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The San Francisco Film Festival announces this year's schedule, which will include a slew of new movies from French filmmakers like Patrice Leconte and Catherine Breillat

By Richard von Busack

There were too many critics and not enough muffins this gray morning of at the court of the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco. Amid a sandstormlike flurry of press releases, a ragtag band of partisan Internet pundits, out-of-shape daily newspaper scribblers and numerous embedded old ladies went to war. Their quarry: editors who don't want to hear about film, unless the name "Ben Affleck" is involved somehow.

This mixed group of about 100 came to see the terrain and plan strategy for an assault on a two-week-long 46th annual San Francisco Film Festival, starting April 17, with various Baghdad by the Bay theaters of operations.

Some came to hear what they'd learned already, that Robert Altman (Gosford Park et al. ... and there's a lot of al.) would be the headlining guest, along with Dustin Hoffman. Altman's Nashville, 3 Women and Tanner '88 (show Short Cuts, damnit!), are the featured films.

Altman protégé Alan Rudolph will provide the festival's opener: The Secret Lives of Dentists, on April 17. Rudolph's film, based on Jane Smiley's novella The Age of Grief, stars little-movie stalwarts Hope Davis, Campbell Scott and Robin Tunney. Ex-Silicon Valleyite Mark Decena's feature film Dopamine is slated to close the fest on May Day.

The French angle--could that be the salient to attack? It seemed ready to fall without firing a shot.* Guest programmer Michel Ciment, editor of the noted film journal Positif, sat as indomitable as Colin Powell, via satellite broadcast from Paris. He waited patiently for a volley of questions that never came. (It was early in the morning for a lot of these writers.)

In front of Ciment was a miniature tricoleur, crossed with a stars and stripes as a peace offering for Francophobes. Some of America is jumping up and down on Edith Piaf records and doing France a favor by renaming french fries "scud spuds" or something. ("They call these fries "French," Mon Dieu!"--French scoundrel Humbert Humbert in Lolita.)


But proudly exceptionalist San Francisco still rivals only Paris for certain qualities of gentility, insularity, intransigence, ruinous expense and tourist overcrowding. You can't pronounce "San Francisco" without "France." Former San Francisco Film Festival director Peter Scarlett was such a spotless France fancier--or "Francier," if you will--that he ended up as the first Yank to head the Cinémathèque Français.

In the past, Scarlett provoked many a newspapermen's amusement by overpronouncing French phrases in the same way that your man the Berkeleyite will ostentatiously overpronounce Spanish ones: "I just went scuba diving in Neeeckawwwrrrrrragua."

Ciment encourages that Paris/San Francisco art love affair--the axis of easels--with his editorship of Positif, a 50-plus-year dialogue between one movie-crazed nation and another.

Positif is, lets face it, the Avis to Cahiers du Cinema's Hertz, and not as often translated. Ciment explained that the different angle between the two magazine was faithfulness in time of crisis: Positif's love of American movies went undimmed by the early 1970s, when Cahiers was deeply devoted to Mao.

Ciment is importing a series of French films made in the last six months, including work by excellent all-purpose director Patrice Leconte (The Widow of St. Pierre, The Girl on the Bridge). Leconte's gangster/buddy movie The Man on the Train stars Jean Rochefort and French rocker Johnny Hallyday, the Elvis of France.

In My Skin is a feature by Marina de Van (collaborator with Francois "8 Women" Ozon) about a female "cutter"; Ciment claims it to be worthy of David Cronenberg and Georges Franju.

Clement by Emmanuelle Bercot is about a 30-year-old woman who falls in love with a 12-year-old boy--supposedly the first time this kind of story's been told, according to those who have forgotten Agnes Varda's Kung Fu Master.

Alain Corneau (Tous les Matins du Monde) adapts Amelie Nothomb's novel Fear and Trembling about her own hard times as a Japanese interpreter, running afoul of all the unwritten rules of Japanese etiquette.

Outside of the films Ciment is bringing are some other made-in-Paris efforts, including Sex Is Comedy, the newest outrage by Catherine Breillat (who did the scarifying but uproarious Fat Girl). Breillat will be one of the judges judging 11 finalist films (including Hukkle, which appeared at the latest Cinequest) for the $10,000 Skyy Prize, sponsored by the formerly made-in-San-Jose hangoverless vodka.

On a more family-friendly level, Jacques Perrin's documentary Winged Migration, which does for birds what his lovely and memorable Microcosmos did for bugs.

You're the Manny

Those preferring more meat-and-potatoes cinema, can note that the reclusive Manny Farber is coming up the coast from his native San Diego to accept the Mel Novikoff award. (Novikoff was a San Francisco pioneer theater owner whose revival houses--the Surf is the one I miss the most--were truly small universities of film study. He's remembered by this award and by his poster collection, some of which decorates the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley.) Farber's recently reprinted Negative Space shows him to be exactly what the East Bay Express' Kelly Vance has called him, "the avatar of critics."

Thirty years ago, Farber ended his publication of film criticism to concentrate on his painting. A master of the aphorism, the lacerating phrase and the arresting visual image: Farber is a rebuke to those critics more enamored of the word and the act than the image itself. And he's an inspiration for many other eminent critics, particularly the Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum, the vinegary Duncan Shephard of the San Diego Reader and Chuck "Mini-Manny" Stephens of Film Comment and the Bay Guardian. (I, for one, won't miss the revival of what's said to be the best film--Goodbye South, Goodbye--by the man Rosenbaum has called the greatest living narrative filmmaker, Hou Hsiao-Hsien.)

At times of culture war, you can rally the troops with tradition. The festival features two silent classics: D.W. Griffith's French Revolution epic Orphans of the Storm (1921), accompanied by legendary theater organist Dennis James; and Murnau's Sunrise, with a live soundtrack by the Nashville roots band Lambchop.

After a fitful nights sleep in a bunker, we saw the first of two screenings: Pat O'Neill's The Decay of Fiction, set in the real-life ruins of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles--infamous as the place where Robert F. Kennedy was shot. It seemed a remarkable but bifurcated film, with special-effects movie ghosts flitting through the halls and rooms and lawns.

At times, O'Neill's movie is the movie you'd imagine critic David Thomson would make. Other parts--Lynchian, obese nudes with devil masks, completely hermetic imagery--showed more of what you'd expect from a director who has crafted videos for San Francisco's baffle-rock group the Residents.

The already noted Ten by Abbas Kiarostami was, by contrast, an example of Iranian film at its best. Simultaneously intimate and vast, Ten is a character study of a nameless woman (played by the gorgeous Mania Akbari) whose life is circumscribed by society and yet who is investigating ways out. Hundreds more films are planned for this festival among festivals--expect more dispatches to come.

*Historian Ernest R. May, in his book Strange Victory, regarding the myth of instant French capitulation in World War II: "During six weeks of fighting [May-June 1940, during the German invasion] France lost approximately 124,000 men, with another 200,000 wounded. ... The total number of French battle casualties was two and a half times that of the United States' losses in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. ... Do these bits of evidence suggest 'moral laxness'?"

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Web extra to the March 27-April 2, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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