(6 – 21, November 2002)
The London Film Festival has taken place at the National Film Theatre on the South Bank, a hub for current redevelopment, for the last 46 years. It recently expanded to encompass the breadth of London, from screenings in East End Galleries to the Odeon cinema in Leicester Square. Planted in the pre-Christmas months, the Festival has a lot of competition. So what does a film festival provide in such a culturally hyperactive city?
The increasing purpose of film festivals is to exhibit the best in world art and experimental cinema that otherwise would be poorly served by local distribution – a stance confirmed by the promotion of artistic director, Sandra Hebron, who shared equal billing with executive director Adrian Wootton. To take full advantage of these benefits I focused on films without a UK distributor: But still the choice was enormous.
The Festival has several acclaimed directors it regularly supports; one of whom is 94-year-old Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira (whose career harks back to silent film). His latest, The Uncertainty Principle/O Princípio da Incerteza (Portugal/France, 2002), seems a good place to start. The film weaves a complex string of relations among a group of people living on the outskirts of the city of Oliveira’s birth, Oporto. Most striking is the film’s utter patience; the camera only ever moves when it is on a train or bus to Oporto, yet the emotional power achieved is symphonic. Various stories develop in tandem, from courtships and marriages to break-ups and deaths. The film is a satire, or more apt, an absurd drama, chronicling the tragedies that befall this enclosed existence. Managing to change mood with utter bravado, from near austerity to absurd humour, from political satire to family melodrama, leaving a complex of emotions and relationships to untangle.
The Festival also supports maverick directors. Ararat (Canada, 2002), Atom Egoyan’s latest film, is a typically complex and multifaceted dissection of the way we recall and understand the past. Focused on the 1915 Armenian genocide, Egoyan (of Armenian decent) explores this personal subject from three distinct yet interlocking perspectives that involve various modes of looking and understanding – an Armenian film director, a modern art historian and her Canadian born son. Egoyan doesn’t allow any of these images to dominate, instead favouring their co-existence, allowing them to undermine or reinforce each other, leaving us to formulate our own conclusions.
The increase of digital technology in contemporary cinema suggests an ongoing struggle of the art form to define its parameters, identity, and scope. Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (Canada, 2002) is Guy Maddin’s camp retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which elaborates on a ballet by Mark Godden that Maddin intruded upon and recorded to make his film. Maddin used a combination of DV, video and Super-8 to record and elaborate the performance. Shot in black and white, Dracula is heavily suffused with a silent cinema aesthetic, which Maddin has cultivated throughout his career. It includes intertitles, creaky special effects and optical tricks. The film’s exuberance and inventiveness unfortunately wanes in the second half, as the cameras seem to retreat from the action and the confined stage emerges.
The Cedar Bar (Alfred Leslie, USA, 2002) is Leslie’s first feature since 1958’s Pull My Daisy (co-dir Robert Frank, USA). It revolves around a performance of Leslie’s own unfinished play from 1952 that elaborated upon overheard arguments between a group of artists (William de Kooning, Barnett Newman, et al.) attempting to free themselves of critic Clement Greenberg. With found footage from war documentaries, period newsreels, fiction films, Hollywood reconstructions of ’40s and ’50s New York, and an audience patched together from celebrity award ceremonies that applaud inserted songs, dances and pornography, Leslie has created a Frankenstein Manhattan for the sound-image addict. It’s a film that freely explores the 20th century through the conflict between the word and the image.
Another experimental director returning to the London Festival was James Benning, who presented his California trilogy: El Valley Centro (1999), Los (2001) and Sogobi (2001) in person, discussing everything from the reason for using 16mm film to the history of specific images and locations. These films attempt to document a place (be it through Benning’s own interpretation), and allow for the free construction of ideas and responses. All the films are constructed out of 35 individual two-minute, 30-second static shots recorded in the Central Valley, Los Angeles and the Californian wilderness respectively. The formal restriction allows the places to speak for themselves and refuses one image to dominate another. Our attention is engaged by the landscapes as well as political structures that slowly emerge throughout the films – from water politics to racial inequality and social deprivation to the treatment of the amazing wild landscapes of California.
