AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
THE MARTIANS ARE COMING
THE 46TH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
by Harlan Kennedy
mused aloud over a
Two hours later, splashing into the palais des festivals for a celluloid warmup, I was still thinking about what he said. If Martian poetry is an odd way of going about art, how about – Lights! Costumes! Action! – the
Why this obsession with yesterdays at
Of the good, Campion and Avati were the early standouts. From its first showing, The Piano looked the
surest cinch for Golden Palm since Padre
the shimmering primitivism and
power to new-mint emotion echo the
1977 Taviani film; and like the Tavianis,
the Australian director uses a geohistorical terra incognita – the remote
Campion's beat is feminism, but of a thrillingly nonconformist sort. In Sweetie and An Angel at My Table she gave us disturbed/dysfunctional heroines, women on the verge of a spiritual breakdown. But for them, as for The Piano's mute, unmarried mother from Scotland, Holly Hunter, who's pushed into an arranged marriage with Antipodean colonist Sam Neill, an alienated vision is also an objectifying, truth-finding one. Hunter's 19th century Miss, thrown onto what seems another planet, is given a shock education in Nature (jungly vistas), in Sex (gone-native neighbor Harvey Keitel), and in the untouchable sanctity of Art. Her beloved piano is first left abandoned on the seashore, then seized by Keitel and used as an amorous bargaining chip (he sells it back, one key per sexual favor), and finally thrown from the departure boat at Hunter's wish, the last redundant ballast keeping her old life afloat.
Just as galvanic as the heroine's clash with alien reality is
the audience's. We cross not just sea but a
century. Campion, deconstructing the modern world by reconstructing a bygone one, unsettles all our "eternal verities" about
sex, love, female identity by
showing they're not eternal at all.
Other times, other truths.
(Therefore, guard each advance we
make.) In the disrupting process, Campion's movie releases all the feral stylistics
hinted at in her feature début, Sweetie. Early shots set in
The movie finds preposterous aesthetic rhymes, and each one works. The ribs of Hunter's hoop skirt –
portcullis to sex with Keitel – make harmony with the arching forest twigs she later crawls through in dismay and terror. A dog licks Sam Neill's hand, producing a transferred shudder of disgust, as he spies on Keitel using
his profaner tongue on Hunter. And
there's even a special, ancestral
rhyme for movie buffs. Which of
them, when Neill thwacks down on his
wife's pianistic hand with a nasty instrument, doesn't see the ghost of James Mason smashing Ann Todd's digits in The
Seventh Veil? Footnote for certifiable
film buffs: When Neill left
The Piano uses past and present in rhyme and counterpoint to create a fugue between the familiar and the far-off or farouche. Similar music is heard in the festival's other period pix. Peter Greenaway's The Baby of Macon, pastiching a 17th century mystery play, is a crazed chorale to the age of religious faith and (flipside) the cynical exploitation of superstition. Title character is a tot with miraculous powers toted round a French city by his "virgin' mother before both come to sticky ends. Stuffed (overstuffed) with Greenaway bric-à-brac – gold-and-scarlet décor, mile-high wigs, throngs of naked bodies, keening countertenors – the film still culture-shocks us with an age in which we come to see our own greeds and scams (and our attempts to gild or camouflage them) as in a Velasquez distorting mirror.
Avati's Magnificat intercuts half a dozen 10th century stories on eternal themes: birth, death, sex, God. But the early-medieval setting gives them a fresh reverberance. The girl baptized into convent life, the royal courtesan giving birth, the grim work-round of an executioner: under a sky bright with religious belief and dark with the fears of Hell, the banal and momentous swap roles. Looking down on Planet Middle Ages from Planet Now, we wonder how death was regarded so casually or serenely, sex and sensuality with such fear and distrust.
