Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Can SIFF survive being cool?

Back in the years when I would take in 88 movies at the Seattle International Film Festival, somewhere in the middle of the Memorial Day weekend marathon of five or six films a day for threes in a row, I would tell myself, this is fine for now, but someday I’ll be too old for this.

Of course, there were two problems with that thought: 1) there were plenty of people lots older than me around seeing as many or more movies than I was, and 2) now, years later, I have slowed down and those people, who were lots older than me back then and are even older now, are still seeing 100-plus films!

What accounts for the difference between normal people, who think going out to a movie once a week is a big accomplishment, and those strange souls who notify all their friends, relatives, neighbors, lovers, employers, etc. not to try to contact them for a month while they do nothing but see movies and sleep—and not actually get that much sleep?

Well, the second group of people are crazy. That’s a no-brainer. But they make up the emotional core of the film festival audience. These weirdoes are the heart and soul of the fest.

But, over the years, I have noticed an interesting phenomenon, as the Seattle film festival has grown steadily and impressively in terms of the number of films shown and the number of people attending. I call this the Frasier-Crane-ization of the film festival—after the endearingly elitist, social-climbing, status-seeking protagonist of a television series that just happens, appropriately enough, to be set in nouveau-techno-riche, cyber-arriviste Seattle.

What I mean is, somewhere over the years it became “cool” to be seen at the film festival. At some point I noticed that on Friday and Saturday nights, the theater was totally filling up and that a lot of the people there, whom I had never seen before, were dressed to the nines—in stark contrast to those of us who were wearing our jeans and sweatshirts like always. My first reaction was to demand, “Who are all you people? Where did you come from? Are you here just to get a glimpse of Sean Penn? Where were you three years ago when I and two other guys who were half asleep toughed it out in this very theater until 11:30 on a Tuesday night watching a three-hour Chantal Akerman film with no dialog?”

Other strange things started happening. Screenings became more punctual, to the point where they almost always began right on time. There were fewer snafus. In recent years, it’s gotten to the point where we hardly get any festival representatives making abject apologies to surly audiences for missing films, projection room problems or wayward guests. That was always half of the fun of the festival. (Indeed, attending the festival had originally been a fairly straightforward matter. You found a seat you liked in the Egyptian Theater and just stayed there for three and a half weeks. Then they added a second theater and you had to make choices and, frequently, make a dash up and down Pine Street between the two venues. By the time they expanded to four cinemas, one being several miles away from the others, things just got totally crazy.)

While natural enough, my reaction to the polishing and professionalizing of the film festival was totally unwarranted. It is the very inclusion of all the new people that not only keeps the festival going but causes it to flourish. Thanks to all the newcomers, we have an even richer menu of films to choose from each year. This tension played itself out a few years aback when commercial messages from corporate sponsors started appearing before many of the films. Populist elements in the audience began hissing these adverts—until, that is, they got a lecture about how corporate underwriting keeps the festival going and if boos and hisses caused the support to be withdrawn, then that could be the end of the festival. The hissing stopped.

Even in a city now famous for having its downtown trashed because of a World Trade Organization conference, when it comes to film, Seattle has shown that it has its priorities straight.

-S.L., 1 June 2000

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