by Harlan Kennedy


Fifty years ago, Mussolini made the gondolas run on time and, by creating the world's first film festival, did for Ven­ice and Italy the one other thing history will remember him gratefully for. Though its financial agonies cause yearly will-she-won't-she anxieties about its actually taking place, the Mos­tra del Cinema is still alive to tell the tale.

What better for the fiftieth anniver­sary of the Venice Film Festival than a convocation of glittering VIP phantoms from the glorious past? The great stars and directors – Garbo, Chaplin, De Sica, Visconti – were silhouette-painted on gauze and stretched down diapha­nous sides of hollow makeshift pillars lighted from inside and scattered through the Palazzo del Cinema. Some were instantly familiar. Others were half-formed and mysterious, like Mi­chelangelo's unfinished sculptures. Still others were clearly painted but fascinat­ingly, provokingly unrecognizable.

Was that Buñuel or De Sica raising a stick as if to strike you down on your way upstairs to the buffet? Was that Olivier as Hamlet or WC. Fields in drag, sporting puff tunic and pantyhose legs as you hastened past into the auditorium?

Meanwhile a real pantheon of distin­guished oldies kept the silhouettes com­pany at Venice. Marcel Carné and Satya­jit Ray sat on the jury; Joseph Losey, Robert Altman, and Vittorio Gassman squired their films through the festival. Others hove into view, bobbing on gon­dolas, to collect honorary awards for be­ing past winners of Golden Lions. Ven­ice this year was a golden crucible in which past glamour, present celebration, and future hope were thrown in to sizzle together.

Venice never does anything by halves. It does it by quarters, but in such enthusiastic prolixity of fractions that the mosaic always adds up to more than the sum of its glittering shards. This year there was scarcely a seamless, flawless magnum opus, but variety and vivacity were their own rewards.

The star movie of the Mostra, to no one's surprise (except the jury's, which seemed bent against anything bent), was Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Querelle, a stunning epitaph to the Ger­man prodigy. Where's the successor to the furnace of film ideas that was RWF's? Soaking a single vast soundstage in orange crepuscule, he shot his movie version of Jean Genet's novel Querelle de Brest in a Munich studio in twenty three days.

Silhouetted sailors haul and heave on a stagedocked ship. Sea-worn steps climb to a stone wall buttressed with phallus-shaped towers. In the "Cafe Fe­ria," raddled-but-ravishing Jeanne Mo­reau in slinky black chantooses "Each Man Kills The Thing He Loves."

Querelle is no mere drag-ball in art-movie's clothing. Genet's doppelganger tale of love and pain, of passions carnal and Christ-like – where sodomy is a two-tone yin and yang of brutal humilia­tion and transfiguring humility – turns Brad Davis as sultry sailor Querelle into a stud finding salvation. Jean-Paul Sartre's honorific title of "Saint Genet" clearly gets the nod from Fassbinder. His and Genet's road to Heaven is paved with lovingly smashed taboos. Franco Nero as Davis's starry-eyed adoring Captain soliloquizes his "love that dares not speak its name" into a tape recorder. Moreau croons about cock sizes in potty plainsong.

And all around, the film's choral mu­sic-score and Passion Play studio exte­riors – palm trees, white walls, even a passing Crucifixion pageant – deliberately rhyme the iconographies of sex and Christianity: love, longing, abasement, pain, and the common consummatum est. Fassbinder, as ever, dares us to ride out our shock at colliding creeds and see and judge the moral world anew. Take that, Mr. and Mrs. Moral Majority.

The beer-bellied Bavarian genie, snatched too early from the world's needy cinema, was the star in the nonfiction neck of the Venice fest also. Two documentaries, Wolf Gremm's Portrait of Fassbinder and Dieter Schidor's The Wizard of Babylon, cull off-camera foot­age of RWF in action both as actor and director. Puff-eyed, paunchy, and puck­ish, he's seen swaggering in leopard-skin suit through the lead role in Green's own Kamikaze 1989. Green and Schi­dor also separately lens him on the Querelle set, where the bleary auteur suddenly mobilizes into multiple-retake perfectionist, or takes time off to cock a comic aside at the camera. Wading into full close-up with hypnotic eyes and gasper hanging from lips, Fassbinder Peter-Lorre-purrs: "I smoke Camels. [Pause.] Four packs a day."

Fassbinder's films made us expect more from the cinema: more challenge, more color, more subtly delirious sub­version. In Venice this year, Moviedom responded. Dullness sank of its own weight to the bottom of the lagoon, and the new films had a rare bounce and vitality. Also a new depth of playful self-analysis in two films about seeing and/or cinema: Marco Bellocchio's The Eye, The Mouth and Wim Wenders' The State of Things.

Bellocchio reanimates Lou Castel, his hero seventeen years ago in Fist in His Pocket, and plunges him into a tangled Italian plot about a suicided twin brother (played by Castel in a coffin), two griev­ing and slightly gaga parents (Emma­nuelle Riva and Michel Piccoli), the brother's gnomic girlfriend (Angela Mo­lina), and Castel's own strivings with fil­ial emancipation and a fading career as a film actor. (Yes, we see him watching himself in a scene from Fist.)

