Seriously sexagenarian SFFILM

  • by Erin Blackwell
  • Wednesday April 5, 2017
Share this Post:

The press conference for the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival took place at Dolby on Market, an impressively oppressive environment dedicated to the electronic transmission of sound. Sound is very important in film, which is a simulacrum designed to carry us off into worlds not of our own imagining. Film is thus inherently social and socializing. The best way to enjoy it is in a crowd. Now that spring has sprung, there are several festival crowds you can lose yourself in, but the mother of them all has recently rebranded itself SFFILM. That's a bit grandiose, but so's the festival, now playing at 11 venues through April 19.

Dolby's interior is a cross between an opera set and a bank vault, something both security-conscious and Wagnerian, an interior landscape of the inner ear, on this occasion littered with fresh pastry and carafes of coffee. Too bad the hot water for tea ran out so fast. Members of the press were given Xeroxed festival guides and herded into a sepulchral screening room from which food and drink were religiously forbidden. We entered a realm in which the perfection of sound and image trumped base bodily urges like hunger and thirst. We were there to be overwhelmed by the sheer scope of SFFILM.

A long table was set with microphones and plastic water bottles, just like Cannes without the joie de vivre . Behind the merely human-scale table was a vast screen on which danced mesmeric images from the festival's films, although never at the moment they were discussed. When the handful of programmers entered, the members of the press applauded them as if they were celebrities. Very odd, this displacement of glamour from screen star to bureaucrat. We were no longer journalists but film fans, drooling over the tidbits to be thrown to us, as if we weren't already inundated with overflow visual culture on multiple platforms easier to navigate than the SFFILM Festival.

Executive director Noah Cowan is a large man of impenetrable mien who spoke rigorously and vigorously about abstract things like diversity without communicating a sense of pleasure, but perhaps a certain passion for control. Each programmer picked up his or her cue in a tightly scripted presentation that conveyed a sense of tension and unease, as if some member of each of their families were being held captive in an undisclosed ticket booth. They rattled off genres, titles, events, and categories in a frenzy of bureaucratic classification. All very logistically praiseworthy, but there was something missing, a certain je ne sais quoi.

The festival guide, at 66 pages, provides hours of befuddlement. After pages describing special events, films are individually described in alphabetical order, but the alphabet restarts in each of several sections devoted to mysterious categories. Fortunately there's an index of film titles on page 4, an index of filmmakers on page 60, and on page 61 a fine-print list of film titles by country. Dismayingly for a festival calling itself international, the hog's share come from USA (107), followed by France (26), UK (14), Germany (8), dribbling off into places like Burkina Faso and Sri Lanka at one each. Bizarrely, nothing from Czech Republic.

The hardest part of SFFILM Festival is picking which films to see. Eenie, meenie, miney, moe probably works best. Then there's getting off work, and of course, buying tickets. Nothing is simple at this most unwieldy of cinematic circuses. The general public can save $1 off the individual price of $15 by buying 10 vouchers in what is called a CinePack. Students and seniors save a dollar on individual tickets with a valid ID. If you've got $1,675 to spare, by all means get a CineVisa and hit every film, program, and party, "with certain noted exceptions." The guide encourages you to "flash your CineVisa to access Priority Seating," a thrill not specific to cinema.