The air was thick with palpable excitement as the photographers and fans lined up alongside the red carpet at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s opening night last Thursday. The anticipation was as overwhelming as the scent of the heavily perfumed woman standing beside me in the press line, and despite the chill in the air, there was plenty of body heat from my fellow reporters, photographers and general media leeches to keep me warm. Plus, there was all that tangible heat emanating from the fans standing on the sidelines of the carpet, salivating at the thought of seeing Sienna Miller up close and almost personal.
If I had to pick one word to describe the red carpet, it would be chaotic. Like many events at the festival, it was clear that despite the best efforts of the incredibly hard-working SBIFF staff, the logistical organization of the event left something to be desired. Organizational shortcomings aside, though, the carpet was a fascinating glimpse example of what makes SBIFF such a unique festival.
Perfectly situated between Sundance and the Oscars, with a pit stop at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in the middle, this year’s festival is a veritable buffet of panels, screenings and events designed to highlight the year’s best films and give their creators one last chance to campaign for that little golden statue. The fest also provides plenty of places for the people behind films that aren’t even in the Oscar race – like both lesser-known gems such as “Stanley Cuba” and mainstream movies like “Talladega Nights” – to share their efforts and experiences, as well as their films, with their peers and the people wealthy enough to afford passes. All in all, it’s a rare combination of big name stars, major moviemakers and normal film buffs – an oxymoronic term but one that works, relatively speaking. Plus, the whole thing is replete with rough edges that help it retain a homespun quality that is both endearing and enraging depending on how late things are running and how long the hapless press has to wait in the cold for the carpet to get underway.
Which brings us back to the opening night ceremony. The festival kicked off with a red carpet that attracted celebs as diverse as Miller, Dennis Franz, Guy Pearce, Joanna Kearns and everyone’s favorite TV dad – or at least everyone of a certain age – Alan Thicke. The stars were amiable, with Pearce making a joke about how the paparazzi is always stalking him – a joke that may end up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy since his work in “Factory Girl” is sure to put him on everyone’s radar for at least a little while. “Factory Girl” actress Beth Grant, who played the hilariously high-strung Kitty Farmer in “Donnie Darko” and the hilariously high-strung Pageant Official Jenkins in “Little Miss Sunshine” responded to the lack of paparazzi excitement over her presence on the carpet by declaring “No one knows who I am, but here I am” with the requisite grand arm gesture. Alan Thicke gave the photographers a thumbs up, and Sienna walked the entire carpet with the undone back strap on her gorgeous gold sandal falling off her left foot. Despite looking overwhelmed and underfed, and aside from the aforementioned, barely noticeable shoe snafu, Miller still managed to radiate with charisma, confidence and a whole lot of bronzer.
Seeing Miller was definitely the highlight of the night. I even overheard two photographers next to me discussing the lack of opportunities to take photos that would make any money in tabloid-land once she was gone. “This backdrop looks like shit,” one of them remarked to the other before asking if the fact that Miller had finished walking the carpet meant they could leave. “I mean, who’s left?” he said. “Nobody,” his companion replied before packing up his gear and maneuvering his considerable heft – apparently being a stalkerazzi more than pays for the groceries – out of the press line.
Those of us who didn’t leave after the red carpet were treated to a speech by the always entertaining SBIFF director Roger Durling, who has become more of a local caricature than a character at this point, about how “fearless” this year’s festival has made him. He then introduced the festival’s premiere screening, “Factory Girl,” a film that, ironically, seemed to be afraid to go beyond the mythology of its subject matter – the enigmatic and eternally iconic Edie Sedgewick.
Sedgewick, touted as Santa Barbara’s very own “poor little rich girl,” was a muse to Andy Warhol and a symbol of style and sophistication whose trademark look is back on the runways and racks this winter. Sedgewick was immortalized for her style and destroyed by her substance abuse problem. “Factory Girl” celebrates this style but could benefit from a massive injection of substance. In fact, it’s a difficult movie to get into because it reads like an extended version of one of those documentaries they show in art museums – a visually rich but painfully one-dimensional exercise in encapsulating an entire existence into a palatable hour or two of film. It’s a beautiful film, playing with angles, lighting, costumes, sets and effects to capture the mood of the mod milieu Edie inhabited. It effectively examines the starlet’s life with a combination of voyeuristic verisimilitude and flamboyant stylistic excess that harkens back to the “so bad it’s good” aesthetic prevalent in the films of Warhol himself. Unfortunately, the film seems so preoccupied with its aesthetic that it forgets to do any sort of character development until the end when Edie’s downward spiral seems forced, as though the film is just trying to hit the requisite landmarks in the oh-so-clichŽd story of a woman destroyed when the limelight forces her to face up to her own inner demons.
As Edie, Miller spends almost the entire film perfecting her Holly Golightly impression – but self-consciously so. She is charismatic and captivating, baring all both literally and figuratively. It’s not her fault that her character follows a story arc that is, by now, an all-too-familiar clichŽ, nor is it her fault that the film seems to explain away Edie’s entire personality with pop culture psychology and a healthy dose of Lifetime movie melodrama. As Andy Warhol, Pearce gets a slightly more complex character to play with and he handles the challenge with mesmerizing adeptness. In Pearce’s hands, Warhol is a character you can’t help but love, hate and pity at the same time. Pearce captures Andy’s dry-witted cattiness and painful self-consciousness with a performance that seems totally natural despite the film’s overt artificiality. The man behind The Factory, and the family of famous freaks who lived and worked there, is ultimately presented as a powerful blend of pathos and perversion that leaves the audience wondering whether he is the sinister puppeteer or just a sad toy. All in all, it’s a powerful performance and Pearce deserves accolades for managing to humanize Warhol even while he is being portrayed as the film’s villain.
Jimmy Fallon plays what was supposed to be a flamboyant socialite with all the flamboyance of a self-conscious frat boy and Hayden Christensen does his best to prove that it doesn’t matter what movie he is cast in, he will play the same brooding, irreverent hottie every time. Newcomer Tara Summers as Brigid Berlin and established actress Mena Suvari as her sister Richie add their impressive acting skills into the mix as well, with Summers proving she’s an up-and-comer to be watched and Suvari proving she should have gotten more screen time. According to the press, Mary-Kate Olsen was also supposedly in the film but, blissfully, it appears her scenes got cut out. Or maybe she’s just shrunk to the point where she’s no longer visible to the naked eye. Either way, the film’s cast is impressive and they single-handedly add dimension to what is otherwise a superb exercise in one-dimensional superficiality.
Unfortunately, the cast only brings the film up to two-dimensional status – a fact that is disappointing to say the least. It’s a shame that director George Hickenlooper couldn’t coax at least a little more meat out of such rich source material. But, like the iconic Sedgewick herself, the film is ultimately self-destructive. Style and substance never manage to mesh quite right in “Factory Girl” and, despite its initial aesthetic freshness, the film ends up falling prey to the tried-and-tired clichŽs of classic Hollywood cinema. Much like with Edie herself, it’s a shame to watch something with so much potential fall so short.