From the minimalism of James Benning to the sensuality of films made in tribute to Robert Beck, the WWI soldier who recovered from his deaf-dumb condition while watching a film. The Robert Beck Memorial Cinema (RBMC) is a New York based collective that screens new films and found footage. Bradley Eros the co-founder of RBMC (along with Brian Frye) introduced a diverse series of films spanning the last decade. Taking nothing for granted, each of the films slowly build from minimal studies: For the Birds (Keith Sanborn, USA 2000) is a voyeuristic exploration of strange rituals; Wormwood’s Dog & Monkey Show (Brian Frye, USA, 2001) and Endless Obsession (Glen Fogel, USA, 2000) are visceral, tactile films; Micro Moth (Julie Murray, Ireland-USA, 2000) is a sublime film of natural colour and movement; Light Point (Kenji Onishi, Japan, 2001) and Observando El Cielo (Jeanne Liotta, USA, 2002) are film collages; Aurora Borealis (Brian Eros, USA, 2002) includes bizarre found footage; and Radiant Flesh (Brian Eros & Jeanne Liotta, USA, 1990) is visceral and Jack Smith-esque. Overall, they are a symphony for the senses!
Perhaps the one truly unmissable event of the Festival was a special presentation of Robert Beavers’ films. Shown for the first time in the UK for 30 years, they are incredible works quite unlike anything in cinema (except perhaps those of Gregory Markopoulos, his deceased partner), encompassing a middle ground between materialist/structuralist preoccupations and the lyrical and poetic. Unlike the RBMC films or grainy experimental films one is accustomed to, these are luminous, precise works of supreme intelligence. The four films shown prove Beaver’s conviction that film is about the inanimate; they build up rhythms and systems between sound and image, space, movement and colour to instil the slightest detail with complex meanings. From the structural games played in Amor (USA/Italy/Switzerland, 1980), where Beavers’ hand movements are combined with the cutting of a suit, the restoration of a building and the construction of the film, to the intimate sense of isolation and communication in Sotiros (USA/Greece/Switzerland, 1977/96) where images from an empty room are intercut with a Greek landscape and towns in response to the intertitle “He Said…” And finally, The Ground (USA/Greece/Switzerland, 2001), a patient accumulation of motifs: a hammer on a stone, a fist on a chest, creating a dialogue between opposing actions, a beautiful liturgy for the deceased.
Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s film Sicily!/Sicilia! (France/Italy, 1998) screened with Pedro Costa’s documentary Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (France, 2000). Although the former is light in comparison to some of their other work, Sicily! is an intricately crafted tribute to Sicily, the landscape, the food, its history and people as expressed in their beautiful operatic voices; not acting but reciting. The utter precision of Straub and Huillet’s technique is beautifully demonstrated and opened up in Costa’s documentary. A remarkable film in itself that manages to be both a precise study of one of the most uncompromising filmmakers in cinema, as well as a tender portrait of a long term collaboration and relationship.
From Costa’s documentary to Gustav Deutsch’s second instalment of his series of ‘tableau films’, Film Ist. (7-12) (Austria, 2002). Deutsch’s long-term project is dedicated to exploring the possibilities of cinema by focusing on the origins of the medium. The first six chapters explored the phenomenology of the medium at the scientific laboratory, using documentary, educational and scientific film. For chapters 7-12, Deutsch explores the origin of the “funfair and the variety show.” Made in association with five major film archives, he has sculpted the six sections out of footage from the silent period. Although lacking the strange essayistic poetics of the first series, Film Ist. 7-12 explores the primacy of montage and the way meaning can be recontextualised and shifted, as well as revealing the anthropological potential of the most artificial of footage.
As well as this ontological exploration of film, the Festival also featured Polissons et Galipettes (The Good Old Naughty Days, Michel Reilhac, France, 2002), a collection of erotic silent films, lovingly restored and presented. These incredible films are humorously presented despite the scenes of explicit sexual penetration, heterosexual as well as homosexual, not to mention the occasional bestiality. Any work that manages to subvert the moralisation of the past is to be celebrated, but the film lacks the intellectual or essayistic rigour of Deutsch’s project, that reinvents silent film rather that presenting it as a relic.
