All film festivals are somewhat outside of culture. They operate to test films on a prospective market, to showcase films from underexposed countries, to celebrate the art form. The concept of a cultural show is old fashioned and has a problematic history but remains an essential vehicle to expose a wide selection of films that would otherwise remain invisible.
The joy of a festival like Edinburgh is the huge diversity of work presented and that one is actively encouraged to look at cinema within its own context, its own world. Cinema history simultaneously becomes a film from the silent period and the film you saw yesterday, no matter what era it was made. This a-historicism is a refreshing antidote to obituary retrospectives or memorial film seasons. It is essential to encourage a discourse with cinema’s history and break down barriers to enjoying and learning from all areas of cinematic culture.
The work of Scottish filmmaker Margaret Tait couldn’t emphasise this more. She is a poet of change, of movement and the passing of time. Her incredible body of work has an accumulative power as she revisits landscapes, homes, villages and people throughout her five-decade career. Her poetry of time recalls the work of Yasujiro Ozu, the Japanese chronicler of change. These films work in a purely cinematic mode, in recording the minute changes over time and by creating an intimate discourse between different ages.
Decline and Degradation
Edinburgh’s feature program takes advantage of its size. It is not a huge survey of contemporary cinema, it doesn’t present a cross section of work produced in any single country (except for Britain), but instead provides a conscientiously selected range of some of the most interesting films made this year or last. The Festival is prepared to buck trends to support difficult works – as with the largely ignored Purple Butterfly (Lou Ye, 2003) – as well as artists’ work in film and video.
One such film was The Gift (Il dono) (2003), the first feature from Italian visual artist Michelangelo Frammartino. It is a mesmerising wordless portrait of a remote village in Calabria where we follow, with an anthropologist’s gaze, the routine of an old man (played by the director’s 93 year-old grandfather). The village, which sits on top of a hill above the sea, has been drained of most of its inhabitants and community. Carefully composed static shots sketch the routines of the inhabitants: parallel to the old man, a young woman is exploited by the men of the village and neglected by her family. In one scene we watch a boy lose his ball to the steep, winding streets of the village – a metaphor for the decline of the community, as inevitable as gravity. Frammartino has described the film as “a report of a disaster in slow motion” and this exacting depiction of the structures of exploitation and decline carry the power of inevitability. Abandoned cars litter the forest and wrecked boats adorn the coastline. But to pursue this reading would be to ignore the film’s tenderness, its delicate and mature handing of sexuality (the old man learns about the woman’s exploitation upon discovering a naked photo of her left at his house) and the act of defiance and generosity, which gives the film its name and its emotional power.
In a similar vein Jake Mahaffy’s War (2004) aims to “archive the remnants and the present decline of an America which nothing will replace” (1). War is a pseudo science fiction film that explores the interlocking routines of four characters who are abandoned in a barren landscape. Shot on hand-cranked black and white 16mm film, the unpredictable fluctuations in the image are central to this requiem for the industrial age. The characters we follow are all loners: a salesman who is so afraid of meeting anyone that he mimes knocking on his house calls, a child who turns the junk yards into play groups, a mechanic paranoid that his huge machine will break down, and a wandering farmer, dutifully repairing endless fence posts pushed out by the cold earth. An intricately crafted soundtrack of character ramblings, abstract sounds and radio evangelists compliment as well as lead the images by defining what it is we are seeing, like the very first line of the film “This is the world after the end of the world”. This is a resolutely handmade film, modest and self-aware, yet epic on its own terms and imbued with a dry sense of humour. War is a beautiful and melancholic film that is obviously in love with the people, places and machines of an America that is quickly disappearing.
The Russian film The Last Train (Alexei German Jr., 2003) unfolds in a similar elegiac tone in its slow journey into the last days of the Second World War, where a German doctor is on his way to the retreating frontline in an attempt to help the wounded. The film is shot in black and white Cinemascope and utilises the full potential of the frame, whether for staging in depth, reframing or to isolate a figure in the centre of the image. The Last Train is markedly different from recent Russian war films that have emphasised the heroic, its use of sound and immersion in the grime of war recalls the late Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985). Still, the tone isn’t of outrage but of resigned acceptance of the futility of war. The final scene of the doctor, sitting in the burnt-out remains of a house, holding a dying woman’s hand, is a powerful image of tenderness in the face of insanity.
