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Cinema Epicuria:
The Sonoma Valley Film Festival

Some festivals are amazing because they are huge, others because they scrape the bottom of every barrel to get the most obscure films in the world. Some put on a great festival by pulling in every star and up-and-coming director they can get. The Sonoma Valley Film Festival is a great festival for another reason: because it is unreasonably cool.

Now, I know the image that a lot of people have of Sonoma: it's a place where wine flows and the stores have seventeen types of pate and no bologna. This may or may not be true, but there are more true film fans in Winetown than in any other city I've ever encountered. As I was walking around the city, not even just in the areas where the festival was going on, there were folks talking about the films and the festival, almost all in glowing terms. As I said last year, the town becomes the festival for a glowing weekend.

How cool can a festival be? Well, Cinema Epicuria is the combination of food, wine and films, so before most of the showings, there's free wine, bread, cheese, and the like. And it was all so good. They did movie-themed dining at various restaurants around the screens.

I managed to weasel my way into doing pre-show announcements for several films, thus allowing me to watch them for free. The shorts programs were all fantastic, easily the most consistent series of shorts that I've ever been to. While I won't say too much about them in favor of doing a complete article on the highlights later, there were several that come close to the top of the seven hundred or so shorts I've seen in the last year.

The venues for the festival are amazing. The Sebastiani Theatre right on the Plaza is an amazing theatre. Maybe I'm just a mark for old movie houses, but I have to say that it rivals the Castro in San Francisco and the Stanford in Palo Alto for sheer force of impression. The Sonoma Cinemas, just a touch outside of the heart of town, is a typical multiplex, but it seemed to transform as the festival goers would come and seem to take over the whole place, even though the fest only used two of their screens. The House of Docs had the best ambience. The Sebastiani Winery allowed the festival to use their Barrel Room. They set up a screen in the middle and along the edges of the room were huge barrels. It made for a unique film going experience.

Probably my favorite venue was the Lounge. The Lounge was the home of films that stretched the limits. One of the theatre announcers called it "our little piece of SlamDance." The Lounge, and its host of Lounge Lizard pass holders, provided an awesome viewing experience, as these were all the people you find at the fests who are whacky and fun.

Now, what about the films? Everything I saw was fantastic. Though I didn't get up to Sonoma until Friday and missed it, Mayor of The Sunset Strip, about LA DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, was the talk of everyone as the festival continued. I saw several documentaries, including Jason Schachat's Cinequest favorite Double Dare and the excellent Sundance film Long Gone. I even managed to see a narrative feature, the very strong film The Big Empty. Another impressive fact is that the festival managed to get so many filmmakers to attend and do Q+A sessions after their films. Some of these, like the ones for Double Dare and the Animation Shorts programs, were exceptional at showing the world that exists behind the veil.

The best parts? The panel on Stunts featuring the folks chronicled in Double and a couple of other stunt legends, was fantastic, as was the panel on animation featuring Pixar head John Lassetter. I really enjoyed the salsa they put out for public consumption at the Lounge, and the sausage they served from the Sonoma Sausage Company. The people in general were great, but the filmmakers were so nice and I had several great conversations, mostly while trying to drum up interest in my coming run at a feature.

The pinnacle of the festival, and the thing that made Cinema Epicuria far cooler than any festival in the world, was the Saturday Night screening of the silent film A Fool There Was. I love silents, and the recent trend of providing new, modern accompaniment, is great too. Composer Marika Tjelios provided a solid piece to back A Fool There Was and its magnificent star, Theda Bara. Now, what makes this even cooler is that the festival had the chutzpa to hold a séance following the showing. That's right…a séance.

Yeah, it was all the tricks of the early twentieth century spiritualist movement, with table slams and spurting candles, but it was a damn good show. I got to sit next to the medium, Miss Magda Rockmore, and get a fine view of all the tricks I had always read about. The fact that a festival would have a séance following a screening just blew me away, and it was highly entertaining. I will always remember this event, and if I can remember a single screening after attending so many festivals, it's an incredible thing.

Like I said last year, a great festival makes you want to go out a make a movie. Cinema Epicuria goes well beyond that: it's a festival that makes you want to go out and dedicate your life to movies.

Chris Garcia

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