The argument between pornography and art was raised in several films at the Festival. A distinction can be made between films that explore explicit material in a social and historical context and those that explore it for its own aesthetic value and interest. Glowing Eyes/La Chatte a Deux Têtes (Jacques Nolot, France, 2002) chronicles one day in a Parisian porn cinema. Its story takes place between the box office (where the only female character talks with the clients), the auditorium and the toilets (where the transvestites can dress.) This social institution provides a platform to explore issues of male sexuality, from HIV to ageing. Structured like a stage play, the film includes excellent performances and various humorous and moving monologues (especially by the director himself.) Despite the persistent couplings and rendezvous’ in the dark, Glowing Eyes is more interested in the politics of the male clientele rather than the titillating possibilities (ironically promised by the film’s original title “The Pussy with Two Heads.”)
The Cage/La Cage (Alain Roust, France, 2002) is a much less imposing film. Its narrative action is reduced to the bare essentials. Shot in a series of long-takes with minimal dialogue, we follow a woman just released from prison as she attempts to atone for the crime she committed. We follow her during a silent but compulsive ascent into the mountains to confront the father of the boy she killed. The characters are enigmatically portrayed with little explanation or background, and the film builds to an understated yet emotionally powerful confrontation. The brilliant long-takes in the natural light that chronicle the journey propose some kind of redemption through the ascent itself.
The combination of a minimal aesthetic with uncompromisingly explicit material distinguishes Philippe Grandrieux’s new film, La Vie Nouvelle/A New Life (France, 2002). Whilst it shares a similar bleak fascination with the former Soviet Union as Béla Tarr and Fred Keleman’s work, its aesthetic refinement, abstraction of the visuals, plot and explicit imagery shares more with the cinema of Claire Denis. La Vie Nouvelle is intense viewing; its elliptical narrative is alluded to in a series of long takes, penetrating close-ups and abstracted images. We follow the self-destructive obsession of a young American in the derelict remains of the Soviet Union, who is enchanted by a prostitute who drags him deeper into the underworld of sexual exploitation and animalistic behaviour. The fragmented action and tortured performances test one’s commitment to the film but this insecurity and confusion is central to the viewing experience it offers: a picture of the collapse of structure, peering into the void that eventually consumes the protagonist.
Lukas Moodysson’s new film Lilya 4-Ever (Sweden, 2002) is similarly set “Somewhere in the former Soviet Union” (as the opening title card informs us). We follow the demise of Lilya after she is abandoned by her parents and whilst she struggles to survive, finally being fooled into travelling to Sweden were she is exploited as a sex slave. This is a brutal and utterly desolate film; a scream against child exploitation but also a vehement attack on Sweden and Western capitalism. Moodysson has long been critical of his country and here he delivers a direct blow in depicting the way the former Soviet Union is torn apart and exploited by the West.
This portrait of the former Soviet Union is greatly contrasted in Aki Kaurismäki’s new film, The Man Without a Past/Mies Vailla Menneisyyttä (Finland, 2002). It’s a laconic and dry story about a man taken for dead after a severe beating, who then rises from his hospital bed and staggers out into the world, a new man, unable to remember his past. Centring on the relationship between the protagonist and a local woman who works for the Salvation Army, The Man Without a Past is pure delight, with B-movie references and rock’n’roll integrated into its gentle yet idiosyncratic handling of issues such as poverty, homelessness, alcoholism and aging within a broadly philosophical framework. Instead of misery, this film is suffused with a contagious, stoical affection with which the resurrected protagonist adorns his surroundings.
From the underdog glamour of poverty to the affluent grandeur of Russian culture as celebrated in Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark/Russkij Kovcheg (Russia/Germany, 2002), Sokurov’s already infamous film (shot in one 90-min uninterrupted take) is a paean to a society still adrift. Flowing back and forth through time, the film explores Russian history and culture up to the revolution within the walls of the magnificent Hermitage museum. Also screening at the Festival was Sokurov’s previous and fascinating, Elegy of a Voyage (France/Russia/Netherlands, 2001). Shot on DV in an ethereal half-light that creates a somnambulistic mood, it charts Sokurov’s own lonely journey from Russia to Holland where he is lead into Rotterdam’s Boijmans Museum (who commissioned the film). The film’s darkness is only alleviated when the camera looks closely at paintings that begin to glow as they are discovered again.
