AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
LONDON FILM FESTIVAL – 1979
JAMMED SCREENS & AND CAT SWINGING
by Harlan Kennedy
Staggering groups of sprocket-drunk festivalgoers could be seen gasping for air in the short breaks between bouts of film as the 1979 London Film Festival wound down. If the festival becomes burdened with much more celluloid in forthcoming years, it is safe to predict that it will sink into the Thames.
Ninety feature films? Over a hundred shorts? It may not sound excessive by Cannes or Berlin standards, but remember that the National Film Theatre has only two auditoriums, neither vast, and bundles the films in and out, not to mention the audiences, in the space of eighteen days. Some movies get only one public showing, none more than two.
But no matter how tight the schedules or how many films are hurled at the spectators' heads, the London Film Festival remains an indispensable part of the British movie calendar. Without it, London filmgoers might never have seen Eric Rohmer's Perceval, which trooped late but gloriously into town more than a year after it played the 1978 New York festival. There are plenty who dislike Rohmer's film and anathematize its quaint cardboard sets and stiff recitative. But for me, it's the first film ever to transport the filmgoer into the real Middle Ages; and it does so not by a spurious dab at social realism, but by unmasking the processes of the medieval creative mind – the music, the writing, the painting, the mythmaking. The film demands a little patience from its audience and gives back enormous beauty in return.
Sharing the place of honor among films-we-might-never-have-seen-without-the-London-festival were two movies as different from each other as from Perceval. Tieh pien (The Butterfly Murders) is the latest eye-opener from Hong Kong, a costume romp that is like Kurosawa's Throne of Blood crossed with a James Bond movie. Cloak-and-dagger intrigues abound in the vast, dark labyrinth of Castle Shum, and conspiracy is finally catalyzed into open warfare by the arrival of the "Three Thunders." These sibling warriors are each a sort of walking arsenal-cum-circus: One does high-wire acts on the bolts and pulleys he shoots from his sleeve into adjacent rooftops; another hurls explosives from his pockets like a conjurer dishing out rabbits; the third .. . well, wait and discover for yourself his chef d'oeuvre.
The film is dazzlingly cut and composed – a dingdong antiphony of acutely angled shots, chiaroscuro tableaux, and lunging camera movements. And when shown in tandem with King Hu's new diptych of films (brought to London after their unveiling at Edinburgh), it suggests that Hong Kong cinema is a treasurehouse far too long neglected by Western filmgoers.
There are no high-wire acts or vertiginously virtuoso camerawork in Bill Forsyth's "That Sinking Feeling," but it's a miniature masterpiece nonetheless. Made in Glasgow, Scotland, on a shoestring budget (Forsyth claims it cost only $6,500, since the actors and crew chipped in with their own living expenses), it's a hang-loose comedy about a group of jobless teenagers who decide to steal sixty-odd stainless steel sinks from an ill-guarded warehouse.
But forget the plot, it's the least of Forsyth's achievement. The film's charm and novelty lie in its comedy of social stasis: a world turned topsy-turvy by the idleness of unemployment, in which suicide is languidly discussed over cornflakes and milk, older boys cadge cigarettes from subteen smokers, and Glasgow itself becomes like some blitzed, bizarre, and oddly beautiful playground for eternal adolescents.
The London festival mined a seam of offbeat comedy this time that was probably its strongest happen-along trend. Surreal humor is definitely in the air in modern cinema – with Monty Python's Life of Brian foremost in scooping in the rewards – and with Ken Wlaschin's anything-comes programming policy, it was bound to waft through the festival's open doors.
One such waftee was The Night the Prowler, a beguiling comic oddity from Australia about an overweight teenager and her revolt against her superdainty suburban parents. The revolt graduates from screaming imagined rape one night to dressing up in butch leather and prowling nearby parks and houses. Jim Sharman directs with spiky humor, and the film is vastly better than his Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Waftee number two, Roger Graef's The Secret Policeman's Ball, is a merry caldron of British zany comedy into which the following contributors have been thrown: Peter Cook, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Billy Connolly, Clive James, and Eleanor Bron. It's a filmed record of a charity stage show for Amnesty International, and though no great shakes cinematically, it does keep hitting the funny bone and features such immortal morsels as the Monty Python cheese shop sketch and Peter Cook as that Ancient Mariner of useless information, E. L. Wisty.
And the last waftee was Ratataplan, coming to London garlanded in praise from the Venice Film Festival. Its director-star, Maurizio Nichetti, is a pleasing screen nincompoop, but the film itself seemed the weakest of the festival's surreal comedy contingent. Nichetti dreams up ingenious slapstick routines – a glass of water carried through Milan on a tray, a self-modeled robot à la Woody Allen running amok – but he makes the mistake of not grounding them in at least a token plausibility. When anything is possible in cinema, nothing quite becomes hilarious.
Italy, nonetheless, fielded the strongest overall entry in London. Faliero Rosati's Morte di un operatore (Death of a Cameraman), La macchina cinema (The Cinema Machine), a documentary collaboration by four filmmakers, including Marco Bellocchio, and the Straubs' Dalla nube alla resistenza (From the Clouds to the Resistance) are all meditations on, and extensions of, the possibilities of cinema itself: self-reflexive movies that bend or break the cinematic codes we are used to and make us look with fresh eyes.
And Christ Stopped at Eboli is also a departure, although of a more local kind. It's the first film by Francesco Rosi to embrace a kind of stream-of-life naturalism. Gone are the fractured narrative of Salvatore Giuliano and the teasing crosscutting of Cadaveri eccellenti. Instead, Rosi's adaptation of Carlo Levi's autobiographical novel about political exile in southern Italy in the thirties has a plain, resonant, Rembrandt-like grandeur. Gian Maria Volontè is undemonstratively magnificent as the hero, learning social enlightenment from his surroundings even as he dispenses it, and Pasquale de Santi's diamond-sharp photography gives a pantheistic beauty to all – man, animal, nature – that passes before the camera.
