August 31–September 10, 2005
The day after the 62nd Venice Film Festival has ended (and only hours after leaving the closing night party, which took place in the splendid gardens of the Hotel Des Bains), I walk through the Mostra, or what is left of it. There isn’t a single critic, journalist, paparazzi or star to be seen. The security checkpoints are empty. The busy food stalls packed away. There are only construction workers pulling down the temporary structures erected for the event. Even the red carpet, overseen by rows of golden life-sized winged-lions, is being unceremoniously dismantled. The pace of the workers is hectic, and by mid-morning the half-dismantled area looks like a tropical storm has haphazardly ripped through it. So this is how the Venice Film Festival comes – as all things must – to an end. The Lido is as hot as ever this morning, and beginning to once more look like what it is: a small, laid-back Italian island with a distinctive sense of spaciousness. What I retain from Venice is a broken chain of memories from a larger whole: there was where I watched the Spanish movie The Secret Life of Words (Isabel Coixet, 2005); here’s where I stayed till 4am at the after-party for Changhen ge (Everlasting Regret) (Stanley Kwan, 2005); that’s the spot where Roman Polanski stood and signed autographs at a quarter-to-one in the morning; and here’s where I sat and made notes on all that happened. And it is through these memories, sometimes encroached upon by patches of darkness (often remembered in a way that makes me think of an acid junkie trying to recall what happened in-between his “enlightened” moments of satori), that I must negotiate the task of understanding and evaluating the films that I saw.
We can talk of films in terms of a narrative and conceptual transformation of experience but always it is the memory of an image we return to because, above all else, to sense cinema we must become a viewer, an eye opened to a particular kind of technologically-induced retinal stimulation that quickly becomes an absence, a “being there” and a “not being there”. Thus, the filmic image in particular and cinema in general, exist as a hybrid experience of seeing and memory. Looked at philosophically, we could say that film is (and has been for the last 100 years) a challenge to the Western conception of objectivity. A film does not exist as an object and cannot be found “out there”, and there’s no use waving a canister in front of my face, I’ve sat at Venice, I’ve looked at the images flash into and out of perception and felt the curious creative fertilisation that takes place when they wander like ghosts through the hallways of consciousness.
One such wandering ghost is Rian Johnson’s Brick (2005), a film crowded with noir themes and settings, and often with inversions of noir themes and settings. The unforgiving night is there, but more often Brick gives the bleached-out sunlit noir of ‘70s films like Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) (I saw Polanski arriving well after midnight on the red carpet outside the Sala Grande – he was being heckled for autographs by a gathering crowd of admirers, and looking as tired and worn-out as any noir protagonist). At first glance it might seem that the night and the sunlight have little in common. These films show that they do. In noir, exteriors may be beautiful, but they are also a lie that hides an unpleasant truth, an ugliness, an emptiness or unhappiness that drowns so many people in their own lives. Whilst the night and the shadows conceal this truth and allow it to fester in secret, the glaring light of the sun makes it impossible to avoid or ignore, and conveys a sense of the painful and inescapable impact of its presence. Brick‘s dialogue (an always-important element of noir cinema whose roots reach deeply into a novelistic tradition of crime and/or jaded detectives) is also noir through and through: “We’ve shaken the tree now let’s see what falls”. That’s Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) speaking, a high school student-cum-detective oozing disrespect for authority and looking for his inexplicably no-longer-with-us Emily.
This bespectacled Brendan is constructed a little against the grain. He lacks the gruffness of typical noir protagonists like Mitchum or Bogie. This is in no small part due to his youth. At 20 it is simply not possible to look world-weary and worn-down by a life that has slowly eaten its way into your heart and left you hardened and scarred. Brendan’s youth is certainly at odds with the genre and had a slightly distracting effect on my viewing. I found myself wondering: why did Rian Johnson choose such a young character and youth-orientated high-school setting. Noir presents us with a cynical world view where modern life has become a game or a struggle for survival or success, and where everyone is using everyone else. Directors who work in this genre often share this world view. I wondered whether Rian Johnson believed in a slow spreading of modern life’s profound unhappinesses and hollowness into the traditionally innocent sphere of the young. Or was he just playing the game, and aligning himself with those cynical marketing forces that target youth because that’s where the real money lies. Brick‘s ending is typical noir: Brendan resolves the criminal aspect of the mystery of Emily’s disappearance – meanwhile, the girl he has fallen for is manipulating him for her own ends – and he, like so many noir protagonists before him, is left with the corrosive taste of alienation and emptiness that comes from betrayal.