“C’érait un voyage/It was a journey” is how Georgian director Otar Iosseliani’s new film Lundi Martin/Monday Morning (France/Italy 2001), is summed up by its main character. The film follows the adventures of the middle-aged Vincent who suddenly leaves his job, family and village to head off on a trip. The film works through collecting details and traits, routines and systems, advancing almost independently of dialogue. The pace and density of information and the strange logic allows for all sorts of bizarre inserts – from the elaborate fake celebrity of his father’s friend (played by Iosseliani himself) to the beautiful scene when we peer into a garden where nuns bare their legs. The film is subtle and moving not only in its portrait of Vincent but of all the characters who are given an intricate depth and humanity via the smallest details.
Less absurd was Hong Sang Soo’s The Turning Gate/Saeng-Hwal-Eui Bal-Gyun (South Korea, 2002). We follow a struggling actor who decides to take a break from his life in Seoul and travel to the country. He strikes up an affair with two different women in each half of the film. Shot in assured and well-composed sequence shots, the film is a portrait of a self-deceptive young man. Elaborating on Sang Soo’s fascination with reincarnation, the protagonist is confronted by two parallel affairs, both leaving him unchanged. A moving and playful film about self-deception and one’s ability to use other people to mask or escape one’s insecurities.
Camel(s)/Nakta (Dul) (South Korea, 2001) by Park Ki-Yong also focuses on a relationship but is a much bleaker and pared down film. Shot in black and white with a handheld DV camera, allowing the actors the space to interpret the brief affair between two married, aging people, Camel(s) is full of pregnant silences and brief glances that are as important as the dialogue. At times it reaches a sense of alienating intimacy. In the long, final sequence, the camera is placed behind the pair as they sit silently together. The stillness is finally broken by a tiny glance by the woman, accentuated by the wait. It is a deeply sad moment, acknowledging the detachment and isolation of both people, and the ineffectuality of their affair.
Jia Zhang-ke returned to London with his new film Unknown Pleasures/Ren Xiao Yao (China/Japan/France/South Korea, 2002) that confirmed him as a major world talent. Much more intimate and bleak then Platform, Unknown Pleasures is shot on DV and revolves around two jobless 19-year-olds in Daton, a declined industrial hub. Its plot invokes various current events (like the announcement that Beijing will host the Olympics) and occurs within a volatile, evolving environment of industrial estates, empty cafés and storm swept open roads. The technical freedom allows for an extension of normal dramaturgical patterns, with various hypnotically overlong scenes lead by the powerful, semi-improvised performances, creating a desolate sense of isolation and inertia. But most effective is the universality of these themes: the incarceration of youth and the struggle against our media addled life (the film concludes with a Pulp Fiction-inspired bank heist.)
Finally, I will conclude with my favourite film at the Festival, Blissfully Yours/Sud Sanaeha (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2002) – a total revelation, of the kind that only festivals can provide. Combining real-time performances and a static camera that loosens in the second half with a playful formalism (the title credits only appear after 50-mins), the film takes its perspective from Min, an illegal Burmese immigrant, whose uncomplicated thoughts and sketches literally adorn the second half of the film. We are slowly introduced to Min’s girlfriend, Roong, her friend Orn and husband who promise to help Min get an ID. The trio (Min, Orn and Roong) separately leave the city for an amorous afternoon in the jungle, a journey that signals the end of the linear narrative and turns to explore the fate of the characters and the ties that bind them; from Min’s love affair with Roong to Orn who rendezvous’ with her lover in the hope of having a child before she is too old. The film’s surface naturalism is occasionally subverted as when Orn’s husband tries a special lotion that blurs the camera’s vision. Essentially Blissfully Yours adopts an outsider’s view, as just outside of Min’s grasp is the shattered Thai economy and the Burmese military junta. The film finally concludes as we watch Roong, in real-time, slowly dozing off as the sun moves behind a cloud, a foreboding end to these sensual pleasures.