SFIFF53: Dispatch #4, Opening Night, Micmacs

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Coverage of the San Francisco International Film Festival by Rumpus Film editor Jeremy Hatch.

This is my third year covering film in San Francisco, but this opening night, which took place last Thursday, was the first I’ve ever attended, for any festival. For one thing, I really wanted to go to this particular one: Micmacs is the new film from Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the director of Amélie and Délicatessen, and he would be there in person! But there’s another reason I’ve never previously been: opening nights tend to be gala affairs, and almost every means of gaining admission is way beyond my budget. But this year, an avenue was open to me: I got an invitation to cover the event for the Rumpus. So there I was, and here I am.

Castro Theatre Interior

The venue was the Castro Theatre, probably the most awesome place to watch a movie in the entire city (with the exception of the Kabuki balcony, about which I’ll say more in my next dispatch). What really sets the Castro apart, besides its enormous auditorium, is its old-fashioned elegance, with its lavish splendor of polished wood and gold-painted false columns and arches, and neoclassical paintings on the walls, and the central chandelier hanging from a massive shallow dome, made of a wood stained such a rich red color that it almost looks like leather, all of which has been kept up nicely. An organist plays half an hour of music on the Mighty Wurlitzer as patrons file in, ending with one particular rousing number that every San Francisco film buff has by heart, and which always inspires a clap-along from the floor. The whole place evokes a feeling of prewar opulence, so maybe it’s not too surprising that the theater’s biggest draw, year after year, is a 10-day festival devoted to film noir. But obviously: if you have a film festival and you want to kick it off in style, especially one like the SF Film Society’s, which matches an ample helping of luxury with an equally ample helping of film geekery, the Castro is your spot.

Another thing about the Castro Theatre: whereas the interior reflects a long-departed era in the city, the neighborhood it is situated in, the world-famous Castro itself, is practically a living metaphor for San Francisco’s contemporary character: gentrified, but not to the point of excluding street life (or a great many street people, for that matter), and yes, just as San Francisco is far more queer than its neighboring municipalities, the Castro is far more queer than the adjacent neighborhoods. Nearby stores have names like Chaps, Does Your Mother Know?, and Hot Cookie; immediately upon leaving the tacqueria where I’d eaten dinner, I was handed a promotional packet of “tingling” lube, along with a coupon for leather fetish gear, by a middle-aged woman who wouldn’t have looked out of place at a school board meeting. (I’d try it out but truth be told, the idea of having “tingling” genitals seems rather more alarming than arousing.)

Jean-Pierre Jeunet At the Castro

But back to the theater, and the show: I had assumed that the crowd would be overwhelmingly well-off and older, given the price of the ticket, and I did overhear some conversations in which distressingly large sums were referred to, or were at least implied to exist. But there was actually a certain economic and ethnic diversity to the crowd, and I even noticed one of our favorite bartenders about a dozen rows up. I don’t dare speculate on why this might be, as I didn’t spend any time gathering information: the thing I was really most interested in was the little green swag bag on every seat, which, peasant that I am, I initially assumed were meant to hold those seats for the people who actually deserved them. These bags are amazing fun, containing as they do samples from various sponsors of the festival. My bag contained a handful of vacuum-sealed snacks, including these amazingly tasty things, a deck of coupon cards, some kind of pouch with a belt strap that I never quite figured out the purpose of (too large for a cell phone, too small for a water bottle), and a novelty bottle-opener in the shape of a Stella goblet, from Stella Artois, of which I have drunk about four or five bottles in the course of writing this post (not all in one sitting). And finally, in a mind-blowing recursive feat of sponsorship, the bags themselves appeared to be swag, a gift from the very same company that made the mysterious pouch. How do they do these things? Later I would walk all the way from the Castro to 16th and Mission, swinging this little bag at my side.

Anyway! The organist launched into the pre-curtain song, and there was the clap-along, and the lights went down. There was a hush. The festival trailer played on the big screen, and there was another silence, and then the lights came up and Executive Director Graham Leggat strode onto stage to enormous applause, because really, he deserves it. It’s his fifth year with the Film Society — he took a moment to say that these had been the best five years of his life — and during those five years the Film Society has expanded, and expanded, and expanded, and its programming has only gotten better. Plus, from what I’ve heard, he instituted a policy of outreach to online writers and publications from the beginning. So how can I not like Mr. Leggat? He gets it.

Mr. Leggat (pictured above at left) brought Mr. Jeunet onto the stage for a few pre-screening remarks. Jeunet is a big, burly-looking man with a fizzily enthusiastic and whimsical way of expressing himself, which precisely matches up with his films. But maybe that’s just what he’s like when he’s short on sleep; when I interviewed him the following morning he claimed to have been so jet-lagged he didn’t really know what was coming out of his mouth. His remarks were simply about the title of his film, full title Micmacs à tire Larigot, which he said is obsolete slang for, basically, ‘shenanigans,’ a word he’d never heard until recently and which he delighted in repeating several times: “shenanigans, shenanigans! I love this word, shenanigans! It is such a ridiculous word and it is so much fun. Shenanigans!” I should add that his accent was so thick it was nearly comical in itself; but his English was perfect otherwise.

I’ve said a lot about the theater and the evening because I’ve agreed to not say much about the film, in public, until it is commercially released in June. When that day comes, expect a full review and an interview with Jeunet on this website. But in the meantime what I can say is that it’s vintage Jeunet, kind of a marriage between the whimsicality of Amélie and the pitch-black humor of Délicatessen. (It’s also the first film I’ve ever seen where a crucial plot development hangs on a viral YouTube video.) But the movie is a little risky: the story is, in part, a humorous treatment of the world of arms dealers, or in the apt slang the characters use, les marchands de mort (dealers of death). I have seen it twice: the first time, at a small, packed press screening, I left the room feeling amused but kind of offended by Jeunet’s blithe approach to a subject that, considered soberly, would make me very angry. But this was the second time I saw it, and this time I loved every aspect of it. Jeunet himself acknowledged that tension, both in the Q&A after the film and in my interview with him the following morning. On both occasions he cited Chaplin’s Great Dictator as an inspiration, and to me he said, “sometimes I think it works, and sometimes I think I did not do so well.” He also said that this film was less popular in France than abroad; citing the success of his last three films, he said “three is really enough, and now it is time to pay.” And moreover, “In France we love to hate what we loved before.”

NOTE: After publication I looked up the parts of the title in various standard and slang dictionaries I have at home, and this is what I found. À tire-Larigot means ‘to one’s heart’s content’ and micmacs is a noun that means, basically, ‘little intrigues.’ So maybe a more literal translation would be All The Shenaningans You Could Hope For.

[Photo of the Castro by Tommy Lau, all other photos by Pamela Gentile, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society. Next dispatch: Don Hertzfeld]

Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →