During the festival, daily reports, in the form of capsule reviews and other kinds of impressions from various writers, were posted on this page.
Posted Monday August 7 (Wrap-Up of the festival)
Posted Sunday August 6 (Nothing to Do, Little Fellas, Ordinary Decent Criminal)
Posted Saturday August 5 (Violence Elegy, news on Blackboards)
Posted Friday August 4 (Luis Buñuel films, High Fidelity, Benjamin Smoke, Citadel program)
Posted Thursday August 3 (Blown in With the Wind, Time Regained, Tuvalu, Speaking of Buñuel, Janice Beard: 45 WPM)
Posted Wednesday August 2 (Djomeh, Eureka, Titus, Nang Nak, George Washington, Luis Buñuel films)
Posted Tuesday August 1 (American Psycho, Audition, Djomeh)
Posted Monday July 31 (The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Wisconsin Death Trip, My Mother Frank, Skin of Man Heart of Beast, Nenette et Boni, Eureka)
Posted Sunday July 30 (The Wind Will Carry Us, My Best Fiend, Audition, Witchcraft, Mr. Death, Songs from the Second Floor, Throne of Death, comment on the Festival Club)
Posted Thursday July 20 – Saturday July 29 (on a separate page)
(Of Women and Magic, Branded to Kill, Sensitive New Age Killer, Adrian Martin’s “MIFF Cigarettes”, Nothing, Bad Company, Hotel Splendide, Witchcraft, Funny Felix, The Girl Next Door, Nowhere to Hide, Spring Forward, Ring & Ring 2, New Waterford Girl, Chocolat, I Prefer the Sound of the Sea, Ratcatcher, Gemini, Beau Travail, Everything’s Fine, Claire Denis films, The Virgin Suicides, The Limey, What is Life?, Seventeen Years, The Colour of Paradise, Angst, Jesus’ Son, Postcard, Return to Me, Wonder Boys, Shower, Dora-Heita, Seijun Suzuki films)
* * *
THE LAST MIFF CIGARETTE by Adrian Martin
Best 10 of the Festival:
1. THE WIND WILL CARRY US (Iran). By a large margin, Abbas Kiarostami’s latest masterpiece was the best film I saw in MIFF this year. A demanding, funny, ultimately profound portrait of a group of city journalists in a close-knit village, it is a magnificent meditation on control, beauty and morality. How can anyone think that Kiarostami is an ‘easy’, commodifed taste? His films are among the most challenging that we have.
2. AUDITION (Japan). American ‘neo noir’ is fashionable, but it takes Miike Takashi to truly re-invent the femme fatale for our time in this slow-burning and hallucinatory film about lustful, manipulative men getting the comeuppance they deserve. A hallucinatory phantasm woven from the denials and angsts of male sexual guilt, in the recent tradition of Lost Highway, The Blackout and New Rose Hotel.
3. BENJAMIN SMOKE (USA). An intimate, moving doco by Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen which quietly, unsensationally draws us into the bittersweet life and times of a Southern grunge singer. A tribute with a powerful impact, featuring a special appearance by Patti Smith. Cohen’s Amber City (in the generally underwhelming Citadel program) was pretty good, too – the same sense of time taken, the same eye, a similar intimacy.
4. GEMINI (Japan). Tetsuo director Shinya Tsukamoto – a fascinating, essential, radical figure in world cinema – tackles what is, for him, more classical fare: a supernatural, period, horror tale of twins. But he never loses the sureness and strangeness of his vision. Nor his ear: what an amazing use of music and sound.
5. LOUIS PRIMA: THE WILDEST! (USA). Energetic, infectious, hilarious doco about a zany and under-recognised Italian-American performer whose career spanned four decades of jazz, swing, rock and pop. Did Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis owe something to this guy?
6. HUMAN RESOURCES (France). A surprisingly effective example of unalloyed naturalism, reminiscent of Ken Loach’s ’70s work (it is now hip, judging from the MIFF catalogue, to compare just about anybody to Loach – how times change). Writer-director Laurent Cantet skilfully interetwines crises of personal and political allegiance in this story of a working father and his newly managerial son. Cantet is a ‘classical’ talent to watch.
7. FROM RUSSIA TO HOLLYWOOD: THE 100 YEAR ODYSSEY OF CHEKOV AND SHDANOFF (USA). Perfunctorily assembled but painstakingly researched account of the influence of acting coach Michael Chekov, whose career spanned Russia, England and America. Leslie Caron, Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn are among the many who illuminate Chekovian techniques, well illustrated with movie clips. Many fascinating revelations about the creative ‘source’ of ceertain moments and performances in classic Hollywood cinema – the acting coach as auteur?
8. LITTLE FELLAS (France). Forget Wonderland: prolific director Jacques Doillon shows how to truly craft the seemingly rambling naturalism of hand-held cameras, exterior locations, direct sound and ensemble improvisation. A remarkable, modest, touching insight into working class ‘street kids’, delivered without the slightest note of adult condescension or ‘social problem’ alarmism.
9. Two sex docos. WADD: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JOHN C. HOLMES (USA). This fascinating doco about a historic porn star is mercifully closer to Citizen Kane than Boogie Nights. Holmes remains a mystery, even after a torrent of X-rated clips and wildly conflicting testimonies. Deftly veers between hilarity and tragedy. THE GIRL NEXT DOOR (USA). By now, we are used to films about the sex industry being bleak and tragic. More power to Stacy Valentine, the subject of Christine Fugate’s entertaining doco, who remains cheery and optimistic on every career plateau as a porn star. Strangely, several local commentators persisted in seeing it as bleak and tragic.
10. ANGST (Australia). Don’t let the title fool you: this is a very gentle ‘grunge’ tale of twentysomethings living in Kings Cross, full of sharp humour and exact pop culture references. This debut feature by Daniel Nettheim is a modestly good, local treat.
NOBODY KNOWS ANYBODY (Spain). Mateo Gil’s sleek, compelling debut feature weaves a knotty conspiracy thriller from the combined spirits of Rivette, Pynchon, Eco and The X Files. Very mainstream fare, but fun.
RING and RING 2 (Japan). This tremendous mystery-horror series, a huge commercial hit in Japan, expertly preys on fears that modern technology will ‘open a door’ to ancient, dark, irrational forces. Compulsive viewing – but where are all the other films (five in all?) already completed in the series?
SKIN OF MAN, HEART OF BEAST (France). Helene Angel’s debut feature is a vivid depiction of the gulf between men (brutish, incommunicative, explosive) and women (suffering, resistant, implosive). Familiar content but a detailed, controlled style.
FAMILY SECRET (USA). There’s something grating about this ‘personal journey’ doco, in which director Pola Rapaport finds a previously ‘hidden’ step-brother and investigates their father’s mysterious, fragmented life. But, despite the all-American, me-generation approach to the knotty problems of the 20th century, it’s still an undeniably touching and absorbing testament.
THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE (USA). Directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato have a good nose for subjects that mingle high camp humour with compelling drama. This doco sweeps us briskly through the highs and lows of Faye’s soap opera life (with her co-operation), and offers an eye-opening history of American capitalism, show biz and religion.
Worst Film of the Festival:
INNOCENCE (Australia). Clumsy narrative exposition, clunky dialogue (“we shared a lot of lust”), flat jokes, dreary staging (mise en scene, where art thou?), faux-poetic Super-8 inserts (I personally volunteer to smash that camera), empty exhortations to “love the world”, veteran actors (Julia Blake and Charles Tingwell) all at sea – yes, it’s the latest Paul Cox movie.
Most memorable catalogue line:
On THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL: “Is the decomposition of the rational thinking a veneer of civilisation?” (sic)
© Adrian Martin August 2000
* * *
Festival Wrap by Ryan Lynch:
The popularity of this year’s festival was certainly evident in many of the packed houses over the city. Whether this represents an increasing drive towards the commercialisation of the festival is a moot point, but I believe that Sandra Sdraulig has (finally) struck the right balance between the commercial component and the artistic fare. Though I was rather conservative in my selections at this year’s festival (mainly due to time/monetary constraints), I was impressed with the standard of features and docos.
My favourite features are as follows: “Beau Travail” proved that sometimes the most poignant storytelling can come through the use of images; “Bread and Roses” showed that Loach can take the unlikeliest of subjects – underpaid Hispanic janitors in LA – and make you think that its all that matters in this world; “Ring 1” and “Ring 2” showed that truly frightful horror films were still able to be made and didn’t have to rely upon special effects to achieve its impact; “Nowhere to Hide” would’ve had to have been the most stylised film in the festival even if it did lack resolution towards the end; “Ratcatcher” was a raw look through the eyes of young boy at the decadent state of Glasgow in the 1970s; “The Widow of Saint-Pierre” was a battle of love, wits and politics revolving around a heroic man condemned to death in a French island colony.
