AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
EDINBURGH – 1985
SCOTLAND, KILTS AND SPORRANS
by Harlan Kennedy
Alas! The hoped-for sight of Jean-Luc Godard in a presentation kilt did not materialize. Fever in a Paris hospital struck down the festival's intended star guest, and all Edinburgh was left to sigh at being deprived of the sight of J.-L.G. tucking in his sporran while tucking into haggis, and answering the questions of Scotland's chewiest semioticians.
The festival still went ahead and screened all Jean-Luc's movies made since he graduated from his video-and-Dziga-Vertov-for-the-very-few period: Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie); Passion; Prénom Carmen; Je Vous Salue, Marie; and Detective. And they proved that Godard's special form of stylistically omnivorous wizardry – "! sing the bobine eclectic" – fits Edinburgh better than any other festival.
The Scottish film spree, like the French film seer, thrives on the knitting together of incongruous elements. Unlike Cannes, Berlin, or Venice, Edinburgh does not daintily segregate events – here a Competition, there a Counter-Competition, somewhere else a Retrospective: it pitches unlikely bedfellows together much as G's movies do (e.g., his latest, Detective, scrambling film noir, Mafia romp, bedroom comedy, and love story). Or much as G's compatriot Henri Langlois used to do at the Paris Cinematheque. There, you recall, you might stumble one evening upon, say, a double bill of Citizen Kane and a Shirley Temple pic – twinned for no better reason than that Henri had just found them both under a pile of old tomatoes in the cellar. Whereupon Cinematheque-goers would cry, "Mon Dieu, quelle inspiration!" and detect aesthetic resonances between Welles' picture of a monomaniac barnstorming into second childhood and Temples picture of a mini-maniac trilling and dancing out of first childhood.
So at the 39th Edinburgh Film Festival we had Prénom Carmen cheek by jowl with Brewster's Millions, a group of awful-warning nuclear docus gazing as if they hadn't been properly introduced at the erotic goings-on in Derek Jarman's films, and the cinematically very old and classy (Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc in a print newly found in an Oslo psychiatric hospital) meeting the very new and trendy (Luc Besson's Subway, a program of scratch videos).
Jim Hickey took over Edinburgh six years ago when the acclaimed Lynda Myles, his predecessor, hopped it to the Pacific Film Archive. (She's since hopped back to England to become an independent producer.) Myles created a film festival so lively and out of such a tiny budget (it's still only £65,000) that she won lifetime devotion from her admirers. They kissed the hem of her sporran, they went to all the seminars she told them to. What's more, Myles sweetened the doses of Calvinist self-denial essential at a Scottish festival – feminist pics, films about abortion or alienation, movies about one-legged Trotskyites protesting against food preservatives – with walloping helpings of simple pleasure. To wit, Corman pulp movies, seasons of Sirk, Fuller, or Tourneur, early works by De Palma and Scorsese.
Hickey has inherited Myles' charisma and enterprise. He knows that variety is good for you, and that parochialism is death to a festival. This year's main event was a Far East roundup, the largest and most up-to-date of any movie festival this year. Edinburgh has scoured China, Taiwan, and Japan to find films that are in at the birth, or rebirth, of a film industry.
Chen Kaige's Yellow Earth, from Mainland China, eagerly touted before the festival, gives Maoist agitprop a helpful kick along the road toward high art. Time: 1939. In landscapes worthy of Paradjanov – huge pockmarked hills where bare trees point fingers at the sky and skinny cattle scratch for life – a young Communist from the South comes to collect folk songs and spread the word of Mao among farmers in the feudal North who are still under the sway of Chiang-Kai-Shek. An adoring girl wants to escape from her arranged marriage and follow him when he returns. A battle of ideas and loyalties unfolds in the mud-and-rock landscape – the "yellow earth" is that of the Hwang Ho (Yellow) River – that looks as improbably farmable as the terrain in John Ford's The Searchers. (I never have discovered what the characters are supposed to be farming out there in Monument Valley. Cacti?)
The film's triumph is its use of song to nudge forward theme and characterization. Folk songs suddenly burst from people's lips in deafening melody. They sing the beauty of the land and the changing seasons, or even (the girl's younger brother with Mohawk haircut and look of doleful daftness) of the joys of bed wetting. "Let's wet the bed thoroughly," he keens. "Let's flood the Dragon's Palace." Yellow Earth is still in the propagandist vein of most People's Republic movies, but the megatonic Maoism is at last beginning to exhibit a few human grace notes.
