Fifty Scent 

The San Francisco International Film Festival passes a milestone in a big hurry.

Oldest film festival in North America? Longest-running fest in the Western hemisphere? Swanky parties for poor filmmakers in torn jeans? All of the above. The San Francisco International Film Festival has earned its right to wallow in nostalgia after fifty years of packaging films — foreign, independent, and otherwise — for the movie-crazy Bay Area.

When Irving "Bud" Levin launched the fest in 1957 at his Metro Theatre on Union Street, art films meant espresso-sipping bohemians watching Bergman and Fellini. Hollywood, on the other hand, was Kirk Douglas, Marilyn Monroe, and Martin and Lewis. The SF film festival always aspired to play to both crowds. It's still trying to bridge the hipsters-versus-glamour gap, with varying degrees of success.

But the world keeps rushing in. Even when the likes of Bernardo Bertolucci, William Holden, Jane Fonda, Akira Kurosawa, Truman Capote, Louis Malle, Jack Lemmon, Michael Powell, Bette Davis, Andrei Tarkovsky, Anthony Quinn, Sam Peckinpah, Melvin Van Peebles, John Huston, and Jack Nicholson showed up as guests over the years, the fest's lingering impression was of sullen character studies from Brazil and sagas of Indian rural electrification. Village pics, coffee-table films, documentaries, and shelfniks made this fest, and in its fiftieth year they're pretty much still here. The usual impossible-to-digest snack of two hundred films from 54 countries in fifteen days. A high-tech, state-of-the-art blast from the past, dripping with blogs, podcasts, and the cozy prospect of toughing it out with a few hundred of your fellow movie freaks in the dark. Who would want it any other way?

Undecided festivalgoers are usually advised to "throw" the SFIFF Mini Guide and attend whatever films their fingers land on, but a few of this year's anticipated highlights rate special mention. Three filmmakers and one actor receive awards simultaneously on May 3: director Spike Lee (an early SFIFF find, for She's Gotta Have It in 1986), hometown favorite actor Robin Williams, screenwriter Peter Morgan (who wrote The Queen and helped adapt The Last King of Scotland), and local leading light George Lucas. Also to be feted, April 28 at the Castro, is film historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow, who will show a print of Alan Dwan's 1929 silent adventure The Iron Mask, starring Douglas Fairbanks. That's followed by Brownlow's documentary, Cecil B. De Mille: American Epic, a bio of the epic director. On Sunday, April 29 at the Pacific Film Archive, the prodigious Brownlow narrates an "Introduction to Silents" clips show.

More picks: Tom DiCillo's Delirious, a nutty New York comedy starring Steve Buscemi and Michael Pitt as paparazzi on the make; Slumming, director Michael Glawogger's tale of two bored young rich men in Vienna who take a passed-out bum all the way to the Czech Republic and leave him on a bench, and what happens next; Reprise, a remarkably well-paced Norwegian character study of young writers sorting out their lives; The Rape of Europa, a doc about the large-scale theft of artwork by the Nazis (and others) during World War II; and, of course, the annual Late Show, a midnight cavalcade of J-horror, Euro-horror, American horror, and free beer. All this and Rosario Dawson, too.

The festival takes place at eleven different venues, most of them in San Francisco, and while serious festaholics will follow their enthusiasms wherever, catching the PFA's selection ( could bring contentment enough. The Berkeley venue has 36 programs starting Friday, April 27 with Opera Jawa. Director Garin Nugroho's breathtakingly beautiful Indonesian epic takes off from an episode in the Ramayana about an absent husband, an errant wife, and a lusty butcher — but you don't have to know anything about "The Abduction of Sinta" to drink in the splendor of the elliptical narrative, sung by actors in gorgeous village settings. Opera Jawa is a truly exotic art film, full of subtle spirituality as well as magical apparitions created by stagecraft, not CGI — the eternal struggle between good and evil. If you like Indonesian gamelan, you'll love this.

From timeless Indonesia to The Old, Weird America is but a short hop. An array of musical mavens — Greil Marcus, Elvis Costello, Philip Glass, Beck, Lou Reed — line up to sing the praises of the late musicologist Harry Smith, whose Anthology of American Folk Music emerges as the Rosetta Stone of the American musical experience, a never-ending source of inspiration for roots musicians and scholars. The more you hear of filmmaker Rani Singh's exploration into Smith and the folk music he exalted, the more you want to hear.

Contemporary opera is the subject of Jon Else's Wonders Are Many, a fascinating making-of documentary about composer John Adams, stage director Peter Sellars, and Doctor Atomic, their spooky 2005 operatic bio of J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb. For filmmaker Else, it's a revisiting of his 1981 Oppenheimer doc, The Day After Trinity. Sellars also appears in person Sunday, April 29, at the Kabuki to deliver the State of the Cinema Address, an annual festival exercise.

Other notables from the PFA's two weeks of festivalizing: Edie and David Ichioka's documentary Murch, a visit with Bay Area sound and film editing wizard Walter Murch, whose efforts to create "a theater of thought" and "mass intimacy" in such films as Apocalypse Now, The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and The Godfather are richly illustrated with clips from those movies. Hana, the latest to arrive here from Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda (Nobody Knows, After Life), tells the story of a clumsy, shy samurai and the playful slum dwellers he befriends while half-heartedly plotting revenge on the man who killed his father. Junichi Okada stars as Soza.

Camila Guzmán Urzúa's French-Spanish production The Sugar Curtain takes a wistful documentary look at Cuba, and the generation of men and women who grew up in the '70s and '80s in Fidel Castro's idyllic postrevolutionary communist paradise (no anxiety, no violence, no need for money, no religion). Now, after the fall of the Soviet Union, that warm and cuddly solidarity is gone with the economic ill wind. Meanwhile, an Israeli father and son take a sentimental road trip through Italy and the Netherlands on the trail of the father's WWII memories as a member of the British army's Jewish Brigade — that's in the amiable documentary Souvenirs, directed by Shahar Cohen and Halil Efrat.

If you had to pick one movie in this year's schedule that summed up the festival's entire fifty years of curiosity about the world out there, it would be Gardens in Autumn (Jardins en automne) by Otar Iosseliani, the brilliant Georgian satirist previously honored here in 1991. His 2006 story of a French government minister (Séverin Blanchet) fired from his job leads us through the hills and dales of Paris in a Jacques Tati-style series of sight gags and non sequiturs. Through it all, the ex-official remains unflappably calm amid gunfire, wild animals, hordes of squatters invading his home, and feuding mistresses. Iosseliani's highly choreographed, low-key topsy-turvydom is a holdover from the oblique satires of the Soviet era, but it's just as funny today. Anything that still works after fifty years is worth hanging onto.


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