Films that draw a large amount of audience dissatisfaction at festivals tend to fall into two groups: those which gain a reputation for being superficial, pretentious or just damn awful and those whose originality and unusualness leave audiences baffled. Word on the Lido was that writer-director Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown was damn awful and a film to avoid at any cost. This, of course, meant that the screenings were packed. The usual chain of events was that those who caught the first screening of a film passed around a thumbs-up/thumbs-down verdict, and within a few hours most had caught whiff of how a particular film was being received. With Elizabethtown, however, many who went to the film with every expectation of being disappointed were still surprised at just how indulgent it really was. Worst aspect? Perhaps the agonisingly turgid dialogue that was in turns trying to be funny, profound and ironic (dialogue whose soaring pomposity is, perhaps, only matched by writer-director Richard Linklater’s love of D&Ming).
Orlando Bloom plays Drew Baylor, a young shoe designer, a prodigy no less, who dreams of designing a shoe that makes walking feel more like floating. His aerodynamic masterpiece, however, is a failure, and throws his company into massive debt. He becomes depressed and is preparing to kill himself when he is interrupted (unfortunately) by a phone call bringing news of another death, that of his father. The result? Drew is forced to take time out to arrange his father’s funeral in a small country town – an activity which in turn causes him to re-evaluate his own life. It is a narrative movement that is characteristic of Crowe’s work – and one that seems to allow him room to reminisce about his own youth and his days of writing for Rolling Stone. He has already fictionalised such reminiscences in Almost Famous (2000), and seems as though trying to repeat them here. It’s a recipe that involves a penchant for ‘70s rock, long conversations that trail on all night, and images of cars speeding through the great American wilderness. And it’s a narrative structure that always morphs into a love story that is also a story of personal liberation from mainstream middle-class preconceptions about success and happiness. It’s not an overly original narrative premise perhaps, but it’s also not one that is necessarily lacking in potential interest. In Crowe’s hands, however, the story does not develop organically. He adopts a heavy-handed directorial approach that gives the film its self-conscious bombastic tonality and its taste of an overcooked meal. And it’s an approach that is strangely at odds with the film’s most pervasive message: that we need to find time in which our existence takes on a more natural, more organic, more personal rhythm, a rhythm from which the true meaning of life can emerge.
A film which I expected to show a certain amount of unusualness and creativity was Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm (2005), but his flair for hallucinogenic madness is hindered by Ehren Kruger’s severely conventional narrative structure. Compare it to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). I first saw this years ago with some friends and just as Duke (Johnny Depp) is fleeing Vegas, and Bob Dylan is wailing on the soundtrack, “awww mama, can this really be the end, to be stuck inside of mobile with the Memphis blues again…” they note that film’s monotonous tone was causing them to lose interest. True, Gilliam was propelling his characters towards nowhere in particular, and was doing little to change the tone or rhythm of the film as it progressed, but this is, in fact, the film’s saving grace. Duke is not being moved towards some greater understanding or realisation; there is no love story that is going to emerge; there are no odds to overcome; there is nothing, in fact, save an endless stream of chemically-induced moments in the characters’ lives which fuel them to the next drug hit. And it is this looseness that gives Gilliam the freedom he needs to generate the sort of chaotic-psychedelic images he seems to feel such a close kinship with. In contrast to this earlier work, The Brothers Grimm feels like a producer’s vision, or the vision of a writer who has both eyes firmly fixed on box office sales: the Grimm Brothers seem to have been chosen as the central characters for the same reason that Heath Ledger and Matt Damon were chosen to play them – they’re well-known names, and a public will pay to see someone they know. (Ledger was in three films at Venice this year – The Brothers Grimm, Casanova [Lasse Halleström, 2005] and Golden Lion winner Brokeback Mountain [Ang Lee, 2005] – as Ennis Del Mar, the silent uncommunicative cowboy in Brokeback he gives an impressive performance, but regardless of the merit or lack of merit that these three films display, taken as a whole they show that Hollywood has been good to Ledger and has given him the opportunity to show that he is capable of handling a wide range of roles). The two scholarly folklorists whose patient collecting of German folktales and language (they put together a major lexicon which is recognised as an important step towards the standardisation of modern German) have in Kruger’s fancy become two dashing young charlatans whose adventures bring them face to face with the reality of supernatural powers. All this is channelled through muddy medieval-looking settings, thick forests, French torture chambers, cobweb covered towers, romance (of course), and culminates in the killing of a witch whose magical powers have been terrorising the good people of the local villages.