The documentary section was strong also: “Benjamin Smoke” was a remarkable doco about a late, unsung hero; Herzog’s paean to Kinski in “My Best Fiend” included some amazing footage complemented by deft exposition; “Speaking of Bunuel” went beyond the public myths surrounding the great director to paint an accurate portrait; “Mr Death” showed that Errol Morris is one of the masters of his form in choosing a disturbing subject and depicting him in an equally disturbing way.
I only went to see one curated program and that was “Citadel”: I was very impressed by the variety of avant-garde works on ‘the city’ being shown (esp. “Amber City”, “Jaunt”, and “Suicide Box”). This program was matched by the Citadel forum at the Festival Club which was an insightful and intelligent discussion on filmmaking about the citadel.
I thoroughly enjoyed this year’s Film Festival and I commend Sandra Sdraulig for finally ‘getting it right’. I look to seeing what a new Festival director can bring to next year’s MIFF – it’s 50th.
* * *
Best of the Fest by Martin Hughes:
The Colour of Paradise
What Happened to Tully
Love, Honour & Obey
* * *
Festival Wrap by Mark Freeman:
Best of the Fest
In no particular order – the films that did it for me.
My Mother Frank Proving that Australia can still produce excellent cinema despite Angst and Better Than Sex.
The Limey Terrific Steven Soderbergh film that has to get a release here soon if there’s any justice.
American Psycho Prepared to hate it, but pleasantly surprised by its terrific humour and assured direction.
Branded To Kill The only Seijun Suzuki film I managed to catch, and what a brilliant piece of work. Hilarious, and perfectly directed – a real winner.
New Waterford Girl Sure, it was kind of corny and maybe not that unusual, but the evocation of small town life was so perfect, and the performances so wonderful, that you can’t help but admire it.
Ring & Ring 2 Cheesy, not particularly scary, but strangely compelling horror movies from Japan.
The Ninth Gate A fascinating film, even if it is too long, with a great performance by Depp, and some nice spooky stuff with a bunch of Satanists.
The Wind Will Carry Us Kiarostami’s gentle Iranian film does overstay its welcome, but still managed to build a strong visual landscape and a slow, meticulous human drama.
And those better off buried…
Hotel Splendide Unfunny, uninteresting and all that toilet obsessive humour…ughh.
Titus Hilariously bad film of an hilariously poor Shakespearean play. Almost enjoyable by the sheer absurdity of it. I haven’t laughed at a film so much since Saving Private Ryan or Under The Lighthouse Dancing.
The lack of projectionists Employ people you fools! Enough with the economic rationalism…let the candy bar attendants stick to popcorn and choc-tops and let someone who knows what they’re doing look after the screening. How often did we have to wait for the screen to flicker back to life because the projector shut down half way through the film?
Gold Class Sure, I have no problem with people forking over extra to get a decent seat. But let’s get a few rules in place. I didn’t pay $220 to be forced to sit up in the Gods or right over to the side whilst there are perfectly good seats – empty seats – in the centre of the theatre. Get the Goldies in first, then everything else is fair game. It also prevents the appalling elitism of some people who begrudge you a ‘gold’ seat despite the fact that the cinema is half empty.
* * *
Festival Wrap by Fiona A. Villella:
THE WIND WILL CARRY US For it’s spirit and ability to take cinema to “higher ground”.
AUDITION For brilliance in self-reflexivity and suspense.
BEAU TRAVAIL For its electrifying poetic economy and for those beautiful images of flesh against bare landscape.
TIME REGAINED For its exquisite and magesterial fusion of style and emotion.
GEMINI For its explosive rendering of opposites.
Other highlights: all the Denis films, all the Suzuki films especially Tokyo Drifter, Tuvalu, The Million Dollar Hotel, George Washington, Throne of Death, Janice Beard: 45 WPM, Seventeen Years, Nang Nak, Postcard, Human Resources, Little Fellas, Benjamin Smoke.
Funny Felix, Witchcraft, Seven Songs from the Tundra, My Mother Frank, I’ll Take You There, out-of-focus projection, out-of-sound projection, sitting next to a snoring man in the cinema, getting venues confused, forgetting booked tickets at home, seeing 3 films in a row without a chance to eat anything, witnessing the general attraction to anything (documentary, experimental, features) that alluded, in even the most slightest and remotest way, to sex, the over-sized program, the general spirit of the festival geared toward a popular, yuppie, middle-class audience and the general lack of cutting-edge world cinema beside the obligatory Cannes winners and Iranian masterpieces.
* * *
Festival Wrap by Bill Mousoulis:
One could easily criticise MIFF, but I prefer to look at the positives. Sandra Sdraulig has turned it into a popular and mainstream-leaning festival, but not at the expense of dumping the obscure art films, the docos, the experimental programs. And this year’s festival seemed about to burst constantly, so much range and content did it have.
I attended 43 sessions, and somehow missed going to any of the forums (when there’s so many films to see, after all …). Nothing really surprised or disappointed me. I saw the films that I knew I’d get something from, and so I didn’t see that many bad films (only The Colour of Paradise and Angst). But whilst many of the films that I saw were okay and even quite good, only a select few (listed below) really pushed my buttons.
I saw three of these highlights for a second time. Janice Beard was the same the second time around: spirited, quirky, but light. Beau Travail seemed to lose a lot of its strangeness and beauty on a second viewing, maybe because by this stage I’d seen Denis’ other films and was accustomed to her style. But the opening and closing dance scenes are right out there as far as I’m concerned. Finally, The Wind Will Carry Us became unbelievable second time around. Jokey but profound, bland but resonant, cryptic but simple, this in an out-and-out masterpiece. The moment-to-moment play (and emotional building, mind you) is hypnotic. I’ve never connected Kiarostami to Rossellini before, but watching Wind again, I felt it was operating in a similar mode to Viaggio in Italia. And you’re not gonna get a bigger compliment coming from me! And this was my last MIFF session too – a perfect way to end the festival.
Top Ten films that played at MIFF 2000, including retrospectives, in preferential order:
1. L’Age D’or (Luis Buñuel, 1930)
2. The Wind Will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami)
3. I Can’t Sleep (Claire Denis, 1993)
4. Beau Travail (Claire Denis)
5. Throne of Death (Murali Nair)
6. Little Fellas (Jacques Doillon)
7. Janice Beard: 45 WPM (Clare Kilner)
8. Blackboards (Samira Makhmalbaf)
9. Simon of the Desert (Luis Buñuel, 1965)
10. No Fear, No Die (Claire Denis, 1990)
* * *
Festival Wrap by George Papadopoulos:
After having pushed and shoved my way through over-crowded foyers, pillaged through scores of choc-tops and battling a deadly virus during this year’s MIFF, I have come out alive and managed to produce the obligatory Top Seven (out of 26 viewed) list as follows:
1. The Wind Will Carry Us – Its lack of clear narrative exposition (Kiarostami likes the viewer to use their imagination when it comes to narrative and motivation) frustrated some viewers but this film was immensely enjoyable. Kiarostami’s careful observation of character and philosophical meanderings are a joy and often hilarious (ah, the convenience of mobile phones!).
2. Eureka – Beautifully shot in sepia black-and-white with wonderful compositions of rural Japan and running at a short 217 minutes. Not a perfect film by any means (a few scenes dragged beyond what was necessary) but I admire the director’s courage.
3. Beau Travail – Another film that challenged conventional narrative structure and, again, frustrated a few viewers but was elegantly shot (what vistas!), with superb cinematic use of silence, proving that less is definitely more.
4. Audition – The most walked-out of film in the festival, viewers were falling over each other as they raced out during the hilarious torture scenes. Felt slight tinge of guilt enjoying such excruciatingly graphic scenes but haven’t laughed so much in a movie since Being John Malkovich. Great ambiguous but moving ending.
5. Time Regained – My first taste of Raul Ruiz. Lack of a conventional narrative structure (common amongst this year’s best films) and a central focus again frustrated viewers but was an amazing cinematic experience. Ruiz employed a plethora of cinematic techniques to convey a journey through Marcel Proust’s memory as he recalls the key moments in his life before his death. Difficult to follow at times and demands a second (and third!) viewing to be fully appreciated.