Taiwan's Taipei Story seems positively European – even decadent – by comparison. An Antonioni-ish anomie grips the big-city heroine and her vacillating lover as they negotiate such un-Maoist matters as sexual desire, jealousy, despair, unemployment, violence, and finally murder. Director Edward Yang has fallen hopelessly in love with that great Antonioni trope, the double image in a window reflection. Thus clouds or tears of rain or city traffic or winking lights crawl across characters' faces, creating a mosaic of changing moods.
The top movie from Japan was Go Riju's Blind Alley. This seems to be a documentary: as director Riju buzzes around his none too cooperative subject, a young truck driver, bombarding him with questions about his job and life. The minutiae unerringly build up. The picture of the boy's loneliness; his surly refusal to discuss "contemporary social issues" with the director ("I just want to get some sleep"); the student in a neighboring flat who keeps unaccountably screeching.
Ah, yes! we respond, this is life as she is lived: the non-communication, the dull throb of loneliness, the distant warning hints of madness. But five minutes from curtain time we find that it's all been acted. The truck driver is as much an actor (Kojí Sano) as his screeching neighbor (Asao Kobayashi). And so, come to that, is Riju himself: he took a furlough from directing recently to play the young Mishima in Paul Schrader's film.
Other new Japanese films are playing similar games with fiction and nonfiction. Shunichi Nagasaki's Betrayed by Momoe Yamaguchi and London Calling both pursue the ghosts of memory (real or imagined) through a fractured quest plot. And Shuji Terayama's last film, Farewell to the Ark, comes on like an ethno-historic documentary that's going surreal at the edges.
Orientalism was still in the air at Edinburgh even when we moved West. (Is the 40th anniversary of Hiroshima flashing mutely and repeatedly in our heads like a subliminal advert?) Chris Marker's A.K. and Paul Schrader's Mishima both show Occidental directors gazing bedazzled into the rising sun. "Á.K." is Akira Kurosawa, starring in a 71-minute documentary by the French helmer about the making of Ran, Kurosawa's new version of King Lear. Clambering shakily about the slopes of Mount Fuji, Marker never quite gets his subject in focus.
Nor, with respect, does Paul Schrader in Mishima, where the famous Japanese writer, prophet, and suicide salesman falls victim to an oddly arts-magazine style of biopic. One feels Schrader should have gone either for fictionalization pure and simple – a sort of après-Minnelli Lust for Death – or for a collage of drama and documentary much more radical and electrifying.
Instead we putter through an ever so painstaking account of M's life, and through enacted chunks of his prose fiction placed in Eiko Ishioka's underweening sets designed in shop-window Japanese. Schrader showed in Cat People that he had, when needed, a light-the-blue-touch-paper-and-run-like-crazy visual imagination. What happened to it here? He lights the blue touch paper and the firework curls up and purrs to sleep like a kitten.
Say what you like about Godard – and at Edinburgh many did – his films never run out of energy and invention. An off-form Godard doesn't slide into orthodoxy, he slides into greater eccentricity and even more buttons fly off the clothing of conventional narrative. Detective is an off-form Godard (compared to Passion or Prénom Carmen) not because there are too few ideas but too many. This Grand Hotel with French superstars (Nathalie Baye, Johnny Hallyday, Claude Brasseur, Jean-Pierre Léaud) is abuzz with crime, love, blackmail, comedy, nudity, in-jokes, quotations (from books and other films), and stop-start string quartet music à la Carmen. It has no discernible idea where it is going, although it has a fairly good time going there.
The crisis in movie modernism today is that filmmakers have too little new to say and too many new ways in which to say it. Form overruns content; and style and visual razzmatazz whir away with nothing inside them. Britain's Derek Jarman is a sumptuous fellow with a movie palette – and/or a video palette, since his two new half-hour films, The Dream Machine and Imagining October, use Super-8 and video and blow them both up to 16mm. The first film is a four-movement symphony to homo-eroticism, moving from foreplay jokes on cock-teasing Classicism (statuesque nudes and stop-motion monochrome like a silent film) to an all-color scherzo of consummation (fireworks, double exposures, flaming bodies) to a lyrical postcoital largo (drifting feathers, winged boy suspended like a falling Icarus) to a finale that wraps up all four movements.
