They came in well-dressed droves, filling Santa Barbara's Arlington Theatre withwarm bodies and high hopes. Would this be another year when the Santa Barbara Film Festival kicked off with a whimper instead of a bang?
Rest assured, for its 10th anniversary, the festival's opening night was a suitably wowing experience. Australian director P.J. Hogan's "Muriel's Wedding," is a fine dark comedy with a tender underbelly.
After the rounds of kind words from higher-ups and official proclamations, Hogan took the microphone and deadpanned, "This is a breakthrough film for me. It's a breakthrough because I actually got to make a film."
Apart from its troubles with opening-night fare and the perhaps inevitable organizational and financial woes, the festival has enjoyed a solid history, with a reputation that is all the more cemented now, having achieved 10 years in the trenches.
In the first weekend of the festival, which continues through Sunday, the extravaganza served up a generally potent roster of films, including the bold yet harrowing war films "Vukovar Poste Restante" and "Leni," and the charming independent films "Ignaz and Lotte" and "Denise Calls Up," as well as the vivacious valentine to jazz, "A Great Day in Harlem."
On Saturday night, the Arlington Theatre was given over to a combination fireside chat and "This Is Your Life" tribute to Michael Douglas. In an evening moderated by Stanley Glenn, his drama professor 28 years ago, Douglas was on hand to recount his life and accept the festival's first annual Modern Master award.
The selection of Douglas as a Modern Master may have been as much a gesture of gratitude and local sentiment as anything else. Douglas went to UC Santa Barbara and has lived in Santa Barbara for many years. He has contributed time, money and his good name to many a local cause, including this film festival.
Glenn opened up the evening by recalling that, when he first came to UCSB, Douglas had "a thin, weak voice. Our faculty was reluctant to encourage him to pursue acting." But, reportedly, all that changed after Douglas's freshman year.
As seen in a sprawling talk and film-clip survey, Douglas' career on and behind the screen has been as vertiginous as any, from his role on TV's "The Streets of San Francisco" to his first major coup, winning an Oscar as producer of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" at age 31. He learned about boffo box office with "Romancing the Stone" and "Jewel of the Nile," and won praises and an Oscar as the slimy Gordon Gecko in "Wall Street."
Later came a series of controversial, sexually charged roles in "Fatal Attraction" and the recent "Disclosure." In between, there was the wonderfully offbeat, blackly humorous "War of the Roses."
"That was a very risky picture," Douglas commented from the Arlington stage. "But I thought it was funnier than hell."
Of "Basic Instinct," in which he played a detective lured by the dizzy and lethal wiles of Sharon Stone, Douglas said, "I just wanted to do a real down and dirty film. I saw the character struggling with moral redemption. Stone personifies evil."
Douglas also spoke about the critical differences between producing and acting. "Producing is all about having a 360-degree vision. Acting is about having blinders on." Following Douglas' interview was a sneak preview of "Losing Isaiah."
From the black-comedy corner of the festival, late on Saturday night, came the world premiere of "Dr. Boris and Mrs. Duluth," written and directed by Paul Leder and starring black-comedy maestro Paul Bartel as the doctor. Karen Black, as the doctor's wife, puts in a scrumptiously kitschy performance as a sloppy drunk with a wild mane. The plot concerns the selling of freshly killed beauty queens to the Richest Man in the World, a cartoonish necrophile.
After the screening, Leder remarked that "despite everything, the racism and the craziness of it all, I do think it's a meaningful film," drawing snickers from the crowd. He added: "The doctor delivers the message of the film in the line, 'The lust for riches--it's the worst tyranny in the world.' "
One dark horse treasure in the festival lineup was Austrian director Michael Haneke's chilling and hypnotic "7 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance." Using a 1993 multiple murder in a Viennese bank as its departure point, the film cunningly retraces the fabric of the victims' lives, revealed in fragmentary fashion. TV newscasts punctuate these real-life fragments with field reports from an absurd world going sour.
At once probing and almost fetishistic in its detailing of reality, Haneke's film entrances with its unique sense of filmic rhythm and structure.
Jean Renoir's 1952 film "The Golden Coach," recently re-released with a crisp new print by Martin Scorsese, was one of the sleeper charms of the festival's first weekend. In this lavish but intimate period piece, Anna Magnani exudes a fetching charisma in the role of a lowly comedian and singer who woos three men from different echelons of society, thus bridging social castes.
It winds up a clever film-within-a-play-within-a-film. The curtain pulls back further and further, and the comedy troupe's sage leader offers, "Don't waste your time in the real world"--words of wisdom to ardent festival-goers. This is the sort of work that film festivals are made for, in the interest of uncovering gems--whether new or four decades old--that we wouldn't normally see.
There are plenty more enticements in the offing during the final four days of the festival. "An Evening with Chazz Palminteri" will take place at 7 tonight at the Fiesta, and will include a screening of the Robert DeNiro-directed, "A Bronx Tale," which Palminteri wrote. After the screening, Palminteri, who is nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role in "Bullets Over Broadway," will talk about his life and career.
Another current Oscar nominee, Jessica Lange, will be the toast of "A Salute to . . . " at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Lobero Theatre. Lange will speak after a screening of her recent film, "Blue Sky."
Of the numerous previews screening over the next few days, notable titles include "Jupiter's Wife," a provocative and offbeat documentary about the past life of a homeless woman, and "Chungking Express," an appealingly loose-handed film by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai. Asian-American Kayo Hatta's moving "Picture Bride" details the trying sexual and cultural conditions on a Hawaiian plantation circa 1918, as told from the perspective of a young immigrant woman. "Johnny Cien Pesos," from Mexican director Gustafo Fraef Marino, is an often-illuminating anatomy of a hostage situation.
Rock Demers, billed as "Canada's Walt Disney," will talk after the screening of family-suitable "The Return of Tommy Tricker" on Saturday morning.
Capping off the festival, veteran actress Shirley Jones will be on hand to talk after a screening of "Oklahoma!" Closing festivities and award presentations also take place before the screening at 5 p.m. at Paseo Nuevo theater.
* WHAT: The Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
* WHEN: Through Sunday.
* WHERE: Various sites around Santa Barbara.
* HOW MUCH: $7 per individual film.
* CALL: For schedule or ticket information, 583-8700 (Ticketmaster) or 963-4408.