AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
EDINBURGH – 1979
BODY SNATCHING AND WHISKEY
by Harlan Kennedy
In the eighteenth century an English gentleman's education was capped by the grand tour. But when travel to Paris, Rome, and Florence was interrupted by the Napoleonic Wars, the flow of cultural traffic turned north, and an astounded Edinburgh suddenly found itself the artistic hub of Western Europe.
The Midlothian city – whose chief claims to fame hitherto had been whiskey, medical research, and body snatching – took on its lasting sobriquet, the Athens of the North. Appropriately, the Edinburgh council developed plans for topping the surrounding hills with Greek temples. The thirteen pillars they actually erected still attest to their unrealized dream.
Two centuries later, Edinburgh has advanced from that accidental cultural baptism to become host city to what is probably the biggest annual explosion of artistic endeavor in the world. The Edinburgh International Festival, begun in 1947, now has more than three hundred companies filling the echoing hills and crags of "Auld Reekie" with recitals, plays, dance, mime, revues, concerts, exhibitions, military tattoos, bagpipes, and films. Over five thousand performances take place within a three-week period, and ticket sales climb past the 300,000 mark.
Framing the film festival this year were two galas, featuring Woody Allen's Manhattan and Ridley Scott's Alien, which received its British premiere. In addition to the galas and parties, festival director Lynda Myles offered a genuinely international vista of world cinema. Yearly maraudings into European art movies and New American Cinema were counterbalanced by exotic treasures wafted over from the Near and Far East.
This year's star attractions in the last category were two movies by King Hu. Hu is the filmmaker who triumphed in Cannes four years ago when his three-hour Buddhism and martial arts epic A Touch of Zen won the Grand Prix for superior technique. Occupying a lonely perch at the up-market end of Hong Kong cinema, King Hu evokes the epic legends of ancient China and marshals the new art of cinema to make them glisten afresh. The two films he brought to Edinburgh this year – Legend of the Mountain and Raining in the Mountain – were made back to back over a twelve-month period in Korea.
They are as magical and resplendent as any movies to be seen today. In Legend of the Mountain, King Hu washes color across the wide screen with the fluid lyricism of a Chinese watercolor. The film wreathes rocky landscapes in a watery mist, gives an epic scale to its multi-hued Buddhist temples, and groups its eleventh-century characters – a young scholar and a seductive bevy of malignant spirits in a remote monastery – with a dynamism worthy of Kurosawa.
Raining in the Mountain is, if anything, even better: a tale of feuding and intrigue in a Buddhist monastery in which scenes of Machiavellian power play alternate with comic vignettes (rival plotters keep bumping into each other like Oriental Laurels and Hardys on their furtive nocturnal errands) and with those balletic Chinese fight scenes in which the dressed-to-the-nines combatants fly through the air with earsplitting cries. Add to this the film's genuinely compelling philosophical dimension and you have a work of multilayered, almost Shakespearean richness.
Parable and period flamboyance have been the keynotes of the festival, and British filmmakers, usually the last to shuffle off the coils of realism, have been among the first to catch – even to create – the new mood this year.
Who would ever have prophesied that Ken Loach, erstwhile pillar of the BBC drama-documentary and television realism's ambassador to the movies, with films like Poor Cow and Kes, would turn fanciful-historical and produce a film like Black Jack?
Based on the children's novel by Leon Garfield, this quaint and action-packed eighteenth-century romance of giants, madhouses, and persecuted children is given a hilarious spring-cleaning by Loach. Though the landscape and settings are convincingly in period, the characters speak and move with the offhand, scatter-shot spontaneity Loach perfected in his contemporary films and plays. The film is beautifully shot in color – with summer green countryside and haze-filled interiors – and for once the cinema of the eighteenth-century is filled with people we can recognize as our own fallible, bewildered kin.
Three films produced by British maverick Don Boyd, currently at work on John Schlesinger's Honky-Tonk Freeway, jostled each other onto the festival's screens. An eight-minute consideration of that hairy topic "The Beard" was pushed roughly aside by Alan Clarke's Scum, a tough portrayal of British borstal life and hard times. And then Derek Jarman's The Tempest blew both these off the screen.
