AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
by Harlan Kennedy
45th Internationale Filmfestspiele
The festival poster showed a road stretching into infinity through desert sands.
When two glitterati finally arrived,
So where the hell were the other stars? Up on the screen and mostly in two movies. Wang's Blue in the Face, his improv companion piece to Smoke, rejoiced in Madonna, Roseanne, Michael J. Fox, Lily Tomlin, Jim Jarmusch, and anyone else who strayed into Brooklyn during the five-day shoot. And Agnès Varda's all-star birthday gift to the cinema, Les Cent Et Une Nuits, boasted Mastroianni, Depardieu, Deneuve, Delon, De Niro, De Harrison Ford, and anyone else who ever made a movie in Europe, preceded or not by a few in Hollywood.
This, remember – and only by emigration to another planet will one be allowed to forget – is the screen's hundredth birthday. So day three of the Competition gave us both Varda's pic and Edgar Reitz's Die Nacht des Regisseurs (Night of the Directors). Each rounded up a crowd of suspects – star, for Varda, German helmers for Reitz – and told them to explode with film buffery. The stars in Varda's whimsy detonated around Michel Piccoli as, "Monsieur Cinéma." holding audience in a mansion stuffed with movie mementos and a movie stuffed with in-jokes and old clips (Murnau, Godard, Fellini). The jokes are often funny, but there are too many. We needed a plot and/or thesis. As they say on TV, 8 ½ points for trying.
The Reitz stuff was a better birthday gift, and a better blueprint for beyond-the-birthday. Digitally
faking a futuristic
Chalk to cheesecake, this nonfiction cine-essay didn't belong in the Competition at all. But we were glad for a film whose "form" looked forward even while its content looked back. It reminded us of the vision E.M. Forster had in Aspects of the Novel, a crucial reference point for this year's fest. EMF, you recall, imagined- all the world's great fiction writers sitting in one room. Times change but values don't, he proposed. So Tolstoy could swap tips with Joseph Heller, Stendhal with Sagan. Cinema, too, is a space-time commonwealth, and the stars' absence made us see its truer, deeper values. Prompted by the Berlin poster, we realized (a) that all films are essentially road movies, and (b) that road journeys can be more exciting and unpredictable when the stars do not come out to guide you.
H.K. was tops at this fest, in
quality and quantity, and the three best films unspooled in order of merit. Stanley Kwan's
Red Rase, White Rose is an old tale given Formula One treatment. Respectable, ambitious young man (Wedding Banquet's Winston Chao) falls into passion with married femme fatale (Joan Last Emperor/
This journey's only landscape is the human face, but Kwan uses light and color to convey time and change. He must be the classiest pulp-melodramatist since Sirk. Compositions alternate between the stylishly skewed and the high-gloss stately. Shadows crawl voluptuously over characters like a sweet sickness. And the hero's cold of marital "bliss" is almost hilarious in its kitsch (look at the wedding-cake-style pink moldings on the walls of the newlyweds' home). Kwan has been around a while, but as with Sirk, critics can take decades to honor a prophet who transforms pulp. They are too busy being superior to the pulp.
Kim Yo's The Day the Sun Turned Cold showcases a marooned colony's talent for spreading its imagination: for giving dramatic and scenic breadth to "claustrophobic" subjects. Kim's pic, which won Best Film at last year's Tokyo-in-Osaka fest, fills its moody, tight-lanced interiors with a tale of family poisoning. Did adulterous Mom (Siquin Gowa) spike (dead Dad's stew with rat poison? Does Sonny know – and if so, will he grow up to forgive? Not on his life; or rather, hers. Out of the film's visual safari through the snows and years, through smoke and fear and weathering faces, the story crawls towards tragedy.
