AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
EDINBURGH FILM FESTIVAL – 1987
IT'S THE DINOSAUR SHOW
by Harlan Kennedy
"I was inspired to make this film after viewing a dinosaur exhibition," said Masashi Yamamoto of his film Robinson's Garden (which has nothing to do with dinosaurs). At film festivals, weird explanations well up from weird film-makers. And the Edinburgh festival, spurred on by stern Cartesian traditions of self-examination and scholarship, has always been as keen on the motive as on the movie. This year's film binge, the 41st, gave us the usual 80-odd feature films and hecatombs of shorts and documentaries. But more than ever, it was keen on stopping visiting directors in their tracks – Peter Greenaway, Jim McBride, Derek Jarman, Eldar Shengelaya, Nicolas Roeg, and Yamamoto – and asking them, "Why?"
The dinosaurs that inspired Yamamoto's film – the best from Japan this year – are (figuratively speaking) the spirit of Japan and Japanese cinema past. And the story of a wacky beatnik girl (Kumiko Ohta) eking life out of an extinct patch of ground in modern Tokyo, where she grows a vegetable garden and turns a ruined building into a designer squat, is the story of new young filmmakers taking the wasteland of derelict traditions and turning it into new life.
Edinburgh has long loved the dinosaurs in moviedom, as well as the newer, lighter-footed species. Hit movies here are nearly always those that comprise an aesthetic tug-of-war between new and old, radical and familiar. Edinburgh went gaga this year, for instance, at Jim McBride's The Big Easy (homage to old Hollywood crime tropes with a new streetwise shine and sense of satire) and Wayne Wang's Slam Dance (ditto). And when an Edinburgh audience asks its directors why they made their movies, you feel it steering them toward giving the answers it wants to hear. Sample Q&A sessions go like this:
Edinburgh film buff: Did you have any trouble with your producer inserting that tribute to Sirk's The Tarnished Angels in the rape sequence during the Mardi Gras?
Director: (Clearly not knowing what the film buff is talking about) Er... well, no, the producer and I mostly got on just fine. I hadn't consciously thought of Sirk... more, kind of, Blake Edwards. But er... I'm glad you picked it up. If it's there.
Some filmmakers are happy to bullshit along with the audience and even pretend they did have such notions. (Some even did have them.) But in the late Eighties, homage-making Hollywood-style seems a less interesting, more passé manifestation of the interaction between past and present. Far more compelling is the kind of tension between Then and Now emerging in new films from the East.
Russia sent to Edinburgh its by-now familiar fleet of glasnost-launched films. Though Eldar Shengelaya's bureaucratic satire Blue Mountains and Vadím Abdrashitov's sci-fi parable Parade of the Planets have been knocking around festivals for a year or two, each time they venture into a Western filmfest, another champagne bottle gets smashed, as if Westerners were helping to launch Gorbachev's liberalization. At Edinburgh, celebrations also included a symposium on modern Soviet filmmaking. This once more made one quaff freely of That Word (glasnost) and as a chaser provided a new buzz-phrase: perelomni moment (moment of rupture). Remember it, you'll have to use it a hundred times over the next year.
Mainland China's rejuvenated cinema is the real, fresh thing. It has passed the difficulties of appeasing the old guard while promoting the new – evident in films like last year's Yellow Earth, in which the new humor and landscape lyricism were hobbled by adherence to old Maoist messages. Two new People's Republic films seen at Edinburgh suggest real changes happening in the pulse of its celluloid.
Tian Zhuang Zhuang's Horse Thief heads for the harsh, vexed realm of the Tibetan plains. This land bears much the same topography of guilt for Maoist China as the Indian battlegrounds do for America. Its towns and villages were overrun by the Red Chinese, and its religious practices punished or outlawed. In landscapes of whistling primitivism, the film's petty-thief hero (Tseshang Rinzin) is banished by his tribe and scrabbles for a living with his wife and child. The mute poetic harshness of a silent movie (Stroheim's Greed or Sjostrom's The Wind) is combined with a language of gesture and ritual that, even when obscure to Western eyes, has a pungent kinetic force.
Huang Jianxin's The Black Cannon Incident is less fluent in its movie language but, like Horse Thief, tackles a vexed realm of Chinese consciousness that is not geographical but ideological: the cold, windy plains of hard-line Marxism. A young engineer (Liu Zifeng) is appointed interpreter to the visiting German boss (Gerhard Olschéwski) of a Sino-German engineering project. And then he's sacked on the flimsy suspicion of anti-party activities. The cast immediately divides into Those Against Him – led by the stern party secretary ("People call me a Marxist granny," she says, surprised) – and Those For Him – including the German boss. The witch hunt proves entirely baseless, but proves handy as a catalyst for political satire and a prescription for China to dough off a few tough old grannies of the old guard.