Fragments of China
Two new films from China stuck out for different reasons but both were demanding works of remarkable assurance. Passages (Yang Chao, 2004) follows two students heading across China in the ill-fated hope of learning how to growing rare mushrooms to sell on the black market. The trip is unsuccessful however they’re not deterred from their travels. Their home lives offer no comfort and few prospects for the future. Education seems pointless; in one scene a group of people, holding up a truck, stops them but when the leader discovers they are students, he gives them a gift for their journey. The film unfolds in sequence shots that display a great sense of space and isolation. This portrait of a desolate, unforgiving land makes the young students’ attraction to the road distinctly palpable.
One of the standout films of the entire festival for me was the majestic Purple Butterfly, a rich meditation on identity and history. The complex structure weaves together a web of characters whose lives intersect in Shanghai on the verge of the Sino-Japanese War. The film begins in 1928 with the final meeting of a young Chinese woman and a Japanese man; they are ending their affair in the face of growing political tension. Shortly afterwards, the woman’s brother, an anti-Japanese intellectual, is murdered. Then we abruptly move to 1930 and another affair, this time between two young Shanghai residents. In an amazing set piece the lives of the two couples intersect to disastrous consequences. The original couple have already felt the force of social change, the woman is committed to an anti-Japanese resistant movement (called the Purple Butterfly) and the man, reappeared in Shanghai, is now working for Japanese intelligence. The elaborate narrative, filled with missed encounters and double bluffs is elliptically sketched in largely wordless encounters; the audience is thrust into the centre of this chaotic period and has to dig its way out. The rough, handheld shooting style has its own hard-edged elegance, the images often cut between slightly varying perspectives confronting the viewer with a fragmented and contradictory historical reconstruction. The film’s concluding section is one of the most amazing climaxes in contemporary cinema and completely reconfigures the interlocking dramas that have gone before. We are brought out of the personal to witness the social and historical upheaval of this period in Chinese history and the way it totally shattered people’s lives. Purple Butterfly is an unduly neglected film, a staggering exploration of the pressures put on personal lives by politics, nationality and the seismic movements of history.
Critics’ claims of exciting new cinemas often seem slightly deflated when the actual films arrive; they are either not what was claimed or conform to an idea of what exciting new cinema is (i.e. revisions of the French New Wave) without really delving into any new area. Perhaps it is not surprising that formal innovation will follow rather than lead a blossoming film culture. Lisandro Alonso’s debut film La Libertad (2001) seemed to signal the radical formal potential housed in the vibrant Argentina film culture, by working with budgetary imitations rather than against them, and his new film Los Muertos (2004) confirms this. Built from an observational standpoint similar to his debut, this film sophistically manipulates narrative expectations and assumptions. We follow a middle-aged man who, upon his release from prison, travels into the jungle to find his daughter. In the virtuoso first shot, the camera swings through dense undergrowth, the focal length carefully judged, shrouding the image in a sea of grain through which we glimpse the bodies of two boys and the feet of a man. As the journey continues there are hints of the man’s past and reason for incarceration (that he killed the two boys, which adds a shade of menace to his rediscovery of the world. The allusions to events outside of the film fuel doubts about the protagonist but Alonso is primarily fascinated with the journey itself and pointed out at the Festival’s Q & A session that he doesn’t “know what’s happening in the character’s head” or “what will happen after the end of the film”. In a central scene we watch the man kill and gut a goat. Following this entire process serves two purposes: to show that the man knows how to kill, and, perhaps more importantly, to illustrate the filmmaker’s fascination with transformation, with process. This profoundly enigmatic film evokes the menace and wonder of these remote environments with a grace and respect for its subject, the people and landscape that is both challenging and astonishing.
The other standout film from Latin America was the powerhouse documentary A Social Genocide (Memoria del saqueo) (2003) by Fernando E. Solanas, the maker of the legendary revolutionary film The Hours of the Furnaces in 1968. Forget about the picturesque vanity project The Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles, 2004) (the Opening Night film), this is real impassioned political cinema about South America. It delivers a seismic report on the economic and political decline of Argentina, as well as the strength and passion of the people, seen voicing their disapproval and resistance throughout. The film delivers its information with precision and dexterity and a measured fury at the betrayals by politicians (both Argentinean and international) of the Argentinean people. The film explores the creation of a huge invisible population living in poverty and hidden from the general populace (this brings to mind Alonso’s statement about his reason for shooting in the jungle: “I am tired of films made in cities, we have to learn more about people in the rest of Argentina”). A Social Genocide sees a master filmmaker and analyst take up where his earlier explorations of the socio-economic situation in South America leave off, with the benefits of maturity and a focused, impassioned anger about the plight of his people.