Li Shaohong's Rouge is the latest from the
director of Bloody Morning and Family
Portrait, films that broke
ground for a new, somber Chinese style. Li Shaohong drives in the slow lane, but that way you get a closer look at the scenery – in this case, the social minutiae of China under Mao. Two
Other Eastern filins at Berlin – Ann Huff's Summer Snow from Hong Kong, Im Kwon-Taek's The Taeback Mountains from Korea – reaffirmed that road movies of the soul are no different from those of the tarmac. Good storytelling is a matter of holding the narrative line, while allowing every possible crisis or cross-accident to jump out from the side roads, testing the strength of your steering.
three high-impact British movies at
Moving south, we stumbled first on two Catholics wandering thru Merseyside discussing God and sex – Linus Roache and Tom Wilkinson in Antonia Bird's Priest – then on two hitchhiking women roaming the motorway killing truck drivers. These last are Amanda Plummer and Saskia Reeves in Michael Winterbottom's Butterfly Kiss. Handed a virulently nasty (but fun) script by Frank Cottrell Boyce, Winterbottom directs like a trainee snake-charmer sent out to his first cobra. Sometimes he makes enough soothing flute noises – lesbian romance, off-kilter comedy – to keep the creature quiet. At other times it is all blood, horror, and whatever is the opposite of misogyny.
I liked the film's mix of
Tarantino terror and wacko-Dostoevskian
religiosity. The script suggests that
Plummer performs her horrors to try
to coax God into showing himself, even as her punishes. (She hardly needs assistance: get a load of her nipple-locked body chains.) Other festgoers,
less bitten by the movie's venom'd charm, said "Fangs but no fangs." They preferred Priest, with its rip-roaring simplicities about How to Deal with Dogma
If You Are a Vocational Catholic. Be a
young gay priest (Roache), suggests the film, or an older, fornicating straight priest (Wilkinson). That way, you can let it all hang out, including your few remaining hangups, right there in front of your
Quite right. First-time director Antonia Bird has a wonderful eye for faces in closeup. Lighting them like pop Goya portraits, she reveals every fissure of human doubt, each wrinkle of everyday agony. Should Roache break the seal of the confessional in a child-abuse case? Should Wilkinson take the straight and narrow by throwing over his housekeeper-mistress (Mona Lisa's Cathy Tyson)? Both leads give cracking performances. Roache is Hamlet in a dog collar; Wilkinson, Falstaff in a surplice.
If H.K. and
Here were the films, streaming across
the Atlantic on that imaginary one-lane blacktop: Living in Oblivion, Crumb, Postcards from America ... spanking celluloid, screened in cinemas packed to the gills and purulent with enthusiasm. Even in the
Competition we could hardly complain of
I loved Smoke. I
seemed destined to. On the morning of its showing I stepped into what I thought was the festival minivan
to travel to the screening center at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. Only one problem here: I had plopped myself into a Volkswagen police van by error. In
In the philosophy of another famous
Paved with you-know-what. We are talking now of European cinema. "Good intentions" equal artistic integrity and pushing-the-frontiers-of-expression. Admirable in theory; in practice, sacré bleu.
You want to find that road that used to be called European Experimentation Turnpike? It has been up for repairs for about twenty years now, but as a special festival treat (only just don't say we didn't warn you), take a left at Robbe-Grillet Allee: Fred
Ward in French, floundering through
nouveau roman shenanigans in Un Bruit qui rend fou. Scream
in boredom and deflect into
Ah, Europa. You tried to recall
your past glory by having Alain Delon grace his
Meanwhile, the Golden Bear for world's best press officer, an award given annually by the Harlan Kennedy Foundation for Festivalgoers in Need, went once more to (may I have the envelope?) ... Herr Horst Benzrath. How does the German poet put it? "As the winter ice on Berlin's River Spree sublimates itself into a white vapor that drifts like a bridal veil among the stands of silver birches in the Tiergarten... ," so Benzrath's courtesy and grace, founded on icy efficiency, drifts like a token of communion among the lonely stands of silver-screeners.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE MAY-JUNE 1995 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.