True story. Ask around if you don't believe me.
Last year's opening gala film at the London Film Festival was Keep The Aspidistra Flying, starring Richard E Grant and Helena Bonham Carter. To be perfectly frank, it wasn't terribly good: however, that isn't really the point with the Opening Gala. It's a big glossy celebrity-infested British premiere, and if you're a National Film Theatre member and fairly quick off the mark, you can be in the audience too. I was there last year with about half a dozen of Spank's Pals, and it's a tremendous feeling when you walk down that fenced-off path to the entrance to the Odeon Leicester Square, being stared at by rubbernecking tourists trying to work out if you're famous or not.
So after the film we're back outside the cinema again, watching all the famous people leave. About three or four limoes are stuck in some sort of jam in Leicester Square as we watch. The occupant of one of them, Michael Winner, gets out of the back and starts drunkenly beckoning to the driver to reverse his car out, to little effect.
"I always said he couldn't even direct traffic," I say in passing to the Pals. They claim to this day that the look I got from Winner when he heard that could have stripped the hair off Charles Bronson's moustache at fifty paces. (I wasn't looking at him when I said it, so I can't be sure.)
The LFF is full of little moments like that, when the people who make films and the people who watch them interact to one degree or another. Whether it's an impromptu question and answer session at the end of a film (my admiration for Sylvester Stallone increased one hundred fold last year after his brilliant session following the screening of CopLand), or a full-blown on-stage interview involving someone big from in front of or behind the camera (particularly fond memories of a talk by Thelma Schoonmaker Powell, Martin Scorcese's editor), the opportunities are there if you want them.
And of course, there's the films as well. There's regular controversy over the amount of mainstream Hollywood product included in the Festival: myself, I think at the moment the proportion's about right. There are a couple of big blockbuster premieres each year where the photographers come out in force (I'm guessing that the Kate Winslet fans will be there in their billions for Hideous Kinky this year), but the vast majority of movies on display are smaller scale productions from around the world. Some may get a limited release several months down the line: some may never be seen in this country again. If you have any sort of feeling for film as an artform at all, it's the chance to immerse yourself for two weeks.
Best of all, it's open to anyone. If you live in London, you can join the National Film Theatre for fifteen quid a year, and this entitles you to advance booking rights for any film in the Festival. (Tickets go on sale to the general public two weeks later, but by then most of the big popular films tend to have sold out.) And even if you don't live in London, this year the LFF is experimenting with a touring programme showing the best of the fest in a number of cinemas across the country. (If you don't live in Britain, then I can't really help you.)
With over two hundred films on show in the space of a fortnight, obviously it's not possible to see everything. However, Spank and his Pals will have a bloody good shot at it. We'll be providing a day-by-day review service throughout the Festival, telling you what's worth looking out for in the future and what you can safely ignore. It'll be a bit like Edinburgh, but without the crippling hangovers. Stay tuned. (By the way, Spank and the Pals didn't get any tickets whatsoever for the Opening Gala this year, so you're safe for now, Michael.)
Friday November 6th - Girls Watch The Boys, Henry Fool, Motel Cactus, The Theory Of Flight, Titanic Town
Saturday November 7th - B Monkey, Fast Food, Henry Fool, Life Is Beautiful, Sitcom
Sunday November 8th - Captain Jack, First Love Last Rites, God's Got My Number, Pi, Slam
Monday November 9th - Brits In The Spotlight Programme 1, Hold You Tight, Twilight, Via Satellite
Tuesday November 10th - Dancer Texas Pop 81, I Stand Alone, Jonathan Demme Guardian Interview, Playing God
Wednesday November 11th - Aprile, Brown's Requiem, Corps Plongés, Strangers On A Train, Slums Of Beverly Hills
Thursday November 12th - The Apple, The Interview, A Kind Of Hush, Out Of Sight, Thirteen, Torrente: The Dumb Arm Of The Law, Waking Ned
Friday November 13th - Babyface, The Blue Summer, The First Night Of My Life, Nô, Out Of Sight
Saturday November 14th - Final Cut, The Idiots, Serial Lover
Sunday November 15th - Disney's Unseen Treasures, The Opposite Of Sex, Pleasantville, Spriggan, Train To Pakistan
Monday November 16th - Among Giants, Gods And Monsters, Pecker, Pieces Of Identity, Smoke Signals
Tuesday November 17th - Among Giants, Blind Faith, Girl, John Waters Guardian Interview, Pecker, A Rather English Marriage, Two Girls And A Guy
Wednesday November 18th - Hideous Kinky, Two Girls And A Guy, Welcome To Woop Woop, Your Friends And Neighbors
Thursday November 19th - August 32nd On Earth, Bulworth, International Animation
The London Film Festival site is bloody perfect. After the abortions that the BFI have inflicted on us in previous years, they've finally got some help in from The Guardian, and the new site is everything you could possibly hope for. Full listings, details of every film (including relevant links to the Internet Movie Database entry), latest updates to the programme, a bulletin board where people can discuss related topics, and the opportunity to post your own reviews on films you've seen. What sort of publicity-seeking trollop would dare to assume their reviews were worthy of the official LFF site? Three guesses. [dead link]
The British Film Institute runs the National Film Theatre, the London Film Festival and assorted film-related bits and pieces. A fine organisation that deserves your support.
Inside Out, that nice Scottish webzine that did a damn good job of covering the Edinburgh Film Festival, looks like it's going to have a crack at covering London too. They've already got reviews of some of the LFF films that premiered at Edinburgh this summer.