The Hungarian director Béla Tarr is a notorious perfectionist working at his own pace so it came as a surprise to see the inclusion of a short film by him in the experimental programme. Prologues (2004) was made for television and is perfectly formed: brief and precise. The film re-enacts a memory of communist Hungary; it consists of a single tracking shot along a queue of people waiting for food. The film must be read in its entirety as the end credits, which list the names of each person who appears, give identity to this invisible community. Jem Cohen’s minimal film Chain (2004) unfolds in a fabricated world of industrial buildings, shopping malls and deserted car parks. We follow two characters, a Japanese businesswoman and a homeless American teenager, whose lives revolve around these dehumanised environments. The film integrates the characters into their landscape seamlessly, creating a tension between what is observed and what is staged, encompassing direct addresses to camera and verité style sequences with the actors interacting with their environment. Similar to Tarr’s film, the credits reveal another side to the images: a huge list of all the places where the film was shot, collaged together into a single world-devouring complex. The tone is hard to pin down: both of the characters, despite the social and economic poverty of their respective lives and environment, are survivors. Cohen shot most of the film clandestinely, integrating the actors into environments and stealing images when he could, reasoning, “these places have taken so much from us that it’s our right to take something back” (2).
One Man Show
Edinburgh is best known in the summer months for its Fringe Festival, a mammoth festival of comedy, music and theatre that fills any venue worth the name. It is pleasing to see the acknowledgement of these activities in the Film Festival with the new film by theatre legend Robert Lepage and a one man show by Malcolm McDowell as part of the Lindsey Anderson tribute.
Far Side of the Moon (2003) is based on Lepage’s play of the same name and follows the divided lives of two brothers. Here Lepage plays the two principle characters, one a neurotic eternal student working on a theory that space exploration is sheer narcissism, and his brother, a vain, superficial weatherman. The brothers’ lives come together following the death of their mother and we begin to explore their childhood and the reason they drifted apart. The mise en scène is rich in detail and flows seamlessly through time periods and locations with a remarkable fluidity, enabled in part by shooting on High Density video but primarily by Lepage’s dexterous imagination. The allusions to the US/Soviet space race parallel the brothers’ central conflict of surface over content and the film manages to sustain an emotional power beneath its playful veneer.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of the death of the great British director Lindsey Anderson and in tribute the Film Festival hosted various special events around this fact: a panel discussion, screenings of Anderson’s fantastic O Lucky Man! (1973) and his later Chekhovian lament for Hollywood’s golden age The Whales of August (1987), and Malcolm McDowell’s one man theatrical tribute, Lindsey Anderson: A Personal Remembrance. Anderson was a maverick, an autodidact with a fierce, sharp intelligence. O Lucky Man! is a watermark event in his career that he was never able to overcome; it either points to greater possibilities or a blind alley. It’s an endlessly fascinating film though, which attempts to rework the conventions of narrative cinema with actors playing multiple roles and abrupt changes in style. It’s a tale of the rise, fall and rise again of an ambitious coffee salesman, played by McDowell and based upon his life. McDowell’s presence is central to the entire film, more so than his first film with Anderson, If… (1968), which takes the institution of the boarding school as its focus for digressions and deconstructions. Here everything revolves around Mike Travis (McDowell, taking the same name as his character from If…), an innocent slowly worn down by his surroundings. After a prologue in which we see a silent newsreel about the punishment of a plantation worker, the focus is announced with the intertitle “THE WEST”. The journey of the coffee salesman becomes increasingly surreal; from underground cabaret bars in Yorkshire, to an anonymous military installation, an idyllic sojourn in the Scottish countryside, a medical test centre, a bohemian loft in London, a big business political swindle, prison, the deprived East End of London and finally an open casting for a film by Lindsey Anderson. The sheer scale of the project is hard to comprehend and is made possible by the excellent supporting cast who play multiply roles throughout the film. This grand tapestry eludes easy analysis but is carried by McDowell’s performance; his anarchic enthusiasm acts as raw material and inspiration for Anderson’s wit, invention and piercing intelligence.