In true Bellocchio style, most of the acting takes place horizontal on the floor or in screaming stichomythia across the dinner table. The family umbilical cord is a hangman's noose ever knotted around the growing adult. In the film's gestural play with eyes and mouths we can read Bellocchio's sign-language for the hero's attempts to regain the whole­ness of observation and sensation lost in childhood – or even at the mother's breast – and seldom fully recaptured even in the questings of sex. The Eyes, the Mouth is quirky, winding, and fuga­cious as the River Tiber, but full of sud­den spates of energy and sparkles of light.

There are spates and sparkles aplenty in Wenders' The State of Things. But nar­rative enthrallment is an almost total ca­sualty. In existential seaside Portugal, a polyglot film crew remaking Most Dan­gerous Man Alive (Allan Dwan's last pic­ture) has run out of money. The plot thins and thins. Doomy conversations, philosophic colloquies about Cinema, and the sea outside yawning with the eternity of it all.

Wenders at his best – in Kings of the Road or The Goalie's Anxiety at the Pen­alty Kickis a master molder of the tensely silent space between events and people. But though his film-director hero (Patrick Bauchau) philosophizes himself raw telling us – and his cast and his cameraman (Sam Fuller) and his fly-by-night producer (Allen Goorwitz) hunted down in a mobile home in Holly­wood – that movies don't need stories, they do need structure and momentum. Limp anomie never speeds the adrena­lin. Неге, as the filmless castaways wan­der hotel corridors, witter their thoughts into a tape recorder, jog up and down the empty swimming-pool, the pulse con­geals to suet. Only Sam Fuller, rasping out hickory wisdom through a ten-gallon cigar, seems to be alive.

Wenders, haunted no doubt by Ham­mett, is talking about honest Europe vs. hot-shot but unreliable Hollywood. But he hasn't set up his argument or defined his targets interestingly enough for any­one to care. Except the Venice jury, which, for reasons that must forever be their own, gave it the Golden Lion.

Re-exploring sight, storytelling, and cinema: can there ever have been a fest-gathering of such fundamentalist movies, concerned with juggling cin­ema's primal components? Faux naïf even dove into the fricassee among the first. Barney Platts-Mills' Hero from Britain is a daffy Dark Ages romp robed in living-room curtains, scripted in Gaelic (!) without subtitles, and a-bustle with warrior-vagrants questing the good quest. Though who knew what for? The film is like a school pageant accidentally immortalized on celluloid. Still, there's charm in the potty story and sudden outbursts of back-to-basics animation: a boulder skim-thrown across a lake, a col­lapsing castle.

The Greek film The Dam, directed by Dimitri Makris, also tossed in sudden bursts of surprise cartooning in its Kafka-meets-Tolkien tale of a magical macabre river. And naif was certainly the name of the game in Franco Brusati's Il Buon Soldato, where enough plots for half-a-dozen different movies thunder cheer­fully toward us with total structureless­ness, vaguely orchestrated by the elfin electricity of toothsome-sexy Mari­angela Melato (of Swept Away and Flash Gordon).

Venice set the table for a banquet of American films: beggars like Robert Alt­man's mothballed Health and Come Back to The 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and Michael Cimino's 220-minute Heaven's Gate (some tattered flmophiles call it a masterpiece – include me in); and princes like E.T., Poltergeist, Blade Runner, Tempest. Meanwhile, a pi­quant three-hander of European movies marched into Venice during the last days and promptly purloined all the surplus thunder and lightning left over by the underwhelming prize-winner.

In Five Last Days, West German di­rector Percy Adlon (Celeste) depicts a young German girl's arrest and impris­onment by the Nazis in 1943, for taking part in a resistance movement, and her slow-dawning realization that she is to be executed. With the patience of a bird building a nest, Adlon assembles tiny cumulative details around his heroine's fragile life: the female co-prisoner (Irm Hermann) who befriends her and ex­changes memories, humanity, and a few shreds of hope; the pained, embarrassed kindliness of her interrogators; the hum­drum paper-shufflings amid peeling walls of the office where she's first ques­tioned. It's the most terrifying face of Nazism, and one seldom seen on the screen: the human face.

Toute un Nuit: Chantal Akerman, Bel­gium's mage of minimalism, has spun a magical impromptu round the simplest of ideas: the sleepless lives and loves, passions and despairs of people at night. Like fugitives from Ed. Hopper or Ed Degas paintings, the nameless plural characters act and interact in a hypnotic-episodic nocturnal mime. The couple snatching each other from a midnight bar, the hastening lady spilling her suit­case on a darkened square, the lonely man in an undershirt quaffing beer in a moonlit kitchen, the two homosexuals wakeful and silent in bed. No names, little dialogue. As in Adlon's film, the sounds and gestures of silence tell as much as the bursts of speech.

Finally – there's no getting away from him – Fassbinder rides again in Kamikaze 1989. Through the pottiest of comic-strip plots (murder, conspiracy, transvestism, blackmail, car chases), the Falstaff of European Filmdom shows what a career he could have carved for himself as an actor. With his heavy half-mast eyelids, his cocky swagger, and a girth to strike cautionary terror into all anorexics, Fassbinder is "Detective In­spector Jansen." He never leaves a case unsolved, a six-pack of beer unbelted, or a rich tycoon un-insulted. And what other movie director or actor would have left as his swansong on-screen image­ – as the end-credits roll – the picture of himself trying to fuck a poster of the first American astronaut on the moon?






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.