Part of my problem with this film is that everything is geared to such a childish mentality. Subtlety has been banished and mature themes are non-existent. We have torturers begging to be allowed the pleasure of doing their worst, and at the end we can all sing “Ding dong the wicked witch is dead”. But there’s also a sense of betrayal, at least for the viewer familiar with Gilliam’s work. Through films from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) through The Fisher King (1991) and Twelve Monkeys (1995) to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Gilliam has carved out a reputation for positioning his “fantasy” with one foot on either side of the border between the subjective and the objective. His fantasy exists in a kind of “in-between state” (to borrow a term from the Celts) in which one can neither affirm or deny it – it’s an ambiguity that Gilliam has mined for its exuberance, humour and profound fascination. Yet, in The Brothers Grimm this idiosyncratic approach to fantasy has been reprogrammed to resemble a recognisable and particularly virulent species of Hollywood fantasy in which empirically-minded realists (in this film, the early Grimm brothers whose money-making shenanigans are devoted to duping the superstitious) must learn to believe (the latter Grimm brothers who fight and destroy the wicked witch). “Belief” is a warm fuzzy slogan in Hollywood – money can’t buy it and it can be acquired, presumably, only by fictional characters. Johnny Depp’s J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland (Marc Forster, 2004) is the most noticeable and recent avatar spreading this gospel. When he tells Peter (Freddie Highmore) that his deceased mother has gone to Neverland “and you can visit her any time you like if you just go there yourself”, the boy asks, “How?” “By believing, Peter. Just believe.”
Two mainstream films which did generate a great deal of positive after-film coffee-and-cigarette-fuelled discussion were Ang Lee’s epic ‘60s-era “cowboy” film, Brokeback Mountain, and George Clooney’s sophisticated slick black-and-white Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), about a worn broadcast journalist’s attempts to put a stop to the madness of Joseph McCarthy, and which some thought would waltz away with the Golden Lion (instead it won the FIPRESCI award).
Brokeback Mountain raised a number of questions amongst critics: how will mainstream audiences respond to Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal being cast as gay lovers? The critical response is one thing, but it will be quite interesting to see the general public’s reaction. The film has been viewed by some as a contemporary and more explicit re-visiting of the homoerotic elements that can be found quietly scattered through classical American westerns, but Brokeback is not essentially a gay film. There is a gay rhetoric underlying the narrative which is vaguely felt in the tragic death of Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) after being bashed by a group of good ol’ boys, but Lee never foregrounds it. It’s clear his real interest and directorial focus are on an unusual love story. From this point-of-view, the main characters’ homosexuality can be contextualised as a narrative complication that provides the obstacle needed to generate tension and drive the love story forward. This story chronicles the relationship between two ranch-hands over a period of 20 years. Their relationship is an often-turbulent often-precarious affair – often you can’t be sure whether they are about to kiss or punch each other’s lights out. Both deny their homosexuality, both hitch-up with women, and both their long-term heterosexual relationships inevitably break down. Many felt that the film was too slowly paced and too long, and Lee certainly spends time establishing mood by letting a scene unhurriedly play itself out or by letting the camera dwell on scenic panoramas. Others complained that they couldn’t understand the Wyoming accents. For myself, I saw Brokeback only three days into the twelve day festival, and I wondered whether I would see scenes as rawly beautiful and sad as Ennis del Mar’s final trembling moment, hating his inability to accept his homosexuality, realising the tragic effects and emotional ruin that this has brought about, unable to speak, and on the verge of imploding under the accumulated weight of his memories and frustrated love.
