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The Man Who Came to Dinner 

Wednesday, Mar 31 1999

CLOSE-UP of elevator doors opening to reveal a pair of legs. Camera follows feet out of elevator, around two corners, and down a long hallway to a door.

SOUND FXs: Paper rustling. Deep sigh. Knock on door. Chain sliding inside. Door knob jiggle. Creek of door opening.

This is how your mind tends to work on your way to dinner with the San Francisco International Film Festival. Or rather, dinner with three of the four SFIFF programmers, the people responsible for selecting each year's films.

Brian Gordon was the face greeting me on the other side of the door.

CUT to CLOSE-UP of handshake.

(The apartment, however, belonged to Rachel Rosen.)

CUT to Kitchen. RACHEL standing before an antique stove.
BARRY: Hi. And what do we have here?

CUT to CLOSE-UP of pan with four chicken breasts simmering in a dark brown sauce.

RACHEL: Chicken. Making some chili. White beans.

Just then a knock at the door produced our film's fourth and final character, Doug Jones.

CUT to EXTREME CLOSE-UP of indistinguishable textures and colors (mostly orange).

ZOOM OUT to reveal large glass baking dish filled with Brian's homemade CARROT LOAF. Sitting around the table, all four characters begin speaking as the LOAF is divided.

BARRY: Do tell. What all is in this?
BRIAN: Carrots, mushrooms, onions, eggs, a little bit of butter, and of course my favorite ingredient, bread crumbs.

BARRY: Seasoned or unseasoned?
BRIAN: Italian, I think. And a little bit of basil, and pepper, and thyme, salt. Did I say garlic? Garlic.

BARRY: It's chunky mush.
BRIAN: Thank you. I'll take that in a positive way.
BARRY: It looks like an independent film. What do you call it, carrot loaf?
BRIAN: Carrot mushroom loaf. Uh, carrot hyphen mushroom loaf.

In the subsequent discussion, I admitted to the group that I was guilty of spending a considerable amount of time each year mining the fest's extensive program, circling which films I intended to see, on which days, and at what times, and then never actually attending a single film.

"It's a little daunting from the novice's point of view," I said. "Choosing which films might be good is hard enough. But then there's the passes and the tickets and the lines. I imagine it's like that at Sundance, and every other film festival, but ..."

"The thing about Sundance," explained Rachel, "is you basically have to have a pass. And it's a big old scam because the pass gets you into a certain number of films, and a certain number of parties, and, like, a breakfast. And if you don't want to go to the parties, which you don't because those aren't the good parties, it works out to about 30 bucks a ticket.

"But with us we limit the number of passes we sell and then sort of guess how many of those pass holders will come to each screening and then we can sell the rest. We also have a rush ticket line, so if you didn't get a ticket, you can line up and 15 minutes before the show you might still get a seat." This year's festival, which runs from April 22 to May 6, comprises 111 different programs and over 200 individual films, including shorts, animations, documentaries, and features.

Rachel followed up Brian's loaf appetizer with steaming bowls of delicious chili. The chicken breasts we saw in our opening scene had now been shredded and mixed in with the rich, spicy sauce, which included white beans, caramelized garlic, and several different kinds of dried chiles. Doug had contributed a mixed-green salad and some fresh local bread to the meal.

"How many films do you all watch each year?" I asked.
"At a certain point all of us are leaving the office with bags of video cassettes for the weekend," answered Doug. "Then we reshuffle things and divvy them back up."

"And how long do you give a film before you shut it off?"

QUICK CUT to the programmers squirming slightly in their seats.

"Well," confessed Rachel, "I start out the year with a rule of thumb that I try and give something a third of its length before I'll turn it off. But I have to admit that it's quite obvious whether it's poor or not before that."

"And then every once in a while," added Brian, "you find something that's so amazingly inept -- you know, it's found a new way to be inept -- that you just can't turn it off."

Over a slice of Rachel's incredible homemade apple hyphen blackberry pie, I learned that this year's Peter J. Owens award honoring an actor whose work exemplifies brilliance, ingenuity, and integrity will go to one of the Bay Area's most prolific filmmakers, Sean Penn.

"He's actually been a really good friend to the festival ever since he got here," explained Rachel. "He's a great actor."

"A good director, too," added Brian.
In conjunction with the awards ceremony, Penn will screen the film that marked his writing and directing debut, Indian Runner, about two brothers' relationship after one returns from Vietnam.

BARRY (V.O.): Hmm. I wonder if he cooks?

Rachel said, "In fact, if we can swear you to secrecy, we have a little presentation we're considering. Because, well, we watch, like, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of movies every year, and, I mean, I'm sure it would be totally inappropriate ... to show you some of the films that didn't make it, but ..."

CUT to the living room. The Man Who Came to Dinner sits on the vintage sofa flanked by Doug and Brian.

"Title of film and filmmaker to remain nameless," says Rachel, slipping a cassette into the VCR.

The first few minutes of the tape were riveting: The film epitomized all the subtlety and nuance of a bad porno flick, but without the porn. In the opening scene a plastic Hollywood actor announces, from between his teeth, that his film has been selected for the Sundance Film Festival. "You know you're in trouble as soon as the lead character turns out to be a filmmaker," said Doug.

The second tape was a marvelously cheap attempt at sci-fi, starring an aging Burt Ward opposite the director's wife. In between static "space ship" shots and mismatched NASA footage, Burt delivered his lines with the same emotion and grace with which he might have said, "Holy Carrot Loaf, Batman."

Moving on to some of the winning films, those that will be seen in this year's festival, Rachel began with an extraordinary animated short. Without You is a four-minute film made by 14-year-old Ryan McCulloch of Vacaville. Using Claymation and his sister's dollhouse for a set, Ryan shows what happens to man's best friend after his owner has taken off for the day. The film, which is set to Frank Sinatra's tune of the same name, is filled with wonderful details.

"I mean, a 14-year-old kid working in a doll house and he has some sense of cinema. He's, like, 40 years ahead of that guy who made that first thing," said Rachel.

The second festival film, titled The Health Show: Hemorrhoids, was actually culled from a Canadian television program. A doctor-type announcer led us through a semi-comical explanation of the causes of and treatments for this particular pain in the ass.

The final program in the first annual Man Who Came to Dinner Film Festival was a live action short called Toy Boys, by Gaby Dellal. This British film follows several young families trying to get their sons accepted into a private school. It's a very clever, stylized piece that, in its 19 minutes, made an excellent case for the short format.

As the credits on Toy Boys began to roll ...

QUICK CUTs to CLOSE-UPs: Rachel's finger pressing stop on the remote. Barry's watch reading 10:05. The door creaking open. One handshake. Two handshakes. Three.

DOLLY down the hallway following feet back around corners and into elevator.
SOUND FX: Belch.
CLOSE-UP on elevator doors sliding shut.
FADE to black.

By Barry Levine

Want to host the Man Who Came to Dinner? E-mail and tell us what's cookin'.

About The Author

Barry Levine


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