The Barbarian Invasions: Valerio Zurlini
A festival-long retrospective, appropriately titled “Il Ritrovato” (“The Rediscovery”), gave audiences the rare opportunity to discover all eight features by the all but forgotten Italian director Valerio Zurlini (1926–1982). Similar to the final scenes of Purple Butterfly, Zurlini’s last film The Desert of the Tartars (Il Deserto dei Tartari) (1976) rewrites what has gone before and forces one to challenge any concept of Italian cinema that is ignorant of Zurlini’s contribution. This final film is the work of a master filmmaker. The powerful early works such as Violent Summer (L’estate violenta) (1959) and Le Soldatesse (1965) aimed to challenge Italian complacency about their role in the barbarities of the war years. Girl With a Suitcase (La ragazza con la valigia) (1960) and the later work The Professor (La prima notte di quiete) (1972), an existential drama starring Alain Delon, and whose tone of romantic nihilism is beautifully evoked by the original title, a Goethe quote, “Death, the first night of silence”. Still, the bulk of Zurlini’s work, which shifts between social confrontation and existential poetry, doesn’t prepare you for the meticulous, absurd and mesmerising power of his final film.
Set at the turn of the century, The Desert of the Tartars takes place in the desert where a garrison of soldiers are guarding the boarder to the Northern Lands (the film is entirely shot in the magnificent citadel of Bam in South Eastern Iran, overlooking a vast desert). The Tartars invaded the Northern Lands from across this desert one thousand years ago and there is little threat now but the men are committed to their routine and are fully prepared for attack. We are lead into this world by the arrival of a new officer (played with pristine elegance by Jacques Perrin), who is inspired by the dedication of the men, but also weary of their isolated existence. The garrison (populated by a fantastic European cast including Max Von Sydow and Jean-Louis Trintignant) are worn down by the futility of their endeavour and slowly succumb to illness, paranoia or insanity. The fortress and its lunar surrounding is the perfect location for this existential parable. The men are the last outpost guarding themselves and the “civilised” world from barbarian attack. The prospect of attack is ushered in when an unmanned white horse arrives outside the fortress. The film is peppered with possible sightings and allusions to an invisible enemy, which reaches hallucinogenic proportions in the final scenes. The penultimate image of the horizon darkened by an advancing force is an incredible vision; it is the fulfilment of a promise and marks the dark encroachment of death. The film’s mysterious tone is superbly maintained throughout and despite the absurdity it neither falls into pastiche (although Fernando Rey’s appearance reveals an otherwise hidden sense of humour) or open acceptance, leaving irresolute throughout the characters knowledge of the futility of their existence; are they merely fostering illusions of attack while they wait for their death?
I have made eight films, and these have a common theme, which is that life has no aim other than to watch itself go by. Force of illusion cannot sustain us, for there’s no idealism strong enough… But we’re not talking about a tragedy, merely a sadness…
– Valerio Zurlini (3)
As with Herman Hesse’s last novel The Glass Bead Game, whose characters are on an aesthetic journey, dedicated to the routine and order demanded by the unexplainable game of the title, the officers here are aware, at some level, of the absurdity of their lives, but they also know that it’s as absurd as anything else. The sadness that Zurlini talks about is not one of defeat but rather of realisation, it’s a route to aesthetic transcendence or perhaps self-annihilation.
Now and Then: The films of Margaret Tait
British experimental cinema commenced its ascent, in terms of production, exhibition and aesthetic development, in the 1960s and ’70s with the explosion of activity centred around the counter-culture scenes in London. The highly polemical nature of experimental film practice, (primarily structuralist–materialist) in ’60s and ’70s London, excluded and criticised work that wasn’t linked to the current discourse. Margaret Tait’s (1918–1999) complete integrity as both filmmaker and poet was slow to be recognised but now she is highly regarded. The Margaret Tait programs at Edinburgh this year are the product of a long research and restoration project lead by Peter Todd for LUX with the support of Scottish Screen and The Arts Council. Born in the Scottish island of Orkney, she remained loyal and in love with the island her entire life. Tait’s work incorporated many different facets; portraiture, landscape, records of houses, streets and communities, film poems, lens-less animation, and a single late feature film, Blue Black Permanent (1992). She was a true independent; to watch her films, which are stripped bare of conventions and concessions of any sort, is to delve into her life, her world. However her films are by no means just a private archive; her statement about the making of Where I am is Here (1964) is revealing about her own process of filmmaking and her distinct concept of poetry, as a language that transcends markets, conventions and media:
I just felt I wanted to make a film, but there was absolutely no point in making it specifically for a market, say, when there just wasn’t a market, and that the only way was to do it on the level of poetry (4).
