Fest Traveler: Mill Valley Film Festival 2012

In 1977, Marin County was the paved paradise of Cyra McFadden’s satire “Serial,” affluent and liberal, the place where rock stars and a few stellar, L.A.-allergic film directors went to build their houses (with hot tubs). But newly arrived New Yorker Mark Fishkin saw what it lacked: A showcase for alternative cinema.

Thirty-five years later, the weekend event Fishkin organized in response that October has grown into the annual 11-day Mill Valley Film Festival, which opens Oct. 4 with David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook” and Walter Salles’ “On the Road.” It closes Oct. 14 with another hotly anticipated literary adaptation, “Life of Pi,” whose attending director Ang Lee has been a regular fest attendee since his debut feature “Pushing Hands” in 1992.

In between, there will be in-person spotlights on actor John Hawkes (“The Sessions”), director Mira Nair (“The Reluctant Fundamentalist”), and multihyphenates Billy Bob Thornton (“Jayne Mansfield’s Car”) and Dustin Hoffman (“Quartet”), the latter two being part of a sidebar on thesps-turned-helmers that includes Ben Affleck, Matthew Lilliard and Fisher Stevens. Hoffman will participate in a Variety master class discussion with executive editor Steven Gaydos on Oct. 9.

In addition, there will be special sidebars dedicated to Latin America, the environment and rock ‘n’ soul; the launch of a three-day ASCAP Music Cafe (see story page xx); an Oct. 10 centerpiece award presentation to DreamWorks Animation SKG, with “Rise of the Guardians” director Peter Ramsey; and such long-running favorite sections as Valley of the Docs, the “5@5″ shorts programs, and the ever-popular Children’s Filmfest, which this year highlights family pics from Bollywood and Croatia’s SAF toon studio.

Plus, there’s a birthday party of sorts Oct. 8 for Mill Valley’s peer, a ’77 sci-fi adventure you may have heard of called “Star Wars.” Since Lucasfilm’s Skywalker Ranch is just up the road near Novato, the attendance of some relevant special guests seems quite likely. They’ll join other stellar attendees over the festival’s course including Ewan McGregor (“The Impossible”), Stevie Nicks and Dave Stewart (“In Your Dreams”), Ken Burns (“The Central Park Five”) and various industryites participating in panel forums.

All this unspools at venues throughout Marin, not least the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, a permanent three-screen home for the fest’s producing shingle California Film Institute.

Latter’s other year-round activities include numerous educational programs, particularly for area youth.

It’s quite a leap from 35 years ago, when Fishkin was “deeply appalled” to find no specialized Marin exhibition outlet despite the surfeit of local talent, from George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola to experimentalists like James Broughton.

“Northern California has a vibrant filmmaking community and we have been blessed to have them share their talents with us again and again,” he says now, citing Lucasfilm and Pixar as well as former Marin residents Sean Penn and Robin Wright as prominent examples. That community also supports a large number of AMPAS screenings, while MVFF’s fall placement has made it a notable early stop on the awards-season campaign trail. Fishkin notes that three of Oscar’s past four best pictures played the fest.

Programming director Zoe Elton, who arrived in 1977 as the fest’s first full-time employee, says as a recent emigre from the U.K. back then, she was struck by the area’s “openness and creativity.”

“It was a village with an urban sensibility, spiked with awareness of all the alternative movements of the time … and lots of artists,” Elton says. Audiences “are incredibly supportive of new work and want to engage in dialogue with filmmakers — and they do so in ways that are smart and insightful.”

Organizers have encouraged a programming mix balanced with American indie and foreign features, experimental work and Oscar bait.

Over the decades those patrons have had opportunities to hobnob with everyone from Nicholas Ray, Saul Zaentz and Sissy Spacek to Michael Moore and Helen Mirren.

Asked to name a favorite moment, Elton recalls local “Robin Williams turning up as a surprise guest at Jonathan Winters’ tribute, joining him onstage for an impromptu improv session that was hilarious, and included hauling a 2-foot-high bronze statue of Ganesh — very heavy — from backstage as a prop.”For Fishkin a highlight was the 1992 world premiere of “Stand and Deliver” (then called “Walking on Water”) with Edward James Olmos. “This was a time before cell phones. I remember vividly at the end, acquisitions and studio executives racing to the only public phone in the lobby. I guess Warner Bros. was the quickest as they picked it up, and the film went on to be a success on so many levels.”

HIGHLIGHTS

Openers
“On the Road” (Walter Salles), 6:30 and 6:45 p.m., Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center; “Silver Linings Playbook” (David O. Russell), 7 and 7:15 p.m. Cinearts@Sequoia

Opening Gala
A party following kickoff screenings; 9:30 p.m.-midnight; Downtown Plaza, Mill Valley

U.S premiere “Argo”
(Ben Affleck), 7 p.m. Oct. 5 (Affleck’s an invited guest), 9:15 p.m. Oct. 12, Rafael 1

World premiere “Village Music: Last of the Great Record Stores”
(Gillian Grisman), 6:30 p.m. Oct. 5, Sequoia 1; 9:30 p.m. Oct. 8, Rafael 1

Insight: Ken Burns, A Masterclass Conversation
11 a.m. Oct. 6, Rafael, will include film critic Michael Fox

Spotlight on John Hawkes,
7 p.m. Oct 6, Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, a conversation with the actor that includes a screening of his film, “The Sessions”; director Ben Lewin and co-star William H. Macy will also participate.

U.S premiere “In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey”
(James Cullingham), 8 p.m. Oct. 6 at 142 Throckmorton (following the screening Chris Funk of the Decemberists will play a John Fahey tribute set, director James Cullingham will also be present); 7:15 p.m. Oct. 10, Sequoia 2

Spotlight on Billy Bob Thorton,
6:30 p.m. Oct. 7, Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, onstage interview and screening of “Jayne Mansfield’s Car”

Tribute to Dustin Hoffman,
7 p.m. Oct. 9, Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, a master class discussion with Variety exec editor Steven Gaydos, along with a screening of Hoffman’s directorial debut “Quartet.”

Centerpiece Spotlight on Dreamworks Animation
7 p.m. Oct. 10, Century Cinema, Corte Madera, featuring a screening of “Rise of the Guardians” and a conversation with director Peter Ramsey.

Tribute to Mira Nair
7 p.m. Oct. 10 Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, helmer will partake in an onstage conversations and screen one of her films.

ASCAP Music Cafe
1-5 p.m. Oct. 11-13, Sweetwater Music Hall & Cafe, featuring performances by John Doe, Frankmusik, Pomplamoose, Jeff the Brotherhood and Nova Albion.

“In Your Dreams — Stevie Nicks”
6:30 p.m. Oct 12, (Dave Stewart), Nicks is an invited guest.

Closing Night Film: “Life of Pi”
(Ang Lee) 5 p.m. Sun., Oct. 14 Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, Variety Intl. Filmmaker of the Year Award to be presented to Lee following the screening. “Pi.” Also showing at 5:15 p.m. at Sequoia

Closing Night Party
Fete follows the closing-night screenings, 7-10 p.m. Oct. 14, 32Ten Studios

Fest Traveler: Mill Valley Film Festival 2012
Bay play helps build buzz | Honoree Hoffman wields baton on ‘Quartet’ | Ang Lee: Calm amidst ‘Pi’s’ storm | ASCAP, fest open door on Cafe

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