6. George Washington – Impressive debut feature. Leisurely paced with poetic images and narration, this film was truly original. Perfect length at 89 minutes. A total joy.
7. Blackboards – Surprisingly quite funny despite dealing with the tragic plight of refugee Kurds running for their lives. Ultimately moving and honest depiction. Felt more like a documentary than a feature and this is largely due to the amazing performances.
* * *
BEST FILMS OF MIFF 2000 according to the above 7 watchers:
The Wind Will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami) 5 votes
Beau Travail (Claire Denis) 5
Blackboards (Samira Makhmalbaf) 3
Audition (Miiki Takashi) 3
Little Fellas (Jacques Doillon) 2
George Washington (David Gordon Green) 2
Ring & Ring 2 (Nakata Hideo) 2
Benjamin Smoke (Jem Cohen/Peter Sillen) 2
Gemini (Shinya Tsukamoto) 2
Time Regained (Raoul Ruiz) 2
* * *
Reviews from the last day of the festival:
Reviews by Mark Freeman:
The Million Dollar Hotel (Wim Wenders, 1999, Germany/USA) It moves at a sluggish pace, but Wenders’ The Million Dollar Hotel still proves an effective, amusing, interesting piece of cinema. It’s true some of the characters are too ridiculous (Amanda Plummer screaming and wearing too much eyeliner yet again, and the Beatles clone soon wears out his welcome), but the film does possess an endearing quality which encourages you to overlook its indulgences. The premise itself is perhaps where the film falters – a hotel populated with the weird, the strange, the deranged, and the investigation of the murder of one of the residents. But if you overcome this, there is a terrific sense of otherworldliness, the fascinating sense of a parallel universe; these people exist both within and beyond society. Wenders slows down moments, aestheticises small intimacies. A bump, a touch become moments laden with importance. It takes time to accept Mel Gibson as the stiff detective Skinner, but by the second half as we learn more of him, he becomes less caricature and more a character. Most impressive is Jeremy Davies as the narrator, Tom-Tom, and his nervous twitchiness and startled bird calls carry a far greater authenticity than the mannered look-at-me-Ma school of insanity perfected by Dustin Hoffman in Rainman. The Million Dollar Hotel marries a twisted fantasy world to the more mundane reality of modern Los Angeles, continuing Wenders’ exploration of a more ethereal existence within the harshness of contemporary society. It’s true it does become indulgent, but the laughs are genuine enough, the performances convincing enough, and the direction surprising and inventive enough to sustain you. Not exactly worth a million dollars, Wenders new film is at least worth the price of admission and a few hours inside this bizarre world.
Better Than Sex (Jonathan Teplitzky, 2000, Australia) Imagine somebody making a movie of an issue of Cleo or Cosmopolitan and you’ll come close to Teplitsky’s wearisome Better Than Sex. It’s a shame that the great performances are wasted on the tedious script which just seems to run surveys about sex, questions about sex, revelations about sex over and over and over. I mean, sex is fine, but I wish to Christ they could at some point find something else to talk about. So we get the oral sex discussions, the commitment discussions, the pick up discussions. This is followed by such blinders as: How many people have you slept with, when did you first do it, do you like it when I do this or that, and on and on. You can’t help but see the Cosmo headlines in every scene: What happens when the one night stand doesn’t leave? The best oral sex ever. Should you swallow? Why your man won’t put the toilet seat down. It’s a wonder Teplitzky doesn’t insert Dolly Doctor or a sealed section into the film. There are some nice lines, some good gags, and the camera work is at least interesting and inventive. But the talking to camera device is dull, and the monotonous narration of each participant having sex is enough to shut down your desire for life – it’s like a soliloquy from a porn film, complete with the oohs and ahhs. Susie Porter and David Wenham are great actors – but perhaps next time we can give them something more interesting and more insightful to say.
* * *
Reviews by Bill Mousoulis:
Bread and Roses (Ken Loach, 2000, UK) Prolific filmmakers can be a bit of a worry. Especially when their range (formally, thematically) is not great. And Loach is clearly one of these. Some of his recent films (My Name is Joe, Land of Freedom, Ladybird Ladybird) have an emotional intensity to them that keeps them fresh; others (like Carla’s Song, Raining Stones, this one) are made on auto-pilot, and meander badly at times. (5)
Blackboards (Samira Makhmalbaf, 2000, Iran) Maybe it’s retrospective hindsight, but watching this film, you can tell that the director is only 20 years old. There’s a lack of formal system. But there’s also a tremendous rapport and intimacy with the characters (or “people”, seeing as they’re all playing themselves). See the way Makhmalbaf Jnr. films the baby boy when he’s sitting on the ground playing with the walnuts – it strikes me that no “adult” director could have imagined or filmed this shot. Overall, this film is raw and engaging. Iran rocks. (Sorry, bad pun.) (7)
* * *
SESSION NEWS: Great news! Blackboards has arrived in the country and will definitely be screening at its 3:15 slot this afternoon. See you there!
* * *
Reviews by Bill Mousoulis:
Nothing to Do (Marion Vernoux, 1999, France) This is very similar to A Pornographic Affair, but heaps better. It probably helps that the director of this film is a woman. And Valeria Bruni Tedeschi (the baker’s wife in Nenette et Boni) puts in a star performance – her reach exceeds her grasp at times, but she produces great vulnerability and hurt in her housewife character. This film could be seen as a conventional contribution to the debate on the battle of the sexes, but I think it deserves more than that: even for the man (Patrick Dell’Isola), Vernoux gets inside and extracts something true and complex. Nothing to Do shows A Pornographic Affair up for what it is: clinical and stupid. (6)
Little Fellas (Jacques Doillon, 1999, France) This is my first taste of the renowned director Jacques Doillon, and, really, it is so exciting witnessing someone’s unique style for the first time. Little Fellas opens with a bang, as we’re thrust into our spirited heroine’s troubled and debased world. We’re almost in Kids territory here. The film then somehow stalls, maybe catching the dissipation of its characters. But this then becomes its hidden beauty: in every other film of this ilk that we’ve seen, a gun entering the picture could only result in a tragic killing. Instead, this film finishes with a kids-playing-adult wedding ceremony, tinged with a strange optimism. It’s this open-ended quality that really makes this film interesting. (8)
* * *
Review by Kevin Murray:
Ordinary Decent Criminal (Thaddeus O’Sullivan, 1999, Ireland) Why was Ordinary Decent Criminal made? John Boorman’s The General told the same tale of Martin Cahill in gritty black and white, only two years ago. Brendan Gleeson had played the Ned Kelly-like figure in a heavy patriarchal body with glimpses of inner turmoil. In his place is Kevin Spacey, who seemed reincarnated straight from American Beauty into a charming trickster, winking at the audience. In the place of ordinary domestic life is a soft-focus romance of cuddly Ireland with pink cheeks and amiable rogues. The scenes where Spacey’s face is morphed into characters in a Caravaggio painting weaken the narrative tension — you realise there’s about as much dramatic complexity here as an episode of Pokemon. So why was it made? Did someone think that the story of Martin Cahill could reach a bigger audience if it was in colour, with a couple of big Hollywood names? Like other attempts to ‘roll over’ content into a more accessible medium, Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s film seems little more than a sell-out.
* * *
SESSION NEWS: Yes, life is ironic. After yesterday’s good news for Iranian cinema lovers, today we learn that Samira Makhmalbaf’s Blackboards has NOT arrived in the country yet! Tonight’s 9:15 session of it has been cancelled, with The Tao of Steve replacing it. MIFF organisers are hopeful that Blackboards will be here tomorrow (Sunday) for its 3:15 screening (cross your fingers, or maybe throw an apple in the air …). NEWS RE: SELL OUT SESSIONS: Only the Closing Night Mallboy is definitely sold out at this stage, but a number of other sessions are close to sell out, so be careful and get in quick …. (oh, yes, that extra screening of Wadd on Sunday night has sold out).
* * *
Review by Bill Mousoulis:
Violence Elegy (Seijun Suzuki, 1966, Japan) A timid boy becomes a brutal man – and “manhood” in Japan circa 1930s has no relation to womanhood at all. It’s not a question of that “manly” mistreatment of women – it’s a question of the total avoidance of them. This film is violent, but also extremely comic. I love the “Aizu” sequence, where Suzuki cuts into a close-up every time the word is used. This is wild filmmaking. (6)
* * *
SORRY EVERYONE – NO REVIEWS HAVE COME IN TODAY! I think everyone must be whacked from attending the festival …. Look out for our special final report on the Monday, which will have a bit of a wrap-up on the festival. I can report the weather though: sunny and 19 – beautiful Melbourne!
