AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
VENICE 1990 – THE 47TH VENICE FILM FESTIVAL
GRAND CANAL GOSSIP
by Harlan Kennedy
Some who deserted the 47th Venice Film Festival took passage on the good ship Marie Celeste. Was this wise? Those of us who survived the festival on a narrow sandstrip called the Lido di Venezia know our story will never be believed. But like all castaways we are impelled to tell it.
Unlike our fellow scribes on the M. Celeste, we really did know hunger and deprivation, marooned as we were without food or drinking water. Lightning cracked, thunder thundered, the sea roiled and rain slashed away. Cruelly, a blue sky occasionally poked through just when hope was waning. In a feeding frenzy we all dashed out to huddle around an icy open-air sandwich bar, the only oasis of affordable refreshment in the vicinity. Temperatures dived, hotel prices soared, money became scarce, and by day nine I noticed a once fat and famous female film critic eyeing me with distinct culinary interest. And yet, with an irony that could only be Venetian, the festival was sponsored by an ice cream firm: La Sorbetteria di Ranieri. One day I hope to taste their product.
Still, let those who fled on the Celeste enjoy their hot and high cuisine, tempting wines, and fat cigars. Ours, at least, was an experience to write home about. Dear Home: In our two-week vigil we saw 532,000 miles of film and attended 182 press conferences (rough counts). We were there when Warren Beatty came and went for Dick Tracy, a human streak in a yellow hat. We were there when Martin Scorsese flew in for GoodFellas, then flew out again, then flew in again for Made in Milan, his Giorgio Armani portrait. (Armani himself arrived, unpacked his suitcase, and was rumored to have raged that there wasn't a crease left in his jackets.)
We were there, too, when jury president Gore Vidal, his gleaming wit and Cerruti shirts unspoiled by two weeks of human hell, presented the Golden Lion to Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. And we were there when the movie that should have won but didn't unspooled at the end of week one.
This was James Ivory's Mr. and Mrs. Bridge. Like Peter Greenaway's equal but opposite festival-stealer of last year, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, it proved two things about Venice. One: By luck or judgment, a perfect film will always turn up. Two: That film will never win anything. Greenaway's designer inferno was thought too inflammatory even to include in the Competition; Ivory's Kansas City period-piece, though competing, was probably deemed too delicate for the Golden Lion's savage embrace. Its nuanced tragicomedy of manners – with Mr. and Mrs. Paul Newman giving performances so incandescent you'd think they'd had candle implants – still outshone every other Venice pic.
Ivory's film is close to what used to be called a "woman's picture" A Ross Hunter with taste might have overseen its cosseted visuals and Sirkuitous route from one spotlit family crisis to the next. But we live in an age when sex no longer has much to do with moviemaking. Or when a "woman's picture" is more likely to mean a chunk of crusading feminism by a woman director than a weepie directed by a man.
Jane Campion's An Angel at My Table, Special Jury Prize winner at Venice, is a bit of both. A feminist weepie directed by a woman, 2¾ hours long and shot in three parts for eventual TV transmission, this film of the autobiographies of New Zealand poet Janet Frame is touching in childhood, beguiling in adolescence, and all over the place in adulthood. Frame's history of misdiagnosed mental illness – labelled schizophrenic, she spent eight years in a hospital and had 200 doses of electroshock treatment – is depicted at remorseless length and with fitful power. But one misses the black comedy that made Sweetie, Campion's first feature, magnificent. The lack of a hard, unsentimental, even surreal perspective means we flounder from one Pavlovian response to the next.
Women filmmakers directed two of the festival's other loudly hailed hits, Cynthia Scott's The Company of Strangers and María Luisa Bemberg's Yo, La Peor de Todas (I, the Worst of Them All). Both films put up flags saying FEMINIST CINEMA. But while Scott's flag is bright, folksy, and patch-quilted – the tale of seven old biddies finding friendship after their bus breaks down in the Canadian sticks – Bemberg's flag is in death-cell gray beautifully edged with black and blue. Opening a trapdoor into 17th century Mexico, she tumbles us into the tale of poet-nun Juana Iñez de la Cruz (Assumpta Serna), whose free-thinking verse upset the Spanish soul police, aka the Archbishop of Mexico and Co.