On a completely different note is Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005) which presents itself as a modern folktale soaked in Burton’s characteristic macabre humour. It’s a stop-motion animation that refuses to submit to the sanitising ideologies of Disney-induced cutesiness and, instead, creates a cinematic universe in which dark and light, good and evil, life and death, stand in wholly original relations to each other. Burton’s films remind me very much of an alchemical opus, not only because of their unconventional and magical atmosphere but also because of the way he transmutes and recombines meanings that Western society has separated and made mutually exclusive. And in many ways, the appeal of Burton’s films lies in the simple enjoyment of the unique imaginative world that he creates. They are films which do not strain to communicate a conventional message as much as to contain certain realities, realities which might not live and grow in any other world than in those that Burton creates. We could note, for example, the way in which the reality of a particular Burtonesque innocence returns again and again in his films. The central character in Corpse Bride, Victor van Dort (voiced by Johnny Depp), shares with many of Burton’s other characters (Edward Scissorhands, Ichabod Crane, Ed Wood – all played by Depp) an uncomprehending childlike freshness and wonder as he makes his way through a largely insensitive world. Victor’s innocence is like a black rose blossoming in the moonlight, something extremely rare and therefore precious, even though it might seem unnatural and disturbing to others. It seems to me that Burton’s cinema returns audiences to the early days of films such as Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) (1902) and Le Voyage à traverse l’impossible (Impossible Voyage) (1904) when filmmakers revelled in the ability to make audiences see and experience something that they had never seen and experienced before.
A highlight of this year’s festival for me – certainly one of the most unusual films screened – certainly a film which scored a huge number of walkouts – was Philip Gröning’s Die Große Stille (Into Great Silence) (2005). It’s a film that Gröning describes as “as far away from language as a film can be”. A film that documents the everyday lives of monks in one of the world’s most ascetic monasteries, a film with no interviews, no voiceover, no commentary, no explanation. From a formal point-of-view it avoids unnecessary editing and often leans on long takes that nurture an unobtrusive observational style and create an opportunity, if the viewer is patient enough, to connect with the pace and silence of the monks’ lives. And a certain patience, a certain willingness, to let one’s awareness take on the very different, very un-modern parameters of these monks’ existence is needed. In interviews Gröning has said that at a certain point his film itself ceased to be a narrative and became a monastery, a space. The film’s most noticeable element, however, must be its silence, a silence that is accentuated to the point of unbearability, and a silence that, as the film progresses, becomes impossible to ignore. Modern and post-modern Western culture may afford insights into many aspects of human experience, but not into silence. It seems to be something that we have left behind in our civilisation, and something which Gröning has reinstated.
One way to think of Die Große Stille is as the repetition of a single silent moment over and over again. This repetition has a number of consequences. Firstly, it generates a kind of hypnotic monotone in which time becomes less clearly defined, becomes something vague and slowed-down till it almost seems to stand in an ever-unfolding present. Secondly, the accentuation of silence paradoxically intensifies every small sound and activity lived out by the monks in that silence: they slowly rake a yard, they slowly mend garments, an old monk dozes in a chair, another walks down a long corridor, and Gröning’s camera registers every step of every moment. And finally, the film’s insistent repetition of silence makes one aware of how greatly our society overlooks the activity of concentrating one’s attention on a single object, event, meaning – or put more simply, it makes one aware of how little we notice. At one point in the film Gröning intercuts a scene of a monk reading a Bible with the image of a distant white plane soaring against an immense blue sky. The image struck me as highly interesting and set my mind off in a chain-reaction of thoughts – it was perhaps a good hour later, when the film’s peculiar hypnotic insistence and one-pointedness had begun to take hold, that I suddenly realised that it was not a plane that I had seen at all, but a bird – what sort of bird? – I can no longer say – I have missed it – it had irrevocably slipped into my past and all that remained was the vague imagistic impression – another ghost tracing its way through the hallways of memory.