Across the way, Taiwanese director Edward Yang has made, in The Terrorizers, a kind of free-form fiction film. He interweaves the lives of three different couples, strangers to each other at the outset, in a mixture of accident and accidie. Anonymous phone calls, unhappy marriages, veiled emotional blackmail, and terrorism (political and domestic) are symptoms of a big-city anguish that almost, but not quite, forms itself into the hard lines of a thriller. Yang's fans try to hoist him high with comparisons to Antonioni: the same eerie trompe l'oeil cityscapes, the same drifting anomie. The analogy's deserved, but Yang is also an original, especially in a national cinema that apart from him and Hou Hsiao Hsien (of A Time to Love and a Time to Die), has been chiefly notable for the potboiling squawks and flourishes of the martial arts film.
Japan is also melting down conventional narrative to produce films that are freer, weirder, and more unpredictable. A savant at Edinburgh said that the theme of Masashi Yamamoto's Robinson's Garden was the color green. Certainly trying to pin down its fugitive plot and purpose is like trying to sculpt with water. And what genre, pray, does Juzo Itami's Tampopo belong to? Comedy? Cookery? Quest movie? Edinburgh audiences came out visibly salivating, with steaming noodles printed on their retinas, suspecting they had seen the first film to pioneer a new pornography – eating (Andrea Dworkin: Stop reading, cookbooks!). In the age of AIDS, will food movies now start replacing blue movies?
Talking of free form, under director Jim Hickey, Edinburgh is fast becoming a free-form festival. If you stumble into the wrong cinema, instead of your planned session watching Hollywood on overdrive, you awake midst a seminar on Scottish TV or a workshop on anything from apartheid to animation. This year Edinburgh also introduced "case studies" on individual movies (like Peter Greenaway's The Belly of an Architect and Alan Clarke's Rita, Sue and Bob Too); these looked at script genesis and production history, and then for discussion's sake threw them to the lions. The lions gratefully tucked their napkins in and set to. Some movies were more like lions thrown to the Christians: the sound of Calvinist self-righteousness getting its teeth into permissive hedonism was especially loud in discussions of Clarke's film.
The wonder of British cinema today is that for once there are enough films around worth discussing. Three months after Channel 4's film supremo David Rose got guerdoned at Cannes for his part in transforming U.K., movies – a jury of Godard, Fellini, Bertolucci, and others awarding him the newly struck Rossellini prize – good British films are still coming out of the factory. And Channel 4 is still the main conveyor belt. Greenaway's film and Clarke's, and Robert Smith's new The Love Child, were all funded or part-funded by Britain's most ciné-literate TV network.
Smith's film shows the best and worst of this new TV-generated cinema. It is "free-form" in just the way the choice Oriental pics above are, leaving the audience to draw the lines between the scattered narrative dots. This time they form a Bí11 Forsythias pattern of non sequitur and melismatic wit: as a young accounts clerk (Peter Capaldi, of Local hero) goes about dole-age Britain wondering if there is more to life than his 9-to-5 job, his troublesome live-in granny (Sheila Hancock), his girlfriend, and his unrealized dreams. The characters are pungently likable or wittily dislikable, like Capaldi's archly supercilious boss, who is full of career advice like "You need a bijou little killer streakette." But The Love Child also evinces the worst of the new telly-powered pics: their visual undernourishment. It clumps from one cramped character grouping to another. And whenever the camera does pull back to show us panoramic Britain, all we see is poor lighting and grainy texture.
Meanwhile, the jury is
still out on the question "Is there movie life in Britain beyond Channel
4?" And if so, should we run it? Cannon Films has bankrolled two
first-time director films, Harry Hook's
The best two British films from non-TV sources were Clive Barker's Hellraiser, from New World Pictures, and Joan Ashworth's 18-minute The Web, from the National Film School. Hellraiser is a purulently enjoyable romp about an unhappily married housewife (Clare Higgins) who takes her gentlemen pick-ups up to the attic to murder them. Each corpse, and its refreshing eight pints of red stuff, then helps to reconstitute her dead lover, who dwells in the attic and wanders around in a cadaverous state howling for reincarnation. Each victim and his nutrients further restore him to recognizable human shape. The movie is red in tooth, claw, and imagination, and as hermetically frightening as any film since Psycho.
Joan Ashworth's brilliant short from the NFS is a piece of miniaturist Gothic drawn from the world of Mervyn Peake. Gaunt-featured animated models – who look like cabbage-patch dolls from your worst nightmare – prowl through dark alleys and cobwebbed castle corridors. En route they do unspeakable things to each other with knives, machetes, or looks. The faces and movements have a staccato, deadpan hilarity. The sound effects – groaning doors, clumping or susurrating feet – have an echoey, Beckettian menace. And the whole film is like watching an army of homunculi emerging from your deepest id and capering a dance to your destruction.
A tough act to follow – even for Edinburgh.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE DECEMBER 1987 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.