The Shock of the Past

Film festival audiences are primed for rejoicing from the moment they take their seats. When they mind-lock with a movie actually worth rejoicing in, the effect can be electric and revitalizing. In my festival experience, forgotten pleasures (not brand-new ones) most often produce this charged-up feeling, both in moviegoers thirsting for emotion and energy and filmmakers starving for inspiration from entertainment that predates Reservoir Dogs. My favorite moments have usually occurred when I've joined crowds at the Castro or the Kabuki to drink in the oeuvre of tributees like Marcel Carne or Satyajit Ray, or to savor museum prints of imperiled classics like Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen, which frustrated me as a student when I saw it in a butchered form and a ragged 16mm print, but at the '89 festival put me in an excited trance.

In the '30s and '40s, when regular moviegoers saw two or three films a week, and had appetites for adult characters and solid storytelling, what Hollywood veterans said about the audience -- that it was smarter than they were -- was probably true, at least when it came to genre films. Something similar can be said about a festival audience that walks into an art film with open pores and minds and disregards a dusty academic reputation. Watching Dziga Vertov's The Man With the Movie Camera at last year's festival with, oh, 1,500 other enthralled viewers at the Castro, I felt that Vertov's visual jazz symphony was not jogging memories of movie pleasures past, but inspiring hopes of pleasures yet to come. By the end, it had taken us back to the future.

That should happen frequently this year, since the festival marks its 40th anniversary by reviving past glories -- of the cinema and, of course, of the festival. The usual array of archival prints and reconstructions includes the American debut of the color version of Jacques Tati's Jour de Fete, and Jean-Luc Godard's visually refreshed (and re-subtitled) Contempt. Italy's great Francesco Rosi accepts the Akira Kurosawa Award for lifetime achievement in directing, and the new Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award for "a director working outside the bounds of traditional filmmaking" goes to visionary puppet animator Jan Svankmajer (Jabberwocky). The work of Britain's rueful Puck-of-all-trades, screen and stage writer Alan Bennett, receives a minifest of its own, extending beyond the festival's formal close.

What seals this edition's celebratory cast is a retrospective called "Indelible Images," featuring 14 films from the 3,928 shown in the festival's four decades. A cross-section of Bay Area filmmakers picked the slate, and neither the choosers nor the choices are always typical film-festival sorts. For example, the Spielberg of computer animation, John (Toy Story) Lasseter, selected the hand-drawn cartoon feature Yellow Submarine; puppet-animation wizard Henry (The Nightmare Before Christmas) Selick hit on Swordsman II, a live-action martial-arts extravaganza in which the villain (as Selick himself describes it) pins victims with embroidery needles and plays them like marionettes. In a letter of explanation that the festival circulated to the press, Selick amusingly relates how he stumbled into Swordsman II on opening night in 1992, when he couldn't "score a last-minute ticket to the SFIFF's big opener, Robert Altman's The Player." There was an unexpected payoff for Selick and his fans: "The final battle sequence between Jack Skellington and Oogie Boogie in Nightmare was a direct result" of having his "head holes and brain roto-rootered" at Swordsman II. That anecdote gets at the need moviegoers feel for bone-shaking art -- no matter the date or source -- and the zingy kind of catalysis that makes it worth waiting for.

In non-festival film circles, pundits too often deride the revival fever sparked by Star Wars as greedy, desperate, or stupid. The studios' impulse to bring old movies back to theaters actually marks the return of an honored pre-home-video tradition. Re-releases like these are the only way to see many movies as they have to be seen -- not just on a big screen, but with a big, involved audience.

A festival showcase like "Indelible Images" offers the same opportunity for art-film aficionados. On the back of my battered copy of What Is Cinema? Volume II, a New York Times Book Reviewer aptly quotes the book's author, Andre Bazin -- "In sterile periods theory is a fruitful source for the analysis of the causes of the drought, and it can help create the conditions necessary for the rebirth." In words that sound even more persuasive in 1997 than they did in 1971, the reviewer adds, "In our own sterile period, when intellectual and esthetic pretentiousness have been added to the old pomposities of the Hollywood film, we need to look at films again with Bazin's flexible appreciation and his rigorous sense of purpose." "Indelible Images" provides an ideal opportunity for such charged contemplation. I vote the festival certify it as an annual event.

 
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