Each of Derek Jarman's previous films – Sebastiane and Jubilee – has been a set of brilliant visual conceits in search of a unifying purpose. Jarman designed Ken Russell's The Devils at an early age (twenty-five), and the ghost of Russell clanks and flits through his work at intervals, up to and including The Tempest. But in this new film the British wunderkind has a ready-made framework for his inventiveness – to wit, Shakespeare's play – and a reassuringly solid base for his visual castles in the air.
Shot mainly in a tumbledown stately home in northern England, the setting is less like Shakespeare's desert island than the exploded interior of some Elizabethan scholar's brain. Indeed Prospero himself, played by British playwright Heathcote Williams, could be that scholar: an introspective loner gazing into crystal balls, speaking his poetry sottissimo voce, and issuing curt but gentle commands. Also peopling this dreamscape are a flirty, gamine Miranda (Toyah Willcox), a blond and quite naked Ferdinand (David Meyer), a bald and ribald Caliban (Jack Bukett), and – in the grand finale when Jarman's high camp sensibility finally and uproariously cuts loose – a troupe of dancing sailors and the black-American Indian singer Elisabeth Welch crooning "Stormy Weather."
Meanwhile, two other British films, Franc Roddam's Quadrophenia and Christopher Petit's Radio On, brought us more or less up to the present day. Paced to the music of The Who, Roddam's exuberant chronicle of the mid-sixties civil war between the Mods and the Rockers – rival British youth gangs who cut a delinquent yearly swath through the streets and beaches of Brighton – is social history laced with adrenaline. Part of the filmgoer sits back and takes stock of the accurate portrait of a period, another part is viscerally caught up in the maelstrom of pep pills, motorcycles, and violence for kicks. Britain's answer to The Warriors – but with a sharper edge and a stronger, wittier script.
In Chris Petit's Radio On, the road movie at last comes to Britain. Petit's movie models itself more on Wim Wenders's German odysseys – Alice in the Cities, Kings of the Road – than on Nashville or Easy Rider. But the bitty, anemic tale of a young man journeying north from London to investigate his brother's sudden death has none of Wenders's wry humor, casual landscape beauty, or philosophic shadings. Rock music blasts from the hero's car at frequent intervals. Roadside encounters include a bitter soldier from Northern Ireland, a mysterious German girl, and a guitar-strumming garage attendant who idolizes Eddie Cochran. And the movie goes its odd, obscurantist way to a no-hope ending almost as morose and unilluminating as the hero himself.
Livelier and more illuminating is Peter Greenaway's forty-minute "Vertical Features Remake," in which mad mapmaker Tulse Luper strikes again. Embroidering further on the surreal mania of Greenaway's last film, "A Walk Through H" (the near abstract road-map movie which had critics going round in circles at last year's London Film Festival), it involves crazed cartographer Luper in another collision with bureaucratic pseudo-sanity. Monty Python meets Franz Kafka meets Lewis Carroll, and the consequence is . . . "Vertical Features Remake."
From Europe this year came two dark-toned delvings into the phenomenon of nazism. In La Memoire Courte Eduardo de Gregorio, the Argentinean-born writer-director, has created a mazelike thriller about a girl's investigations into Nazi war criminals living in modern Europe. The movie begins well – a film noir set in Alphaville Paris – but then gets progressively trapped in its own dark alleys of Borgesian mystification.
Krzysztof Zanussi's Night Paths, although set in the director's native Poland, is a West German production. Its story tells of a well-bred, conscience-torn Nazi officer (Mathieu Carrière) who tries to strike up a liaison of like minds with a cultured, faded-beauty baroness (Maja Komorowska) in occupied Poland. The film unfolds with a prolixity of riveting dialogue, and it stays always an inch ahead in intelligence of the television problem-play format whose visual style it often recalls.