* * *
SESSION NEWS: Some exciting news: due to popular demand, there will be an extra screening of Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, in the F101 slot, i.e. Sunday 7:30 p.m. at the Forum. “Popular demand”??? What is the world coming to? For a Kiarostami? But I guess considering it will be screening against Wadd and Mallboy, maybe this is needed just to balance the universe!
* * *
Reviews by Bill Mousoulis:
L’Age D’Or (Luis Buñuel, 1930, France) This film is a scorcher. Before this year, I hadn’t seen it for over 10 years. I’ve now seen it three times in the last few months, and I can’t get enough of it! The opening two sequences (the scorpions and the soldiers) are somewhat tedious, but after that it’s like one explosion after the other. But it’s not just anarchy or anti-establishment actions on show – there’s also great romantic passion, and even a searing mysticism at times (the dressing table mirror sequence, of course, but also the “sleep” sequence in the park). And what artistry with the soundtrack! For example, in the aforementioned mirror sequence, where music is mixed with the cow’s bell and the dogs’ barking. Or the last sequence, where the insistent (five minutes!) marching drums suddenly give over to the snippet of (ironically triumphant, full of flourish) music that accompanies the film’s killer last shot. This film is unbelievable. (9)
Simon of the Desert (Luis Buñuel, 1965, Mexico) This Buñuel retrospective has taught me that one shouldn’t be too grave regarding Buñuel’s “position” on things, especially on the Church. His portrayal of priests is quite affectionate at times (see the priest-violinist in L’Age D’Or, or the priest-gardener in Discreet Charm), although, of course, cardinals and popes don’t get off as lightly. Simon of the Desert is a fascinating film – a 45-minute essay on sainthood, temptation, the modern world. It is a subtle (and, yes, quite sly) satire on the whole business. And it is much fun. For example, in one scene, Simon is on his pillar, high up in the sky, saying a prayer with his arms outstretched, when he suddenly goes into casual mode, asking: “Where are all the flies today?” Typical Buñuel. (7)
The Exterminating Angel (Luis Buñuel, 1962, Spain) Maybe this film seemed a good idea at the time. It now comes across as a one-joke film, the joke extended to 95 minutes, and simply circling around itself. The central idea is brilliant, but the details are lifeless. I’ve said it in an earlier entry in these reports, but I’ll say it again: Buñuel is essentially a shallow artist. He works best with snippets and juxtapositions. In this film, spending 85 of the 95 minutes trapped with the silly bourgeoisie in the loungeroom, he doesn’t know quite what to do. (5)
High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000, USA) “High fidelity / Can you hear me?” is one of the great lyric-lines ever. Strangely, this film doesn’t reference the Elvis Costello song it’s taken its title from. But there are many other songs referenced – this film is a music-freak’s delight. And there’s something very rewarding cinematically about giving much screen time to a record store location. And I’ve always wanted to seat Bruce Springsteen next to Stiff Little Fingers. But these are all minor, incidental pleasures – the film itself is very flawed. The characters are demeaned, and the story is shallow. (5)
* * *
Review by Rhys Graham:
Benjamin Smoke (Jem Cohen, Peter Sillen, 1999, USA) I have to confess that I am a bit one-eyed when it comes to the work of Jem Cohen. He has made several of what I consider to be the most exceptional films of the last decade. Instrument, his collaboration with Washington group Fugazi, and his most widely released work, is a layered document of inspired activity and expression that creates a sense of beauty and intimacy that is usually alien to ‘musical documentary’ (a loose label if ever there was one). A number of his super-8/video works exploring the cityscape such as Lost Book Found, Amber City (also at the festival) and Buried in Light – Eastern Europe in Passing are like a poetic archive of shifting impressions of movement and memories. Something like what Simon Schama calls ‘the archive of the feet’. His films are consistently based in a fluid and beautiful interweaving of image (he prolifically shoots his own material) and text that makes the viewing experience something quite distinct from ‘documentary’, ‘narrative’ or ‘experimental’ film. Like the best cinema, they weave their own stories and sense of space.
With Benjamin Smoke, the movement through a physical space is replaced with a fragile portrait of a man who spends most of his time sitting, or confined in his room. This film was directed, shot and edited by Cohen and fellow filmmaker Pete Sillen. They worked collaboratively in all elements of the film, but the project had its beginnings in super 8 shot by Cohen of an underground musician from Atlanta called Benjamin. Benjamin, singer in the Georgia group, Smoke, is a self confessed ‘fag’, ‘speedfreak’ and ‘dragqueen’. He is also very ill from the effects of AIDS. Despite his frailty, his life is an urgent performance of the soulful music that he plays alongside a group of young musicians from around his home in ‘Cabbagetown’. The setting is bleak – but like another Festival gem George Washington – the grimness of the surroundings doesn’t distance the viewer… but is compelling for its grace.
Benjamin’s extreme charm and dry wit carry the extended monologues. He is an extreme character but he is also one who is prepared to lay himself bare, and unlike many documentary portraits, there is a sense that he is complicit in his own vulnerability, and is never taken advantage of through exposing himself, his illness, or his crazed life. The film was shot in parts over a decade and is assembled from visual and aural fragments that from shot to shot and scene to scene move freely in time and place. However, lengthy sequences of Smoke performing allow Benjamin’s music to come to the fore. These are essential in letting us see glimmers from beneath his ‘performed’ life, and into the individual for whom the act of ‘playing’ is so important. Benjamin is a tragic figure, and the film sadly serves as his obituary. Yet, it is humble and intimate, and unlike many cinema portraits it creates a shared confidence between Benjamin, the filmmakers and the audience that is vital.
* * *
Review by Ryan Lynch:
“Citadel” program Being one of the most avant-garde packages presented at this year’s festival, it was wonderful to see a packed house last night at the Treasury Theatre for “Citadel”. They witnessed six remarkable films all of which took the city – or the Citadel – as their central theme. These films radically departed from the ‘city symphonies’ of the modern era to present the metropolis in a variety of modes (experimental, quasi-documentary, essayist, etc.) through various media (digital animation, surveillance footage, scratched celluloid, etc.).
Scrutiny presents a hyper-kinetic view of the Citadel, juxtaposing fast-motion images of urban spaces with abstracted ‘doubles’ of these very same spaces, often depicted through frenetic geometric shapes and scratched-on-print incarnations.
non-places represents the opposite end of the spectrum: a finely wrought minimalist portrayal of empty urban spaces punctuated with narrative (divulged by subtitles). The non-places take on a character of their own and when a human figure eventually enters the space it seems like an invasion.
Rhythmus 99 reveals the potentialities of digital animation in its sublime impression of the metropolis. Hypnotic in its imagery, the film also reveals a dystopian world view which is endemic of our postmodern age.
Suicide Box is a wickedly funny and disturbingly cynical look at the ‘suicide culture’ of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco – as seen through the eyes of a surveillance camera. Surveillance footage is combined with scenes of conviviality (such as tourism) on the bridge to create an unsettling view of the bridge’s ‘predicament’. Using constant police radio talk and intertitles which vituperate the beaureacracy involved, Suicide Box makes you laugh at times but forces you to acknowledge the desperation of the situation represented.
Jaunt is a hyperbolized version of a touristic river cruise down the Thames. Using manic voice-overs to satirize an array of stereotypical personas on the ‘cruise’, this film hilariously exaggerates a seemingly normal experience into something verging on farcical.
Amber City was the highlight of the package. Drawing much influence from the essayist films of Chris Marker (most notably Sans Soleil), filmmaker Jem Cohen presents a beautifully poetic – if haunting – depiction of an ‘anonymous’ city in Italy. Attempting to deduce the locale is part of the spectator’s contribution to the interpretation of this piece, but it plays part in a bigger scheme of absorbing the power of the individual images and their purpose. Cohen meditates on the town’s spaces and the people who inhabit it, forcing us to look beyond the surface of the image to something hidden deeper beneath it, creating new meaning. Though very much reliant on its visuals, Amber City is told through the device of anonymous voice-over narration which contribute towards achieving a immense sense of milieu and people’s interaction with it. The final revelation of the town’s name displaces the spectator forcing us to see the town in a different light than what we are used to. A remarkable film.
Congratulations to the crew at Experimenta for putting the wonderful “Citadel” program together – this is what film festivals are all about.