Tait’s films have a powerful sense of time and place. Portrait of Ga (1952) is a study of the filmmaker’s mother and, as with the best work in portraiture, is specifically an examination of their relationship. The tender exploration of the signs of age in the woman’s hands and face is matched by the filmmaker’s obvious love and respect for her mother. Margaret here examines herself, both where she has come from and where she may go. A similar fascination and respect permeates Hugh MacDiarmid: A Portrait (1964), a charming profile of the poet loose on the streets of Edinburgh. All her portraits act as simultaneous records of the subjects and her self, the film Happy Bees (1955) “was intended to be an evocation of what it was like to be a small child on Orkney” (5) but its sense of freedom and play, its youthful exuberance and joy in the environment, directly evokes Margaret’s love of the island and her life there. Her film Orquil Burn (1955), a portrait of a stream from the sea to its source, is one of the most unapologetically simple films I have seen.
The freedom that Orkney seems to embody and imbue in her films is often channelled into the denser works, like the associative montage of Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo (1955), her first film based on a poem (by Gerald Manley Hopkins). This complex and sophisticated tapestry of images intercuts actions – a woman reclining on a haystack, water coming from a old tape – with a painter’s eye and musician’s sense of rhythm. Margaret has said of her film Aerial (1974): “There is no narrative and no argument; the theme’s more like a musical theme, conjured out of the whole rather than presented as points to be taken” (6). From her abstract animation Calypso (1955), which is painted directly onto the film, to Garden Pieces (1998), where she integrates her abstract concerns with her observational shooting style, she is not to be dismissed as an artist without vision.
Finally I will conclude with one of Margaret Tait’s most fascinating films, On the Mountain (1974), a fitting tribute to the city of Edinburgh. This film begins with the title “now” and proceeds to document in Margaret’s deceptively loose style the area around Rose Street in the city centre where she kept her studio. This is a modern street with workers on their breaks, clothes shops and delivery vans. Anyone familiar with Tait’s work will remember she documented this same street in 1955 in the film Rose Street. Here the street appears completely different: a lively working class community thrives in the area, and the cobbled streets are filled with local people and children playing. This reference is made explicit in the second section entitled “then” in which Margaret repeats, in its entirety (including leader and titles), the original Rose Street. The final section of this film moves to create a direct dialogue between these two documents, intercutting and paralleling images from both periods, creating a melancholic poetry of change and movement. Overlaying the complex juxtaposition of images we hear an original street song sung by a child from the 1955 version of the film. This song becomes a motif in the film and is taken up and sung by Margaret over its final images. Within this work all the elements of Margaret’s filmography are present; the ethnographic and personal documentation, an exploration of communities and the way they evolve, distinct regional character and grass roots poetry, a unassuming sense of rhythm and purpose and a complex emotional power, that celebrates change at the same time as mourning what is lost (7).
- Edinburgh International Film Festival 2004 catalogue, p. 122.
- Quoted from an informal discussion after the screening in Edinburgh.
- Quotation from Jean Gili’s interview with the filmmaker, conducted in Rome in 1977, quoted from the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2004 catalogue, p. 115.
- Edinburgh International Film Festival 2004 catalogue, p. 124.
- Edinburgh International Film Festival 2004 catalogue, p. 125.
- Edinburgh International Film Festival 2004 catalogue, p. 124.
- Subjects and Sequences: A Margaret Tait Reader, edited by Peter Todd and Benjamin Cook, will be published by LUX in November 2004, with contributions by Ali Smith, Gareth Evans, Lucy Reynolds, David Curtis, Ute Aurand, Janet McBain and Alan Russell. Subjects and Sequences gathers together new essays on Margaret Tait’s work, interviews, reprints of key poems, a story and texts as well as detailed filmography, chronology, bibliography and resources. Available from LUX from November 2004 (also wholesale) For more details see website http://www.lux.org.uk.