West Germany gave us Maximilian Schell's Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald (Tales From the Vienna Woods), a supple and sparkling movie version of Odön von Horvath's melodrama of doomed love and social oppression, and a triple bill of Fassbinder films. Two of the latter – In a Year of 13 Moons and The Marriage of Maria Braun – were reviewed from Berlin. The third, Die dritte Generation (The Third Generation), is a craftily hyperbolic tale of terrorism set in modern Germany and making multiple bows to film noir style. To a glittering cast – Bulle Ogier and Eddie Constantine joining Fassbinder's regular troupe – the director adds virtuoso camerawork (his own) and a brilliantly developed theme about the Establishment-serving lunacies of modern terrorists.
From behind the iron curtain came two strong trios of films from Poland and Russia. Poland proffered Amator (Camera Buff) and Andrzej Wajda's latest movies, Bez znieczulenia (Rough Treatment) and Panny z Wilka (The Young Ladies of Wilko). Wajda's two films, already festival showcased in New York, impressed London: Bez znieczulenia more especially, the penny-plain tragicomedy of a middle-aged media man coping with a sudden concatenation of crises in his public and private lives. Amator, directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, is the sad-hilarious bildungsroman of a young filmmaker growing from the first enthusiasms of an amateur to the questionings and compromises of sponsored moviemaking. Kieslowski's film shared with Christ Stopped at Eboli this year's Moscow festival Grand Prix.
Russia presented Nikita Mikhalkov's atmospheric but dauntingly wordy Pyat vecherov (Five Evenings), Lana Gogoberidze's perky Neskolko intervyu po lichnym voprosam (Interviews on Personal Problems), the adventures of a crusading woman journalist, and – a surprise late addition to the festival – -Sergei Paradzhanov's unearthed 1969 classic Sayat nova (The Color of Pomegranates): an illuminated manuscript come to life, in which dazzling iconic and folkloric images succeed each other (before a totally still camera) like a Magic Lantern show beamed from the subconscious. Even in this unauthorized version – it was recut and redubbed by Sergei Yutkevich in 1973 – it's a masterpiece. Tragically, it was the Ukrainian director's last film; he has since disappeared into the engulfing depths of the Soviet prison system on charges of homosexuality and "incitement to suicide." Nothing is known of his whereabouts today.
Perched on the fringes of the London Film Festival were two more Soviet films, shown in London after having been spirited into the country by the Oxford Film Festival for a special November pendant devoted to USSR cinema. (Their main festival is held annually in July.) Sergei Bondarchuk's The Steppe is an epic trudge through a Chekhov short story by the director of War and Peace, short on wit and long on folksy wisdom. But Vitautas Zialakiavicius's The Centaurs has moments of real bravura. It re-creates the last days of Chile's President Allende, and although shamelessly hagiographic, it plays some lively variations on the political thriller (school of Costa-Gavras's Z) and ends in a finely orchestrated climax with the siege of Allende's palace.
There was nothing hagiographic about the festival's free world contribution to the theme of East-West tensions. Frederick Wiseman is no respecter of institutions, and the latest target of his courteous scorn his NATO. In Manoeuvre, Wiseman has joined the army, following the fortunes of the autumn war games in West Germany. The result is sometimes revealing and sometimes hilarious, but as always with Wiseman, the anthropologist's fascination with the surface tics and rituals of institutional life, and his sweeping indifference to their alleged raison d'être, tells us only half the story (the scornful half) while pretending it is All We Need To Know. Wiseman in this icon-bashing mood is a sort of Wise Monkey of the counterculture: Hands up to head, he sees no good, hears no good, and speaks no good. But the film isn't bad.
In Dawn of the Dead, George Romero has found a different and more entertaining way to launch an assault on American institutional life. The institution here is the hypermarket, and Romero's all-color follow-up to Night of the Living Dead maroons its quartet of human survivors in a giant shopping mall surging with zombies. It's zap, thud, glug, shock and horror time, with much blood, many screams, a switchback story line, and Romero's incredible ability to dispense wit and grace while spraying the screen with corpses. No visit to the supermarket will ever be quite the same.
The 1979 London festival came through victorious with its strength-in-numbers policy, although it seemed to need a bigger saturation of movies this year to ensure the quota of masterworks. Not least prolific were the shorts, in which Britain stole the thunder with Bob Godfrey's superb comic-erotic cartoon "Dream Doll" and the Quaij brothers' eerie, shadow-strewn puppet film "Nocturna Artificialia."
Just as the screens were jammed with films, the London Film Festival clubroom was jammed with filmmakers. You couldn't swing a cat in the space between F. Wiseman, B. Forsyth, K. Hu, J.-M. Straub, et al. By contrast, the prize for Distinguished Absenteeism must go to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who was invited by the festival to grace the all-day showing of his films, flew to London to do so, and then wouldn't come to the festival. He wins this year's Greta Garbo award for Stepping Back into the Limelight.
Ken Wlaschin, unfazed by Fassbinder's nonappearance or by that of Mark Rappaport's new film Impostors (lost in transit and when last heard of was flying to Karachi), poured balm on these belated wounds with a belated surprise premiere. Saying it with flowers, Wlaschin gave us the first British screening of The Rose. Like Godard, he obviously thought a festival should have a beginning, a Midler, and an end, but not necessarily in that order. Frizz-haired before a packed late-Saturday-night audience, the electric Bette chanteused her way to dusky death. It was loud, it was vulgar, it was sentimental, it was showable, and it was what everyone needed.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.