* * *
SESSION NEWS: Extra screening of Wadd: the Life and Times of John C. Holmes – in T101 (ie. Treasury Theatre, 7:00 pm, Closing Night). And Water Drops on Burning Rocks has definitely arrived in the country – it will be screening in the C100 slot (replacing Innocence). SOLD OUT SESSIONS: V82 (tonight’s High Fidelity), V83 (tonight’s The Ninth Gate), both Closing Night sessions of Mallboy. SELLING FAST: V87 (Million Dollar Hotel), C87 (Hotel Splendide), T87 (Peepshow), V91 (The Ninth Gate), T94 (The Diplomat), V95 (Better Than Sex).
* * *
Review by Rhys Graham:
Blown in With the Wind (Andrei Osipov, 2000, Russia) Like Dutch Harbour (Braden King & Laura Moya, 1997) which screened at last year’s festival, this poetic documentary explores life at the limits of civilization. Filmmaker Andrei Osipov explores the relationship between individuals and a merciless landscape that is at odds with human inhabitation. The tiny fishing town of Shoina in arctic northern Russia exists in a strange world of frozen windswept sands and icy seas. For half the year, the arctic winds buffet the town and coat the houses, roads, and the lives of the townsfolk with layer upon layer of sand. This makes for a spectacularly beautiful landscape and the film exploits the barrenness of the landscape and the isolation of the pockets of civilization. Clearly, this region has long fascinated Russian filmmakers and Osipov intertwines archival footage taken during an era of greater prosperity, with bleak present day images of a town in stasis. Watching one man slowly shovel sand away from the windows of his house with acceptance and resignation is both impressive and deeply sad.
The Festival notes suggest this is Tarkovskian in it’s lyricism, but, although this film creates a sense of immersion in the visual space, it is at it’s strongest in the moments of character narration. And unlike Tarkovsky, this is a somewhat more fractured, disparate affair with the common element being geographical rather than emotional. The extraordinary moments of this film exist in the reflections of the townsfolk. The landscape and the isolation give rise to reflective musings that, for one character, are intelligent, sensitive thoughts on present day Russia, Dostoevsky vs. Turgenev, and existence in solitude, and for another are the tears of a lifetime of hardship. Blown in with the Wind revels in the visual beauty of its subject but, in focusing on the hardships endured by the inhabitants of Shoina, and the grim impact of the elements, the film creates a portrait of physical and emotional endurance that is striking. This is a delicate documentary that creates a poetic impression of landscape and lived space without ever cementing itself into a fixed path.
* * *
Review by Fiona A. Villella:
Time Regained (Raoul Ruiz, 1999, France) This is an immaculate and exquisite work of art. Ruiz fulfills his long-held desire to film Proust’s work with real accomplishment and virtuosity. Time Regained appears to be his most classical film; but poignant and intriguing at every turn. The entire film moves like a dream: shifts in time are triggered by sounds and smells and thoughts; camera angles, camera movement and film stock continually suggest and heighten this distorted and dream-like feel. The cinematography, set design and all performances are superb and spot-on. A festival highlight.
* * *
Review by Alister Shew:
Tuvalu (Veit Helmer, 1999, Germany) Following the short that opened this session, a nervous Sandra Sdraulig took the stage to announce that the print had not yet arrived, but PLEASE WAIT as it was “in Brunswick” and would be here very soon. Brought back memories of last year’s Festival trailer, without the futurismo trappings. Soon afterwards she appeased the restless crowd with free choctops, the mass-crunching of which filled the air for the first ten minutes of this “almost silent” feature. Tuvalu is essentially a reworking of classic silent comedy, with production design and cinematography reminiscent of Jeunet+Caro’s gothic decrepitude and Guy Maddin’s fever dreams. It’s of particular interest at this time to see another side of Denis Lavant, following his extraordinary performance in Beau Travail. Here he’s a clowning, pixie-ish man-child, an utter contrast to his tightly-coiled portrayal of quiet loathing in Claire Denis’ film. This is a very cartoonish, fairy-tale sort of film, and the melodramatic mugging the actors use to display their every thought becomes a little irritating. Its saving grace, though, is a stream of often very inventive sight gags, edited at such a pace that there’s little time to ponder the point of it all. In the end, it’s light entertainment, but accomplished with considerable skill, giving the simple pleasure of watching the performance of a really good juggler.
* * *
Review by Ryan Lynch:
Speaking of Buñuel (Jose Luis Lopez Linares / Javier Rioyo, 1999, Spain) A tenderly drawn portrait of the great director, Luis Buñuel, which aims to demystify this enigmatic character through a well-crafted exposition juxtaposing the public Buñuel with the private Buñuel. This documentary traces the development of his career as a director ranging from his origins in the Surrealist movement in Paris in the late 1920s, to his self-imposed exile in Mexico in the 1930s, up until his return to his native Spain in the early 1960s and his following fruitful period back in France there onwards.
Speaking Of Buñuel does not fall victim to the hagiographic trends which mark most docos of this ilk, it aims to go beyond simply telling his life story. For example, in tracing the origins of the Surrealist group, it explains that Buñuel, whilst a part of that group, was somehow transcendent of the materialist manifestations of the group proper. The doco also dispels myths about Buñuel such as his supposed anti-clericalism (“I may criticise the Church but I do so affectionately”) and his alleged perversity in real life (when he was actually quite the opposite).
Speaking of Buñuel chose footage from his films which functioned well towards getting an understanding of his thematic and stylistic motifs employed throughout his oeuvre. This footage is counterbalanced well with some wonderful interviews with his family, friends, and colleagues, such as the screenwriter/novelist Jean-Claude Carriere – a close friend and colleague of Buñuel whom he held the deepest respect for. The anecdotes told are hilariously funny and remain consistent with the nature of Buñuel himself. A fitting paean to a deserving director.
* * *
Reviews by Bill Mousoulis:
Speaking of Buñuel (Jose Luis Lopez Linares / Javier Rioyo, 1999, Spain) For a 90-minute documentary, this is a fast-paced and rich collection of interviews and clips. (At times too fast – witness the L’Age D’or section.) It juxtaposes Buñuel’s own voice-over (acted, the reading of extracts from My Last Sigh) with clips from his films (which illustrate real-life incidents) with various interviews (from the present and past, including with Buñuel). A collage effect is almost produced, and I’m sure this would have pleased the Don. The film doesn’t try to eulogise him – it shows him as a light character, full of paradoxes. (For example, there’s his close friendship with a priest in the weeks leading up to his death – what one would do to be a fly on the wall there!) (6)
Janice Beard: 45 WPM (Clare Kilner, 1999, UK) I have a dream film in my head: a rites-of-passage realist drama centred around a young woman (say, 25) who is plain, a bit naive, resourceful, who has to undergo a crisis of some sort, and then makes it through to the bitter-sweet other side, with her heart and mind intact, and with a positive outlook still in place. Janice Beard: 45 WPM isn’t quite this film, but it’s a pleasing stab at the genre. The plot is pretty silly, and it aims for comedy rather than impressionistic drama, but the presence of Eileen Walsh as Janice is really wonderful. There she is: plain, kooky, spirited – my type of heroine! (7)
* * *
Reviews by Rose Capp:
Djomeh (Hassan Yektapanah, 2000, Iran) One of the few redeeming moments in Wim Wenders’ woefully self-indulgent documentary Berlin: Cinema comes in the opening scene, when the filmmaker remarks on the excitement he still feels when simply watching something enter or exit the frame. This fundamental, kinetic pleasure afforded by the cinema seems to inform the wonderfully understated Iranian film Djomeh. This utterly charming story of a young Afghanstani man trying to adapt to his new surroundings in rural Iran, is marked, as with much contempoary Iranian cinema, by observing the measured exits and entrances, the daily rituals and minutiae of Iranian life. Djomeh’s youthful romanticism is constrasted with the hardened cynicism of his older work colleagues at the dairy. Most of the films’s lengthy exhanges take place between Djomeh and the middle-aged Mr Mahmoud while on the road to neighboring villages. It is here that the characters reflect on amongst other things, romance, marriage, cultural differences and masculine identity. The lead actor’s standout performance makes Djomeh’s attempts to woo a local Iranian girl a profoundly moving screen experience. Hassan Yetktapanah puts his experience with Kiarostami to good service in directing a film that I’d argue, is more satisfying than the the latter’s most recent offering The Wind Will Carry Us.
Eureka (Shinji Aoyama, 2000, Japan) It was a tough decision: whether to revist two Buñuel classics or to tackle the movie marathon, Eureka. I’m glad I chose the latter. The film’s evocative black and white cinematography, leisurely pace and unnerving combination of melodrama and serial killer narratives makes it an oddly compelling viewing experience. Scenes are played out at length, dialogue is minimal, often to the point of frustration, and the small town where most of the action takes place has a distinctly Lynchian, Twin Peaks surreal feel to it. Worth the long haul.
