A plush Bimbo’s 365 Club packed with San Francisco Film Society supporters played host to the 2011 Film Society Awards Night. On the menu: the inauguration of an award named for Film Society patron saint George Gund, a tribute to the inspired achievements of SFFS Executive Director Graham Leggat and the delivery of prizes for directing, acting and screenwriting to (respectively) Oliver Stone, Terence Stamp and Frank Pierson.
A benefit for SFFS Youth Education, the program gave awardees a chance to reflect on their careers. The evening’s presentations opened on a serious note, with Sid Ganis, former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, quoting his predecessor in that role, honoree Frank Pierson, in a speech to film school graduates. Pierson reportedly willed them to make brave films, “become a nuisance” and speak their minds. “We need this from you as we need clean water and roads.”
Many of the evening’s roads led back to the Bay Area itself. After an introduction by fellow Brit, Sight & Sound editor Nick James (in his self-reported second day ever in California), Stamp said he always thought the most “discerning” people chose to live in San Francisco. (Peter J. Owens acting award recipient Stamp talks with critic Elvis Mitchell about his storied career prior to a screening of Toby Dammit at the Castro Theatre April 29.) Stone passed through Oakland on his way to and from the Vietnam War. In an Oakland staging station for the military, Stone heard “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” on his way out of the country and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” upon return.
“San Francisco has, for me, embodied change,” said Stone. He appreciated the City’s recent protests against government malfeasance and said he hoped to maintain that sense of defiance in his own work.
George Gund, as the first recipient of the award named in his honor, was properly feted with stories of his many and varied interests. “Everybody has a hero, and George is mine,” said Sony Pictures Classics’ co-president, Tom Bernard, who went on to talk about Gund’s work as a bridge between the West’s cinema and the Iron Curtain. Gund, longtime force behind the San Jose Sharks NHL team, was jokingly said to have brought not just films from Eastern Europe, but occasionally a few hockey players and perhaps a coach.
Frank Pierson, recipient of the Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting, picked up on the sporting theme in an acceptance speech that mourned a loss of adventurousness in cinema since the blockbuster overtook the more personal approach of the ’70s, “Why do we have to call movies ‘art’? Why can’t we call them sport? A lot of the fun has gone out of it.” (Pierson’s Dog Day Afternoon, directed by Sidney Lumet, screens after an onstage interview April 30.)
Although the best work of each of the awardees was not necessarily concentrated in the ’70s, apparently some of their best experiences were. The “me decade” came up in a number of other introductions and acceptances. Introducing Oliver Stone, producer Edward Pressman spoke of growing up in a time when movies mattered and critics like Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris made an imprint on culture “in a way that is hard to imagine today.”
Despite the enjoyment of a perceived earlier golden era of film, most of the filmmakers were at work on building a solid future for film as well. Oliver Stone, now involved with the creation of The Untold History of America shared an anecdote from SFIFF54's Founder's Directing Award night at the Castro, “Someone asked in the Q&A yesterday, ‘What makes you want to make movies?’ You know," he said he answered, "it’s anger.”
Summing up the evening, Stone borrowed a few words from WWII-era Winston Churchill to speak about the future, his own in political filmmaking, and the world's, in general. “This award is for me the end of the beginning," he said. "But it is hopefully the beginning of the end.”
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