There are lashings of weird beauty in the visuals: arching shadows, jewelled rain, a fake "sea" of plastic sheeting that sparkles Fellini-like outside the Viceroy's palace. And there is much well judged cut and thrust between Church and State. The only question mark is against the "truth" in this truth-based tale. We have heard of free-thinking nuns, but did the historical Sister Juana really conduct daily salons through the convent grille with Mexico's foremost intellectuals (all three of them)? Did she really look like a cross between Anouk Aimée and Capucine? And did she have a friendship with the Vicereine (Dominique Sanda) that included heavy breathing and bodice-unbuttoning?
Ah well, it's all grist to the movie projector. In fact there was so much grist at Venice one was surprised the projector didn't seize up completely. This year's Mostra del Cinema demonstrated one of the major paradoxes of festival life. The fewer "events" there are – and Venice 1990 boasted only a Competition, a Critics Week, and a Retrospective (compare the umpteen sideshows at Cannes or Berlin) – the more demented seems the variety on hand. Films that would elsewhere diverge to find their ideal subsection are here thrown into any pot available. Remaining in the same seat, one could watch in succession a docudrama about the Rumanian revolution (Robert Dornhelm's Requiem for Dominic), 20 minutes of a surrealist Euro-whimsy for Omar Sharif and Peter O'Toole ("together again" in Jodorowsky's The Rainbow Thief), Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas, and a gloriously dotty enterprise called Juliet and Romiaow, in which cats enact Shakespeare's immortal tale of love and balconies.
This last picture left the entire Venice audience openmouthed. Surely they hadn't seen what they had just seen? Was that John Hurt in drag as a bag lady leading a pet rat on a leash around Venice? Were those the voices of Vanessa Redgrave and Ben Kingsley warbling the voice-off while the moggies prowled and emoted? And that whirring noise that accompanied the proceedings: was it the projector, or the sound of W. Shakespeare spinning in his grave?
But there is a little-known subclause of the Venice Film Festival bylaws that holds: if a movie is Italian, never mind how daft it is, find a space and squeeze it in ("Si una pelicula e Italiano, fa niente come pazzo... "). In any case, it's doubtful whether director Armando Acosta's feline liberties with the Bard – for the record, he's Italian-Californian but his movie is all Mediterranean – are any more objectionable than Tom Stoppard's liberties in the sole British entry, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
While Acosta shows at least a working knowledge of cinema – you cut from one shot to another to create a meaningful visual rhythm – playwright turned director Stoppard behaves as if he never saw a film in his life. Crassly "opening out" his Hamlet-spoofing chamber play with location sequences (forests, real castles, etc.), he depressurizes it like an airline pilot opening a window at 30,000 feet to improve the view. Taking Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, and a brave Richard Dreyfuss with it, the vehicle plummets to earth, wrecked by exposure to reality, Stoppard's hermetic word games and mock philosophizing.
Not that cinema has much time for these things, however cleverly a director might build a stylistic hangar for them. Two European pix that got a popular hurrah at Venice – Italy's Ragazzi fuori (Boys on the Outside) and the French-German Martha und Ich (Martha and I) – showed that "What next?" is still the only question filmgoers want answered, and they want the answers delivered plain and fast.
Jirí Weiss' Martha und Ich is neat as a pin in its 1930s-set fable of private life (Czech-Jewish doctor Michel Piccoli woos and weds plump Aryan housekeeper Marianne Sägebrecht) versus public destiny (rise of Nazism). Seen through the eyes of Piccoli's teenage son, the film is a comedy of sexual awakening slammed into an Awful Warning about History. Surprisingly, it works. Place, period, and character all have a pinpoint exactness.
Ragazzi fuori, Marco Risi's blazing melodrama about delinquent youth, is neorealism on a motorbike. Roaring round Naples and Palermo with its cast of thieves, pimps, and drug peddlers, it does for Mediterranean crime what GoodFellas does for the Western Atlantic version. It presents lawbreaking and hellraising as a treadmill so giddy and seductive you never know you're on it till you're off it. By which time the end credits are rolling and you're picking yourself up from the floor.