* * *
Review by Mark Freeman:
Titus (Julie Taymor USA 1999) Even geniuses are allowed to slip up now and then, and clearly Titus Andronicus is the exception to the rule for Shakespeare. Written early in his career, and clearly aimed at gaining attention rather than crafting with subtlety, the play is a grim revenge drama with a bitter sense of humour and features so much dismemberment and lopping of hands that audiences must feel guilty clapping the performers at the conclusion of the play. Considering the source material is not the greatest it comes as no surprise that Julie Taymor’s film version, Titus, is a muddled, absurd, ludicrous effort. It is so ridiculous that it encourages laughs even when they’re not called for. The only thing truly awesome in this film is the number of other films she has stolen from. We start with Michael Jackson’s film clip for ‘Bad’, move into McKellen’s Richard III, which segues weirdly into West Side Story, Evita and Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. The rest of the film includes Fellini’s Satyricon, The Matrix, Edward Scissorhands, The Silence of the Lambs and The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover. Nor should we forget the obligatory child courtesy of Spielberg a la Empire of the Sun. Get that? This should give you some indication of what a mess this film is – the performances are generally appalling (I couldn’t help but give a silent cheer when Titus’ daughter loses her tongue – now we don’t have to hear her speak!), although Jessica Lange is pretty good as the vengeful Tamora. But this is a big dumb stupid film that uses spectacle and sonic engulfment to sway you. Don’t be. This film is the true horror, not serving up children in large smoking pastries. Play spot the influence and it can be fun, but as a piece of filmmaking, it’s really, really shabby.
* * *
Review by Fiona A. Villella:
Nang Nak (Nonzee Nimibutr, 1999, Thailand) This was a wonderful supernatural film with a distinctly human dimension. Wonderful fusion of thematic and formal elements made this a poignant and tender film though, at times, the hyped, horror-style special effects and editing detracted from its overall ethereal sensibility.
* * *
Reviews by Bill Mousoulis:
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel, 1972, France) L’Age D’or, in the early ’30s, could have been a once-off, as the subsequent decade or so was proving. But Buñuel came back and had a great career in his 50s, 60s and 70s, his vision very much intact. This film could easily be compared to L’Age D’or. It is like an older, wiser, subtler version of some of its themes. It is quite fun watching the stars in this galaxy revolve around each other and be invaded by all types of strange aliens (a bishop-gardener-murderer) and black holes (dreams within dreams). (7)
Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, 1961, Spain) Not sure what this film is doing in this “The Surreal Feel” retrospective – it works within a more finely-tuned social/political framework. There seems to be a Vertigo influence running through it at times, especially in the casting of Sylvia Panal. There’s no doubt that characterisations in Buñuel lack depth and believability, and that his narrative structuring is quite wayward, but there’s also no doubt that he was a cinema genius, able to juxtapose themes and styles in unique and exciting ways. (7)
George Washington (David Gordon Green, 2000, USA) This is by a young film director (25 or so), and it will be interesting to see what becomes of him. There’s no doubt he possesses some talent, but it is quite raw (this film drifts badly) and somewhat uncertain (interesting formal devices sit next to more conventional techniques). The film is too ambitious – the characters seem older than the actors, and the acting can’t quite bridge that gap. That said, to have a film propelled by the poignant, Badlands-esque narration by an 11-year-old girl shows some imagination. (5)
* * *
Reviews by Bill Mousoulis:
Audition (Miike Takashi, 1999, Japan) The casting couch will never be the same again. A film producer’s audition ruse backfires horribly on him – moral of the story: be honest from the very start. Like in Eureka, a childhood primal scene forms a murderous personality in an otherwise normal character. To the extent that the killer (girl) in the film is totally blind to her victim’s good intentions. A very impressive performance by the actress too, in both innocent and evil modes. Her torture methods had dozens leaving the cinema. It seems they couldn’t tell the difference between reality and cinema. How would these very people react in a real life torture situation? A director to watch. (6)
Djomeh (Hassan Yektapanah, 2000, Iran) Debut film from this Iranian director, with few of the flourishes found in Kiarostami or the Makhmalbafs – a simple story, a simple style. The 20-year-old lad in the story finds himself in a tough situation, and he handles it with dignity and clarity. The social and cultural conditions around him eventually overwhelm him, but there is a sense that he’ll make it through. This film has a quiet power to it. (6)
* * *
Review by Fiona A. Villella:
Audition (Miike Takashi, 1999, Japan) A film of supreme formal clarity and ingenuity. Like any Hitchcock film, the audience is twisted and turned, manipulated and shocked at every plot turn in a slow build up of narrative information and truth. In fact, the gruesome torture of the main character could be taken as a parody of the audience’s manipulation itself. And like the main character, we are in a heightened dream state, inviting or wanting this torture inflicted upon us. Just one example of Audition‘s brilliant self-reflexivity and parody of the very process of filmmaking and voyeurism, and the simultaneous gulf and inter-meshing between reality and dream. An extremely suspenseful and engrossing film. Above all, Audition is a brilliant parody.
* * *
Review by Mark Freeman:
American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000, USA) The controversy that surrounded the publication of the novel will no doubt be replicated once Mary Harron’s American Psycho gains a general release in a couple of weeks. I would hope that amidst the outcries of violence and misogyny and contravention of ‘family values’ (whatever the hell THAT means) that people actually take the time to look at the film carefully, intelligently and without hysteria. Because American Psycho is a cunning, deadly, riotous comedy – as black as Patrick Bateman’s heart. Harron’s touch is far more deft than with her earlier hit-and-miss effort I Shot Andy Warhol. In this film the irony and humour is laid out liberally, so that it is possible to laugh even though we find ourselves in the midst of the most horrific circumstances. Where American Psycho scores the most points is in its brutal dissection of the ‘Wall Street’ milieu of the ’80s – this is Gordon Gecko taken to the extreme. The film begs the question: what are the more horrific acts – the emotionless murders committed by a man clearly insane, or the cool, assured racism, the brutal viciousness and bitchery of these moneyed horrors towards themselves and others? This is a clever film, a film that should have you laughing loudly, as long as you go in there knowing that it’s OK to laugh. The violence is brutal, but not to the standard of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel, and the performances, almost all stretched to distorted crazy mirror extremes, work perfectly with the hyper-real tone of the film. American Psycho is brutal, nasty, hilarious and brilliant. Worth it from the tongue-in-cheek opening credits to the final frame, this is a film that exposes more than just the workings of a serial killer – it slices open the belly of society for us all to see. And it’s not that pretty.
* * *
Review by Dmetri Kakmi:
The Eyes of Tammy Faye (Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, 1999, USA) This is Dynasty a la Christianne — religion, sex, temptation, avarice, money, the rise and fall of an earthly empire catering for kingdom come. An engrossing documentary about one of the most reviled women of the last decade also turns out to be a revealing document on how media can manipulate our perceptions about the personalities who choose to submit themselves to its hungry eye.
Is the picture presented here of Tammy Faye any truer than the one flashed around the world a decade ago when she and her husband paraded their private lives on television? I’ve no idea. But what I didn’t expect was to come out of this really liking Tammy Faye. Listening to her often-tearful commentary on the scandal that rocked the American pop culture landscape, you find yourself truly liking this totally original woman.
The documentary brought to mind Edith Piaf’s famous proclamation, ‘Use your faults, use your defects then you¹re going to be a star.’ Tammy Faye is a grotesque. There is no reason why she should captivate as she does. She is kitsch personified but, as we see during a photo shoot with Greg Gorman, she is also canny enough to know how to manipulate her public persona to create an iconic image for our times. She intuitively knows that the public will respond to a weeping mother, no matter how freakish she may appear. She also projects and image of open heartedness and contradiction that makes her totally human. Like Princess Diana, we can delude ourselves into believing that she is ‘one of us’.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye answers a lot of questions about this enigmatic woman, but it I still want to know one thing: Why is it that when God gives people faith, he doesn’t give them some good taste as well? I mean those clothes! Those fright wigs! That Franco Cozzo furniture! Could this be a foretaste of heaven?
