AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
VENICE FILM FESTIVAL – 1980
by Harlan Kennedy
The majestic winged lion holding a book that lords over Venice's Piazza San Marco found its counterpart at the 1980 film festival. At the white stone palace on the Lido, where the festival was held – with both indoor and outdoor screenings – learning jostled with a gusty barbarism. While the critics sat inside the Sala Grande silently scribbling notes, outside the Italians nightly turned the Arena into a gladiatorial battleground, where some films were put to the sword, some fed to the lions, and a luckier few given a rapturous thumbs up.
There is nothing like an Italian audience in full disapproving cry, and Robert Kramer's Guns – a fusty, fuliginous political brainteaser – brought frequent and passionate cries of "Basta!" One enterprising group even held up a cutout banner in the projector's beam which spelled it out on the screen.
Other films at Venice were a parallel mixture of the cerebral and the visceral: bringing together Antonioni and Cassavetes, Theodoros Angelopoulos and Jonathan Demme, and running the gamut from talky television intimacy to big-screen action and spectacle. Sometimes the same movie combined both. Antonioni's new film, Il mistero di Oberwald (The Mystery of Oberwald), adapted from the Jean Cocteau play L'Aigle a deux têtes (The Eagle Has Two Heads), was actually shot on videotape for RAI, Italy's state television company. Both the television version and a 35mm blowup were screened, and this cross-media experiment is one of Antonioni's most dazzling efforts.
Il mistero begins like a horror extravaganza, with Gothic-lettered credits leaping out from a blood-red mountainscape. Soon Antonioni turns all the notorious vices of video – the soft definition, the shimmer of parallel lines, the tendency of colors to trail – into expressionist virtues. Cocteau's talky period piece, about a widowed queen (played in the film by Monica Vitti) and the young rebel with whom she falls in love, becomes a playground for a ghostly, ectoplasmic dance. Antonioni washes color in and out to match mood or character, and he deploys video's supreme facility for trick photography to riveting trompe l'oeil effect. The result, instead of apologizing for video, exults in it, and some of the images – the blood-red prelude, a yellow cornfield as biliously beautiful as a Van Gogh – remind one that Antonioni can be the cinema's boldest painter.
There is nothing painterly about John Cassavetes's film. The glory of Gloria, which got thumping praise from the critics and the Arena audience, is its off-the-peg immediacy and spitfire style. The last time Cassavetes ventured into Gangland, he came up with The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Gloria has a shorter fuse but an equally memorable impact.
Gena Rowlands plays a gangster's moll, and John Adames is the Puerto Rican boy she takes under her wing when her mobster cronies murder his family. Beneath the crazy weavings of the thriller plot lies the tale of the boy's growing up. Cassavetes sketches both layers superbly in his rough-hewn movie shorthand, and he conjures from Rowlands her most deliriously gutsy performance in years.
Werner Schroeter's La Répétition Générale (Dress Rehearsal) completed the triptych of offbeat masterpieces. After the clean-lined monumentality of Palermo oder Wolfsburg, Schroeter's Berlin Golden Bear winner, this collage of footage shot at the Nancy festival of the arts in France looks as if it has been cobbled in a workshop.
But never mind if it's messy; it's also magnificent. Schroeter's keen eye for life's lunatic fringe – from transvestism to grand opera – has led him to the performers who annually parade their talent at the French theater festival. One chalk-whitened mountebank performs ballets in drag. Three more, dressed as ravens, chant gobbledygook. A fifth, a lady of the dance, performs choreographic wonders with a large white sheet and a sofa. Among it all, Schroeter himself flits through, interviewing his subjects and soliloquizing about them in a smoky bar. It sounds chaotic, but Schroeter's aim is to show how art and love, fused into a rebellious and rejoicing passion, can shatter the finite and the conventional.
