Circus-leader Salles: Director Walter Salles awarded the audience with poetic thoughts on the City of San Francisco and the circus art of filmmaking at the Film Society's gala dinner Thursday.

SFIFF53 Reports: California Dreamin' at Film Society Awards Night

Susan Gerhard April 30, 2010

San Francisco itself took a leading role Thursday at Film Society Awards Night, the dinner and awards program held annually at the Westin St. Francis during the San Francisco International Film Festival. A benefit for the Film Society’s year-round Youth Education initiative, which brings film and media literacy to students from 8-18, the gala presenters honored Brazilian director Walter Salles with the Founder’s Directing Award, gave actor Robert Duvall the Peter J. Owens Award and offered James Schamus the Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting.

Clips of the City of San Francisco in film framed the occasion, along with introductory remarks by San Francisco Executive Director Graham Leggat and Gala Chairs Carla Emil and Rich Silverstein. Event band Marc & the Casuals sent The Mamas and the Papas’ "California Dreamin’" wafting through the ballroom and John Waters stepped onto the stage to break the ice. "I’m here to talk about a winner tonight," he said, "James Schamus is one of the sole survivors in independent film." Of the Brokeback Mountain producer and frequent Ang Lee collaborator, he added, "I thought James and Ang were a gay couple."

James Schamus ran with the baton, commenting, "That is the most heterosexual reel ever made of my movies." Producer, executive, director and screenwriter Schamus, on faculty at Columbia University, took a unique approach to his acceptance speech, which was delivered in front of a dry-erase board, and included references to Eisenstein and the creation of meaning in cinema, as well as thank-yous to Maurice Kanbar, George Gund, Graham Leggat and distributor Marcus Hu. He spoke mainly about the idea of failure, noting "The ability to absorb [failure] is the key to getting to a stage like this." He said that the award gives him the courage "to stand up and fail again."

When Founder’s Directing Award recipient Walter Salles took the stage after an introduction by Roman Coppola, he said, "The flight from Rio to San Francisco takes approximately 18 hours and I would take it two or three times again to see John Waters and James Schamus on the stage again." (Schamus’s company, Focus Features, distributes Salles’s Motorcycle Diaries.) Salles offered wide-ranging thoughts on cinema and San Francisco, a city he praised as "a symbol of cultural progress." He said he considered the prize, which had in years past been given to Abbas Kiarostami, Manoel de Oliveira (now 103 years old) and Spike Lee, "a very generous assessment of films I have made," noting "it entails a responsibility to films I will make.

Salles said he was influenced by cinema of the ’70s, including Francis Ford Coppola’s, and wanted to speak about another North Beach fixture as well: Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights, where he said he had discovered so many great authors over the years, from Roberto Bola¤o and Milan Kundera to Michel Houellebecq. (Salles is preparing the film version of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.)

The director, fresh from an SFFS Master Class he taught at the Festival, talked primarily about the reach of cinema, which many claim is a dying art form, drawing attention to the fact that cinema was first exhibited in circuses, which are cousins of the Ferris wheel. "Everyone said the circus and the Ferris wheel were going to die, but you still see one in every city. The Ferris wheel offers a unique panoramic view of the world… like cinema."

Salles’ cinema is known for its journeys, and he paraphrased English painter John Berger, saying, "Cinema transports us toward the unknown. In cinema, we’re all travelers. That’s why so many couples hold hands in the movies. They don’t do it in the theater or when watching TV."

Actors took the spotlight for the final segment of the evening. Introducing presenter James Caan, Leggat spoke not only Caan’s iconic roles in Brian’s Song, The Godfather and other films, but his unique sporting history as a Michigan State football player, a black belt in karate and a rodeo regular.

Caan departed from his planned script for Peter J. Owens Award recipient Robert Duvall (To Kill a Mockingbird, Apocalypse Now, The Great Santini, Tender Mercies, The Apostle, A Civil Action) and spoke from the heart, going "freestyle," he said, to talk about his very good friend. "In 41 years, I’ve worked with a lot of great people, but I haven’t met anyone I’d rather work with. Bobby taught me how to give, how to take …. and taught me how to care about what I do."

When Duvall took the stage, he gave a nod to the band’s intro, a reference to the Argentinian side of his family, saying "They say Americans can’t play tango!" and continued with charming irreverence to offer anecdotes from his life and career–including moments from the filming of Apocalypse Now in the Philippines, where he was called "Mr. Hackman" by fans, and a note on the holiday celebrations at the Caan household, which he said featured a 92 year-old woman being wrestled to the ground.

Duvall encouraged the gathered to support independent film by watching the SFIFF film he stars in, Get Low, and thanked his father, a WWII veteran who pushed Duvall into acting at the right time in his life. He closed by referencing his own performance in The Apostle: "I’m on the Devil’s hit list, but I got Jesus!"

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