Which brings us to the Thought for the Festival, brought to you by La Sorbetteria di Ranieri in conjunction with the estate of the late Santa Juana of the Literary Salon: Should cinema romanticize evil? Many of us wondered whether a movie like GoodFellas, filmed like a rainbow-hued thunderbolt and celebrating Mob lore in the fastest 2½ hours in film history, is a good thing or a bad. We were also tempted to spray question marks over other films at Venice.
Over Philip Kaufman's Henry and June, for instance. Not for its steamy sex scenes – God forbid we join the bowdlerization brigade – but for its hagiographic portraits of Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin. Where is Miller's mayhem temper and mile-wide mean streak in Fred Ward's Runyonesque sweetie-pie? Where is Nin's astringency in Maria de Medeiros' butter-wouldn't-melt insipidity? Tut tut, Mr. K. Literary genius deserves better than a whitewash biopic set in designer-1930s Paris. (Loved the designs, though.)
Let's spray a question mark, too, over Werner Herzogs Echoes of a Dark Reign, a 90-minute documentary that covers in charisma (studded with a few dutiful criticisms) Emperor Bokassa, the erstwhile dictator of Central Africa. Not since Barbet Schroeder's Idi Amin Dada has a ruthless tyrant got a more coy press. This is Herzog in dismaying form, though the film perks up a couple of times – once for newsreel footage of Bokassa's tiny son, all in military white, yawning away during the apparently daily coronation ceremony; once again, for some shots of a smoking gorilla. Some things only Herr Herzog could come up with.
It soon became clear that the jewel in the festival's sometimes tottering crown, and the locus for moral teasers about Good and Evil, was the Russian retrospective. Assembling 25 films from 1928 to 1934, the event focused the question "Can you make Good cinema in a Bad cause?" In an era when Russian movies strove to sustain a revolutionary spirit that twelve years before had some spontaneous heat and passion, the excitement of early Eisenstein or Pudovkin was turning into the ritualized rhetoric of Socialist Realism.
Hero-workers strike poses against Russian skies (Dovzhenko's Ivan). Peasant Everymen fight the good fight against the lazy or venal (Medvedkin's Happiness). Country boys emerge from the forest, win their girls, and become master flautists (Donskoi and Legosin's Song of Happiness). All this thanks to the guiding beneficence of the Party. And when all else fails in these films, neo-Tsarist potentates with fat mustaches are wheeled on for the bugaboo fun.
This Venice retro was history under the microscope, and mesmerizing. For Hollywood's emergent Star System, Russian cinema in the Twenties and Thirties had its emergent Stalin System. The same principle applied in both. You keep giving the audience the same thing from film to film – same human iconography in the West, same ethical-political iconography in the East – and you trust that familiarity will breed content. Disconcertingly, it does.
It also breeds a reluctant admiration. As the Venice show proved, the frightening thing about Socialist Realist cinema is that for all its cant and attitudinizing it still looks like great cinema. In this it differs from the equally renowned Socialist Realist sculpture, which always looked like bad sculpture. The marvel of movies is that the particular never knuckles under to the generic. A human face is always a human face, not a neutered inspirational symbol hewn from wood or stone. A human body is always a human body, not a machine for semaphoring idealism.
And there is movement, movies' own patented wonder. Though the message-mongering in Ivan is as blatant as in Triumph of the Will – for Riefenstahl's glowing discus-throwers, read Dovzhenko's muscled workers framed against hydroelectric dams – the kinetic poetry of both films is overpowering. You might as well divide your brain into two compartments and admit the hopeless paradox. Yes, great cinema can be made in evil causes.
Indeed, this year's Venice Film Festival poster, a futuristic seascape, apotheosized the medium's siren lure. A lighthouse represents the festival; a lighthouse beam, the projector; a whole lot of waves, the crowds coming to Venice; and the stars in the night sky, the Beattys, De Niros, et al. The thing about lighthouses is, they can guide you to safety or – on a bad night, when rain and mist make you see double – they can lure you straight onto the rocks. Venice under director Guglielmo Biraghi is still in the business of making filmgoing exciting and unpredictable. I'm not sure if we ended up in a safe harbor this year or smashed to smithereens. But I am sure that Signor Biraghi is the brightest and the best beaconkeeper Venice has ever had. And I'll be back next year – with my own ice cream.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE NOV-DEC 1990 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.