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Sanborn Shoots (for) the Stars at MVFF34

Berkeley-based video artist and experimental filmmaker returns to the Mill Valley Film Festival with a world premiere film, 'The Planets,' and a visually inventive new festival trailer.

Film lovers who’ve lined up multiple screenings at this year’s are becoming very familiar with the sight of a bright orange ball whizzing through scenes both real and surreal in the festival’s , which screens before every program.

That orange glowing ball and its journey of transformation spring from the ever-evolving imagination of Berkeley-based video artist John Sanborn, a festival alum whose new feature-length film The Planets has its world premiere at this year’s fest.

Sanborn’s experimental, non-narrative films have been a staple of MVFF’s V(ision)Fest sidebar for many years. In a recent interview with Mill Valley Patch, Sanborn said, “I’ve been friends with Zoe [Elton, longtime festival programming director] a long time, and they’ve been showing my work for years. This year, I got an email asking if I’d like to do the festival trailer, and of course I said yes!”

But first, says Sanborn, whose day job is as Creative Director of the online photo-sharing website Shutterfly, “I had to ask if they wanted the professional, corporate John Sanborn, or the wild and wacky video artist John Sanborn!”

Needless to say, it was the latter Sanborn that the festival had in mind.

Using John Casado’s image from this year’s festival poster as his inspiration, Sanborn and Casado together brainstormed about the concept for the trailer, and what the key values or attributes would be. Ultimately, they agreed that it was all about perspective, and how seeing a film at the festival can change your point of view.

“The ball becomes a metaphor for the lens of the festival, its particular curatorial eye,” he explained. “I took the surreal, Magritte-like elements of the poster image as inspiration, and then used the orange ball as an agent of change, a catalyst for transformation. It’s my personal valentine to the Mill Valley Film Festival. You always see something unexpected there.”

He illustrates his point, animatedly recounting a recent experience as an audience member at one of the year-round events produced by the festival’s parent organization, the California Film Institute:

“I got an invitation to a screening of Dr. Strangelove, which was going to be introduced by [Pixar luminary and Academy-Award winning director of Ratatouille] Brad Bird, and I got to bring my daughter along with me. The movie just blew her away, and we got to meet Brad Bird after the screening and talk to him. It was amazing…It changed her world.”

That same feeling of unexpected discovery is exactly what Sanborn hopes audiences experience at the world premiere of his new feature-length film, The Planets. Commissioned by the new music ensemble Relache to accompany an original composition by Kyle Gann, the film comprises, as Sanborn describes it, “a character portrait for each of the planets.”

“Planets have, for aeons, fascinated and frustrated us," he said. "I wanted to explore what their significance is to humanity and to take people on that journey.”

The film does indeed offer a distinct ‘portrait’ of the planets, exploring those characteristics that have historically been attributed to each, and re-framing the solar system as a multi-sensory, mulit-disciplinary viewing experience that incorporates everything from particle imagery, jellyfish, modern dance and Shakespeare into a cohesive vision.

It is a typically unconventional piece of work for Sanborn and one that he applauds festival programmers for embracing and showcasing to festival movie-goers. “They’re honoring something so offbeat and that’s so unusual,” he says. He also appreciates his loyal audiences at MVFF, who helped his most recent festival piece, A Sweeter Music – a 2009 collaboration with his wife, musician Sarah Cahill and The Planets composer Gann – sell out its slot at .

This year, Sanborn’s admirers have plenty of opportunity to see the latest products of his fertile imagination, with The Planets screening twice at the Rafael Film Center, on on Wednesday, Oct. 12 and Friday, Oct. 14, both at the Rafael Film Center, and the MVFF trailer screening nonstop throughout the festival. Click here to buy ticket or for more information, go to mvff.com.

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