It's terrific, but is it art? Or rather it's art, but is it more than a high-voltage erotic doodler's art?
The problem is that Jarman, dazzling when decorative, can be pretty dull when tackling important "themes:' Witness his Imagining October, an Anglo-Soviet coproduction wherein some glibly satirical agitprop captions about how life in Thatcher's Britain doesn't seem all that different from life in Bolshevik Russia coexist with some platitudinous let's-make-love-not-war scenes in which we watch an artist painting a group of chastely clinching soldiers. One prefers Jarman running amuck in the empire of the senses to perching on a political soapbox; but in both instances he badly needs a stronger underpinning of structure if he's going to throw out (and why not) conventional narrative.
Other new films at Edinburgh found a better balance between style and substance. My Beautiful Launderette, directed by Stephen Frears, rotates us in a tail-chasing plot about a young Pakistani immigrant (Gordon Warnecke) and a young white Punk (Daniel Day Lewis) coming together to buy and revamp a London launderette. The story goes round in delicious circles, for every set of characters is stepping on the toes of (or being stepped on by) the next – depicting a Britain hilariously riddled with competitiveness, suspicion, or outright bigotry, where aggro and distrust make the world go round.
There are rich Pakistanis hugging their little local business empires (Saeed Jaffrey fatly splendid as Warnecke's Mr. Big patron); there are demurely intermixing mistresses (Shirley Anne Field still dispensing dim-nymph charm 15 years after Saturday Night and Sunday Morning); there are the skinheads aghast at their erstwhile leader's paling up with a Pakki; and there is the bizarre friendship at the tale's center which blossoms from a dottily inspired business partnership (Hokusai wave murals and piped Puccini in the launderette) into a full-blown gay romance.
Hanif Kureishi wrote the script, and though the film was funded by TV's Channel 4, it's a British movie about modern British life that has a color, craziness, and wit worthy of the big screen.
Hector Babenco's equally exotic Kiss of the Spider Woman went down a treat in Scotland. Bells always ring up there at tales of political oppression (England is the designated bully of the kilt-wearers), and a rhyme was quickly spotted between Raul Julia hanging on William Hurt's spider-web yarns in a South American slammer and Robert the Bruce watching that famous arachnid at work in his exiled Scottish hideout (before he came back to clobber the Sassernachs).
Krzystof Zanussi's Year of the Quiet Sun, which copped the Golden Lion at last year's Venice fest, is also a DIY lesson in how to sing through your shackles: a subtly scripted romance between Polishwoman Maja Komorowska and U.S. ex-POW Scott Wilson, set in Europe during the post-WW II tidy-up. For once the language snags of a co-production (Poland-USA-West Germany) are used to advantage. Love is signaled through mime and broken phrases and the stammered Esperanto of glance and gesture. A death-of-hope landscape contains a birth-of-hope human semaphore.
Spare a small ovation, too, for Luc Besson's Subway, a gleamingly batty yarn from France of Christopher (Tarzan) Lambert pursuing Isabelle Adjani through sci-fi mazes in the Paris Metro. And for Ian Potts' fascinating Stranger Than Fiction from Britain, which documents the group of vox-pop spies and opinion researchers who comprised the Mass Observation project in Britain before and during the war. With notebooks furtively palmed, and ears on stalks, they set out to discover what the British thought about everything from sex to sliced bread to Hitler.
There was no doubt what the British thought about the U.S. biggies getting their U.K. premieres in Edinburgh this year. With the possible exception of Brewster's Millions, they went down a treat: Back to the Future, Cocoon, Fletch, and Crimes of Passion.
Around the feature films whirled the usual Saturn's ring of shorts, seminars, and special events. And special guest stars. Ed Asner flew in for Edinburgh's Television Festival – a weekend's talk-in on subjects like censorship and soap opera – and he stayed to genially harangue the film festival on every subject from Charlton Heston to Charlton Heston, via El Salvador, Mary Tyler Moore, and actors' rights. Paul Schrader escorted Mishima into town. Ken Russell and John Schlesinger, representing diametric flavors of British cinema, flew in and out.
In short, the only slated luminary missing from Auld Reekie was Jean-Luc Godard, struck down by that mysterious fever. All contributions to the Send Godard a Get Well Haggis fund will be gratefully received – perhaps the French mage will make it to the 1986 festival. I certainly shall, thermometer in hand.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE DECEMBER 1985 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.