* * *
Reviews by Mark Freeman:
Wisconsin Death Trip (James Marsh, 1999, USA) This documentary narrated by Ian Holm covers the extraordinary events that occurred in and around Black River Falls, Wisconsin, between 1890 and 1900. For some inexplicable reason, reasons never investigated by the documentary itself, Wisconsin found itself in the grip of a crime wave, with murder, suicide and madness apparently overwhelming the population. It’s certainly interesting, as we chart mystery after mystery – the thirteen year old boy on a murder spree, the diphtheria that killed countless children, the murder/suicides inspired by a broken heart. But the presentation of these intriguing dramas is where Wisconsin Death Trip comes unstuck. These events are quite extraordinary, yet they are placed in no context, are not discussed or analysed or investigated – they merely lie flatly on the screen. This may be an effective device if we were just viewing one or two cases, but Wisconsin Death Trip covers a new situation every couple of minutes – the sheer weight of unexplored material denies us the opportunity to speculate with any depth. The reconstructions also detract from the film, but the use of archival material and Holm’s excellent narration keep you involved. It’s a fascinating period of time, with some extraordinary stories. But Wisconsin Death Trip resolutely refuses analysis or contextualisation, and suffers as a result.
My Mother Frank (Mark Lamprell, 2000, Australia) My Mother Frank is a welcome addition to a select group of successful comedies in this country, a genre we seem to struggle with. But Lamprell’s film shows no hesitancy or indecision, borrowing a little from our comedic past, and turning out something refreshing and original into the bargain.
Frank (Sinead Cusack) begins as something of a beast – she is a harsh, bitter woman, mourning the loss of her husband, clinging desperately to her son David (Matthew Newton), linking his independence inextricably with her own redundancy. And these early sequences, whilst making a monster of Frank as she charges through rooms, slamming doors, berating her children, also allows us to see this character in all her colours. It would be too simplistic to leave her as she begins, cartoonish and larger than anything else on the screen, and Lamprell tempers her as the film progresses. Events continue to stretch our perceptions of her, and her complexity is what makes My Mother Frank such a fascinating, rich experience. Cusack is so assured, and so brittle all at once that it’s easy to spy Frank’s weakness when she appears strong, her strength at moments of insecurity and loss. She is a major force behind this film, a coup in casting and a triumph in execution.
But whilst My Mother Frank is essentially a comedy, and a good one, its segue into drama does not seem a cynical attempt to give the film depth – the drama is as effectively moving as the comedy is amusing, and the film benefits from the shifting tones of the narrative. Melissa Jaffer and Jean Lord as a couple of nuns get the best laughs – Jaffer in particular – and Lamprell again cleverly refuses to let these women remain in the comedic straightjacket he initially makes for them. Once they gain our affection, with their rhythmic, repetitive speech patterns and stern assumptions of protocol, their later more dramatic moments carry a significant impact; indeed Lord’s scene with Cusack as she recovers from eye surgery is one of the most moving in the film.
And whilst its easy to praise the film for its exemplary performances (there is also excellent support from the likes of Lynette Curran, Matthew Newton and Sacha Horler) and for it’s beautifully written script, what is most fascinating about the film is the visual style Lamprell adopts. It’s almost as if we have stepped into the cinema of Almodovar – the world of My Mother Frank is one of crisp, clear lines and stark primary colours. Each small community in the film adopts a distinct colour scheme. David and his university friends wear glaringly bright, vital colours – the object of his desire Jenny (Rose Byrne) sports bright canary yellows, alive with floral motifs. The nuns achieve a sort of neutrality with their drab brown habits, but most striking is the shift into the ethereal fantasy world of Frank’s contemporaries, society matrons all dressed in white. They are colourless and ghostly, mouthing platitudes that they forget the moment they are uttered, existing in a frosted universe seemingly devoid of warmth, life, colour. Frank does not belong with these vacuous ciphers, although it’s clear that daughter Margaret (Sacha Horler) has embraced their pretence. This interaction between these three worlds gives My Mother Frank a tremendous backdrop for the rest of the film, and the disparity of the ‘tribes’ as Lamprell calls them, suggests a subjective narrative perspective – this is an imagined reality.
It’s true there is an unfortunate similarity to Educating Rita – Cusack sports the accent, and the flip, throwaway delivery of her Julie Walters counterpart, and Sam Neill’s university professor does slide dangerously into caricature, right down to the shaggy hair and leather elbow pads. But the script is so lively, the direction so impressive and assured that these minor missteps mean little. The title may be the weakest joke in the film, because the rest of it works perfectly, combining refreshing comedy with a worthy, literate pathos. Worth seeing, worth enjoying, My Mother Frank perhaps heralds a more sophisticated direction in Australian comedy.
* * *
Review by Jo Kennedy:
Skin of Man, Heart of Beast (Hélène Angel, 1999, France) Skin of Man, Heart of Beast is a stunning piece of work. At times unervingly harrowing, it is the story of a family in denial. A son who left 15 years earlier returns to the family home. The story narrated by a teenage girl is a cry from the heart. It is both bold and inventive.
* * *
Reviews by Bill Mousoulis:
Nenette et Boni (Claire Denis, 1996, France) After the coolness of I Can’t Sleep, Denis obviously decided to adopt a more intimate style for this film: the compositions are tight, the camera searches for the characters. And what faces it finds! It’s clearly Boni’s film, and his characterisation is really rich. Denis piles on the realistic, troubled details, some of them unexplained, and then, in one scene, she just lets go and it’s pure fantasy: the baker and his wife do a sublime eye-jig to the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”. (7)
Eureka (Shinji Aoyama, 2000, Japan) There’s something beautiful about this film, the way it stretches its timeframe to the 3 and a half hour mark. Not that it entirely works however – the stilted quality is to the film’s detriment a lot of the time. But occasionally the film goes in for “money shots”, and they work well. It’s somewhat in the Kitano register, but without actually showing us the violence. (6)
* * *
Reviews by Bill Mousoulis:
Throne of Death (Murali Nair, 1999, India) This film is wicked. In the course of just 60 minutes, it morphs from a Satyajit Ray-like humanist document to the wildest anti-state and anti-American black comedy you could imagine. It is as daring as all hell, seemingly stripping the main character of all his dignity, just in order to make a political point. But it’s complex too: the “marytred” man’s presence permeates the film even when the film is in satire mode, and his wife is painfully aware at all times of what is happening. As a film that hybridises dramatic and satiric modes, and then clearly transcends them with a mysterious, spooky power, this is right up there with Haynes’ Safe. (8)
The Wind Will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami, 1999, Iran) It seems that Taste of Cherry has inaugurated a new cycle of films/concerns for Kiarostami, as this film is clearly working off it, quoting it, reworking its key themes, etc. But it’s quite different and unique too. The Iranian obsession with highlighting the cinematic apparatus (simultaneously with filming a story) is still here, but so craftily woven into the narrative that only keen observers will pick it up. And it is riotously funny. Even Godard in the ’60s was never this funny when it came to provocative narrative construction. But this film is also very poetic, and moving (but mainly afterwards, and always surprisingly). The last scene is sublime, and undoubtedly a nod to Bresson’s Mouchette. But there is so much to this film that one could talk about it forever. There is no other director working in the world today who is as formally inventive as this. (9)
Songs From the Second Floor (Roy Andersson, 2000, Sweden) With my head still swimming in the Kiarostami, I was never going to get much out of this film. This is High Black Art, with all manner of grotesqueries on show. Stunningly filmed in widescreen tableaux (which run for several minutes each), this is a wild surrealist parade, ultimately superficial. Not my cup of tea, but undeniably strong. (6)
* * *
Reviews from Rose Capp:
Witchcraft (Hrafn Gunnlaugsson, 1999, Iceland)
Audition (Miike Takashi, 1999, Japan)
Having seen Audition and Witchcraft on consecutive days, I began to wonder whether castration anxiety was making a serious comeback at MIFF (Has it ever gone away?!). Both films star nubile young women who, for reasons best not revealed for reviewing purposes, exact bloody revenge for perceived injustices at the hands of manipulative men. Audition initially presents as a compellingly understated scenario of male mid-life crisis-Japanese style. Mild mannered middle-aged exec Aoyama contemplates remarriage after the death of his wife, and becomes increasingly fixated with an enigmatic young woman, who in the best Hitchcockian tradition, is clearly not at all what she seems. Asami’s virginal beauty and inpenetrable persona represents a contemporary Japanese take on the femme fatale-on the surface, serenity exemplified but underneath, a mass of seething resentment and repressed sexuality. The repercussions of her childhood traumas drive the film to its literally shocking conclusion, making reference along the way not only to Hitchcock, but also Scorsese’s After Hours. Takashi Milke’s assured and witty direction steers the audience progressively from benign melodrama through to much darker shades of the thriller/horror tradition, aided by the wonderful work of cinematographer Yamamoto Hideo (Hana-bi, Ring 2).