America is usually represented at Edinburgh by the delirious fringe of the Z-movie industry. There were representations from that quarter at this festival: Dusty Nelson's Effects, an inchoate, catchpenny horror film about snuff movies, and Allan Arkush's Rock 'n' Roll High School, which slips so often that putting it out to pasture would be a kindness to filmgoers of all schools.
In another class of filmmaking altogether was a veteran's masterpiece: John Huston's Wise Blood. Huston's tale of charlatanism and religious huckstering Down South boasts some of the hothouse nuttiness of a Corman movie, but with much more wit and intelligence. Based on a Flannery O'Connor novel, its story of a young man preaching his increasingly weird and fanatic brand of mystical atheism in a southern town – "the church of Jesus Christ without Jesus Christ" – has an eerie poetry Huston hasn't equaled since The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The film also offers a cunning parable on the classic American collision between salesmanship and spiritual values.
German director Rosa von Praunheim has lent his special talents as today's most baroque movie reporter to three films flaunting themselves on the festival's screens – Death Magazine or How To Become a Flowerpot, Tally Brown New York, and Army of Lovers or Revolt of the Perverts. For shocks and laughs and learning, the pick of the bunch was Army of Lovers. It is the flip side of the gay documentary Word Is Out (shown last year at Edinburgh), and it features such inimitable, possibly unshowable, vignettes as von Praunheim teaching a class of Californian film students about gay sex.
Von Praunheim struck upon the idea of having the class make a film of him participating with another man in homosexual sex activities. ("It left my students speechless," says von Praunheim's voiceover commentary, in the deadpan understatement of the year.) The film juxtaposes these stray moments of sexual mayhem and throwaway banter with genuinely fascinating footage of gay groups in talk and in action (demonstrations and rallies), and in its cheerful affirmativeness it restores some long-lost credibility to that much-bandied word "gay."
Brian De Palma's new film, Home Movies, a maverick venture which he made in collaboration with students at Sarah Lawrence College, is a hit-and-miss, weirdly invertebrate comedy that plays "Soap"-like variations on the theme of the disaster-prone nuclear family (the Westchester syndrome). The film boasts lively direction and a handful of funny character sketches: Vincent Gardenia as the huffy father; Gerrit Graham as the elder son, a fanatic youth leader teaching his college students "Spartanetics" ; and Kirk Douglas as a camera-wielding self-improvement guru ("Don't be an extra in your own life. You, too, can be a star"). But the jokes never come thick and fast enough to give momentum to a congenitally diffuse story line.
The late success of this year's Edinburgh festival was undoubtedly Ahmed el-Maanouni's Alyam-Alyam. Coming from sunbaked Morocco, this story of a year in the life of a farming village is set in a languorous, dreamlike border country between fiction and documentary. The cycle of days and seasons is caught by the director in an abstract, hypnotically compelling rhythm, and the pictorial images of peasant life are built up with bright splashes of color like a primitive painting. A slender thread of narrative runs through the film – a young man saves money to leave the village and find work in France – but it is told in voice-off commentary rather than dramatized, and is never enough to jerk the attention away from the main protagonist: the ageless, stoic, cyclic pattern of farming life itself.
The stature and vitality of the new films at Edinburgh overshadowed for once the special events and retrospectives, which had a somewhat sober, worthy air: a three-film tribute to Nicholas Ray, a fiftieth anniversary survey of the British documentary movement, a five-day program of films and discussions on feminism in the cinema, and a look back at Philippine cinema in the seventies.
Available year round, one treasure that demands a visit is Edinburgh's very own picture show perched on Castle Hí11. Operating in Outlook Tower, a tall Victorian building opposite the castle, is a 130-year-old prototype and namesake of the modern movie camera: a "camera obscura."
From a periscope mounted high above in the turret, a panoramic image of the city in motion is reflected onto a circular table on which rests a concave white screen. By simple movements of the periscope, all of Edinburgh and its citizens are spread out upon the table: Traffic races down Princes Street, festival guests and locals stroll in the city's green gardens, and white lines of clouds scud across the sky.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE NOVEMBER 1979 ISSUE OF AMERICAN FILM.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.