Eleven days is a long time for a film festival. Some might say too long. By the end of the second week of the 22nd Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival, filmmakers, fans, press and paparazzi were all feeling it – a perennial, pervasive mood of exhaustion and exhilaration, kind of like reaching the halfway point at a marathon. Muscles were burning from prolonged pen holding, wrists were sore from constant press pass flashing, feet were blistered from daily heel wearing and eyes were exhausted from too much movie-watching. Journalists began greeting each other on the red carpet like war veterans, nodding sympathetically to one another as they shuffled into place on the press line and commiserating like old friends over the perpetual tardiness of every event. It’s not as sad as it sounds, though.
The exhaustion, the exasperation and the permanent hangovers were tempered by the quality of the festival’s programming. Sure, it got to the point where the red carpet was starting to look like a nice, fluffy place to lie down and sleep, but it was also a carpet that drew major names throughout the festival – even up through the last weekend. Heather Graham, Davis Guggenheim, Al Gore, Sandra Bullock, Forest Whitaker and James Cameron all walked down the now-famed foyer at the Arlington Theatre during the last weekend of the festival, treading upon the very same carpet where earlier I had been contemplating a nap.
People perked up when the stars showed up. Well, that and when the food and drinks were served at various after-parties and press functions.
No matter how exhausted everyone was, the presence of Al Gore a mere arm’s length away on Friday night was enough to reduce even the most jaded journalists to shaking, stammering messes – or at least myself and the folks standing on either side of me on the press line. After responding to a question about whether he would rather win a Nobel Peace Prize or an Academy Award with “do you have any other trick questions?” Gore had me thinking that perhaps he might just answer my silly little question too.
After managing to make my mouth move again, I was able to ask the question – something along the lines of “with all the political and environmental problems facing the world today, what would you say to college students who want to make a difference but feel overwhelmed by the seemingly dismal state of things?”
Gore’s politically perfect answer was deceptively simple and smacked, just a little bit, of an after-school special – albeit a really good one. “Be honest, be true to yourself,” Gore said. “Learn about the climate crisis, because everything else depends on that. And, be a part of the solution.”
When asked what advice he had for college students – and, specifically, those interested in becoming filmmakers – James Cameron single-handedly legitimized my desire not to study for my upcoming film theory midterm. “My advice for young filmmakers is to shoot film, nowadays you shoot in digital video, but just shoot,” Cameron said. “Sitting in a world of theory and film appreciation doesn’t make you a filmmaker.”
During the ceremony following the carpet, in which Gore and Guggenheim received the Attenborough Award for Excellence in Nature Filmmaking, presented by last year’s winner James Cameron, Gore and Guggenheim participated in a question-and-answer session moderated by local filmmaker Mike Degruy. The Arlington was packed, literally, to the brim with a crowd that gave three standing ovations throughout the night – one at the beginning of the question-and-answer session, one at the end and one when Cameron beseeched Gore to run for president in 2008.
Throughout the evening, Gore and Guggenheim’s continuing playful banter made it easy to almost forget that I was watching a major politician and a master movie-maker riffing on the running joke that Gore was stealing Guggenheim’s spotlight. Other highlights of the evening included Gore’s riffing on the Republicans, as well as on the skeptics who don’t believe the climate crisis is real.
“It took our country way too long to reach the gag threshold on the Bush/Cheney administration,” Gore said. “Because the marketplace of ideas operates differently right now . . . reason has been pushed off center stage and has been replaced by wealth and power.”
Guggenheim said he was unsure of whether the film would be marketable at all.
“I had read a little bit . . . but I was not an environmentalist,” Guggenheim said. “I was skeptical. A slideshow – a film about a slideshow?”
“But it had me in it,” Gore said.
“Al deserves all the credit,” Guggenheim responded before pushing up his glasses, an endearing mannerism that he kept repeating throughout the evening.
Aside from the constant banter between the two men, the overall message of the evening was clear. As Gore put it, “This is up to us . . . we are at a fork in the road right here and right now and we have to decide whether or not we are serious about the future.”
Speaking of the future, the odds-on favorite to be the future Best Actor Oscar Winner Forest Whitaker graced the carpet on Saturday night as he prepared to receive the American Riviera Award for his performance in “The Last King of Scotland,” presented by Sandra Bullock. The actress, whom Whitaker directed in “Hope Floats,” expressed her admiration for Whitaker’s multitude of talents, which include directing, producing and acting.
“I could never direct,” Bullock said. “I could never do it. I don’t have the talent for it.”
Whitaker himself was more humble about his many skills. Soft-spoken and self-effacing, Whitaker responded to a question about what advice he has for students looking to get into the film industry with a moment of real thought about his answer.
“I think just, you know, it’s more about following their passion. . .. try to do it . . . if you believe, then you see it – a little bit of joy,” Whitaker said. “Then you can make it happen.”
During the awards ceremony, moderator Pete Hammond lead Whitaker through an exploration of the various stages of his career, complete with clips and a montage that was very well-received by the almost-full Arlington. In keeping with his modest demeanor, Whitaker explained a brief hiatus he took at the beginning of the career with typical humility. “I was starting to work and I didn’t think I was good enough to be put on film,” Whitaker said, referring to the period of his life immediately after “Tag: The Assassination Game” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” “So, like, I had stepped back . . . I was constantly trying to improve.”
Whitaker’s constant striving for self-improvement was a continuous theme throughout the evening, as Whitaker recounted his obsessive saxophone playing to prepare for his role as jazz musician Charlie Parker in “Bird,” the boot camp that Oliver Stone put him through to prepare for “Platoon” and his work developing accents for “The Crying Game” and “The Last King of Scotland.”
When asked how he chooses such diverse projects as “The Last King of Scotland” and “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai,” Whitaker took another moment to really think about his response, finally saying he chooses projects based on the character.
“It’s possible to do something special,” Whitaker said. “If I had the right role and the right character.”
Whitaker said that, ultimately, he begins every project with a little bit of fear and a desire to learn.
“I think, if there’s not any fear, then I think maybe I shouldn’t be doing it. Because I’m not challenging myself,” Whitaker said. “I think that the process of like, trying to grow as an actor, can’t be divorced from the process of trying to grow as a person.”
When it comes down to it, the film festival was all about growth. Growing exhausted and growing progressively weaker, but growing nonetheless. And, now that all is said and done, it’s clear that the festival was also about growing more aware of social issues, growing more of an appreciation for the art of moviemaking and growing more proficient in running down State Street in heels. Thank God it only comes once a year.