Witchcraft, as with Audition, is underpinned by masculine fears and anxieties about the power of female sexuality, in this case in the context of repressive religious ideology in 17th century Iceland. This film creates a vivid impression of the harsh living conditions of Icelandic life, contrasting the pristine beauty of the vast frozen landscape with the dimly lit and filthy hovels in which a small community live out their meagre existence. The film equally addresses the unforgiving moral climate of the period, where accusations of sorcery can result in a swift and very public trial and execution. The central character-a young and passionate priest Jon Magnusson-is thus posted to a remote community, and in the face of rejection from a beautiful young woman Thorid, becomes obsessed with proving she is in fact Satan’s messenger. The film conveys very powerfully how the social conditions of the period allowed this sort of fanaticism to flourish, teasing out the blurring of boundaries between Christian beliefs, mysticism and natural healing practices while simultaneously providing a satisfying if thoroughly gruesome form of compensation for the wrongly accused Thorid. Not for the faint-hearted!
* * *
Reviews by Dmetri Kakmi:
The Wind Will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami, 1999, Iran) Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh is one of my most treasured movie experiences, a true cinematic masterpiece that deserves wider recognition. However, almost every other film that I have seen from Iran has since disappointed me. I disliked Majidis Children of Heaven for its obviousness, and failed to be enthused by Kiarostami’s previous film, Taste of Cherry. His new film, The Wind Will Carry Us, has made me doubly cautious of the current Western fad in exotic foreign films.
The Wind Will Carry Us is exactly the sort of go-nowhere, too-pretty-for-its-own-good rural vignette Western middle-class film festival subscribers will flock to. They will sit there nodding their big heads and clucking their thick tongues at the ‘earthy wisdom’ of these ‘simple peoples’ who are in touch with ‘the gentle rhythms of nature’. And they will briefly decry the ‘simple values’ industrialised nations have lost before they storm into the next film on their busy agendas. All very well if you are well fed and know where your next dollar is coming from, but not so good if you live in a dying rural community.
Iran is the land of poetry. It is home to centuries of mystical ruminations and observances of life, love and death embedded into the very breath of its culture. Kiarostami has his characters mouth these sublime works in the course of his film, but he fails to observe one important thing: in a sparse, direct manner, the poems are all about clarity of vision; his endless film is still rattling around in a dark cave.
The French have a word for art of this sort art: banal. After sitting though 2 hours of this meandering, pointless waffle, I wanted to rush out and see X Men.
Mr Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr (Errol Morris, 1999, USA) Nerdy geek Fred Leuchter is an ‘execution technician’ who devotes his life to perfecting the electric chair, the gallows, the lethal injection that will help pass criminals into the next world with as little physical damage as possible, and with as much of their dignity intact. This he well succeeds in achieving, but it’s when he testifies that the Auschwitz atrocities never took place that his life well and truly changes for the worse.
Throughout this 96 minute documentary, Leuchter comes across as a deluded man well and truly out of his depth, and swept up in events beyond his comprehension. At various times people testify that he is an anti-Semite, and full of hate for making his erroneous claims. But the man we see before us is nothing more than an insignificant little man who saw his one chance in life to leave a mark on the pages of history and grabbed it without thinking of the consequences of his actions. Pride and arrogance did the rest. For this he is branded an anti-Semite, a neo-Nazi and his life is slowly destroyed by the invisible might of Jewish influence. In the end, all we are left with is a sad, bewildered creature with a shattered life, a broken marriage, wandering the highways, homeless and without means to make a livelihood.
This is a grim little documentary about arrogance and excessive pride. But it is also a document about the power and influence of Zionism in the modern world. Far from being the persecuted, the documentary is saying, they are now the oppressors, not only of Palestinians but also of inconsequential people who step out of line.
* * *
Review by Rhys Graham:
My Best Fiend (Werner Herzog, 1999, Germany) Werner Herzog’s new film is an intensely enjoyable footnote to his best known works and, more importantly, to his notoriously fiery relationship with the actor Klaus Kinski. Herzog’s skills as a story-teller form the foundation of this excellent documentary as he narrates his recollections of the worst, and much less frequently, the best of Kinski. Their volatile artistic collaboration extended over several films but, in focusing on the nature of megalomania, Herzog tends to emphasise the two films that embody this notion; Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. Excerpts from these films are placed with a sense of timing emerging directly from the work of a great narrative dramatist. And there is a strong sense of the comic and the tragic at work. As he wanders around the sites of their past – the jungles of Peru, Prague city squares, apartments in Berlin (where, impressively, Kinski lived naked amid three feet of dead leaves covering the floor) – Herzog relishes the opportunity to show Kinski as an egomaniac, a coward, and a madman. However, his genius as a performer goes undisputed throughout the film. It is insanity and the ruins of friendship and collaboration that interest Herzog.
Kinski’s rolling eyes, the discussions of his little known fears, and the archival footage of his wild rages and outrageous vanity would make this film watchable with the worst direction. However, with Herzog at the helm, he post-humously uses Kinski as a vehicle to explore what Kinski, in life, embodied in his performance. Revealing the darkness and madness that dwells beneath the skin, and displaying the great excesses of the powerful and megalomaniac. This portrait of the fiend-ship of Kinski and Herzog reveals two men who, in life, are not dissimilar to the men that entranced them in fiction. There is something disturbing and darkly comic in watching the mania of Kinski’s Fitzcarraldo and hearing Herzog attest that he could and would have played the part without Kinski. They are two sides of the same coin. And their dependence is reflected in their constant return to each others side, regardless of the death-threats, rages and the stony silences that followed the completion of a shoot..
Fortunately for Herzog, his privileged status as narrator and the inability of Kinski to counter his stories allows the director’s more notorious acts -threatening to murder Herzog when he tried to abandon the production of Fitzcarraldo, and trying to firebomb Kinski’s house – to appear as amusing, even endearing. Kinski, on the other hand emerges as the maniac that, by all accounts, he was. Unfortunately, this film will not be screening again.
* * *
Comment by Rhys Graham:
Notes on the Festival Club It’s a shame that the festive spirit that dominates our lives for two weeks in July doesn’t seem to stretch to the “festival club”. At around five o’clock on Saturday afternoon I dropped into the festival club for the first time only to witness an event that shamed me and made me leave within ten minutes of arriving. While people sat around poring over programmes and drinking what must have felt like well-earned drinks, the doors flung open and a kid, not much more than seventeen, came flying through the doors and into the rice paper wall that stands at the front of the “club”. I had my back to this wall as he hit it headlong, tearing through one side of it and dislodging it. There were a couple of other people after him, shouting threats at him, clearly chasing him down. They seemed to clear out after yelling at him from the stairwell but the kid remained inside. He stood up, full of fear and called out, “Can someone call the police?” Now, there must have been hundreds of mobile phones in there but not a one came out. Instead, a terse member of staff came over to him and told him that he couldn’t just come in to the club like that, that he couldn’t barge in. Strangely enough, he can. Particularly in a situation such as this where he clearly needed help or solace. Perhaps it ruffled some feathers, perhaps the “club” staff prefer their “guests” to be of a different calibre. However, I don’t know about you, but if someone is physically propelled through a door and then asks for help in calling the police, they’re probably not trying for laughs. So, quick as a flash, the staff member had security remove him, telling him again that he couldn’t just come barging in, and telling him that if he wanted the police he could go find them. He pleaded, but no cigar. He was thrown out, with great expressions of disgust from the staff. Two people descending the stairs said, “You don’t even have to go to the movies. You can hang around here and catch all the action.” When the staff member was asked if he was being thrown to the wolves, she said he was lying. When she was asked if he was okay, she said, “It doesn’t matter”. Well, it does, and the excuse that he was probably a junkie being chased by other junkies is a disgrace. He was a kid, clearly in distress, who was swiftly escorted from the club as he pleaded for help. I watched him hot-tail it to the police. To me, that indicates he wasn’t bullshitting. To the contrary. Sadly, he made the mistake of entering a room full of people busily waiting for the next film (could it have been The Wind Will Carry Us at 7pm described in the programme as having a “warm, humanist heart”, or the compassionate local project Hurt at 6:30pm). There has been much talk of the festival this year moving toward a more inclusive, popular stance. If the “club” is anything to go by, there’s certainly not enough room for everyone. With their eyes and emotions open to the world, the audiences applaud humanism in the cinema, but it seems that it is better left at the door of the “festival club”.