Schroeter's film didn't win a
prize but should have. The main awards went instead to Louis Malle's Atlantic City, sharing the Golden Lion for best film with Gloria,
O Megalexandros! is made of sterner and, at 230 minutes, longer stuff. Nobody has ever raked the raw and rugged landscapes of Greece to more ravishing effect than Angelopoulos: hills and crags and coastlines, crisscrossed by peasants and soldiers. Updating and elaborating on an incident that occurred in nineteenth-century Greece – the kidnapping by bandits of a group of British aristocrats – the film is like a Greek tragedy with elephantiasis: endless choral arabesques and confrontations of State and Individual.
Of the festival's also-rans, three deserve an accolade and speedy international exposure. From the United States came Michael Roemer's Pilgrim, Farewell, a slice of visceral verismo about a woman dying of cancer and the emotional havoc her illness wreaks on her family. Elizabeth Huddle is superb as the doomed heroine, and the ripples of psychic and physical pain that spread among those near her have a Dostoevskian strength and resonance.
Christian Rischert's Lena Rais also has a racked heroine: a fortyish woman making a last grab for emotional freedom, as her husband and family clamorously try to hold her back. Soap opera, perhaps, but with a punchy truth as it twists between comedy and agony. The hero of Shôhei Imamura's Vengeance Is Mine is a Nipponese rogue committing mass murders across the Japanese archipelago. Like Oshima, Imamura uses crimes of violence to pick clean the postimperialist bones of Japanese society. The film is a thriller-cum-social-scavenging job with a keen wit and a brilliantly wielded pair of editing scissors.
Krzysztof Zanussi's Contract and Jonathan Demme's Melvin and Howard are patchier skirmishes on the fringes of social tension. The Polish director gives us crumbling protocol and Leslie Caron – as a Parisian kleptomaniac – at a bourgeois wedding party which takes place even though the bride has defected at the altar. Maybe the party stands for the Party. Maybe Caron stands for the catalyzing spirit of beyond-the-iron-curtain amorality. But the symbols don't clash percussively enough, and the film ends up like a cold-climate, copybook Buñuel.
But worse still is Jonathan Demme's midwestern comedy, Melvin and Howard, winsomely genuflecting to the true-life story of young garage hand Melvin Dummar, who produced a will alleged to be in Howard Hughes's name which cited him as an heir. (The end title informs us that the claim was thrown out of court.) This somniferous tribute to a nonevent with a nonhero briefly drags in Jason Robards as a grizzled Howard Hughes, but mostly dwells on youngster Melvin's love problems. Paul LeMat and Mary Steenburgen cope bravely with the clichés.
This was the second year of Venice's big comeback bid. It is the world's oldest film festival, and with festivals popping up all over the globe like garage sales, the scale and intention of the Italian festival make an ideal counterpart to the spring madhouse of Cannes.
Festooned with frosted bunting, the Palazzo del Cinema and its honeycomb of movie theaters were in a constant dark hum of activity. If you stepped out of the 'Italian Controcampo' season, you could step into the Mizoguchi retrospective. When you left that, you could don earphones in the Sala Volpi to catch up on the latest installment of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's new fourteen-part television serial, "Berlin Alexanderplatz."
"Berlin Alexanderplatz" is Fassbinder with his cast of dozens etching a saga of Germany in the late twenties (taken from the 1929 novel by Alfred Döblin). The serial was made for television and is a mite merciless in its gabbiness, with windbag hero Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht) sounding off for 933 minutes about everything from nymphomania to national socialism. But many filmgoers, once hooked, took to it like a Deutsch "Dallas."
Mizoguchi is one of those landmark figures so looming and illimitable that you don't often bother to look at them: like the Statue of Liberty or St. Paul's Cathedral. But in films such as Ugetsu Monogatari and The Life of Oharu, all cinematic art is there, compacted and crystalline. A retrospective like this is a real bonus and one that Cannes, wedded to novelty and the might of the marketplace, is never likely to rival.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.