand, and delicious sustenance from the fabulous Nijiya Market, located exactly in-between the two theaters on Post Street in Japantown where most of the festival unspools, secreted in my tote bag, having successfully negotiated the Bay Bridge and found a decent free parking space.  Perfection!

Except they can’t get the DCP to work.  Programmer Sean Uyehara patiently explains to us that along with the digital cinema package, they’re sent a digital key that will only unlock the print half-an-hour before it’s scheduled to play.  Which is when they discovered that the subtitles were out of synch.  So they’ve requested a new key, or a new DCP, I’m unclear just which.

Half-an-hour passes.  Sean announces that the box office will offer refunds and, in addition, free passes to several of that day’s later screenings — he mentions “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” and I yell out that it’s a great movie, and Sean says “All of our movies are fantastic,” and I say, “some of them are more fantastic than others.”

After 40 minutes, the movie begins.  It becomes quickly apparently that, although the subtitles are in synch, we’re only seeing a small portion of them. If a translation is long enough to require two lines, we see the top line; if it only requires one, we don’t see anything.  The composition of the shots looks like they’re showing it in the correct aspect ratio, but I still exit to suggest that they try to see if that’s the problem.  

I speak French, so I stick around, but some of the audience does not. I find myself enjoying the movie — black-and-white, well-acted, not as interesting thematically perhaps as “La Belle Noiseuse” or “Dream of Light,” but charming — right up until its very last shots, when there’s a disturbing ending that I didn’t feel was justified by what came before.

I have not quite five minutes to get to the New People Cinema across the street to see “Big Blue Lake,” the very first American screening of a second feature from a very young female director, Tsang Tsui-Chan, shot in her native village outside of Hong Kong on a budget of $200,000.  

It’s a slight tale of a young actress who returns to her small village to find that her mother is experiencing Alzheimer’s, but of the most benign sort: she wanders off occasionally, but is soon found, and the main character seems to have lots of time to explore the village she’s been away from for a decade. It’s shown in a somewhat worn film print, although it was shot digitally. The director seems gratified by the response to the showing, and says she’s now shooting a documentary in the same village — “the line between fiction and non-fiction is blurry for me,” a popular sentiment these days, often heard at film festivals and elsewhere (book festivals, for one).

I return to the Kabuki to see “Populaire,” a well-reviewed French film, set in a romantic, candy-colored, casually sexist French 50’s, in which insurance exec Romain Duris trains his cute blonde secretary to compete in an international fastest typist competition, and romance ensues. It goes down easy, especially on the Kabuki’s biggest screen. Director Regis Ronsard confides to the audience that he made a pilgrimage earlier that day to the location on Lombard Street of James Stewart’s apartment in “Vertigo,” which explains the brief “Vertigo” homage in “Populaire,” when the blonde shows up in a tight red dress and the lighting turns red as Duris eats her up with his eyes. 

There’s a slight Bernard Herrmann sting in the score then, too.  Afterwards I’m introduced to Ronsard, and I tell him that up until quite recently the facade of the Stewart apartment looked exactly as it did in “Vertigo,” but the newest owners decided to change it because they were tired of other pilgrims taking photos.  I offer to send him a list of other Vertigo locations — I think the first time I gave a Vertigo tour was when Michael Sragow, then the film critic for the San Francisco Herald-Examiner, and I took English actress Jane Horrocks on one back in the Nineties.  The next day I’m gratified when I get a delighted email back from Ronsard that begins with one of my favorite French exclamations:  Whaow! 

I hang out with “Twenty Feet from Stardom” director Morgan Neville, his wife, and their two adorable tots, 8-year-old Sadie, and 6-year-old Cameron. The kids are about to see their father’s movie, about the world of gifted but generally unknown backup singers, for the first time.  I get invited to have dinner with Morgan, his producer Caitrin Rogers, and Tata Vega and Merry Clayton, two of the singers featured in the film, before they return to the theater for a mini-concert.  Morgan stays in the theater just long enough to make sure the sound is adjusted to his liking.  When I tell him I like the credits — vintage album covers with the star singers’ heads cut out, so you focus on the backup singers — he tells me it’s his homage to John Baldessari, which is a reference I hadn’t caught.

We dine at 1300 Fillmore, an upscale soul food place that also has a small jazz lounge. Merry compliments both the singer and especially the bassist. Both the ladies are in sparkly outfits and good moods — they love the movie and loved working on it, especially the group sessions in which they got to sing alternating leads.  Tata tells us she’s leaving that night for Las Vegas, to sing backup for Elton John at Caesar’s Palace, on the first leg of a ten-month tour. We bond over makeup: when she takes out her lipstick, I show her mine, because they’re both the same Revlon drugstore brand. When the food arrives, Tata and Merry have both ordered the scallops, without knowing that the other did: “They’re light,” Merry points out. “If you got the truffled mac ‘n cheese, you get mucus, your throat closes and you can’t sing!”

While she’s waiting to go onstage after the screening, Merry and I talk about her successful marriage to Curtis Amy, Ray Charles’ music director, who was twenty years older than her, and who she met as a teenager.  He died in 2002, and we agree that it’s hard to settle for hamburger when you’ve had steak. 

Vega sings James Brown’s “This is a Man’s World (but it wouldn’t be nothing without a woman or a girl”) and then Clayton turns it out — she starts singing Leon Russell’s “Song for You,” stops and gins up the crowd, and then sings it full out.  An exhilarating finish to a day that started, well, not so well. And one of the best nights I’ve ever had at any film festival.

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