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Glimpses from the Closing Night at SFIFF

If you think the only San Francisco love fest took place during the summer of 1967, think again. No one was wearing flowers in their hair at the Castro Theatre on the May 4th Closing Night of the San Francisco International Film Festival, but a special feeling was certainly in the air.

Graham Leggat, the executive director of the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS), took the stage to applause and hoots and whistles, stating, “G’d evening, guys. No festival from Alaska to Argentina has done so much for its audiences as San Francisco.”

His voice gathered strength, as he ticked off an impressive list measuring the success of this year’s International. Attendance? Above 80,000. Sold-out screenings? Doubled. Sponsorship and citywide support? A marked increase. SFFS membership? Up 30%. Partnerships? Almost doubled.

But the true mark of the Festival—and of the leader at its helm—deals in the currency of people and relationships, not dollars and cents. From the opening press conference on March 28 to Festival Day 15, Leggat has displayed a strong vision and an inclusive spirit. And he definitely seems to be having fun.

After thanking everyone from Mayor Gavin Newsom and the City of San Francisco to visiting guests, jurors, volunteers and sponsors, Leggat shared what surprised him the most since moving here in October.

“The one thing I did not expect was to be blown out of the water by the energy, stamina, professionalism and sheer intelligence of my staff,” enthused Leggat. “I thought we knew everything in New York, but I would take these guys into battle any day.”

Leggat introduced “patron saint” and longtime Festival supporter, George Gund III. If anyone can put the 49th edition of the longest-running festival of the Americas into perspective, he is that person.

“This is one of the very best—ever. This festival has been rich in content and rich in diversity,” said the Chairman of the SFFS Board of Directors.

Before the house lights went down and the curtains parted for Robert Altman’s A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION, Lily Tomlin and Virginia Madsen greeted the delighted audience.

Tomlin deadpanned, “Of course, I got to work with Meryl Streep, although she wasn’t my first choice.”

Honored with the Film Society Directing Award in 2003, Altman appeared at the International and NASHVILLE (1975), 3 WOMEN (1977) and THE PLAYER (1992) graced its screens. So for many reasons, the Kansas City native’s elegiac but spirited A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION was an appropriate choice to close the Festival this year.

The fictional premise signals the end of an era: After more than 30 years on the air, Garrison Keillor and his Prairie companions are broadcasting their final live radio show from St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater. A corporation from deep-in-the-heartless Texas intends to demolish the 1910 beauty and turn the space into a parking lot.

Altman smudged his signature touch all over Keillor’s slender script. The star-studded cast talks on top of each other, particularly in a show-stopping dressing room scene where chatterbox siblings, the country-singing Johnson Sisters (Tomlin and Streep), reveal their family dynamics. Cinematographer Ed Lachman’s camera dodges and weaves from backstage to onstage and into the wings, tracking all the putting-on-a-show subplots with ease.

Keillor and his regulars, including Guy’s All Star Shoe Band, blend effortlessly with the film actors—or vice versa. Kevin Kline assumes the Guy Noir role, Virginia Madsen transforms into A Dangerous Woman, Lindsay Lohan plays Yolanda’s (Meryl Streep) daughter, and the “Whoopi Ti Yi Yo” cowboy duo of Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly) steal the spotlight with their “Bad Jokes” song. All the musical numbers are performed live and with an infectious joy.

Before the Q&A, Leggat announced the winners of the major juried prizes (see GOLDEN GATES AWARD CEREMONY WINNERS). LOOK BOTH WAYS (Sarah Watt, Australia, 2005) won the Virgin Megastore Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature, ENCOUNTER POINT (Ronit Avni and Julia Bacha, USA, 2006) garnered the most votes for Best Documentary Feature and an Honorable Mention went to WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? (Chris Paine, USA, 2005).

Then Leggat asked the first question, wondering what it was like to work with Robert Altman.

The irrepressible Tomlin responded, “Easy and fun, usually,” as Madsen simultaneously said in jest, “Very difficult.”

Characterizing the legendary director as “unflappable,” Tomlin voiced her fear about not being able to sing well when the time came to shoot. He simply replied, “If you can’t sing well, then you just can’t sing well.” Enough said.

Madsen added that Altman best summed up how he interfaces with his cast: “I allow actors to do what they were meant to do.”

At one point in the movie, Streep’s character optimistically proclaims, “One door closes and another one opens.” The Castro Theatre closed its doors, and the after-party at Mezzanine locked up at midnight, officially putting the 49-year-old fest to bed.

And at 12:01 a.m., preparations for the 50th San Francisco International Film Festival began.

Susan Tavernetti

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