Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The best at the Fest

As we reported last month we took in a number of things at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Many of them of have given us a great deal of pleasure, and there have been a number of fine moments scattered throughout the festival (Monday's performance by Tindersticks of music composed for the films of Claire Denis, which played behind them, was downright transcendent).

But some great fest moments happen off-screen, in the halls of the participating theatres, in non-film events, or within the audience. One-time Cahiers du Cinema editor Jean-Michel Frodon offered insight into the critic's role and responsibility in today's society of newspaper buyouts and online reviews. Frodon posited that anything made for the big screen can be considered cinema, suggesting that the work of makers like John Ford still resonated on the tiny screen of the iPhone. More food for thought came from his statement that America is the only country that seems to be facing an ongoing decline in theatrical venues for film. By contrast, Frodon offered that France's film culture remains as strong as ever, and that China adds the average of a movie screen a day to its cultural landscape.

So throughout the festival, as thrilling as it was seeing works of Frodon-defined cinema, in the gorgeous venues of San Francisco, I did look around me wondering how long the very act of cinema-going was going to last.

And yet two screenings on Sunday the 1st, both at the Castro Theatre, made me forget such fears. The first, the awarding of the Mel Novikoff Award to archivist/showman/filmmaker Serge Bromberg, came complete with a program of silent and sound 3-D films, including three short films by George Melies shown in stereoscopic 3-D. Bromberg offered a passionate plea for film preservation along with boundless enthusiasm for the films in his program, and his willingness (his need, even) to share his discoveries was more than enough to prove that his award was well-deserved.

The next screening, Takashi Miike's period samurai drama 13 Assassins, proved just as fun and powerful, yet it was the experience outside the theatre before the screening that proved ennobling. The film had been available through on-demand cable television a week before the screening, and yet the line for the film stretched around the block, and then around the other block. Miike's a cult figure all over the world, and his films (on the rare occasion that they screen here) are usually quite popular. But even so it was incredibly gratifying to see such a turnout for a film that is so easily available in reduced, televisual form.

I still wonder if cinema (as Frodon defines it) is, in fact dying. And if in working at Jaman, offering movies for tinier, more portable screens, I'm complicit in that (the constant references in this industry to films as "content" makes me cringe every time). Those Sunday screenings reminded me that there remains a healthy appetite for cinematic, in-theatre spectacle, which is as affirming a thing to take away from a film festival as one can get.

Meanwhile, please be advised that 13 Assassins is very, very good.

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