These costume films stand modern sensibility in front of a Schüfftan "mirror." Part of it seems to reflect the present – our own faces in an artwork our own time has created –
and part to offer an unsilvered view
through to the past. The mixture can be
clumsy. Britain's Chris Newby in Anchoress, another tale of religious
faith in the age of peasants and
pudding-bowl haircuts, wins the
By contrast, the treatment of history in Chen Kaige's ambitious
and powerful Farewell to My Concubine focuses a multitude of questions. Here our time – space shuttle delivers us to bygone
The funny thing about this three-hour historical fresco is
that, for two hours, it knocks out the eyes,
mind, and senses, and then it gets
knocked out itself by history. When
wise enough to foreground the human story – the two heroes and their
struggle to perfect their public
craft and resolve their private jealousies
(Cheung loves Zhang, Zhang loves courtesan Gong Li) – Chen Kaige creates
a brilliant sounding-board both for the din
of history and for our own thoughts
on art and politics. But by Mao-time
the captions begin to outnumber the
scenes between. "China 1945," "
The Martian school of moviemaking has one, and only one, simple rule: DON'T EDITORIALIZE. Allow the years their proper time, the characters their proper space, the unfamiliar to stay unfamiliar: at least until the past has spontaneously found the same frequency as the present, or the frequency on which Back Then makes the most interesting compare-and-contrast noises with Right Now.
A couple of other Eastern films – Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Puppet-master and Tian Zhuangzhuang's Blue Kite
– had a go at juggling time
zones and counterpointing
private lives with public events. Hou's
Compare Blue Kite, wherein a three-generation family goes through the Maoist hells of persecution, rural exile, "criticism" (that is, peer pressure as a form of mental torture), and the brutal thought-policing of Mao's Red Army. This film never stops to deliver a lecture. All the sobering horror is in the events and the characters' reactions to them: caught by the camera's delicate neorealist framings and its attention to minutiae of face or gesture.
Delicate or not, Blue Kite
was enough to rattle today's
Chinese thought police. They first
stopped the director from completing
the film in
Blue Kite is a masterclass in letting a story find its own power without authorial pedagoguery. But "Don't editorialize"
is a hard lesson. In Faraway, So Close! even Wim Wenders – who,
God knows, can have the patience of
the East (see Kings of the Road, The State of
Wenders' Martianism aims to answer the riddle of "What does it mean to be human?" by bringing an alien onlooker to Earth. The Christ parallels are patent. But so is the feeling that after Wings of Desire, where Peter Handke's tougher cerebrations stiffened the script, Wenders has run out of ways to make mortality seem novel. Instead, in Faraway, So Close! it ends up seeming like a novel – Robert Ludlum or Ian Fleming, to boot – as the climax explodes in shootouts, hijacked boats, and a trapeze-artist heist of which all we can say is, It's fun but is it art?
Yes, dear colleagues, but 1993 is not Don Siegel's 1956 nor Phil Kaufman's 1978. Today's millennial stakes are higher. The first era was one of Eisenhowerian faux-serenity, when podpersons had to behave like Norman Rockwell to fit into smalltown life. The second was circa Star Wars and CE3K, when things that came from Outer Space were supposed to be Nice. Today, apocalyptic nastiness is a movie norm, so a creepy initial setting – army base as seedbed for indoctrination and emotional automatism – must be outcreepied by the creatures. Body Snatchers gives the Martian school of cinema a nihilist twist by suggesting the space invaders see us not as brave and willful earthpersons who must be tamed, but as crawling, corruptible lifeforms pretty much like themselves.
Or – hold the Best Director prize – like the lifeforms in Mike
Leigh's Naked. Leigh's latest is not so much
a movie, more a
microscope session in the insect lab. Placing on glass slides the seedy
Naked is bleak stuff even from the maker of Bleak
Moments. But it provided
warmed to Leigh's film, but then it would. The event is living proof of Leigh's thesis. No sane
person could be
expected to make sense of anything or anyone here without days or weeks of practice. Even then,
you can be stymied
by the unexpected. How are you meant to react to a 40-foot inflatable Arnie Schwarzenegger
standing in the bay moored to a barge? (He and
alter ego were both in
Above all, what does your average newcomer from Mars, Moon, or
Earth make of the
spectacle of ?,000 journalists brainstorming daily over ?,000 films as the countdown to who-won and who-didn't-win begins? Me, I wouldn't give a week's supply of croissants to see a space alien's reaction just to the critics charts in the (ever multiplying) festival mags. Some have
stars and blobs. Others lovingly
fractionate numbers – how do you decide on "3.2" out of 10 for
As for the Golden Frond itself, it went ex aequo to The Piano and Farewell to My Concubine; and Holly Hunter grabbed Best Actress. What is this? The world's festival juries are finally meting out just and well-considered awards? I went straight home and tore up my application form for emigration to another planet.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JULY-AUGUST 1993 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.